Posted by: Kathy Temean | April 29, 2017

Illustrator Saturday: Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick


After I found my agent in 1999, I started to focus completely on my creative work and finally began to find my own particular voice and visual style. In my picture book work I like to explore the blurred line between the imagined and the real in childhood and those little/big moments of change and discovery. More recently I have begun to write novels for children – a steep learning curve! I’m really enjoying the process and I’ve discovered I can pretty much write anywhere – airports, planes, coffee shops, waiting rooms, parks …

Being a children’s writer/illustrator allows me to indulge my love of travel as I often ‘have to’ go places to do research – Oklahoma for The Long March, London for the novel I’m working on now – and I sometimes get invited to take part in literary conferences in far-flung places like Paris, Mayo, Rhode Island, Cologne, West Sussex, Cork. I’m also a history lover and really enjoy immersing myself in research, particularly the social details of how people lived, ate, worked, survived in other times and places. I buy far too many books on the subject and spend way too long preparing!

I met my partner, Michael Emberley, in Maryland in 2007 at the Frostburg Children’s Literature conference where we were both guest speakers. Michael is part of a big children’s lit family – his dad, Ed Emberley, and sister, Rebecca Emberley, also write and illustrate picture books. The readings at our wedding in Boston in 2008 were all thoughts on love from children’s book characters including Winnie the Pooh and Adrian Mole. Right now we’re living in Greystones, Wicklow.


Michael calls me ‘Little Owl’ because I’m a night owl, definitely not a morning lark. He often draws owls on cards to me and this particular Christmas card features a whole row of rather smug looking characters. One day I thought ‘bet they’d get a shock if another animal fetched up on their branch’, and the idea flowed from there. This was the spark for my new picturebook Owl Bat Bat Owl  and the Christmas card Michael made for me:


One day as I looked at it I thought, ‘bet it would really horrify those owls if another creature moved in on their branch,’ and the idea was born.

As soon as I began sketching my little owls and bats I realised I was riffing on a familiar theme, one I’d explored before in The Long March (1998) and also in I am I (2006), and I was directly referencing this Native American symbol I had come across when making The Long March:


For the Choctaw this is a river symbol*. Gary Whitedeer explained to me that the Choctaw say that just as you cannot stand on both banks of a river at once, you cannot belong to two cultures, but sometimes the river narrows, the banks come closer together and you can reach across and touch someone on the other side.

This idea really resonated with the story I was writing in The Long March.The Choctaw had been through the awful trauma of displacement, which had resulted in huge loss of life through hunger and disease. In 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, they sent aid to Ireland, reaching across an ocean to help another people going through what they had experienced.

When I came up with the idea for I am I (2006) I quickly realised that I was referencing that river symbol again. The two boys in the story are divided by a river, each yelling about who owns their valley, each full of ego and pride and hate, but when they see the damage their words have done they ‘reach across’ to each other in empathy.

In Owl Bat Bat Owl the river is replaced by a branch. The resident owls are horrified when a family of homeless bats turn up seeking refuge in their tree, but then the wind blows up a storm and the two families experience near catastrophe…

I told the story of The Long March with several thousand words and detailed realistic illustrations. I only used a few hundred words in I am I but those words morphed and twisted into barbed wire, a dragon, birds, making it very much a story told visually. With Owl Bat Bat Owl I have dispensed with words completely and the whole story unfolds through images alone.

It is my first wordless book, my first all-animal book and the first time I’ve illustrated a book entirely with digital art, but for all its difference and newness it is indeed ‘the same old story’. I am writing again about displacement, difference, empathy, friendship. The river symbol which Gary Whitedeer showed me in 1996 has run through my work, gifting me story after story, or the same story reimagined. The three books look very different but that river runs through them all.

Below is the thumbnail getting idea down. The bats aren’t even vaguely bats, just a squiggle!

…before progressing to more coherent roughs, coherent enough for a publisher to decide they wanted it. Actually, I didn’t think this version was ready to be seen but I was visiting Walker Books to talk over an idea and Michael insisted I bring Owl Bat with me too.

The next set is a better rough version now I’ve some idea that story will work silently. This is what Walker saw. I normally wouldn’t show a dummy this rough to a publisher I haven’t worked with before. So why did you this time? What did they say? Which one they or you chose?

I was heading to London to chat to Walker about a picturebook they were interested in and Michael pushed me to bring the Owl Bat Bat Owl dummy too. I really thought it was too early, but he thought it was ready to show. The idea was working clearly, even if the images were very rough. And he was right – Walker reacted immediately to it. Ultimately they took it and dropped the other idea.

Then I started working on some character sketches.

Here are some early character sketches.

Trying to find a style/medium to use. Pencil line/ink line/ scrapperboard.

Each of these trials is using the computer for the colour, but doing the line work by hand – pencil, pen and ink.

Once Walker took the book I had to decide how I was going to make the final art. Because Owl Bat is a silent/wordless story the art needs to be very easy to read and the characters need to be front and centre of all images, their faces and eyes communicating a huge amount of story. I basically designed the images so the branch the owls and bats are on is a stage and the reader’s visual POV never changes. I wanted to use a very simple style and have easy control of the palette so I decided I would colour the art digitally – the first time ever.

The images in Owl Bat are small, one image per page instead of double spreads. I knew early on that I was probably going to use the computer for the colour work  because I wanted complete control to keep things very consistent.

I wanted to try and achieve a printed look, so I tried the scraper board to see if I could achieve a woodblock-type of effect. I bought the board and tools and had a go at it, scraping away the black inked surface to create the image. I did several images but it was far too fussy for me and very hard on my wrists. It’s difficult to control the line using scraper nibs. I abandoned it after a week!

In the end none worked. With my back against the wall and time ticking I began messing about on the computer, having a go at ‘painting’ the way I paint in acrylics, laying down a rough ground, then over-painting. I used a ‘brush’ that gave me a nice textured look and wielded it in my normal way, using quick slap-dash strokes, and suddenly it all began to work and feel like it was mine.

I also realised I could create a digital palette by referencing images from my previous books, which was a relief as I am a compulsive colour mixer, never using paint as it comes from the tube, always adding at least a smidge of something else to achieve the shade I want. It took a couple of weeks to get used to using an Intuos pad and pen while looking at the screen, then I was away.

The art took as long as it would have to paint on paper but I had much more control. Digitally it’s so easy to redo details without messing up the whole piece, easy to change a single colour, to lighten/darken single elements, and for these illustrations (because of the way I designed the images) that control was really important. Ultimately I think I’d have had to paint the images very large to have the same control on paper and many many images would have hit the bin along the way.

Here I nailed the style but not the color.

This sample I did was for the Walker catalogue. I was delighted I’d finally worked out how I was going to do the art but very aware there was a giant learning curve ahead of me as my Photoshop skills were pretty basic. I did this piece using very neutral colours; I hadn’t figured out the palette for the book yet and wasn’t ready to commit. When I began the art properly I worked very hard to sort that out. I referenced scanned images from previous books – There, I am I, The New Kid – and built up a personal palette from them in Photoshop. I always take about a week to sort the colours I’m going to use in a book. I look at my own books, at favourite images from other books, at colours I’ve noticed in magazines etc. If I don’t spend the time doing this I invariably regret it, as the first images will be incoherent messes and need to be redone.

I needed to make sure the little owl family looked like a family while being individual enough for the child reader to tell them apart and follow them in their indidual journeys through the book. With the owls I used colour and size to differentiate. With the bats, The baby is a lighter shade, his twin sisters have bangs – one has a standy-up quiff, the other has a floppy fringe.


If you look at all the images you’ll see that I have presented the story as if the tree is a stage set and the characters/action is almost entirely seen from one view-point. This was to keep things very simple and keep the focus on the characters and make it as easy as possible to read their expressions and body language, because therein lies this particular story. It is the story of emotions and reactions to change, of what happens when we face adversity together, of how small children don’t see barriers where adults do.

I was very much thinking of the current situation in the World as I created this story. So many people are displaced, fleeing war and famine and desperate situations, and we need to make space for them on our comfortable branches.

There is also a little side story embedded in there – a spider couple desperately trying to get back together! They share a kiss at the end when the girl spider finally makes it home. You may also like to turn the book upside-down and see what it’s like to hang out with the bats.

Finished piece.

There were some heart-stopping moments when I thought it had all gone wrong and I wondered what the hell I was thinking trying to learn to make digital art ‘on the job’, but I got there, with some hand-holding from Audrey, Maria and Andrea in Walker Books. Will I be painting with pixels again? Absolutely!

Interview Questions for Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick

How long have you been illustrating?

Thirty years…my first book was published in 1988.

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

I illustrated a girl guide handbook (I was a girl guide), hundreds of black and white images. I was nineteen. So I should really change the answer to my first question!

What art school did you choose to attend?

I studied design at what was then called the College of Marketing and Design, now called DIT.

What made you decide to study Children’s Illustration there?

We studied a wide range of design subjects and I began to gravitate towards illustration in third year. I specialized in it in my final year and tried my hand at a children’s picture book – it was really hokey stuff but I did see that at the time. I learnt quite a bit from how ‘wrong’ the illustrations were. They were old-fashioned and condescending and I knew I could do better.

What type of work did you do after you got out of school?

A ragbag of stuff. I worked as a graphic design assistant, I illustrated love stories in women’s mags, I sold paintings at weekends outdoors on Merrion Square, followed by years of part-time teaching and a million-zillion illustrations for school text books.

Did college help develop your style?

A little. Not a lot. I didn’t ‘find’ my voice there, no. I think there were too many subjects and I would like to have dropped half of them and focused a lot more on illustrating and drawing. I did hone my drawing skills a lot though, that’s probably the biggest thing I got from college. Life drawing was my favourite subject.

Have you always lived in Ireland?

Yes, I’m a Dubliner. We live in Wicklow now.

What is the artist community like where you live?

There is. Our neighbours are street performers. We share a drive so we often disturb them juggling, block-breaking, fire throwing, or giving one of the pythons a bath. I write in one particular coffee shop a lot and there are several other writers and musicians who frequent it, some quite famous names.

There’s a vibrant close-knit children’s book community in Ireland and we love to hang out when we can, talk shop, help each other out.

How did you meet your husband Michael Emberley?

I met Michael, in Maryland in 2007 at the Frostburg Children’s Literature conference where we were both guest speakers. We married a year later in Boston and the readings at our wedding were thoughts on love from children’s books. Robie Harris, Mary Ann Hoberman and Michael’s sister, Rebecca read pieces from Winnie the Pooh, Mr and Mrs Muddle and Adrian Mole. Robie’s husband Bill officiated. It was a very children’s book-ish affair, until the Irish contingent started a singsong. Then it became an Irish wedding!

Do you and Michael inspire each other’s work?

Yes. A card he made me inspired Owl Bat Bat Owl! Looking at it one day I thought: wouldn’t it shake those smug owls up if another creature landed on the branch? And the idea began. We read/look at each other’s work and give feedback all the time.


Have you and Michael ever thought about illustrating each other’s written books?

Yes. There is one idea we’ve been talking about for eight years! We did some preliminary work on it in January and finally hammered out a first, very rough, dummy. Whenever it happens we’ll be illustrating it together. We think we’ve figured out how that will work.

Do you travel a lot?

Being a children’s writer/illustrator allows me to indulge my love of travel as I often ‘have to’ go places to do research – Oklahoma for The Long March, London for my third novel, Hagwitch – and I sometimes get invited to do festivals in far-flung places like Paris, Mayo, Rhode Island, Cologne, West Sussex. I’m heading to three festivals in Canada in April.

Have you seen your work change since you graduated?

It took time to find my own particular voice and visual style. I worked in several styles for about a decade after leaving college. My first three books are all different – two are cartoony, one is photo-realistic. It was on my fourth book that I found ‘me’, both as a writer and as an illustrator. My work continues to evolve. I keep pushing myself. I used to use watercolours. When I switched to acrylics I felt they suited me better and I love using them. More recently, with Owl Bat, I’ve gone digital, which was interesting and challenging.

How long did it take you to reach that full-time position?

My first three picture books were created in my spare time. Making children’s illustration my full-time occupation took about fifteen years, though I’m not sure I can honestly call it that. Like many children’s writers and illustrators I need to do a fair amount of workshops and talks to keep the books balanced.

Do you have an agent?

I had a bit of a wobbly start in publishing. On my first four books, publishers dissolved, collapsed and were consumed – I managed to run through seven, and none of it was my fault! I really couldn’t have kept trying to place books myself at that point, so I got an agent in the UK and began working with UK publishers. It was a huge relief to have someone else dealing with that side of things and it still is. I decided it was time to take a leap of faith in my own work, gave up the safety net of the teaching job and got a studio – firstly in trendy Temple Bar, then in an old mill in Stoneybatter.

Did any of the first three books get published? If so, what were the titles?

My first books were published by Irish publishers. One was in Irish,- An Chanáil -translated by my sister as my Irish wasn’t up to it. The second one is still in print, it has been an Irish best-seller – The Sleeping Giant.  The Long March was published in Ireland and in the US. It’s the story of the how the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma came to send a gift of aid to Ireland during the Great Hunger. It won several awards and was named a Smithsonian Notable Book.

I noticed you have a picture of you standing in front of a wall of large illustrations from your book You Me and the Big Blue Sea. Was that a special exhibit of your book in Dublin?

It’s a library in Cork city, Douglas Library. The library in Douglas is in a shopping mall and the intrepid librarian there got it into her head that the walls on the way from the carpark were crying out for a book. She convinced the mall to agree to fund it and then chose one of my books, You, Me and the Big Blue Sea, to be The Book on the Wall. The whole book is there, every spread. It’s fantastic. I had to blink back some tears when I saw it!

What made you decide to write middle grade novels?

A character popped into my head and wouldn’t go away. I knew his name was G, he was dead and he haunted a mill like the one my studio was in. I tried to ignore him for six years, then finally gave in. Writing Timecatcher was a huge learning curve, as I knew it would be. I was lucky that the book was taken by and editor, Jon Appleton, who was prepared to nurse me along. That was 2006. I’m not sure that editors do that anymore. In fact, now, you really need to have a novel at a highly developed stage before anyone will even consider it.


Do you think you will write more novels?

I’ve had three novels published  – Timecatcher, Dark Warning, Hagwitch. Another two are at different stages of development and hopefully they’ll eventually make it into print.

How did OWL BAT, BAT OWL find its way to Candlewick?

Owl Bat Bat Owl was published with Walker Books, Candlewick’s sister company in the UK. I showed them the very first rough dummy while I was there developing another picture book with them. They took Owl Bat and dropped the other book!

Final illustration from Owl Bat, Bat Owl – See the spiders hanging from the limb?

Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?

Owl Bat Bat Owl is a wordless book, not a word after the title page. I’ve always wanted to do one and knew as soon as I got the idea for Owl Bat that it was going to be silent.

Do you have a favorite medium you use?

I love sketching best, so pencil, a nice soft pencil. But I do love acrylics, love that I can paint the way I sketch, in rapid messy strokes.

Do you do research before you start a project?

With my novels, there has been some history to research. I’m a history lover and really enjoy immersing myself in the social details of how people lived, ate, worked, survived in other times and places. In Hagwitch there was theatre and the world of puppets and canals.

Picturebooks involve research too. With Owl Bat it was, obviously, owls and bats! While I wasn’t going for realism I do think you have to start there – with how the real animal looks, moves, flies.

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

I did a huge amount of work on schoolbooks in my early career. It’s very different. You are illustrating primarily to impart information; entertainment and humour are usually part of the brief but secondary. Sometimes it’s all about informing with no room for anything else. Also, you are usually paid a one-off fee, no royalties. At least in Ireland, that’s how it works.

Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

Owl Bat Bat Owl artwork is created entirely digitally. I did an initial sketch, scanned it in, but used it only as a template. Once I’d done the colour, the sketch was deleted. I did the colour work using an Intuos Pro pad and pen and the desktop. It was my first time doing digital art so another big learning curve.

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

The Intuos isn’t a graphic tablet but I can see switching from that to a Cintiq at some point.

Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

Just those early illustrations for love stories!

Do you have a studio in your house? Is your studio separate from Michael’s?

We have a makeshift studio at the moment, which means the spare bedroom is out of action. It’s not great. We are both pining for a proper space to stretch our imaginations in.

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

My desk. I don’t mean ‘a desk’, I  mean my desk. Michael thinks it’s badly designed but I love it. It’s the first bit of studio ‘kit’ I bought after college and I’ve dragged it from studio to studio and created most of my books on it. I do curse at it from time to time when I’m adjusting it from flat (for sketching) to upright (for painting) but I feel at home when I sit at it.

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

My career goals are to keep creating picturebooks and novels, hopefully into deep old age, and to keep raising the bar for myself as a writer and an illustrator. I try to stay informed about what’s going on in the industry, as it’s always changing. But I also try and stay true to myself. My best work has been done from my heart, from my gut, never from some idea of what the industry wants.

What do you think is your biggest success?

There  and I am I are two books I’m very proud of. There has been succesful – it has found an audience in the US and has been published in several countries, including a lovely Japanese edition with an afterword by Mr. Shozo Kajima, an eminent Japanese poet and philosopher.  I am I was too ‘out there’ for a lot of people; they just couldn’t get it, or actually mis-read it completely. But other people did get it and children especially were able to read and understand it, because they read images and words together. Izzy and Skunk (Lizzy and Skunk in the US) has a special place in my heart too and I know it touched a lot of people because it’s about dealing with fear.

In my picture book work I like to explore the blurred line between the imagined and the real in childhood and those little/big moments of change and discovery.

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I’m developing multiple picturebooks, half a dozen! And two novels. All at different stages.  I’ve always worked this way, always had at least four ideas in my head at any given time. What order they happen in will depend on which find homes first. Other people work one idea all the way through, which may be a better way of doing things. Every one works in the way that works best for them.

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

Doors…no. Windows, maybe. It’s certainly an amazing tool for researching. For visual references, it’s the business. How did we ever do anything without it? As someone who used to illustrate educational books pre-internet, there’s nothing like being able to tap ‘owl’ into the computer and have a million images pop up. Being able to tap in ‘bat wings’ or ‘bat flying’ or ‘bat toes’. Though I do use books for research too. For novels being able to check EVERYTHING, like ‘were there Jack Russel dogs in 1798?’ (Answer: no), and all sorts of tiny details like that. Though there are pitfalls – you do have to know you can trust the source to be sure of the answers. (cont.)

The other big thing about the internet is being able to email/skype about/deliver work online. So many hours used to be wasted travelling to and from meetings and delivering work.

For me the jury is still out on the ‘media presence’ thing. I run a website, a blog, facebook pages, twitter, instagram. I enjoy doing most of it, most of the time, and I think it does help get my name/work out there,  but I’m not sure it’s as important as publishers think it is. Certainly I think illustrators and writers need to have some sort of presence, but perhaps not as much as they are being encouraged to do. Stick to whatever floats your boat, helps your work and doesn’t get in the way of you doing it.

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

My acrylic technique is very slapdash, self-learned. I’m doing an online course to try and improve. So that’s my tip! If you need to improve your technique, go online and find a course.

For anyone moving from paint to digital, you can keep your favourite pallette by ‘sampling’ some of your paintings in Photoshop and creating a personal palette on your desktop, instead of trying to find your usual colours on the Photoshop colour wheel or within those teensy little squares.

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

You are the unique thing which you have to offer, so focus on developing your own voice, whether written or visual.

Have you won any awards?

I have won the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year award four times, including once for a novel. My good friend Kate Thompson is the only other person who has won it that many times, so when I won it for Hagwitch I sent her a text which said: ‘Snap!’

Thank you Marie-Louise 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 Marie-Louise ’s work, you can visit her at her website:

Check back on May 31st for a chance to win OWL BAT, BAT OWL. It is coming out in June.

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Really impressive, thank you for sharing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed reading about Marie Louise’s process. Her art is so gorgeous and varied, I love that she’s not tied to one style – very inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful work!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely, lovely… Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing your passion and process. I love all your illustrations!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Marie-Louise, this is one of the most enjoyable “Illustrator Saturday” reads ever! EVERYthing about it is fascinating! Your meeting your husband, your kidlit family, your writing/art community in Ireland, and certainly your process. I, too, have always been a night owl (though it affects health :-\) so I really relate to that. It’s impossible NOT to love how your husband’s card inspired what looks to be an amazing picture book! I can’t wait to see it 😀 I can only imagine what it felt like to have your book on the Douglas Library walls. What an honor!

    I agree with your take on the importance of web presence. It makes a difference, but how much of a difference is questionable. I’m glad you did THIS on the web, for sure! 🙂 Thank you SO much for sharing all this (and Kathy for posting it :D). Your work is awe-inspiring!

    P.S. As was the theme of your wedding, my daughter-in-law’s baby shower will be “A New Chapter” 😀 I’m in kidlit heaven prepping all the décor! Books, characters and kidlit themes will abound 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This answers my question of “what would it be like to be a brilliant artist married into an equally brilliant artist family?” 😀 Loved reading this, especially the part about the process behind “Owl Bat, Bat Owl.” Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Delighted everyone enjoyed it. Thanks for all the lovely comments and many thanks to Kathy for having me on her blog. Cheers! Marie-Louise

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on The Belugas are Watching and commented:
    An interview about my work with Kathy Temean:


  10. Great insight into “Owl Bat, Bat Owl” as well as the rest of your work. Thank you for sharing!


  11. Books, characters and kidlit themes will abound 😀 Really impressive, thank you for sharing 😊


  12. Books, characters and kidlit themes will abound 😀 Really impressive, thank you for sharing 😊 Really impressive, thank you for sharing 😊


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