Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 17, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Nicole Wong

Nicole Wong was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, with both parents in the arts — her dad was a designer and painter, and her mom was a fashion illustrator and art teacher.  So when she was a kid she never thought of becoming anything except an illustrator. As a girl she drew constantly — including on the walls behind furniture, where her mom would years later find drawings. She received her first freelance illustration job when she was twelve. As she grew up she wanted to learn more, and graduated from RISD with a BFA in illustration. She still takes art classes to explore different media and techniques, like collage, photography, egg tempera painting, and etc. Now, she’s happily a full-time illustrator of magazines, children’s educational, and trade books. She continues to live in Fall River with her husband, Dan Medeiros, our daughter, our sleepy kitty, and two big pups.

Nicole’s Artist Statement:

I once thought I’d make a good anthropologist. I’m a constant observer—nothing is as pleasurable to me as the process of studying, processing, and recording the way people and animals reach out and interact. As an illustrator who loves a good narrative, I collect these details, funny and whimsical notes, and use them as my medium to communicate with and entertain an audience. Animals in particular are wonderful to watch.  Spend enough time following them and you find their hours full of small moments of drama, comedy, intrigue, and wonder—all the stuff of great storytelling. I want my paintings to be like fleeting captured moments taken from a larger whole, little pieces of narrative that imply a wider story. I prefer to paint on a small and intimate scale that reflects the subjects and these moments, using everything from oil to pen and ink to watercolor. The size of the paintings almost asks the audience to lean in closer to see it all, so they can enter the image and imagine the rest of that story themselves.


Here is a sped up video that shows the start of my project. Procreate automatically creates videos that are easy to export and share. The idea was based on my love of old lithograph city maps and you can see the reference I used in the video. The first picture reference in the video was of the 1877 map of my city, Fall River, MA. I really wanted to base my landscape on it, because of my personal connection to it. I grew up with a copy of it in my childhood home and wanted to make a visual nod to the past. Unfortunately I didn’t think the angle of it worked compositionally so instead I took a picture of my city in google maps and based the landscape off of that.

How-to for the Explorers Illustration
This piece is my first digitally created illustration on my iPad with the Procreate app. It’s the beginning of a new journey with digital art and my new portfolio. I’m creating a series of new paintings based on the months and this one is January, so I thought it was appropriate to have with these little explorers in a hot air balloon starting on a journey. Despite it being a new illustration in a new medium, it’s been a painting I’ve had in my head for a long time, but never really worked when I put it to paper in my more traditional watercolor and ink style, but came so easily when creating it in Procreate.

I created the old fashion hot air balloon and it’s characters first,
mostly because it was fun. And put it on its own layer so I could move
it around the landscape to find its best composition.

Next I created the linework with the technical pencil tool in Procreate. I traced the basic architecture of the landscape’s streets and buildings from my reference map, but I changed details where necessary, so I wouldn’t use this map to to find my house. I drew sections of city blocks and copy and pasted and scaled it throughout the landscape. Copy, paste and undo are definitely my friend.

I find digital painting a little flat but with a layer of texture over the color layer, it really simulates traditional watercolor painting on paper and makes the digital painting a little richer. I used the Carbon Stick tool on a separate layer and set it to overlay over the color layers.

I thought it’d be fun to show the color without the linework even though I actually paint with the line shown. It’s a New England winter scene and I wanted the balloon to pop with color so I kept the tones fairly muted. There are a lot of fun brushes to use in Procreate and I believe you can make your own, but personally like the Gouache tool for adding color.

I always keep my color shading on a separate layer set to multiply to help darken yet keep the color translucent. I mostly use a blue shade and paint it with the Gouache tool.

Lastly I added in a light dusting of snow, a little fog for atmosphere with a light touched Spray paint tool over the top of the picture and used the Driven Snow tool for the snow in the sky.

Above: Close up look.

BELOW: Some of Nicole’s book covers.

Interview Questions for Nicole Wong
How long have you been illustrating?

About 17 years. I think my first professional job was for New Moon Magazine in 2000.

What were your favorite classes when you studied art at RISD?

There are a lot of classes that I loved and still influence me, even though it been almost 20 years since I graduated, like children’s book illustration and design class with David Macaulay. I always loved art history, especially Northern Renaissance art history. And I loved animation. I still think about the old Czech films I watched in my History of Animation class. I took an animation class and thought about pursuing it, but at the time, I was a very poor student and probably wouldn’t have been able to budget the extra expenses for that major. But I still love watching animation and try to animate my books through its pacing and visual storytelling.

What was the first thing you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

When I was 12 years old, I used to illustrate signs and posters for local businesses.

Do you think art school influenced your style?

Teachers helped students to explore by looking at art and learning its history. Trying new techniques and taking classes in different departments were highly encouraged. Most importantly we learned how to critique our work.

What type of job did you do after you graduated?

I worked at watch display company and designed the spaces in department store cases to hold watches, despite not having any experience or even knowing that people did this for a living. After that, I worked at a greeting card company and really learned about how to work with art directors and how to manage a deadline.

Did RISD help you get illustration work?

Never directly, but its well-known name might have helped influence some employers to hire me.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

I always wanted to be an illustrator, but it probably was in college that I really wanted to focus on children’s books.

Was WHY ARE YOU SAD? your first picture book?

Yes, though I was offered this book and “Candy Shop” around the same time. This one was just published first.

How did that publisher find you to offer you the illustration job?

It was from my first mailing. I sent out homemade postcards to publishers that I found in the Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market book.

How many books have you illustrated for Charlesbridge?

I just finished my 4th book with them this week!


Did you sign a contract for more than one book or did they keep coming back to you?

They keep coming back. They’re really great people to work with, so I’m extra thankful!

Do you have an agent? If so who, how long have you been with them and how did you connect?

Yes, I’m represented by Teresa Kietlinski of Bookmark Literary. We met through Etsy, where I have a store to sell artwork. I’ve been with her for almost 5 years, and she’s been fantastic and very supportive. I’m very grateful to have her handle the business details, which I find way less fun.

How many books have you illustrated?

Seventeen trade books and I can’t remember how many educational books. I’ll just say a lot.

Please tell us a little bit about your latest book. What is the title? How did you get the job? How long did it take you to illustrate, etc.

I just finished “Flying Deep” by Michelle Cusolito with Charlesbridge Publishing. It’s about the Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which explores underwater volcanoes and the amazing and strange life that lives around them along the oceans floor. As a big science enthusiast, I was thrilled to research and illustrate this book. I started my rough sketches in December and I just finished up all the paintings this week, so the job took about 6 months.

Have you started to add digital art to your portfolio?

I’m currently in the process of creating an all digital art portfolio. I’m in a reinvention mode. For years, I created ink and watercolor paintings but with the new technology that simulates painting and drawing so well, I’m absolutely in love with the ease of painting digitally. It’s great to be able to work anywhere, and having an undo button is priceless.

Do you do art exhibits to help people see your work?

I have been a part of a few exhibits over the years, but don’t currently have any upcoming exhibits.

Did you illustrate any book covers when you were starting out?

No, I’ve never done a book cover outside of the covers of the children’s books that I’ve illustrated.

Would you like to write and illustrate a children’s picture book?

I’m not much of a writer, but my husband is and we hope to collaborate on some projects in the future.

Would you be open to illustrating a book for an author who wants to self-publish?


Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

I haven’t had a project like that come up, no.

Have you worked with any educational publishers?

I have done a lot of educational illustration in the past that included books and textbooks.

How did you get the illustrating jobs for children’s magazines?

Probably through postcard mailing and email marketing. I used a web-based email marketing company to get lists of art directors and editors to contact.

Do you work full time illustrating books?

Yes, if by “full-time” you mean almost all day every day for months, and then nothing for a while until I get a new project! It’s certainly not 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve mostly worked on about one or two books a year during my career.

Do you have studio in your house?

Yes, it’s a converted attic space on the 3rd floor of my house. It’s mostly full of cat hair and my 4-year-old daughter’s Lego village right now.

Do you try and spend a certain amount of hours every day working on your art?

Right now it’s trying to find a balance between work and motherhood. Let’s say it’s complicated.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Currently, I’m creating everything digitally. Until just recently, I created illustrations with ink and watercolor. I also love to experiment for personal work in lots of mediums, especially in oils.

Do you take pictures or other research before you start a project?

Absolutely. For example, with this latest project “Flying Deep,” I pored over dozens of pictures and video of the Alvin to make sure every detail was as accurate as possible, which is important with science-based books. I also visited the New England Aquarium in Boston and took photos to get a sense of how the animals move underwater and to get how light works underwater, since a lot of the book takes place in the deep ocean with no sunlight and lit only by the Alvin. With every project I always have a lot of reference, and now that I work mainly on the iPad, I can have my reference and the art open on the same screen and in the layers of my drawing program.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely. I met my agent and some clients through Etsy, and it has made it easier to contact art directors and editors.

Do you use Photoshop with your illustrations?

Minimally lately. I’ve been creating art in Procreate and I mostly use Photoshop only to prepare files for press. In the past when I worked with ink and watercolors, I used to use it much more, to scan in artwork for clients, correct any flaws (and remove any cat hair that got embedded in the paint), and prepare the work for the press.

Do you own or have you ever tried a graphic Drawing Tablet?

I’m creating my illustrations on the  iPad with the pressure sensitive Apple Pencil in a program called Procreate. I’m having so much fun.

Do you think your style has changed over the years? Have your materials changed?

Yes, you’re catching me at a transition point in my career since I’m moving to digital art from ink and watercolor. In the past I’ve done loads of different techniques, like using acrylics, staining paper with teabags, and coating the paintings with different varnishes. I resisted going digital for a long time, because I had tried Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop but they couldn’t replicate the richness I was looking for. So I waited until the technology caught up to a point where I could draw and paint in almost the same way I could with pens and brushes, which Procreate can do. It doesn’t look exactly like watercolor but it has its own unique look while still retaining some traditional qualities.

What do you consider is your biggest success?

I don’t think it’s just one thing. I consider having been able to consistently have books to work on all these years to be a success.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

I really want to work on projects with my husband. We have several ideas and some are in the process of being made. I had to take some time away from illustration after my daughter was born and am trying to get more projects off the ground while still balancing my work life and motherhood.

What are you working on now?

After finishing Flying Deep, I’ll be working on another book, Sweet Dreaming, which is also being created digitally. Also I’m working on making pieces for my new digitally created portfolio.

Do you have any material tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tired – A how to tip, etc.

Digital: I use the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, with the Procreate app. Occasionally I use an app called Paper 53 as a sketchbook.
I loved using Rotring rapidographs (which unfortunately aren’t sold in the United States anymore, so I’ve had to import them from Japan) and Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper for my traditional illustration work.
For personal work and when I have the time to oil paint, I love painting on Ampersand Claybord, which is tricky with oil but a beautiful smooth surface.

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful illustrator?

I’m not sure I’m wise, just a hard worker. Just keep trying and make your work unique to you.

Thank you Nicole 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 Nicole’s work, you can visit her at her website:

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

Talk tomorrow,


  1. Nicole, there is such warmth and beauty to your illustrations 🙂 And I can’t say enough about the detail in the “Fall River” map! Thanks for sharing this, ladies!


  2. Beautiful work, Nicole! ❤


  3. Oooooh, just wish I could perfect one picture book manuscript and then Nicole could illustrate it! Love the kitties, the dogs, the sheep. Wish I could be in the room with the roaring fire and mom and daughter, reading with them with the snow falling outside. Love it!


  4. I really enjoyed seeing so many examples of your wonderful work collected in one post to study and admire. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Nicole, I really love your art! You have such a relaxed style that I love in children’s books! Your sharing has been a great inspiration to me right now! 🙂


  6. Wow. Your artwork is just beautiful. Beautiful composition, emotion, and flow of the characters. Thank you for shaving! Amazing!


  7. Did you by chance do a watercolor of a Japanese lady leading a tortoise by a rope?
    It is postcard size.
    Thank You


  8. Nicole,
    I just discovered your beautiful artwork in the book, “Maxwell’s Mountain.” My students and I are completely in love with your illustrations.

    They have decided to write you a letter (or email) to ask you a couple of questions. I hope you are open to that. I will be trying to locate your contact information later today.

    In the meantime, we just wanted you to know that you have brightened and enriched our Saturday tutoring time!

    Most Sincerely,
    Peggy Cortez


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