Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 2, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Catherine Lazar Odell

Catherine’s childhood spanned the globe, and helped her to develop an appreciation for all the different lives a person can live.  She earned a Bachelor of Industrial Design at Syracuse University, and continued to develop her observational skills while working as a product designer at Ziba Design. While working to develop her personal style as an illustrator, she began selling her art at local street fairs and now spends her weekends at the Portland Saturday Market. She has illustrated for both public presentation and internal concept storyboarding, counting Pampers, Thomas & Friends, Intel, Starbucks, John Prine, Comet Skateboards, OHSU Children’s Hospital and The New York Times among her list of past clients. Her first illustrated book, I’M DONE written by Gretchen McLellan, comes out this fall from Holiday House, and her first written and illustrated book, PEPPER AND FRANNIE will be released on March 23, 2019 by Page Street Kids.I

I’ve been to all 50 states in the US, lived in 6, and have called Portland home for 13 years. I have a hard time answering common ‘getting to know you’ questions like, ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what’s your favorite color?’ or ‘who’s your favorite band?’ I don’t mind the rain and I love to be outside whenever possible. I prefer tree houses to submarines and spaceships. I play on the curvy streets, wander in the woods, work from my garage studio, and take breaks for balance boards and dog walking/cuddling/pestering. I make my own holes, and patch them too.


This is a piece I just completed for the cover of the 2019 Portland Saturday Market Souvenir Booklet. I’ve been a vendor there for five years, selling prints and greeting cards of my illustrations. I find covers to be a bit intimidating, so much to say in one image, and in the past they have been primarily architectural references to the city – not my forte.

So I started with my favorite thing – the saxophone player who is there every weekend, rain or shine providing a lovely accompaniment to the chaos. I like to find my characters first, and he became my anchor, and I built out from there.

I started this piece digitally, with loose rough sketches in Photoshop. Working digitally in the early stages makes is easy to duplicate, resize, and move things around compared to sketching on paper.

You can see the pitbull is in there twice, just to see if I wanted another dog in that spot. At this stage, he’s the one with a bone headband (a reference to one of the vendors at the market), but in the end it made more sense for the playful dad to be wearing it, than the cool guy musician. Props and clothing help to tell a story. Most of the characters here are a reference to folks I’ve spotted over the years that made some kind of impression on me. Digging into personal observations is a big part of my work. I find you don’t have to look very far for inspiration, and it’s more authentic if it comes from your own life.

This layout was a bit of a side step. I do a lot of rearranging to find the right composition, so sometimes it’s forward progress and sometimes not, but I suppose every wrong turn makes me more confident in the final choice.

I wanted to work in a limited color pallet, and I find it easier to plan these things digitally than trying to figure it out when you’re holding a wet brush.I second guessed the decision to make every character a dog, so you’ll see some other animals made there way into this version. I eventually went back to just dogs because if felt more true to my market experience – which includes a lot of dog watching, and after all Portland has a reputation for being a very dog loving town.

This is the final digital underlay that I print out before painting. It’s rare that I put so many characters into one piece, so this was a good challenge and bit of a puzzle. My biggest concern was making sure that the viewer’s eye circulates the page, so every gesture and line of site leads to the next…at least that’s the idea.

Confession: I don’t paint the whole piece in one pass. It’s easier for me to work in smaller sections and then reassemble them later. This means there is no ‘original’…which is fine if your ultimate destination is for print. These painted pieces are almost like a sticker page, and each ends up on it’s own layer. This makes editing much easier, which is a big part of the picture book process as well as most client work.

I scan my watercolor pieces, and return to the digital world to put it all back together.

After all the pieces are in place, it’s all about clean up and finding the right balance so that the composition feels cohesive. If one bit needs to be darker, I can double it. If another is too prominent, I can decrease the opacity or adjust the hue slightly. This is where I just love the control I have in the digital world. But I still have the life and texture of the hand painting.

A Couple Book Covers:

Interview Questions for Catherine Lazar Ordell:

How long have you been illustrating?

I have always drawn and made art, but illustrating in particular became my focus roughly 8 years ago.

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

The first time someone paid me for a painting was in 2009, thought I guess it was more of a trade, but hey who’s counting. The buyer was a wine maker, and I traded one of the paintings for a case of wine. Not too shabby.

You say you’ve traveled the globe and lived in six states. What was the spark that caused all that travel?

There are two components. The first is that my father was in the military, so not a lot of choice there, but I covered quite a bit of ground before the age of 11. The rest of that travel was mostly through music. I played cello in a few bands that toured the States as well as Europe.

What inspired you to get a Bachelor of Industrial Design at Syracuse University?

I didn’t even know what Industrial Design was when I went to school. My parents were very afraid of the starving artist myth, and I had no way of quelling their fears because I was so underexposed to the possibilities of the creative field…so I enrolled in the art school, with a backup plan to switch to engineering if it didn’t go well. Syracuse has a wonderful foundation year for all it’s art students, and it was my sculpture teacher who suggested I look into it. I trudged over (lots of snow in Syracuse) to the ID building, poked around until someone would show me what they were working on, and fell in love immediately. Their projects were fascinating to me. How had I not known this existed? It was the perfect combination of creativity and practical application. It was like discovering the wizards behind the curtain…all the objects and systems of everyday life were designed by someone…and I hadn’t even considered that until then. I thought there were some things out there that could be done better, so I figured that was the degree for me.

Did the school help you find illustration work?

No, while in school, I only took one illustration class. I did get my first job as an Industrial Designer before graduating though!

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

Not on the surface, in the way that we typically think about style, but I don’t think I’d be making the kind of work I do without that foundation. The ID program had a heavy focus on design thinking as well as the 3D manifestations of your solutions. If you start with empathy as the core of good design thinking, trying to get in someone’s head, understand their motivations and struggles and everyday barriers…then you’re equipped for a life of creating characters from scratch. I was also introduced to 3D software, as well as modeling by hand, using whatever materials we could get our hands on, sculpy, cardboard, sheet metal, plaster, you name it. We were encouraged to play and experiment, and I made a lot of messes. I still do.

What type of work did you do as a product designer at Ziba Design?

On a basic level, I worked on shampoo bottles, speakers, and wait for it…diapers. The common thread though was story telling. The first step in designing all of those objects, was understanding the end user. What were their routines? What was the setting? How were they using this object? Every object tells a story with it’s shape and materials and functionality…and for me it was the reasoning behind those design decisions that was the most exciting part. I liked all the thinking that went into why something should exist, in what form, and how. In creating a picture book, you’re making up a whole world and what you put into it has to make sense within that context and that character.

Sounds like you have settled in Portland, Oregon. Do you have a group of like minded illustrators in the area where you can lean on each other?

Portland has been home now for 14 years, and it has a very vibrant creative culture. Drink and Draw events have become my favorite way to socialize with other artists. They’re casual, and you can talk shop while doodling. I’ve made some amazing illustrator friends through those meets ups. We all have very different processes and it’s great to share and compare. I also have a group of ladies from the Portland Saturday Market (where I currently sell my work) that I can lean on for support. We all have different backgrounds and artistic focuses, but we’re all trying to make our way in this self employed and self directed path. It’s nice to have folks that can boost you up on the cold and rainy days when you start to question your life decisions.

How did you get your first illustrated book, I’M DONE written by Gretchen McLellan?

Funny story. As I mentioned, I sell my work at the Portland Saturday Market, which is open every weekend (Saturday and Sunday!) from March through December and is a popular tourist destination. So you never know who’s going to walk by, and in this case, it was the editor’s mother. She purchased some of my greeting cards and sent one to her daughter at Holiday House. She filed it away and emailed me a couple years later…after acquiring the text for I’m Done!

What type of illustrating were you doing before that first book?

Other than some freelance work for design firms (drawing product concepts and storyboarding), I was getting by selling art at local street fairs. I was just making it up as I went. The big key for me was when I stopped trying to make a certain kind of art, and followed my own abilities and interests instead. Most of the illustration I had done early on was inspired by gig posters and band tee shirts. That’s what I deemed as ‘cool’. The problem was that I didn’t make art that looked like that. My stuff was, oh how do I put it…cute, so it wasn’t a great fit. When I stopped trying to make something cool, and just let myself draw from my imagination, it started to come a little easier. At least it felt more honest, and I think that’s all we really have at the end of the day.

In March, you have a picture book coming out published by Page Street Kids, titled PEPPER AND FRANNIE. How did that opportunity come your way?

That’s another example of putting yourself out there, again and again. I joined SCBWI when I first became interested in making picture books. I attended a few local events and eventually decided to give the NYC event a try. The first time I went, I was completely intimidated. I couldn’t believe how many talented people were out there…and a little crushed too. I entered the portfolio show case and not a single one of my postcards was gone when I returned to pick up my stuff. The second time however, I got an email from my current editor at Page Street Kids asking if I had a story to go with one of the illustrations in my portfolio. I did not. But I fixed that. Six months later we signed a contract. I owe a lot to her patience and willingness to work with me through that development.

How long did it take to illustrate I’m Done and Pepper and Frannie?

It’s hard to quantify exactly, because I’m not sure when you start counting…is it from when you first had the idea? What about all the time you’re thinking about it in between? All the wrong turns along the way? I don’t know. For each of those books, I’d say there’s a solid 4 months of painting and editing, but that’s once you know what’s going into it. Thumbnails, sketches, drawings, story revisions… it takes a long time. 32 pages doesn’t seem like a lot until you’re in it. If you simply think about the time it takes to make one image, and then do some very crude math, it’s about that. I think parts of it get easier. Right now, I do feel like stories I’m working on now don’t seem as difficult to wrangle, and I have a better sense for my own process. At least now I know what I’m in for.

Have you illustrated any other books?

Yes. The first two I illustrated were self published by other writers. It’s a great learning experience, and for me it was critical because I had a lot of catching up to do as an illustrator. I’m a believer in the 10,000 hour rule.

Do you have an artist rep. to represent your illustrations? If so, who and how long. If not, would you like to find one?

Yes! I’m so happy to be able to say I’m now represented by Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic Agency. For a long time, it wasn’t a priority of mine. I wasn’t sure I was ready yet, and I was still focused on developing my own style before going through the process of submissions, but she found me this past summer, and I will say it feels great to have someone on my side.

Have you done any book covers?

Only the ones for books I’ve illustrated. I’m not sure covers are my strong suit. It’s a lot of pressure.

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

Not at this point. There is so much that goes into making a book, and not to mention selling a book, that I think many folks don’t consider ahead of time. It always surprises me how many authors don’t know that they don’t need an illustrator to submit their story to publishers. These days, I direct folks to SCBWI. It’s a wealth of knowledge, resources and community.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?


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


Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Absolutely. I hope I get to do this at some point. I have one dummy that is wordless, but the story is too sad, so I haven’t shown it to anyone.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Ha, I have no idea. I don’t think I’ve had any real success yet, so I’ll say perseverance and the desire to keep improving. I don’t know that it qualifies as a success, but there is one drawing in particular – the bear hug – that does stand out. It seems to have resonated with a lot of folks. I did that one in 2015. It has been circulated all over Pintrest by other folks, put on plates and wedding invitations, some people have sent me photos of their tattoos of it, other artists have made their own versions of it. That seems like some form of success?

What is your favorite medium to use?

Pencil. My first love, and to this day my favorite. It may not be what I use in my final art, but it’s the tool that is most effective for me in getting an idea onto paper, and the one I feel that I have the most control over. I don’t have to focus or think with a pencil. I can just draw. And I use the eraser as much as the graphite. Probably about half and half. I find that taking things away is just as important as putting them down. Most of my final pieces are in watercolor or ink, but maybe someday I’ll use pencil the whole way through.

22. Has that changed over time?
I like to experiment with new media, in fact I think it’s important to try new things and make room for new perspectives, but a crappy mechanical pencil is my weapon of choice.

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

I am lucky to be able to focus on making art, in some capacity, full time. I don’t have a very structured routine, but I work almost every day. Some days I only have time for a doodle or some free writing because I have to shift my attention to the business side of things- emails, shipping, printing and packing, building a display or applying for a craft show. I know I haven’t picked up a pencil or brush in too many days when I start to feel out of sorts. Drawing is very directly related to happiness for me. It’s how I process things.

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

I just start drawing. If something in one of my drawings leads to a question, I’ll look it up. Or if I can’t remember how many toes an animal has, or which way it’s knee bends, things like that. In general though, I kind of go from the gut. People watching is a favorite pastime. There’s a lot of inspiration out there, and that’s probably my favorite kind, just watching the way someone carries themselves, the visible choices they make – it all tells a story.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Almost all of my doors have been opened in real life, face to face situations. That’s on my list of skills to improve: be better at the internet.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Photoshop with every illustration at some point in the process. It could be as minimal as cleaning up an unintended smudge on a drawing or adjusting the overall darks and lights, and other times it’s more complicated. It’s such a great tool for so many reasons and I don’t know how illustrators can work without it. That being said, for finished work, I always do some element by hand. I’ve never been happy with an illustration that I made only in Photoshop – and that might be due to my own limitations in the software, but for me, they’re always missing something…some texture, some spontaneity, if I haven’t put pencil/brush to paper. Computers are amazing. You can make bits larger or smaller, change the angle of a weirdly drawn arm, undo mistakes, move characters from one side of the page to the other, all without starting over. So I lean on Photoshop for that control. But the magic is still on the paper for me.

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

In my first design job, I got to use a Cintiq tablet, and as soon as I could afford one, it was my first big illustration purchase. Drawing and editing directly on the screen is so intuitive.

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

Stickers. Shiny stickers.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on some new stories. I love the early phases of story and character development.

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.

Buy affordable paper, and keep painting. I get intimidated by nice paper, and I don’t paint very well under pressure. Also I have horrible brush habits…like leaving them bristles down in dirty water… so I’m probably the worst person to ask about tools and materials. My best advice is to keep a sketchbook, draw all the time, try new mediums that make you curious and don’t worry about what other people are doing.

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

Again, not sure I qualify, but I’d say it’s about deciding what you want, sitting down every day with intention, and putting your work out there…at any stage. Oh, and you have to be good at taking feedback.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,





  1. Thanks for sharing your work, Catherine! I hope you make that sad wordless picture book. The sad ones are important. I hope, too, that Rescue Bunnies continues. I love what you have of it on your site so far.

    Going to read more about Fiona. Always looking for agents to submit to who represent folks whose work I’m drawn to.


  2. Beautifully done! I love the artist’s organic shapes and negative spaces, and there’s a real sweetness to the animal personalities!


  3. Such lovely work, Cat! Your hugging elephants illustration really touches my heart. Since discovering it, I’ve kept an eye out for your latest work. Congratulations on having such an amazing gift that you get to share with the world!


  4. Absolutely enchanting. I particularly love the fox and rabbit sharing an umbrella. Such a sweet illustration.


  5. Such charming art! Thank you for sharing.


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