Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 3, 2018

Illustrator Saturday – Sawsan Chalabi

Sawsan is a DC-based illustrator and designer. I have a passion for translating words into imagery that convey not only their meaning but also their mood and spirit. I love reading, conceptualizing and incorporating subtle wit and humor in my pieces. My work is mostly digital but also involves some traditional line work and textures. When I am not at my Cintiq, I can be found in my studio getting messy with my inks and paint as I continue to explore the power in the silent communication of art.

BA, Graphic Design | Notre Dame University (Beirut, Lebanon)
MFA, Illustration | Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, GA) 

Connect with me: Facebook | Instagram | Linked-in | Twitter


Process for “I Am A Cello” by Elizabeth Kuelbs for Cricket Magazine. Art Director: Karen Kohn

Step 1-

The project was to create an illustration to accompany the poem. The final size was about 8×10 plus bleed leaving room for the poem. I thought the best way to maximize on the page’s real estate was to incorporate the poem into the illustration. I thumbnailed some ideas and chose two that I liked where the poem would be illustrated into the shape of a cello.

On a light table, over an outline of a cello, I hand-lettered the poem with an ink brush pen into the cello shape.

Step 2 –

I sent these digital sketches to the client. I felt I had to do the hand-lettering in advance to make sure the idea would work. Sometimes, I even color my sketches if the color is part of the concept.

Step 3-

The client picked the illustration on the right. I cleaned up the lettering digitally and recreated the characters and added color and texture.



How long have you been illustrating?

Since 2000, I started out as a graphic designer and began incorporating illustration in my work whenever possible, but I only officially started identifying with myself as an illustrator about 6 years ago when I started doing less design and focused more on my passion for illustration.

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

When I worked as layout designer for a fashion magazine in Beirut. There was an article about How to Keep A Relationship Sparkling” and I created spot illustrations for each section. I realized then how much I love illustration and how it’s my first and natural choice to approaching design solutions.

What made you decide to get your BA in Graphic Design at Notre Dame University in Beirut, Lebanon?

From a young age, I loved art and looked up to and greatly enjoyed watching my older sister work on her oil paintings and dabbled along with some attempts myself but when it came to choosing a college major, fine arts was not on the table and I decided to major in graphic design as a more financially sound choice for creatives.

What made you decide continue your education and get your MFA in Illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, GA?

After 10 years of design experience in what was mostly web and IT related, I felt unfulfilled and found myself depleted of the creative energy I once had. I decided to renew my passion for art and illustration and went for my MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design. It was heaven to be back in an amazing creative environment… just the energy that I needed to find my creative voice again.

Cover for Wine & Spirits Magazine (Feb, 2015 issue)

Did any of the schools help find illustration work for you?

Illustration is mostly a freelance career so you’re on your own and it’s very rare to get a full-time position as an illustrator, however, the SCAD Illustration program does a great job at submitting student work to competitions and illustration annuals to get their work out there before they even graduate.

While at SCAD, I did this social awareness campaign poster for women’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. It was chosen in American Illustration’s Annual 31.

Do you feel that studying Graphic design has helped your illustrations?

Yes… immensely. I approach my illustration projects, especially editorials, with design thinking. I spend a lot of time brainstorming for ideas that best communicate the article or issue at hand. I then eliminate those that don’t work and keep about three or four that work and then send the sketches to the client. My experience as a designer has helped me detach emotionally from the artwork and look at the work objectively, with the end result and the target audience in mind.

What do you think influenced your illustrating style?

Again, graphic design and its simplicity in aesthetics and communication has influenced my work as an illustrator. I love the work of design and illustration icons like Saul Bass and Shigeo Fukuda. Their witty art was so smart and effective… it still feels current to this day. I also love Surrealism and Fauvism and although my work is digital I enjoy incorporating color and texture that gives a painterly and organic feel.

When did you decide that you wanted to illustrate for children?

While working on some editorial illustrations, the subject matter lent itself to a more narrative (less iconographic) approach and I really enjoyed creating art that tells a story. I started working on pieces for myself just for fun. Working on children’s illustrations is like opening a doorway to a world where anything is possible and there are no limits to the imagination. It sets you free to explore deeper moods, feelings, moments and wacky ideas. It brings out your inner child… that’s what it allows me to do.

Last year you exhibited at the Print Pop-Up Exhibition – International Visions Gallery in Washington, DC). Have you done pop-up art or did you exhibit something else?

Yes, it was a temporary (ie. pop-up for a limited time) art show for prints and I exhibited two prints. “Red, Green, Blue” and “Once Upon A Walk”.

Do you work a full time job or have you decided to be a freelance artist?

I freelance as an illustrator and I still take on some graphic design work as freelance as well.

Is H is for Haiku your first illustrated book?

Yes, it’s my first fully illustrated children’s book. I am also part of another children’s poetry anthology coming out in February with Lee & Low Books.

Do you have an artist rep? If so, who? If not would you be open to having one?

Yes I recently joined Marlena Agency and I am so happy to be represented among the agency’s really amazing artists.

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

I tend to steer away from personal projects unless it’s something I really think is unique and I can stand behind. Usually authors who self-publish want full copyright of your work and I never give that up.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

Yes, Cricket Media and Lee & Low Books.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?

Yes, several for Cricket Magazine.

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

Yes, one day.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

No, but I like the idea!

What is your favorite medium to use?

My work is Digital, but I also incorporate some ink and gouache and other material.

Has that changed over time?

No but I do think it’s healthy to push myself to work with different mediums even if it’s just for practice.

Can you tell us a little bit about your studio in Arlington?

It consists of two small art tables and an easel for painting as well as my iMac, Cintiq and scanner.

Are you active in your SCBWI Chapter? If so, have they helped open any doors for you?

I’m actually not a member yet but I plan to be.

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

I try to work every day. If I’m not working on a client project I create something for myself.

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

I research the subject matter mostly. So, for example, if I’m illustrating something for a law journal, I will read and learn about the issue so that I can understand and brainstorm concepts that would appeal and communicate to that particular reader. My work is not realistic, but I do use references from life or pictures if I need to illustrate something specific, like a flute or a NY sky scraper for example.’

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Of course it has. I do most, if not all of my work through the internet and rarely physically meet with clients. Social media has really helped with marketing and connecting with other creatives and potential clients.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Realizing that I’m an artist at heart and gearing my career towards a more creative and fulfilling adventure. Success is about being happy with what you do and embracing who you are and not about money and titles on a desk plaque.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

Yes, I use Photoshop.

Do you use a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

Yes, I have a Cintiq tablet which I absolutely love.

Do you ever exhibit your art?

Yes, I exhibit prints from time to time with International Visions Gallery in DC and also had some work exhibited at the NY Public Library in a show held by Creative Action Network, a group of artists creating and supporting art for causes.

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

Currently, my focus is to enrich my work both with technique and themes and expand my client base of course.

What are you working on now?

Awareness posters encouraging people to vote.

Part of a Childrens’s book series

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 have dabbled with newsprint, linocut, ink and even cast plaster. You just never know what kind of texture you will get… it might be something great for your next project. Below are two older pieces done directly on paper I made out of cast plaster.

Here are a couple more samples of textures and patterns done with scratch board, gouache, ink, and an actual scan of a piece of crochet and then incorporated and manipulated digitally into my illustrations below.

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

Just to “Follow Your Bliss”, as Joseph Campbell said, and to not be afraid to follow it; to trust your instinct… do what feels right and natural to you and most of all enjoy the process. Creativity takes courage. I constantly have to remind myself of this as well.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Beautiful editorial illustrations, Sawsan! Love the incorporated real-life textures and your eye for composition and color.


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