Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 17, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Elly MacKay

elly mackayORIGINALrotatedElly MacKay works from the attic of her old Victorian house in Owen Sound, Canada where she lives with her husband and children. She creates unique images through using layers of paper, light and photography. Elly attended the Nova Scotia College of Art for printmaking but also had an informal education in paper arts by visiting members of the Movable Book Society by train when she was a teen. She now creates picture books and illustrates covers for novels.

Select Clients:

Penguin Random House ~ Tundra

Penguin Random House USA

Running Press

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Sterling Publishing

OwlKids Books



Here is Elly discussing her process:


Sketch out the scene, making sure there is room for text and that the image won’t fall in the gutter.


Ink the paper for landscapes or paint the individual characters.


Cut the characters, animals and landscape elements out.


Create the setting, much like a diorama, I do this inside a small theatre.


Add elements to foreground…




And background. Then, see how it looks through the camera and adjust.


Play with the lighting to get the right glow in the theatre.


Play with the lighting to get the right glow in the theatre.


Play with the lighting to get the right glow in the theatre.


Play with the lighting to get the right glow in the theatre.


Play with the lighting to get the right glow in the theatre.


Sometimes images are cropped from the photo as this one was for the book Maya.


Since it is like a theatre, I can switch out characters and add new ones in, like this peacock.

butterfly park

Book Covers

Falling leaves cover

Book Covers


Book Covers

shadow chasers

Book Covers

beach baby

Book Coversannex8
Book Covers

Interview Questions for Elly MacKay

How long have you been illustrating?

My first book came out in 2013, If You Hold A Seed  but I did some illustration work in university too.


Where do you live?

Owen Sound, Ontario.

edge of water

What was the first thing you painted where someone paid you for your work?

It was a diorama built in a chocolate wafer tin. I was fifteen. My mother was presenting at Harbourfront Centre as a paper artist and she convinced them to share my work there too. A gallery in Toronto saw my work and started carrying it. It was pretty exciting to sell my first piece.

above and below

Why did you chose to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art for printmaking?

I visited the school as a teen and really liked it. It was in an old tea factory on the Halifax harbour and had a great atmosphere. It also offered a BFA. The printmaking profs there were wonderful. I didn’t decide to do printmaking until I got there though. I also took a lot of photography courses, some open studio classes, film-making, drawing and electronic arts.

butterfly garden

How did you start manipulating paper?

My mom wrote books on how to make pop-ups. Her name is Joan Irvine. I spent most of my childhood making things… either paper art with her or things out of clay with my dad. When I was 14 my mom took me on a train trip to meet members of the Movable Book Society. They taught me all sorts of Victorian paper arts such as tunnel books, zoetropes, flexograms, paper theatre and quilling. It was a real education in paper arts.


Do you feel College helped develop your style?

The two illustration classes offered were really valuable. My professor gave me opportunities to do paid illustration. I did an activity book and some magazine work, anything he was too busy to take on. It was great professional experience and helped me in understanding the parameters an illustrator needs to think about when working, such as timing, client’s needs, message, tone, text placement and scale. I think printmaking helped develop my style too. What I loved about printmaking was that I could make an image and print it, then change the plate and print it again. I could get 30 or more variations from one plate. This let me see what was working and what wasn’t and sometimes interesting narratives would develop from the first to the last image. The way I work now is similar. I can move things around and take multiple photos with different lighting, composition, and elements.


Did art school help you get work when you graduated?

There were internships offered but we didn’t realize how valuable they might have been. After my husband and I graduated, we tried a year of making a living as artists in a new city with few connections, no studio space, and no knowledge of how to apply for grants. I used to work in the hallway. We tried so hard to get things going. It was a tough year. We ate lots of beans, got around on our bicycles and managed with the odd commission. The next year I went to teachers college and Simon went back to school for carpentry. It was a winding path.


Have you seen your work change since you left school?

I think my work is more similar to the work I did before art school. I think the biggest  influence on my work still comes from the Victorian paper arts I loved as a kid. I was wondering why lighting is such an important part of my work too. It is a bit of an obsession…  and I think it is because I grew up in an old converted church. I loved how the shadows of leaves looked behind the green glass windows and how the coloured light filled a room. I started exploring that in tunnel books as a kid. Now, it is the first thing I consider since it sets the atmosphere for an image.

holding child

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

It is something I remember talking about as a teen, though it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I knew that I wanted to do this full time.


Did you illustrate a book cover before you illustrated your first book?

I can’t remember what came first. I did a cover for a book called Margaret and the Moth Tree. I think doing covers is a nice balance with making books.


What was your first book you illustrated?

I wrote and illustrated my first book, If You Hold a Seed.

fall leaves

How did you get that contract?

It was a double book deal with Running Press. My work was seen on Etsy by a book agent. She sent out my portfolio, along with an outline for the book Shadow Chasers. Running Press was interested to see what else I had so I wrote the story outline for If You Hold a Seed and sent it off. They took both.


Did you do other types of illustrating before you got that book contract?

Only in university.


How many picture books have you illustrated?

I have written and illustrated 3 and have illustrated another four.


I see that last year you wrote and illustrated your own book, Butterfly Park. How did that happen?

After If You Hold a Seed and Shadow Chasers, Running Press wanted to do more books so they offered me another 2 book deal. Butterfly Park is the first and the second, coming out next year is called Waltz of the Snowflakes.

garden night

Do you let your children play and create characters and scenes with paper, too?

Lily loves making paper art. You should see her little characters. She is 8 now so she can be working away on her own things beside me quite independently. Koen is still young. He is 4 and when he makes art, he likes to work large with paint. He isn’t yet into making little things out of paper. Soon enough, I’m sure.


Is it hard to keep little hands away from your work?

My studio is up in the attic. I’ve found it best to have regular work hours and a separate space for my work, though I often find myself using the kitchen table. I think I am more in the family’s way then they are in mine.


Is the village you made titled Making the Garden something that resides in your house?

Oh, from Butterfly Park? The Butterfly Park set was huge. I made house after house… And soon it took up over 1/3 of the attic. I only kept a few of the houses. My kids told me that there are fairies living in them and one is a hotel that the tooth fairy uses when she comes around. It has a special place now in the hallway to my studio.


What do you think is your biggest success?

I’m really proud of the interactive installation we did at the Boston Children’s Hospital. I worked with Amri Studio on it. It is a glass donor wall. I created over a dozen differently lit images of a seashore throughout the day. I also created little chickadees and a branch in different seasons.  Amri Studio animated these on layers of glass panels. Usually it shows the names of the donors and a little chickadee sits on a branch but if a child comes close and sets off the sensors, the chickadee will hop over to the child.  If the child jumps or swings her arms, several chickadees will flit through the scene. It was great collaboration and hopefully will bring some smiles to the kids there. It won a Nightingale Award this year, such an honour.

house woods

Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?

I am working on one right now. This is the 4th book, Waltz of the Snowflakes. It is about trying new things and bringing colour to a dreary day.

snow valley

I see you are represented by Emily Van Beek at Folio, Jr. How did the two of you connect and when was that?

I just signed with Emily in July. She is amazing. She sent me a note telling me she liked my work and the timing was perfect. I was looking for a new agent. We had few mutual friends and I really admire the artists she has on her list. I was hoping to find an agent that understands both the Canadian and US market and Emily really does.


Do you illustrate and writer full time?

Yes. For a while I was supplementing my income with teaching art at the gallery but now I work full time as an author and illustrator. I miss the daily teaching but have been doing school visits. I love doing them.

red riding hood

Do you always work with painted paper or do you use other mediums?

I usually use Yupo paper and ink. I then cut it and set it up in my little theatre. Recently, I have been playing with black ink on paper too. I think if I had access to a printing press, I would incorporate intaglio. Perhaps sometime in the future I will.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Yes, or do sketches. I also use google images if I need a reference for say a plant out of season. I took a lot of photos when I was working on Butterfly Park. We have friends with an amazing garden so it gave me a nice excuse to spend a few days there. With so many figures in the scenes for that book, I called on family to pose for me. I have to change features but it helps.

hotair baloons

Have you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?

In university I worked with an educational publisher. I couldn’t really tell you a difference other than that it was flat fee work.


Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

Yes, if I have a piece of tape showing in a photo or a wire, I will fix it up the image in Photoshop and take it out. I try not to do too much on Photoshop though. I like to get everything in-camera.


Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I have one that I got for Christmas. I gave it a try but it isn’t my thing. There is actually so much time as an author and illustrator on a computer – doing email, social media, running a business with all that entails, and in my case checking in on my Etsy shop, that when it comes to my creative work, I want to get as far away as I can from the computer and just create.


Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

My work has been featured in O Magazine, Chatelaine, and Cosmopolitan and a few others.


Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, we bought an old Victorian fixer-upper 3 years ago because it had space for a studio in the attic. It was pretty rough at first… No broken floorboards anymore though thanks to my husband, Simon. He built some nice shelving too and we painted it all white. It is a nice space to work now.<

ginny hens

Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?

Windows! I need lots of light.

Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

I’ve made lots of mistakes in my career. Some have meant working for pennies or not working on what I want to be working on. I am feeling really happy to have Emily now to help guide me in setting goals and choosing projects. On a day to day level though, yes I love my routine. I work 9 to 3:30 and some evenings. My kids are my priority so I like to get them off the bus and have kid time til they go to bed. I suppose my goals are less career goals and more about living the life I want to live, one that is creative, healthy and filled with people I love. Of course that routine and balance is challenged by the unpredictability of this work. I am always asking myself where to best put my time and energy. That is a routine question. 😉

girls in woods

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I am so excited about the books I am working on. After Waltz of the Snowflakes, I am doing a book with Tundra called Red Sky at Night. I love watching the clouds over Georgian Bay. They can be so dramatic. This book is all about weather folklore. It is about a Grandfather that takes his grandchildren on a camping trip. They have to get home before the storm. The story is told in old weather sayings.


Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

It has really opened the world for creative people living in smaller places. Last year I had Rachel Ivers, the director of the LCVA contact me. She had seen my work online. As a result, this summer I have a solo show in Virginia. Previously an artist would need representation and to be in the gallery circuit to have these opportunities I think.

dragon slayer

What are your career goals?

I want to be making things still when I am an old woman. I want to have a shelf full of books to share with my grandkids. I want to be proud of the books. I guess, the big one is that I want to connect with people – kids and adults. I hope that they will find something in what I am doing that speaks to them or that they enjoy.


Are there any tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

Hmmm… I will focus in on inks since they are expensive and you want to make sure you get the ones you need before investing in them. That… and just because I love pens and ink. I usually use Yupo paper with ink.

My favourite are still Windsor Newton. They are bright, clear and dry with a shine. They also dry waterproof. The drawback is that they fade quickly and are expensive. I only use these for fine work. I use the black to outline my work after using other inks.

FW inks are more like working with acrylics. You can buy large bottles of the primary colours so they are one of the most cost effective. The colours blend well but are more opaque and don’t have the luminous vibrancy. Another drawback is in layering washes. Sometimes the colour will lift if water is left on top of them, though in theory, they are waterproof. These are my stable.

Sometimes I want to work with water soluble inks. I like Higgins brown ink with my dip pens. I can do line work and then soften the lines later with a brush. Higgins is pretty matte. It is the one ink that I have found works well for creating different skin tones.

Alcohol inks are fade resistant, vibrant and unpredictable. These inks are really best on Yupo paper. Where the other inks will travel in wet areas, the alcohol inks travel on their own. They are very hard to control. They also repel each other. Dropping yellow inside an area of blue will push the blue away and you will be left with yellow blobs. The other types of ink would instead blend, making green. These are by far the most beautiful too if you are working on transparent paper such as Mylar.

new moon

Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

Work hard & make, make, make! It sounds obvious, but to be in this industry, you have to have real drive. I think if you want something enough, you’ll find a way of making it work. Hang in there and keep going. It is a tough industry to break into.

Set up a routine, and ask for help from others if you need it (agent, accountant, childcare, etc).

You will likely be taking up the kitchen table and in the way of those you love, so do your best to be patient and understanding when they spill coffee on your illustrations. Set up your own space if you can.

Be wary of offers of work in exchange for exposure. Set your fee and get a contract.

Enjoy life. Sometimes it is tempting to work too much. You can easily take on too much when working for yourself… We all know freelancer fear. (It has taken me a long time to learn to consider offers before immediately saying yes.) You want to make sure you still have time to do all the other things you love to do, develop work for yourself and be with the people you love.

fall boat water

Thank you Elly for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Elly’s work, you can visit her at website at:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Elly. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Such incredibly beautiful lyrical work! Your stories sound intriguingly in this same realm. I am really looking forward to finding them!


  2. she has beautiful work – bravo elly !


  3. Beautiful and exquisite work! Thank you so much for sharing.


  4. Absolutely gorgeous work, Elly! I LOVE it. Thanks so much for sharing it.


  5. I love your art! With your beautiful colors and lighting, your illustrations look magical!


  6. Unique, gorgeous, breathtaking! Thank you for sharing your work and process.


  7. I love the worlds Elly creates – truly beautiful and original work!


  8. I have seen a lot of artwork and I have to say yours in some of the most marvelous and unique I have ever seen. I felt transported by your work. I can’t express it in words, but I predict you will go far. Bravo!


  9. Her work is beautiful, Kathy.


  10. Wow! Elly’s work is absolutely stunning! I loved seeing her process, too.


  11. Positively stunning. There should also be a way to change the ‘like’ to ❤


  12. This is absolutely beautiful artwork! I love the lighting, the style, the great care that was taken in all of these images! I enjoyed seeing the process as well.


  13. Great!! Love the artist and your entrance. Thank you very much


  14. I love the depth to Elly’s work, it makes each piece feel so alive. The process it takes is fascinating, too.


  15. I love the way these pieces glow, and the wonderful worlds you create in layers of space – breathtaking.


  16. Wow just spectacular! Thanks for sharing her process.


  17. Beautiful and fascinating!


  18. I absolutely love your work and the talent you have in what you create! My daughter clued me in to your site. She bought 2 of your skating print scenes for me for Christmas. I bought the print of 2 children up in a playhouse in Autumn for my sister. Your work is so whimsical and unique!


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