Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 12, 2018

Illustrator Saturday – Cheryl Nobens

For more than 40 years, Cheryl has been enjoying myself, professionally illustrating, designing and writing for children. She has illustrated over 80 titles, so far. She works both digitally (Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) and also conventionally in pencil and watercolor, plus combinations of both methods.

Here’s Cheryl discussing her process:

I start out by sketching the characters. I have an idea in my mind of where they will be located and in what background. But if I don’t have the characters right, nothing else will work. So they come first. If I’m lucky, they will jump out onto the page. Sometimes that happens. Other times, I really struggle. Recently, I spent an entire day trying to draw this fox for another piece, and only sort of had him when I went to bed. The next day, I walked into my sketch studio and drew him perfectly right in about 10 minutes. After the characters come to life, I draw the background on another sheet of paper, so that I can move them around on it, if I want to. I work pretty large, so I have to scan the skeches in several pieces and puzzle them together in Photoshop. Then, with my Wacom, I use a textured airbush to lighten the line here and there and give it some character of its own.

I’m showing you the next steps as if I actually did them in this orderly a fashion. But really, I worked all over the place, as I added color. This is one of the best things about working digitally, as compared to painting in watercolor, as I used to, when I had to start with the background and work toward the foreground. I might have finished the whole fox, or one of the trees and then thrown in the background color. That lack of rigidity is the heart of making a piece of art, I think. But to show how the color builds up, let’s pretend I did it one complete layer at a time. This one is basic, base watercolor-style colors; nice and loose and airy.

Next, I added more depth of color and details such as the plaid on the lining of the little girl’s raincoat. I play around with the modes of layers a lot and get surprising and delightful results. I use a LOT of layers. I don’t try to commit much of anything to final until the very end. I like to have the option to turn a layer off or reduce the opacity or change the mode, right up to the last minute. This is again the magic of painting digitally, which I love.

Lastly, the background color pulls everything together and creates the mood. The light beams and the rain are made with Photoshop brushes that I bought on the internet. I love how many such effects are available, usually for only a couple of bucks. I don’t feel like it’s cheating to use someone else’s tool in this way (as long as I pay for it) because no-one else would use it exactly as I have, or make anything like the same image.

Interview with Cheryl Nobens:

How long have you been illustrating?

Since about a year before I graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, in 1975.In other words, since time immemorial!

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

Wow. That’s hard to remember! But I think it must have been an illustration for a newspaper ad for a used record store called The Wax Museum, in Minneapolis. Or maybe a food illustration for Mpls./St. Paul Magazine. I did a lot of that sort of thing, then.

Have you always lived in Minnesota? Ja. Born and raised.

Did you go to college to study art?

Yes. I graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Did the school help you find illustration work?

Well, they helped us to prepare a portfolio and gave us a rudimentary idea of where to take it around, in the Twin Cities. There was a much bigger focus on advertising art than on publishing, since this is a pretty big ad town.

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

Yes. If I hadn’t had to work full time, while I was attending, I might have been influenced even more! I wish I had been able to focus entirely on my education. If I had it to do over, I’d go deep into debt to make learning my only job.

What type of illustrating did you do when you first started your career?

I started out doing advertising art (if you can believe it, in those days even newspaper ads often featured illustrations. This was partly because there was no such thing as Photoshop. If you wanted an image of WC Fields holding up a record album, you had to hire an artist to create it) and also a lot of work for restaurant menus, table tents and billboards. Plus some editorial illustration for local publications.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

Oh, I always wanted to do that.

Was Splish, Splash your first book?

If not what was the title and when was it published? No, my first book, written and illustrated by me, was “The Happy Baker” from CarolRhoda Books in Minneapolis, in 1979.

How did your first picture book illustration job come about?

I brought my portfolio to CarolRhoda, which is an imprint of Lerner Publications, looking for illustration work. One of the pieces I was carrying was a menu featuring a somewhat Maxfield Parrish styled baker on the cover. The editor, Susan Pearson, who is an accomplished children’s writer herself these days, picked it out and said, “Write me a story about this guy!”

Is Snow Day! A Story Told in 24 Poems Forms your first written and illustrated picture book?

No. I’ve also published The Happy Baker (CarolRhoda Books 1979), Shy Charlene and Sharyl (Little, Brown and Company, 1987), and Montgomery’s Time Zone (Carolrhoda Books, 1990). “Snow Day!” is my first self-published book.

How many books have you published with Beaver’s Pond Press?

I’ve illustrated two for other authors and am working on a third. And of course, I self-published “Snow Day! A Story Told in 24 Poem Forms” with Beaver’s Pond Press, using my own imprint of “Sherble Books Stories and Pictures by CA Nobens”.

Is Beaver’s Pond Press a small local publisher in Minnesota?

BPP is a small, independent publisher. They have a unique collaborative process that I’ve found to be inspiring and respectful of indie authors and illustrators. Really fun to work for or with and fair, as well.

Do you have an artist rep. to represent your illustrations?

If so, who and how long? If not, would you like to find one? Currently, I don’t have a rep. I would love to be represented by one of a short list of literary agents that I continue to sweet-talk and bombard with queries. Other than courting these people, or perhaps if someone of their ilk were to approach me, I’m happy to rep myself. I’ve had three reps in the course of my career, but have never had one with whom I’ve really clicked. That is a writer/illustator’s dream; almost like finding a soul mate or true love!

Have you done any book covers?

Only for the majority of the 82 books that I’ve illustrated or written and illustrated. A few of those books were a mixture of photography and illustration and didn’t have art on the cover. Otherwise, I supplied it.

What percentage of your illustrated books are with Christian publishers?

Oh, I don’t know, exactly. I don’t concentrate on this genre especially (although I do enjoy illustrating the world of Biblical times. It’s a complete change from any other time and place and that’s interesting to research and depict). I work on many kinds of kids’ books. I love the variety! And it’s one of the reasons that I’m still in business after 40 years.

Did you get your start illustrating for the Christian market?

No. I did some work for one Christian publisher a few years into my career, and that lead to others contacting me, over the decades.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

I have done so! And enjoyed it! Indie authors are so passionate about their stories; they’re a delight to work for. Especially at this point in my long career of working for art directors and editors who may or may not have a lot personally invested in a (especially educational) book, it’s just a joy for me to do my best work for someone and literally make a dream come true.

Have you worked with educational publishers?

Yes! Which ones? Lerner Publications, McGraw-Hill, World Book, Evan-Moor, Abdo & Daughters, Free Spirit Publishing, Creative Teaching Press, Purdue University Press, Mondo Publishing, Pearson, Harcourt, Paper Magic, Sadlier, to name a few who haven’t been gobbled up by larger corporations.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

Yes! Which ones? Cricket, Highlightts, Weekly Reader.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Yes, recently that has been intriguing me. Four images of a little girl and her fox friend have materialized in my mind; three of them are completed pictures and I’m working on the fourth. I don’t know yet what their story is about, but it’s a quiet and almost secret one. I think this book will have very few words, if any, when I’ve come to understand it’s nature.

What do you think is your biggest success?

I consider my biggest success to be that, after forty years, I’m still earning a living as a children’s illustrator. I’ve crossed from the old conventional methods of art production to digital and love it! The older I get, the more I love what I do.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I draw with a somewhat old-fashioned mechanical pencil on real sheets of paper, scan them, and add color in Photoshop.

Has that changed over time?

In every possible way! No one in art or design used a computer, when I first started in the business. If I was making art for a book, I painted in watercolor and Dr. Martin dyes and handed the stack of illustration board over to the publisher. (The art for “Shy Charlene and Sharyl” was sent to Boston overnight, where it was misdelivered to the loading dock at Little, Brown and temporarily lost. Unlike with digital art, there were no copies, no back-up of 32 pages of art. I will never forget the editor coming on the phone line and saying, “We will find it. It’s lost but we will find it”. I sat on the floor of my studio and stared at the phone until she called back a couple of hours later to say that they had.) We “pasted up” dummies with xerox copies (black and white) of illustrations, typewriter type and a hot waxer. Hot wax! How archaic does that sound?

Can you tell us a little bit about your studio?

I would, but my studio is in the basement of my 100 year-old house! I keep my sketch studio much as it’s always been, with no acess to the internet, so as not to interfere with any brain waves. J All of my old art supplies (those I don’t use anymore, like Dr. Martin Dyes in their irridescent, uncapturable hues, squat bottles of India Ink with rubber stoppers, cardboard tubes of Rubylith, tins of Rubber Cement, whose in-cap brushes have long ago dried hard as wood chips) sit on shelves around my standing-height drafting table, like old friends. In this room, I still have metal and wooden rulers and colored pencils and pastels and even a camera Lucida that I haven’t fired up in a decade or two. And a window for natural light! My computers, copiers, scanners and printers are in a separate room on the other end of the house. I really appreciate this divide. I think it allows my mind to wander freely while sketching, without the impatient nudge of the email or news alert. I think my best ideas come from memories, at least in part, and my creative self needs peace and space to wander about and uncover them.

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

I assume you mean, in working to improve my skills? No, not specifically. But I wouldn’t be in business anymore if I wasn’t always learning. I try really hard to do a better job on everything I do than I would have done the day before.

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

Definitely. This is another area where the computer has changed everything for me. I used to have to go downtown Minneapolis to the Main Library and request “Clipping Files” (yes, they used to be an actual thing) from the librarian on whatever topic I was researching. After ten or fifteen minutes, she would return from somewhere mysterious behind the desks with several manila folders. These were filled with photographs clipped from newspapers and magazines. It was a lucky day that I found much of anything useful in them. But that was all that there was to look through, other than books. I kept a pretty large library of miscellaneous topics in my studio, subscribed to a variety of magazines I wouldn’t have otherwise, and compiled my own Photo Morgue in a filing cabinet. Google Images is miraculous by comparison. I remember that, for years, I tried to find a photograph of a Yak’s feet, for example, and never could ( they were always standing in snow or grass!) until the Internet. Now, I know exactly what they look like!

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

It has both opened many and closed others. It used to be easier to make a personal connection with a company in one’s own area. Now, I’m competing for this face time with every other artist in the world. On the other hand, I am able to compete for the time of publishers and agencies worldwide, myself. Simply, things have shuffled to about the same number of open doors, although some are much farther away.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop on everything.

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

I have one, and I use it for a few things. But I have yet to make the leap to drawing digitally, and I may never do that. I stand to draw, and I like to have lots of freedom of movement. I like to pace and look from different angles at my drawing. I like to boogie around.

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

No, not reallly, anymore. I have life dreams. For example, it’s generally assumed that when one self- publishes a picture book, she will transform into a marketing person and spend loads of time reading in bookstores and presenting in classrooms. It seems to be a common dream of many children’s writers and artists to sit in a rocker in the children’s section of Barnes & Noble or the neighborhood second grade class. My dream is the same today as it has always been; to sit by myself and tease a story out of thin air, and to draw and color in the quiet of my studio.

What are you working on now?

I have three books of my own that I am picking up in between illustrating for other people, in order to pay the bills. One is a story about a gentle soul who feeds the bunnies in his back yard in the winter time. One is a Halloween tale of a quirky little witch. And the other is that possibly wordless (definitely almost wordless) picture book you asked about, featuring a little girl and her fox friend.

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 don’t think I know anything that any other artist doesn’t know (at least not any artist over the age of 60. We have a LOT of arcane skills!). Everything, from pencils to Photoshop is nothing but an extension of an artist’s imagination. Just a tool. It’s the artist that makes the art.

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

Yes. After 40 years of doing what other people told me would make my illustration “better” or sell better, I’ve begun doing the best work of my life by listening only to my own sensibilities, and doing things the way that I know they should be done in my own art. Other people often have wonderful ideas, and it’s a fine idea to listen to them. But don’t go against your own lights; don’t color your personal style inside anyone else’s lines. That will not bring you joy. And isn’t loving to write and make pictures the reason we all got into this business?

Thank you Cheryl for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Cheryl’s work, you can visit her at these websites:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Cheryl. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.


Talk tomorrow,



  1. what lovely work –


  2. Lovely, appealing and most importantly, FUN! Thank you, Cheryl!


  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I especially love the words of wisdom at the end. For anyone wanting to make a living illustrating, it can be tempting to try and do what’s popular or what will sell. Thank you so much Cheryl for sharing your story


  4. Colorful, fun illustrations! I thought it interesting that you seem to use CA and not Cheryl professionally.


  5. First. Cheryl, I’m sure you’ve heard before that you REALLY resemble the beautiful actress, Blythe Danner 🙂

    Anyway, your art is SO familiar and it’s easy to see why you’ve been able to earn a steady living through illustration!

    And I really hope you complete your “girl and fox” wordless book. The one illustration here of them is stunning and it looks like the kind of quiet book the reader can get lost in 🙂

    Thanks, ladies, for all the sharing (as I always do on Twitter) 😀


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