Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 22, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Karlen Tam

Karlen draws inspiration from the timeless tales of world mythology, philosophy, and many hobbies to craft her own little worlds. She embraces the identity “Jack of All Trades, Master of None,” because the rest of the saying goes, “oftentimes better than master of one.” Karlen’s preferred medium is digital art because of its endless storytelling potential, and while she is known for her illustrations, she also works in 3D because of her keen interest in creating interactive stories. She self-published her first major project Japanese Folktales: a book of stories and sketches (2016) as a mode of exploration into genres, themes and visual styles that would gel with her interests. Karlen now collaborates with Boneshaker Press, making illustrations and stories for fantasy-themed artbooks, and independently works on picture books and visual development. 


I start by getting a feel for the characters. What kinds of things can I show them doing to show their personality? How do they interact?

After deciding on their interaction, there are an infinite number of ways to show it. Posing and staging can be explored by making lots of thumbnails.


I will keep making more thumbnails until the “right one” happens, and then make a more detailed sketch of it. If I’m not satisfied with the pose, I’ll probably draw it a couple more times.

Before starting the actual illustration, I will go through several revisions of the characters designs, as well as a rough color layout of the illustration. The scribbles above the cat sketches were attempts to map out the elements in the room. These are throwaway sketches that no one will ever see but they are instrumental to the development of the final image.

Finished Illustration

I asked Karlen about her heritage. Here is her answer:

I’m Chinese and I was born in the US, though sometimes people mistake me for a Japanese person because of my book. I’m very interested in Japanese culture because my favorite video games and shows are inspired by it. However, some parts of Japanese traditions are influenced by Chinese culture – for example one of my favorite shows Dragon Ball, while produced in Japan, was loosely based on characters from Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel that I also grew up with.

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been making illustrations for 7 years.

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

It was a dragon design for a dragonboat team uniform in 2010.

Why did you choose to attend the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, Brooklyn, NY?

Polytechnic Institute was know to produce the best engineers, so the original career plan was to be a mechanical engineer to sustain myself, and do art on the side. Polytech offered a scholarship that was hard to refuse. I thought attending this school was the least bumpy road to allow me to do art while still keeping my parents happy.

Can you describe what makes up Integrated Digital Media?

I switched to the Integrated Digital Media major in order to stay in the same school to keep my credits and scholarship. The Digital Media program offered courses in web design, game development, video/image and audio editing, sound design and 3D animation. It gave me a medium to channel my creative tendencies into something that was more than just a picture. I chose to focus on 3D game development.

Do you think art school influenced your style?

While I didn’t attend art school, being at a technology school gave me a very logical approach to creating art. I’m always looking for the visual problem to solve, and therefore style should be part of the solution. I don’t have distinctive visual “style” in my work but rather a tendency to solve problems with similar solutions.

What type of job did you do right after you graduated?

It was very difficult after I graduated since my skillset was so varied. My first job was a tutoring middle and high school kids for placement tests and SATs, respectively. I was doing artwork on the side.

Can you tell us a little bit about your 3D Sculpture Skull Kid Figure and 3D Printing?

The Legend of Zelda was one of the major influences that got me into drawing, so naturally I enjoyed making artwork based on that game franchise. The Skull Kid figure was created out of frustration; I was unable to purchase the limited edition bundle of Majora’s Mask (that came with a Skull Kid figure), so I decided to make a better model that could not be sold out since 3D prints are made to order and everyone could own a high quality sculpture of their favorite character. I always wanted to try 3D printing, and while this was an ambitious project for my first foray into 3D printing, it was well-recieved and a great learning experience.

How did you come up with the idea for the Season’s Greeting ice skaters illustration that you won for at the NJSCBWI conference? What medium did you use?

I make holiday cards every year because it’s a chance to create anything I wanted, to give as my “gift” to people I care about. I was trying a new pencil and ended up doodling a raccoon figure skater. It felt like he needed a skating partner, and I drew a rabbit skater right after. One thing led to another…and then the final piece was digitally painted in Photoshop.

The illustration with Boneshaker Press at the bottom an illustration for a cover?

The illustration of the Simurgh was a piece for Encounters with the Imaginary, an artbook featuring mythical creatures. It ended up being one of the illustrations featured on the cover.

Do you still create videos for companies? How did you get started doing that?

I currently work as a 3D game artist and animator at a company that makes educational simulations. I came into the company when they were working in Flash, but later helped them transition to 3D in order for them to be able to expand their products to mobile platforms like phones and tablets.

Has any of your artwork been used in a video game?

We use the Unity game engine at work, where I worked on all the characters as well as some of the background art in the products. While they’re referred to as simulations, they’re technically video games, so yes.

What made you join the SCBWI?

I’ve always considered children’s books as a possible path for my illustration career. When a colleague invited me to go with her to a conference, I just tagged along.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

There was not a specific moment when I decided I want to illustrate for children. I want to create work that people of all ages can enjoy, so my illustrations tend to be family-friendly.

Have you done any book covers?

I’ve done a cover for my self-published book.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own children’s book?

Yes, I’m currently working on my own picture book.

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

It depends on the subject, but it’s also very difficult to find time for that since I’m working on a bunch of my own projects.

Have you illustrate any books?

I’ve done illustrations for anthologies, as well as for my own book of Japanese Folktales.

Have you worked with educational publishers?


Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?


Have you tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

No, but I would like to.

Do you have an artist rep.


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


I promote my work through social media and attend conferences and conventions.

What is your favorite medium to use?

My favorite medium is watercolor even I don’t get to use it very often. I love how the colors blossom and flow into each other.

Has that changed over time?

I used to like colored pencils and graphite before moving to Photoshop. Photoshop is most versatile but I change the tools I use to keep the ideas fresh.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?


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

The computer.

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

Most of my spare time is spent on honing my art skills.

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

Always! I don’t know how to work otherwise. Sometimes I might visit the museum if I really get stuck but generally doing research is a must.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely. The greatest skill-jump I made in my craft is from taking art courses and participating in art groups online, since I didn’t attend art school. All the progress made in my career would not have been possible without the support of the people I’ve met in the online art community, some of whom have become my closest friends.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop for all my illustrations.

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

I use a Wacom Cintiq tablet.

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

I would love to work on animated film or make my own video game one day.

What are you working on now?

I am working on the Encounters with the Imaginary Vol. 2 artbook Kickstarter campaign with Boneshaker Press, my own little picture book, and also a visual development portfolio. I’m also waiting on a decision to be made about a potentially illustrating for a historical children’s book.

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.

Charcoal is hard to control and therefore good for generating ideas that you wouldn’t come up with normally if you had used a tool you were comfortable with. Don’t be afraid to make a mess.

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

Always carry a small sketchbook with for when you. You’d be amazed by how much you can accomplish if you take out your sketchbook instead of your phone during idle moments.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I love it! Such awesome artwork. I love seeing different cultures.


    • Thanks! Yeah they’re really inspiring!


  2. Karlen, your work is gorgeous! And so varied! Yours was one of my favorites at the NJSCBWI conference, too 😀 I also can’t get over that 3D-printed sculpture! Thanks for sharing all this, Karlen and Kathy 😀


    • Thanks so much! Yeah, I’m a pretty big fan of Legend of Zelda, heh. Did we get a chance to meet at SCBWI? Thanks for reading! 🙂


  3. Hi Karlen, lovely illustrations! I particularly like the sea dragon/horse! Can I ask where you get your reference material from? I’d like to draw exotic animals but I’m worried about getting sued if I use other people’s photos as reference. Thanks RFC.


    • Hey there! Thank you. Usually I get a bunch of reference images and whatever I end up making takes various elements that speak to me. For example with the seahorse, I looked at pictures of regular seahorses and combined their shape with leafy sea dragons. It’s like half imagination and half reference, if that helps 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice work, here, Karlen! Thank you for sharing!


  5. I love Karlen’s magical art! ❤


  6. Wow, this is so interesting! I love how you work in both traditional and digital mediums. It’s all so interesting!


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