Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 19, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – Rachel Dougherty

Rachel Dougherty is a Philadelphia-based illustrator, children’s author, and lifelong knowledge-hunter.  She works in acrylic paint, ink, and pencil smudges, using humor and color to inspire curious young minds. Rachel is passionate about US history, scruffy little dogs, and board games.

Clients Include: Simon Spotlight, Roaring Brook Press, Sterling Publishing, Capstone Publishing,  Flamingo Rampant Press, PREIT/Portfolio Marketing Group, Resource Real Estate, The Bryn Mawr School, University of Pennsylvania. Woman to Woman Magazine.


1. Sketch in graphite on paper

2. Start laying in flat ground/background color

3. Finish background flats, begin some ground detail

4. Develop ground detail, add some background detail

5. Lay in character flat color

6. Add in character detail

7. Fill in additional details, from back to front – button and flower/flower dirt

8. Paint thimble – the most frontal object

9. Tidy up any smudges, add any last minute details

How long have you been illustrating?

My first paid illustration gigs cropped up while I was still in art school, so I guess it’s safe to say it’s been close to ten years now.

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

My first book illustration was for a self-published picture book by a local writer – it was a warm, goofy, rhyming picture book called On the Chair in My Underwear inspired by the author’s family.

What made you choose to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art?

On recommendation from my high school art teacher, I attended a pre-college summer program there. Before that point I wasn’t even sure about pursuing a career in art, but after that summer I knew I couldn’t give up on it. I remember loving that the illustration department showed so many examples of illustration – editorial, children’s books, comic books, advertising art. I wanted that freedom to explore.

What types of classes did you take?

Primarily illustration classes – I took electives in drawing, painting, and even animation – though I think I was mostly looking for other ways to strengthen visual storytelling, not so much to explore other avenues of making art. I’ve always been very focused on illustration.

Do you think art school influenced your style?

Definitely. Especially because it gave me the time to learn and focus on what came before me in a structured way. I don’t think it’s possible to create art that’s entirely new – we’re all standing on the shoulders of artists and illustrators who came before us. I think the goal is to collect images and patterns and gesture from art you love with your eyes and your mind. That way it sort of seeps into your work in a way that feels organic and not derivative. Also, hundreds of hours drawing figures makes your people look a lot more human and a lot less lumpy – can’t deny that either – thanks, figure drawing!

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

Right after graduation I worked as a press finisher at a photography laboratory making photo books and albums. It wasn’t the most fun, but it paid my rent for a while and I could go home and paint at night.

How did you come up with the idea for the illustration that you showed at the NJSCBWI conference?

What medium did you use?

The theme of the show was ‘Now run along, and don’t get into mischief’ – a line from Beatrix Potter. I liked the idea that it was a line that you might say in parting. So I worked out a scene where a woman was leaving home, tossing a ball back inside to her dog, and the phrase was lettered onto the bottom of the image. I was thinking it created a nice ambiguity as to whether the lady was going to get into mischief, or the dog was. I painted the illustration, to size, in acrylic and gouache on watercolor paper.

In 2012 you illustrated Your Life as a Pioneer on the Oregon Trail (The Way It Was) and Your Life as a Cabin Attendant on the Titanic (The Way It Was) for the same publisher how did those contract come about?

I was contacted by the art director at capstone at the time and offered the Oregon trail contract. I never asked him specifically how he found my work, but the pieces he referenced in his email were those I’d featured on a recent mailer, so that’s my best bet. I’d gotten through the sketch phase of the Oregon Trail book and was waiting for revisions, when they offered me the contract for a second book in the same series – Your Life as a Cabin Attendant on the Titanic, with the same pub date. Even though I was in a panic about trying to illustrate two books at once (my first two books!) I figured I couldn’t possibly say no. It was a crazy, stressful time, but it kind of made me feel invincible after.

In Fall 2014, Sterling Children’s Books published The Twelve Days of Christmas in Pennsylvania (The Twelve Days of Christmas in America) how did that contact come your way?

I’m pretty sure this one came through a postcard mailer as well, actually. I know that for the Twelve Days of Christmas in America Series, Sterling used authors and illustrators from the states that were featured, and I suppose stating my hometown on my postcard mailers never helped me out more than here!

How difficult was it to work on two different books at one time?

It was definitely scary – especially for what felt like my first major projects. I think one of the toughest things about illustrating is that the work seems to be like a hurry up and wait kind of pace. You sprint sprint sprint and submit. And then you wait wait wait for revisions/comments. What I tried to do with those two projects was hustle really hard on one and then work on the other while waiting for comments. It meant a long chunk of time where I couldn’t experiment with any personal work, but I think it was worth it.

You illustrated IS THAT FOR A BOY OR A GIRL? Was that a self-published book?

Is That For A Boy or a Girl was published by Flamingo Rampant Press – which S. Bear Bergman, the publisher and also the author of Is That For a Boy or A Girl, calls a micropress. They’re a sort of start-up publishing house, initially funded by kickstarter and other donations as well, trying to fill a void in children’s publishing for gender-nonconforming kids and LGBT families.

How many picture books have you illustrated?


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

I think somewhere midway through my sophomore year of art school.

Have you done any book covers?

Only for books that I’ve illustrated, but I’d certainly be open to it – it seems like really challenging, interesting work with a quick turnaround.

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

Definitely. I’m wrapping up first author/illustrator project right now – I’m working on a picture book biography of Emily Roebling that will be published by Roaring Brook Press in Winter 2019. I’ve also got an easy-to-read book coming out with Simon Spotlight in summer 2018 about Calvin Coolidge’s pets – but I’m only the author on that, not the illustrator. And I’ve got more hopeful manuscripts in the cooker! The author/illustrator thing is definitely more of a recent dream of mine – I never tried writing until the past few years. It seemed too scary, since there was so much to chew with just the art to focus on. But honestly, it’s been amazing to have so much control over my images, and the way I want the story to unfurl.

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

I’d definitely never say never – and the work I’ve done in the path with authors self-publishing has been valuable and great – but I’m really trying to focus on creating my own stories now, and trying to be choosier about what kinds of illustration work I’d take on.

Have you worked with educational publishers?

Not yet, no.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

No, I haven’t – but that certainly seems like a great time!

Have you tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

I haven’t, no.

Do you have an artist rep. or an agent? If so, who?

I have a literary agent – Laurie Abkemeier with DeFiore and Co.

How did you connect with them and how long have you been with them?

I queried Laurie with the first dummy I’d ever written and illustrated in Spring of 2015 – she took me on as a client and she helped me edit the story into a pitch-able state. I’ve been working with her ever since.


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

Lately I haven’t been soliciting any, since I’ve been trying to focus on writing my own picture books, but in the past I contributed to group shows, sent out postcard mailers and email blasts, and did whatever I could to splash artwork around the internet.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I used to work strictly in acrylic paint, on illustration board or sometimes paper. Lately I’ve been trying to work a little looser on watercolor paper, and letting in more media (gouache, colored pencil, ink), and trying to find more opportunities for hand-lettering as well.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

I do – we have a second bedroom in my apartment, where my two desks (one for painting, one for computer/scanner), flat file, picture book collection, scanner, computer, and paints live.

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

It seems too obvious to say my computer – we all need that! But I guess for the sake of originality, I’ll say my scanner, since I’m still painting old-school.

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

Oh, I wish. I so admire those people who are strict enough with themselves to allot an hour a day. But with me it’s always feast or famine. I get into an obsessive cycle where I’m working all the time and I’m reading all the time and I’m talking about it all the time, and then I have weeks where I need to play and reset.

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

So much research! That’s definitely part of the obsession. I collect folders and folders of reference photos and read as many relevant books as possible and create color palette studies and character sketch studies and take reference photos. I’ve read that illustrators used to call these reference collections their “morgues.” I think the morgues are my favorite parts. Sometimes I think it gets to be too much, but it all goes into the primordial soup that makes your work more authentic.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Undoubtedly – I really can’t fathom what it would have been like to walk into a publishing house and leave my portfolio on the art director’s desk and then wait by the phone for a call!

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

For final art, I use it very little. I use Photoshop to color-correct my scans and make sure the digital image matches the original painting. But in the sketch phase, I use a lot of Photoshop – I like to make sketch revisions in Photoshop, either by scanning in a patch, or drawing right on top of the original.

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

Yes, I use a Wacom Intuos Pro, and it’s a total dream for sketching. I rarely, if ever, use it for final art, but it saves me so, so much time in the sketch revision phase.

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

I’m on my way to fulfilling my dream to write and illustrate! I’d like to keep rolling with that dream. Maybe someday I’d like to try and write some fiction? I’ve been really immersed in the nonfiction picture book world for the past couple years.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a picture book bio of Emily Roebling, which I mentioned above. The title is a little bit in limbo at the moment. I’m so crazy excited about it, though! I’ve really never been so enthusiastic about a project.

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.

Rives BFK is my favorite paper to work on, hands down. Whether I’m drawing in ink or painting in acrylic – it’s tough and durable but silky-soft. It doesn’t warp under acrylic or watercolor, and doesn’t puncture under a sharp, hard pencil either. I never draw in charcoal anymore, but it makes your charcoal drawings practically glow.

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

Just keep showing up – meet other illustrators, go to conferences, read as many books as you can. I think the better you know the market, the better you can find your place in it.

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

For more frequent updates and artwork, follow Rachel on Twitter and Instagram!

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I really enjoy learning about illustrators processes. I’m always happy to see illustrators who still make art the “old school” way.


  2. Nice to meet another Philadelphia area local! I’ll be on the lookout for your book about Emily Roebling. 🙂


  3. It’s great being able to see the process of her illustrations


  4. Rachel, I LOVE your work! There’s just “something” about that Brooklyn Bridge that always gets me and I love how you illustrated it 🙂 And I can’t help but wonder what it was like to illustrate the tragedy of the Titanic and the people drowning. So glad you shared this with us! 😀 (Thanks, Kathy!)


  5. very interesting post! Do you still experiment in style?


  6. Thank you for sharing, Rachel!


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