Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 16, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Kayla Harren

I graduated from the School of Visual Arts in NYC with a BFA in Illustration. I illustrated the picture books Juma the Giraffe and Our Elephant Neighbors for Wild Nature Institute and PAMS Foundation.  Mary Had a Little Lizard, published by Sky Pony Press, was my debut picture book as an author/illustrator. My artwork has been featured in Communication Arts, 3×3 Magazine, and the Society of Illustrators Illustration Annuals.  I won the June 2017 Highlights for Children Pewter Plate Award for my illustration.

The steps of my process:

I am sharing some process images from when I was working on The Boy Who Grew a Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng. This double page spread of Jadav basking in the amazing forest he created needed to be lush and alive and magical.

All picture books for me start out with rough sketches. These scratchy sketches are for my eyes only and I use them to get the pacing of the story laid out.

I like to make sure the sketches I show the art director are exactly how I plan to finish them in the final art so that once they are approved, I know I won’t need to make any compositional changes after I’ve gone through the work of coloring everything.

I can usually envision how I am going to handle color and light when I am sketching, but I need to convey that to the art director. The value and light of an illustration can drastically affect the way the composition works and where the focal point is. I use gray tones in the sketches I show the art director so they can have a better idea of how the image will look and they don’t have to do a lot of guessing.

I color everything with flat colors. I keep important elements on separate layers and I usually have a separate layer for the background, mid, and foreground.

My favorite part! This is when I get to add lots of details and textures to the character’s clothing and face and to the plants.

This is the stage that really transforms the illustration. Adding shadows can direct the eye exactly where I want it to go. Shadows define shapes and add depth. When I add shadows I know I am almost there.

Highlights and warmth and little details finish off the illustration. It is ready to send to the art director!


Interview with Kayla Harren: 

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been drawing and coloring my whole life. I started taking art seriously in college at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. After graduating in 2011, I worked on small illustration jobs until my first book was published in 2017.

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

I think my dad was the first person to pay me for my art. He would commission me to make portraits of his coworkers as retirement gifts. The first paid job I had from someone I wasn’t related to was illustrating short stories for the children’s book app FarFaria. That was my first experience working with an art director and going through the process of translating a manuscript into sketches, then revisions, to final artwork, all within a short deadline. It was an excellent first job to prepare me for publishing.

Have you always lived in Minnesota? Are there other children’s illustrator in your state to hang out with?

I grew up in Minnesota then went to college in New York City. After school I moved to Pennsylvania for a couple years with my husband and now I am back in Minnesota where I am surrounded by beautiful nature and wide-open spaces. Minnesota has a great kidlit community. I attend the monthly Picture Book Salon hosted by Molly Beth Griffin at the Loft Literary Center and I try to make it to as many local MN SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) events as I can.

What made you decide to attend the School of Visual Arts in NYC get get your BFA in Illustration?

I worked as a model in New York every summer from the time I was 12. The summer before my senior year of high school I was on the subway on my way to a casting and saw an ad for SVA. I hadn’t thought of art school as an option before that point. I assumed if I wanted to study art in college I would go to a state school and major in art history. I had no idea it was actually possible to turn drawing pictures into a career. My mind was blown when I saw that ad!

Did the school help you find illustration work?

The very first job I had out of school, illustrating for the iPad app, came to me because a fellow student at SVA knew the owner of FarFaria and recommended me for the job. The school didn’t necessarily set me up with work, but the connections I made at school were invaluable in starting my career.

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

I learned the basics at school, but my art style is nothing like the work I was making while I was in school. I have grown and improved so much by studying the work of artists I love and by drawing every day. I think school was a great introduction to all types of art and from there I was able to choose my own path.

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

I started out painting in acrylic and watercolor right out of school. Once I started working for the digital app with very fast deadlines, I moved to digital illustration because I needed a style that could be done quickly and be easily changed when the art director asks for revisions.

I see you are represented by Marietta Zacker at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency. How long have you been with Marietta and how did the two of you connect?

I have been represented by Marietta Zacker at Gallt & Zacker since 2016. I submitted my portfolio and a manuscript through the agency’s online query system, and to my great surprise, she liked what I sent!

I know you wrote and illustrated Was Mary Had a Little Lizard book was that your first book?

Mary Had A Little Lizard was my first traditionally published book. The previous year I worked with Wild Nature Institute, a wildlife science research group, to create a picture book, Juma the Giraffe, as part of their education program in schools and zoos throughout Tanzania. Since then, I have illustrated two more books in their conservation education series of giraffes, elephants, and rhinos.

Was Marietta your agent at the time? If not, how did the publisher find you to illustrate the book?

I did not have an agent when I sold Mary Had A Little Lizard. To sell that book I created a sketch dummy of the entire book and colored five illustrations to show what the final artwork style would look like. I researched all the children’s publishers accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions, many of which I found in SCBWI’s “The Book” which has an updated market survey listing all the publishers in the children’s market. I followed the submission guidelines on Sky Pony’s website and I was so happy when Alison Weiss emailed me to tell me she was interested in publishing Mary.

Do you think you will write and illustrate more books?

I hope so! Writing is not my strong suit. I still need a lot of work with my storytelling skills. I keep trying to write stories, but none have taken off quite yet. I love illustrating other writer’s words, so I am very happy to keep being an illustrator while I work on my author goals in the meantime.

I noticed that Hannah’s Tall Order: An A to Z Sandwich was published by Sleeping Bear Press and your next book A Boy Like You is being published later this year. Was that a two-book deal?

It wasn’t a two book deal, they were both separate. A Boy Like You will actually be my third book with Sleeping Bear. (The Boy Who Grew a Forest is the second) Everyone at Sleeping Bear has been absolutely lovely to work with and I am so grateful they keep offering me wonderful books to illustrate!

Is The Boy Who Grew a Forest your latest book?

Yes, The Boy Who Grew a Forest written by Sophia Gholz is my latest book. It will be out March 15, 2019.

Looks like you illustrated five books published in 2018. Was that a hard task to accomplish?

It was a challenge! I am pretty organized and handle time management well, so I am proud to say I only pulled two all-nighters the whole year. I have been trained from my very first illustration job to work quickly and not fuss over things. I am getting used to saying an illustration is finished and just letting it go and moving on. I learn and grow so much through each book that by the time a new book is released to the public I feel like I am a completely different person than when I was making the book. Working on so many books has been such a great way to push myself and I can see a huge difference in what I am capable of now compared to my first job.

How many books have you illustrated?

I am just finishing up my 8th which will be out in July.

I see that you have won many awards. Can you tell us about the Highlights for Children Pewter Plate Award?

Highlights for Children chooses an “Illustrator of the Month” and awards them the Pewter Plate Award. (It really is a plate made out of pewter! I love it!) I made an illustration of a girl smelling flowers breaking through the cracks of a sidewalk for the poem “The City” for Highlights Magazine in the June 2017 issue and it won me the award. It was a dream come true to illustrate for Highlights and a very happy surprise to win the award.

Have you done any book covers?

None other than the covers of the picture books I illustrated. Hopefully in the future my answer will be yes!

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

I am only taking on books that I get through my agent or a publisher.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

Not yet.

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

I have worked for Highlights, Ladybug, Click, and I painted dinosaurs for several issues of Zoodinos Magazine.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

My first book that I wrote and illustrated, Mary Had a Little Lizard, is wordless. I would absolutely do it again! Some of my favorite books are wordless.

What do you think is your biggest success?

I have a hard time admitting anything I do is a success, but I think the times I feel most proud of myself are when I finish a book event. Speaking in front of people is absolutely terrifying to me, so every time I survive a read aloud and drawing demo where I didn’t embarrass myself too much, I feel like it was a great triumph!

What is your favorite medium to use?

I like working digitally. I like to be neat and organized and using a computer is perfect for that. I can create the illusion of messy texture, but there is nothing to clean up when I am done.

Has that changed over time?

Absolutely! In school I only took one computer class and only because it was required to graduate. I didn’t like using technology and I much preferred drawing with a pencil or painting with watercolor. I quickly had to teach myself how to use Photoshop when I started working under short deadlines.

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

I spend as much time as it takes to get the job done. Lately I haven’t had any time to work on personal work or consciously develop a style. I get an assignment and I illustrate it the best I can and then move on to the next job. That sometimes means I’m drawing 12 hours a day. The wonderful thing about working from home is that I can be flexible with time.

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

I always research before I start a project. Especially when I am illustrating a landscape or lifestyle different from my own. I want to be accurate. I like to gather a bunch of research and reference when I am doing rough sketches, but I leave them behind when I go to final color so I don’t get attached or start copying the reference.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely. So far I have never met any of my clients in person! All of my work is done though email. I have been able to work with people in Australia and Africa and England. I have made valuable connections and book deals because of social media and I have access to vast amounts of reference images and information. The internet is a crucial part of my job.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I use Adobe Photoshop in all of my illustrations. Some of my books are a combination of pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, and digital color in Photoshop.

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

I used a Wacom tablet for several years, then recently I was gifted a Wacom Cintiq from my amazing family and I love it. I like drawing with a stylus directly on the screen.

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

I have so many career dreams I want to fulfill, there is so much yet to do! I saw the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show when I was still living in New York and it was such an inspiration to me. When I saw all the incredible artwork of the best children’s illustrators I knew I had to try to become an illustrator. If my artwork was accepted into the Original Art Show someday, I think I would faint.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing the illustrations for A Boy Like You written by Frank Murphy which will be published by Sleeping Bear Press in July 2019. I am also in the beginning stages of developing a nature science magazine with Wild Nature Institute called Nature’s Giants.

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.

My favorite sketchbook is my Robert Bateman 110 lb recycled paper sketchbook and I couldn’t survive without a kneaded eraser. For digital artists, I would recommend experimenting with clipping masks. I almost always draw flat color shapes and add textures with a clipping mask.

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

As sensitive artists sharing our vulnerable talents, it is so important to be prepared for criticism and rejection. Learn from your rejections and grow from them, but don’t let them stop you. Rejection never stops. I still get rejected, in fact, I just opened a rejection email this morning! If you know in your heart that you must write or you must draw, then you will make it happen. Successful artists are not successful because they were never rejected, they are successful because they never stopped trying.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Your work is beautiful, Kayla. Your creativity is amazing and the emotion jumps right out of each illustration. Thank you for sharing this, Kathy.


  2. Kayla, your artwork is absolutely aMAZing! I love hearing about how you learned about SVA on the subway 😀 So glad you did! Congrats on all of it 😀


  3. Wow very inspiring. My takeaway is ‘Successful artists are not successful because they were never rejected, they are successful because they never stopped trying.’ Thanks Kayla and Kathy 😀


  4. Kayla, your illustrations are so unique! I love that your characters are so individual rather than generic. Love your style!


  5. Gorgeous illustrations!


  6. Simply beautiful. Thanks for the post.


  7. absolutely wonderful. I really love her work and how much she shared about her process. Really inspiring! Thank you!!


  8. I love seeing and reading about your process, Kayla! This is a great interview/article! And I can’t wait to hold your timeless illustrations in my hands in A Boy Like You!


  9. Kayla, your work is extraordinary! I love your use of varying perspectives, changing light sources, shadows, ranges of colors, and the way you make your illustrating glow! Your characters are infused with personality and emotion. Truly beautiful and perceptive work!!!


  10. Wow, Kayla! You have a wide-ranging talent! I was struck by your ability to show emotions in the faces of both humans and animals, as well as your whimsical and beautiful depictions of nature.


  11. Kayla is a such a wonderful artist. I love her illustrations. Thank you for this interview.


  12. Thank you, Kayla, for this wonderful, informing interview. I can identify with everything you started out with drawing and painting, but then because of tight deadlines, you started working digitally. I worked on a Wacom tablet also, but I sure would like to work on a Cintiq. $$$ a bit of a problem. So, I keep doing my watercolor. Am experimenting with Art Graf – wonderful earth tone colors and their intensity is so vivid when used a certain way. Thanks again – nice to see all your work.


  13. Seeing this a year later in anticipation of your new book with Sophia Gholz The Boy Who Grew a Forest … what amazing art here! My favorite the girl and lion on the seesaw – brilliant! And the polar bear, the boat on the water, congratulations on wonderful work.


  14. […] Kayla’s books include Hannah’s Tall Order: An A to Z Sandwich and Mary Had a Little Lizard. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Learn more about her at Kayla was recently featured on Illustrator Saturday. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: