Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 24, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Rebecca Thornburgh

When I was seven, I announced at the dinner table that when I grew up, I was going to be a bookmaker. Everybody laughed. But ever since I can remember, making books — creating stories and pictures — was what I wanted to do.

So, now that I’m more or less a grownup, I’m more or less a bookmaker. I’ve been illustrating children’s books (and other stuff for children) full-time since 1996. My very first book, Celtic Designs, was published when I was 21, and it’s now in its seventh printing! I’ve illustrated over a hundred books — a whole bunch of early readers, a number of board books for very small people, and a nice little clump of picturebooks. Some of my favorites are Lewis the Librarian, and The Shelf Elf and The Shelf Elf Helps Out! My newest books are a series about a little boy and his toy monkey — the Rufus and Ryan series.

I really like to draw fairies and dragons and strange little creatures, but I also draw a lot of regular kids doing normal things like going on field trips. When I can get away with it, I like to stick little weird things into my pictures, even the normal ones. Check out my “What I Drew in Church This Week” blog for some of my random drawings. For more fairies, visit my “A Fairy Painting A Day” blog.

I grew up in a sweet little town hugged by the mountains in western Pennsylvania, called Hollidaysburg. (Home of the Slinky, in case you didn’t know.) My sister and I were famous as Serious Readers: teachers were always stopping us in the hallway to recommend some new series of books (“Already read ’em,” we’d sigh.) I’m pretty sure we read every single book in the children’s section of the library. When I wasn’t reading, I was drawing: little mice dressed up in quaint outfits, trees with faces and twiggy fingers, dancing bugs — usually in soft, thick pencil on spongy yellow lined tablet paper.

I studied fine art at Bryn Mawr College. In a tiny studio with a little arched green door, I created etchings with zinc plates, but of course the subject matter was pretty much the same. After graduating I went to work for Hallmark Cards, but my particular job didn’t allow me to do any artwork — this turned out to be Not Much Fun — so I soon left the lovely Land of the Greeting Card. Then there was a bizarre (but fairly brief) career swerve — I went to the extremely intense Wharton School of Business for an MBA degree, and worked for a while in advertising as a business-type person. But I kept on drawing — goblins appeared on marketing reports and dancing carrots on spreadsheets. The arrival of a baby inspired me to paint a wacky rabbit-filled world on her nursery walls –my favorite scene was “Imperative Park” which featured little signs saying “Walk,” “Sit,” “Eat,” “Smell” (the flowers.) On seeing this room, my ol’ college pal, the wise and also world famous illustrator R.W. Alley, ventured the opinion that it looked as if I might want to be doing some illustrating instead of writing marketing strategies. He was right, of course. So it was back to silly pictures for me. Since then, I’ve been living happily ever after!

The first thing I do is to read the manuscript of the story — the manuscript is the story just typed on a piece of paper. I read it over and over again. I spend a lot of time thinking about the story, usually when I’m folding laundry or walking the dog or driving to the grocery store.
Sometimes I draw character studies. They’re not fancy, but they help me remember what all the kids look like and what they’re wearing. I give them all names, too!  These are the kids in Frosty the Snowman.

When I was working on Ms. Broomstick’s School for Witches, I did these drawings to figure out what the little witch Pandora and her teacher, Ms. Broomstick, would look like.

I also use my sketchook to do a bunch of sketches of scenes or situations that I think might work for the story. Some end up in the book, some don’t. Here are some sketches of scenes for Frosty.

The next step is tiny drawings called “thumbnails” drawn on a “book map,” which shows every page in the book. This helps me to see how the pictures work across the entire book. Here are some of the thumbnails for Ms. Broomstick.

After the thumbnail sketches, I do a better sketch for each spread. This sketch is “tighter” — as opposed to the rough, scribbly, loose thumbnail sketches — and drawn to the exact size of the book’s pages. I have to leave room on each page for the words! I used to paste in a photocopy of the type, but now I use Photoshop! These sketches are what I send to the publisher. The editor and the art director look at the sketches. They know that the picture I paint for the book will follow this sketch. Sometimes they ask me to make changes in the sketch, sometimes not.
This is a sketch for one of the spreads in Ms. Broomstick.

Look at the printed page below and see if you think the finished picture looks like the sketch. The only difference is that I painted little faces on the brooms!

For the final paintings, I use watercolor paints and paint on fine paper made especially for watercolor. I “stretch” the watercolor paper by wetting it and then taping it to a masonite board. I use wonderful brushes with lovely fine points — some are giant, for painting big washes of color, and some are teeny-tiny, for adding eyelashes to a mouse!

Sometimes I do a practice painting, or study, to work out the colors and painting style I’ll use for the finished picture. Here’s my study for the cover of “Ms. Broomstick.” You can see that I didn’t put in all the details, or even paint very carefully. (Check out Pandora’s goofy-looking face, for example.) Since this is just practice, I don’t need to make it perfect! See how the study compares to the finished painting below, and then to the actual printed book cover.

And that’s the story!


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been drawing pictures since I was old enough to hold a crayon, but I’ve been illustrating professionally for over twenty years. My first book, Celtic Designs, was published when I was 22.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I think it was in high school. I did a lot of calligraphy then for award certificates and wedding invitations, but I also did illustrated ads for the local newspaper.

Did you go to school for art?

I went to Bryn Mawr College, which is a small liberal arts school for women. I was the one and only fine art major in my graduating class.

What type of job did you get after you graduated?

I spent the first year after college doing the art for the Celtic Designs book (I can’t BELIEVE it took me a year to do that one book — I could do it now in about a month!), but then I moved to Kansas City, Missouri to work for Hallmark Cards. My position was called “Design Coordinator.” I didn’t create art, but was responsible for coming up with product ideas. That job lasted only a year — I really missed doing artwork of my own! My career took a weird little swerve in my late 20s — I got an MBA degree from the Wharton School, and worked in advertising and marketing consulting for a few years. The best thing about having that degree was that I taught a course in business for artists at Moore College of Art and Design here in Philadelphia. It was incredibly exciting to be able to empower women artists with a background in business management. But of course I missed doing art, so I left the business world and went back to art full-time.

What do you think influenced your style?

Definitely Arthur Rackham and other late 19th/early 20th century illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson. Also Jessie Willcox Smith. And I’m a HUGE fan of Trina Schart Hyman.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

When I was seven years old, I announced at the dinner table that I was going to be a BOOKMAKER when I grew up. (Obviously I didn’t know exactly what a bookmaker really was…)

How did your first book, Celtic Designs, come your way?

The very accomplished and uber-talented author/illustrator R. W. Alley (who does the Paddington Bear series, among many other books) is a college friend. His father was on a plane with the publisher of Stemmer House Books, and she mentioned to him that she was looking for someone to do the art for a book on Celtic designs for her international design library series. I had done a ginormous, fully illustrated research paper on Celtic illumination in college, and so Bob very kindly recommended me to the publisher. I did two more books for that series — “Art Nouveau Abstract Designs” and “Pennsylvania Dutch Designs.” Believe it or not, they’re all still in print.

What was the first picture book you illustrated?

I did a series of four board books called “The Cuddly Beasties” — on numbers, colors, shapes, and the alphabet.

How did that come your way?

I met the art director for the publisher at a children’s book conference, and she liked the “beasties” in my portfolio.

How many Rufus and Ryan books have you illustrated in that series?

There are three: Rufus and Ryan Go to Church, Rufus and Ryan Celebrate Easter, and Rufus and Ryan Say Their Prayers. I was a little disappointed that the series ended without a Christmas book — that would have been such fun to do.

I see that you had over dozen books come out in 2014. Was that hard to accomplish?

My busiest year was actually in 2008. That year I did finished art for TWENTY-NINE books, AND I painted a nine-foot fiberglass polar bear bench, filled with tiny little scenes. And yes, it was totally crazy — I think it was something well over a thousand illustrations — and I worked about 18 hours a day for ten months. I did the finished art for one 32-page book in a single day!

Is Take a Walk Johnny your latest book?

Yes. It was a great project with a really nice publisher — and I did the paintings while on vacation in Mexico. Ocean breezes and watercolor — total bliss!

How many books have you illustrated with Candy Cane Press?

Oh golly — a lot! I think ten? I love working with them.

I see that you have illustrated a few alphabet letter books with Child’s World. Are they an educational publisher? Do you plan to do the whole alphabet?

Yes, The Child’s World publishes for the school and library market — they make lovely books. The “Sound Box” books do cover the entire alphabet — the series was 26 books altogether. (These were part of my very busy year in 2008.) I’ve also done three other fun books for them.

Are you open to illustrating self-published picture books from writers you don’t know?

I’m open to it, but the process is very different than working with mainstream publishers, because generally the author needs a lot of advice about how to produce a book. I’ve had a lot of inquiries, and I offer as much guidance as I can before we get started.

Have you illustrated any book covers?

Well, kind of? I designed a book cover using photography, not illustration, for a guy who found me on LinkedIn.

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

I’m actually working on writing picture books right now! I’ve written and illustrated three dummies so far — one’s in need of serious revision, one’s kind of midway along, and I’m actively trying to sell the third one. I’m also about to start a MFA program in Creative Writing for Children at Hamline University, so I know I’ll be doing a ton of writing. I’m also interested in writing middle grade fiction.

Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

No, but I’d love to! My “writing” process always starts with the pictures — the text comes later, so in a way my first drafts are wordless.

Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you? How did you meet and how long have they represented you?

I had a rep (actually three different agencies, but the same people) for about 15 years — we met (again) through my wonderful friend Bob Alley! It was a great relationship, and they got me a ton of work — I have them to thank for almost all of the books I’ve been lucky enough to have illustrated, along with a huge range of other kinds of assignments — posters, teaching materials, games. I decided to go it alone about five years ago when I wanted to get serious about my own writing. (And the first thing I did was write a novel — a murder mystery!)

Have you ever illustrated anything for a children’s magazine?

I was honored to be able to illustrate a cover for High Five! magazine a few years ago, and I’ve illustrated for Spider Magazine as well.

Have you ever considered illustrating a graphic novel?

Oh yeah! Kind of an intimidating prospect, though — I have so much respect for people who have the vision and skills to take on creating a complex work like that. But it sure would be fun to try!

What types of things do you do to find illustration work?

Since I went out on my own without representation, I’ve been using my web site and social media. Former clients have stayed in touch, and one of my former agents has offered me a few projects, too.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I’m TOTALLY devoted to watercolor. Pen and ink is a close second. Sometimes both.

Has that changed over time?

When I was making art in college, I was actually afraid of color. I didn’t know how to use color media, and I was terrified of making choices about what color to put where. I worked exclusively with a crow quill pen and ink (and I also made etching prints). In the first year or so with my rep, my assignments were also in black line, so I was “safe” from having to try color — eeek. Then I had the opportunity to do paintings for a CD-Rom game for a very prominent author/illustrator; he literally taught me how to paint, from doing color studies to stretching watercolor paper, mixing colors, and painting washes and glazes. And now nothing makes me happier than to be immersed in a giant watercolor painting project.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

Yes, we live in a wonderful 150 year old, eight-bedroom house, so I actually have two studios — one is my ‘acoustic’ studio, where the only technology is my light box, and the other is my ‘electric’ studio, where I have my computer and Wacom tablet. I’m also totally spoiled because I have a small and extremely adorable outdoor studio called the “playhouse” where I write and illustrate in warm weather. I love working outdoors.

What is the one thing in your studio that you could not live without?

The truth is it’s probably my endless cups of coffee. And audio books to listen to while I’m working.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I try to draw as much as possible. I like to do stream-of-consciousness scribbling in my sketchbooks, and I also work on figure drawing via a great website: Now, of course, I’m spending time writing as well.

Do you take pictures or do any types of research before you start a project?

Photo reference is essential! Bicycles, helicopters, wheelbarrows, horses and cows, Mt. Rushmore, Alabama, cats, elephants — who can remember what all these things look like? I do a limited amount of my own photography, but mostly search for images on the internet. I try to “see” things accurately through reference, but then draw them in a way that’s within my own style.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely. It’s made looking for reference material a squillion times easier — need to draw a pileated woodpecker or a wombat? Just Google it! And now social media is THE way to do self-promotion — I use Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Tumblr not so much. Also, because of social media, I now have a ton of kid lit friends to share info and news with. Working in a studio can be a tad lonely, so the internet connects me to a community of great people who’re doing the same thing. Of course, you have to be pretty disciplined about spending too much time playing on Facebook…

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop to do rough sketches and composition — I love how you can rework a layout SO easily by drawing the various elements of the picture on different layers, and then just redrawing, moving things around, and tweaking until the composition is right. I also scan my tight sketches into Photoshop, turn the pencil line into a light raw umber color, and then print the sketch out onto watercolor paper for painting.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet in your illustrating?

Yes, I have a Wacom Cintiq which I totally LOVE — it’s what I use to work in Photoshop.

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

Of course! First, I just want to be able to continue to do this work that I love, but right now I’m working very hard toward being able to sell a picture book I’ve both written and illustrated.

What are you working on now?

One of my favorite projects is a picture book I wrote and illustrated called Sunnyside Up, about a day in the life of Humpty Dumpty. It’s now in its tenth revision, after having lots of reviews by writer friends, editors and agents. It’s a pretty funny story, and of course it’s about a great character, so I’m about to rework it (again!) in order to submit to publishers. And then of course there’s grad school starting in three weeks — I’ll be workshopping Sunnyside Up there.

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

Oh boy — this could be a loooong answer! Well, I’m totally addicted to sketchbooks (so I have shelves full of them now.) I make my own, with a spiral coil binding machine I begged for on my birthday. I make a new sketchbook for each new project — this (mostly) keeps my ideas organized. And I glue in scraps of pictures and other weird things for inspiration. I also carry a ‘generic’ sketchbook with me everywhere, because you never know when you’ll have a minute to draw, right? I love this quote: “An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached.”

Next I have to say that that printing a final sketch directly onto the painting surface saves EONS of time. I used to transfer a sketch from tracing paper to w/c paper via a light box, which took forever, and the transferred drawing was never as good as the sketch. So now I have a high quality, wide-format printer (an Epson R2000) to print out my final drawings onto 140-lb cold press Arches watercolor paper — these photo quality printers are fairly expensive, but SO worth it.

Okay, one more thing — Kolinsky sable brushes for water color painting! I buy Winsor Newton for the teeny tiny sizes like 00 and 000, but I’ve found that Raphael series 8404 are great and much less expensive for bigger sizes like 4 and 6.

35. Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator? I just finished a fantastic book called “Grit” by Angela Duckworth. Her very well-respected research concludes that EFFORT is the single most important determining factor in success. So my advice is first to read that book (!) and second to follow its message: never give up — keep working and working and working. Because it’s not about talent. Duckworth demonstrates that effort is what makes the difference. Plus, I really believe that publishing shouldn’t be the goal; beginners should be passionate about their creative process. Doing the work is what’s important; getting published will follow.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. This is such an informative and inspiring post- thank you for sharing your creative process.


  2. Amazing post, such a clever lady.


  3. Thank you for sharing, Rebecca!


  4. I love your process of how you work! It sounds like you take a long time to think and brainstorm your characters before creating them! I love all the details in your drawings!


  5. How wonderful to see my dear friend Rebecca featured here today. Always inspiring!


  6. Thank you for sharing your process. I enjoyed looking at your art and will spend a great deal more time with it after today. I enjoyed the three little girl dancers with the same color legs – I’ll be looking for more of these ‘statements’ using art. Again, thank you for sharing. All the best to you.


  7. Wonderful to see so much of your illustration work in one place!


  8. Loved learning your history & process. I hope your dream of writing & illustrating a picture book comes true soon!


  9. Fantastic piece….thank you to you both. I love reading about each artists process and how they reach their goals.


  10. Thank you for sharing your process and beautiful artwork. If my picture book manuscripts are ever sold I would be ecstatic to have an illustrator as talented as you bring it to life – maybe someday! 🙂


  11. I loved learning more about Rebecca! I’m a longtime fan of her work. And way back when, I used to be an editor at The Child’s World!


  12. Rebecca, So great to see this write-up of your career and art! Beautiful work and inspiring words! Good luck on your writing venture. Somewhere I still have the b/w specs you sent me to practice from when I was first starting out!!


  13. Rebecca, your work is so appealing and naturally heartwarming—so irresistible 😀 I love it all so it’s hard to pick a favorite! It’s obvious why you were working successfully from such a young age! The first books still being in print says so much  Hearing about your 2008 and 2014 years, you sound like the “insane” Dan Santat! Unbelieveable lol

    Thank you so much for sharing your process (I’m so curious about your 150-year-old house!), and certainly tips and mentions on brushes, etc. I LOVE seeing sketches, thumbnails and before/after pics. Along with your audio books, you may also enjoy podcasts, some of the best being at, with kidlit industry professionals about their processes, etc. LOVE them, especially when I’m doing artwork.

    What an enjoyable post 😀 And good luck with your writing! I’m sure your work will be WONderful 


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