Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 2, 2017

Illustrator Saturday – David Szalay

After 20 successful years in visual communications my career opportunities offered a new chapter and I began teaching design courses. This was the ideal time to revisit my first passion, illustration. With an MA in Communications in hand I continued on for an MFA in Illustration. This was an investment in me. It was to reignite that old flame, one that I ignored for far too long. I’ve since immersed myself into teaching and illustrating, with a side order of occasional graphic design.

My wife and my two adult sons lovingly support my crazy ambitions. I am inspired by many things such as life experiences, observation, the outdoors, animals, kids, and the tradition of storytelling. I’m contributing and participating in the most authentic way I can. I’m having fun and I think I’m starting to get the hang of this thing!

I work out of my home studio located on a few acres along a steam that runs through the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We, along with our two cats, enjoy the tranquility and all the wildlife that roam near our little house in the woods.


We live in near the Cuyahoga National Park. Frequent wildlife sightings inspire me.

My wife saw this fox one cool October morning crossing the neighbors driveway. She sent me a text of it and I’d finished this paitning before she was home from work.

In 2015, a mother fox built a den under our shed. I documented them for two months.

I began interpreting scenes of the foxes in hopes of discovering a story.

There is a large rock out on our property that all types of animals climb on. We call it Fox Rock. I couldn’t wait to get back and paint from this scene.

My photo reference is only a starting point. I often reinterpret my experience as I paint.

Sometimes I begin sketching from memory. This is especially true of fiction-based subjects. I use a small sketch pad and ink most of the time.

I begin with a loose sketch before I create flat shapes to block in form. I’ll build texture and value while I explore color. I usually do figures and characters on a separate document.

Trees and other living elements are treated similarly to my characters. I build up from a flat shape and then add detail and texture. Working digitally allow for quick change and experimentation.

I enjoy creating whimsy through hand-lettering. My background as a graphic designer helps inform my approach.

Decorative details in the building are an amalgamation of scene I recall during a trip to London combined with some reference and my imagination. Atmospheric perspective and depth is created with softer, hazy shapes of the city off in the distance.

The final is assembled and enhanced with decorative framing and sprinklings of texture and imperfection. It is most important for me to keep my digital process and appearance as organic as possible.

This is a quick exploratory sketch that serves to establish composition and a hint at lighting.

The result is a bird’s eye view of the little neighborhood with the blimp flying over. This is inpired by some of my childhood experiences growing up in Akron, Ohio where Goodyear builds the blimps.

Interview Questions for David Szalay

Did you always live in Ohio?

Yes, I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio.

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating for most of my life. I worked on murals and cartooning all the way back in grade school. Professionally, I’ve done some illustrating since the mid-1980’s.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork? It was around 1985 for The Canal Fulton Historic Society. It was an image of a pig running as fast as he could though a big puddle of mud. It was used at The Old Canal Days Festival on shirts and banners.

Where did you get your degree in visual communication?

I have a BFA in Graphic Design from The University of Akron and an MFA in Illustration from the University of Hartford. I also have an MA in Communications from The University of Akron.

What types of things does that type of degree prepare you to do?

My illustration degree helped me retool my career towards a focus on illustration and develop my unique visual voice. I essentially reversed the ratio from doing 75% design and 25% illustration to about 80% illustration and 20% design. Previously, I used my design degree mostly to work with typography and imagery to generate advertising campaigns, package design, trade show exhibits, and print material such as corporate brochures and logo identities. In later years I was a creative director. I often included illustrative solutions as part of my concepts. I’m currently a full-time Associate Professor and also maintain my illustration practice full-time.

Did you teach while you were studying for your MFA?

Yes, I taught as an adjunct beginning in 2005. I acquired a tenure track position in 2009 with an MA in Communications. I began my MFA studies in 2010. I taught throughout the time I pursued back-to-back master’s degrees.

Where did you go for your MFA?

The University of Hartford. Did your family and job influence your choice of school? No, I selected Hartford’s unique Low Residency MFA because it allowed me to work around my teaching schedule and I met the director, Murray Tinkelman about 25 years prior at a lecture he gave at my college.

Did you do illustration jobs while you were studying for your MFA?

Yes I did, however, nothing in the children’s literature market. It was mostly advertising or editorial.

Do you think college influenced your style?

I had most of my influences in mind before entering college but I feel it allowed me to improve my execution.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

This has been on my mind since I was little. I had a wonderful librarian in grade school who read to us weekly. I struggled learning to read and my grandmother, who worked at a book store provided me with many of the great, classic picture books.

Have you illustrated a picture book?

No, I’m what SCBWI calls pre-published in that market except for the educational market. I have a few complete dummies that my agent is busy presenting. We’ve had some good interest.

Is Catsy Batsy a book dummy?

Not yet, but very soon. I have a draft. Halloween season will certainly get him back on my desk. It was a bit of a visual taste test to see if the idea drummed up positive interest. It has.

Do you have an Artist Rep. to represent you? If so, and how did you connect and how long have you been with them?

I’m represented by Christy Ewers at CATugeau Agency. We connected through the 2017 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York through the portfolio showcase. You can see more of my work at

How many picture books have you illustrated?

I haven’t completed any picture books yet but I have illustrated for the children’s education market. I’m available-contact me!

Have you done any book covers?

Not yet, I’d love to though. Especially given my design and typography background. It would be great to work as the illustrator to a good art director.

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

Yes, that is the ultimate goal. I’ve never been so close as I am now.

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

I think I’m more interested in working with an established publisher, however, I might weigh each opportunity out individually. It depends on the big picture.

Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book?

No I haven’t. It has occurred to me but the idea isn’t there yet. I love the thought of the narrative being universally understood. I’m in awe of the wordless stories by both Shaun Tan and Guy Billout for example.

Have you worked with educational publishers?


Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

Not yet, again, it’s on my list. I’d love to work with Highlights, or Cricket to name a couple.

How do you market yourself and art?

I market thought several channels, CATugeau’s direct contact with publishers and my through social media and postcards.

What do you feel is your biggest success so far?

In illustration, I feel really good about signing on with my agent. Collaborating and having my work on the radar of some big players in the children’s book market has been exhilarating. It seems to have unlocked so much great energy.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I have really fallen in love with drawing and painting although I didn’t feel it was legitimate at first. Since I began this journey later than usual in life the immediacy of digital has been very useful to me. I was quite good at concept art and layouts comps using felt tip when I first graduated in design. Working digitally reminds me of that in a way.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, I was pretty comfortable with pastels, colored pencil, ink and watercolor before I moved to digital.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?


What the most important thing in your personal studio?

Probably coffee.

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

Yes, if I don’t have an assignment, I create one. I usually have several at a time.

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

Yes, I constantly harvest pictures outside of landscape, lighting, wildlife and architecture.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

I was working before the internet and I sense that the internet has allowed me to to accelerate the two processes of research and promotion.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop.

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

Yes, I use a Cintiq digital pen display in my studio and an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil when I’m away.

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

I feel like I’m doing just that. If you asked me a few years ago, I would’ve said I’d rather work in the children’s literary market than advertising.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of several educational assignments. I have three books including Catsy Batsy on the top of my list as well as preparing to teach three university classes this fall.

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.

I suggest drawing on paper with ink for ideas. Try to doodle often, it’s a way of opening up possibilities. Try digital tools only when you’ve become proficient with traditional media. My digital process has to include the same steps I would take with ink or paint and paper, beginning with sketches and studies. Pay close attention to details and craftsmanship and don’t settle too early. I’ve redrawn and repainted an entire scene more times than not. Gather great reference when possible and create your own as much as you can.

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

This is a difficult field. One of the hardest I’ve faced in over 30 years. You can’t do it alone in a vacuum. I suggest being active in the community and market you want to work in. Connect with others through workshops and conferences and dig in deep if you’re serious about this. You have your work cut out for you but don’t give up. Keep working on becoming the best at what you want to do. It’s a lifelong journey if you chose to take it. It could be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

Thank you David 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 David’s work, you can visit him at his website:

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Your art is fantastic, David! I don’t think it’ll be long before you are published in the children’s book industry. Good luck!! 🙂 – Dow


  2. Thank you!!! So much good information….Love your foxes..


    • My pleasure, glad you enjoyed it!!!


  3. Gorgeous design & color! I really enjoy these, David – the details you incorporate make them so specific and all the more genuine. Beautiful work.


  4. Fascinating interview. I’m surprised he hasn’t been tapped yet for children’s book illustration. His work is quite wonderful.


  5. I love your style, David! And I’m looking forward to seeing you in print at the bookstore and on my shelf someday soon.


  6. Great interview — love Dave’s work!! 🙂


  7. This art was so much fun to look at, and the “coffee cup head” commuters cracked me up! lol Thanks for sharing this, David (and Kathy) 😀


  8. Beautiful work, David. Love your foxes (real and drawn) and the subway coffee-cup heads.


  9. Thank you, David. Really enjoy your art!


  10. This was fun, thank you Kathy! And, I’m glad you all enjoyed it!


  11. What an absolute delight it is to look at Dave’s art and read about his process! And I am jealous of his having foxes live under his den. 😀 I have no doubt that Dave will have his own books out very soon; he is just bursting with talent!


  12. Beautiful work David. An inspiration.


  13. Lovely illustrations, you make it lovely ok so easy, and I like the way the story developed from a moment, to a text, to a story… :))


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