Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 23, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Lena Ralston

Lena grew up in Belarus where she graduated from the Glebov Art School in Minsk. She came to the United States in 1994 where she lives now with her family. Lena received her BFA in Illustration at the University at Buffalo, and completed her MA in Illustration at the Syracuse University. Lena’ passion is to tell stories with pictures. She likes to create a magical and poetic world in her illustrations that appeals to children and adults alike. Among her clients are: Scholastic UK Fisher-Price Inc. Adidas AG. TheatreWorks USA Carus Publishing Company New Moon Publication Eve Publication Lena’ work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles, and appeared in numerous Art Shows and National Juried Exhibition.


My work process always starts with conducting research, gathering references and sometime creating several color comps. When I work in digital media, I start sketching rough ideas on my Wacom tablet in Photoshop. I narrow these down to my 2-3 best compositions and send them to the client. After the client’s feedback and approval, I start tightening up my drawing and creating several layers. (example #1)

Initially I have just a few layers – the background, main characters and some main details on the foreground. As I progress, the number of layers grows as I add more and more details. I always start painting from the background. This allows me to set tone and helps me to determine the most effective color and tone for my main characters. Painting background is one of my favorite parts. I use Lasso tool to isolate a shape I want to paint, the sky for example, and have fun experimenting with brushes that help me to create soft texture of the clouds. (example #2)

After the background is done I start working on the characters. I often come back to the background later and make a few adjustments to ensure that the background, middle ground, foreground and all the characters work in unison and harmony. When my illustration is mostly done, and all details and shadows are completed, I create a top unifying layer where I add final highlights and tone to tie everything together. (example # 3)

The final step of my work process is cropping my illustration to its correct format to check if composition is still working well, or if anything needs slight repositioning. (example #4)


Interview with Lena Ralston 

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating since I was a child. I remember when I was about 11 or 12 years old I got inspired by The Last of the Mohicans by J. F. Cooper. I wrote my own story about Native Americans where I was a main character, of course, and illustrated it with my drawings. Storytelling was a sort of obsession of mine since a very young age. However, it is only later in life, in my early thirties, that I got enough courage to pursue illustration as a career. Back in my home country, I would never be able make a living as an illustrator.

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

It was in my early twenties. I was still studying Fine Art and Restoration in the Glebov Art School. The curriculum in that school was pretty intense and I had been creating tons of paintings – still-life, landscapes, portraits, etc. and experimenting with media, styles and technique. At that time, one of my older sisters was invited to Switzerland by her friend. She offered to take a few of my paintings there to see if she could sell them. I had so many paintings just lying around everywhere, so I said, “Sure, take anything you like”. She picked smaller paintings that were easier to transport. A few weeks after she left she called and said she sold them all and asked me what I wanted to do with the money. I asked her to buy paint and brushes, but there was enough money left for some fancy clothes for me too. It felt like Christmas when my sister came back with everything that she was able to purchase from the money she got for my work.

After you graduated from the Glebov Art School in Minsk, what made you leave to move to the US?

I really did not want to move at first. One of my older sisters won the US Green Card Lottery and moved to America with her family. It was she who introduced the idea of us moving to the US to my parents. That was during Perestroika and times were full of uncertainty for everyone who used to live in the former Soviet Union. Inflation was through the roof and it was hard to get food on the table. In addition, no one knew what was going to happen and who was going to have political power at the end. My dad wanted to move right away. He was afraid that Communists would eventually come back to power. He saw Perestroika as a short window of opportunity to leave our home country. My mom and I weren’t too excited about leaving Belarus. I just graduated from Glebov school and secured an excellent job as an art restorer in the National Museum of Belarus working with my best friends. Of course, even holding a full-time job, it was impossible for me to make a living and support my toddler daughter without help from my parents. My older sisters and my dad were pointing out that staying was selfish because it would deny my little daughter future opportunities that the US would have for her and freedoms that we did not yet have at that time at home. Eventually I gave in. We applied and got refugee status. It was incredibly hard for me to move away from the friends I loved. I came to the US knowing only a few words of English. My family of course was right. My daughter got opportunities I never had and only dreamed of when I was young. She is now traveling all over the world and makes a difference in educating kids and learning new cultures.

Did you plan to attend the University of Buffalo to get you BFA in Illustration, when you live in Minsk?

No, I had no idea what I will do in the US. I was hoping to find work as an art restorer, but once I realized there are more creative paths of career in art available to me, I went to UB and entered their Illustration program. Visual storytelling comes naturally like breathing to me, so I really fit well in that program. After graduation from UB, it was only natural that I got into an MA program in Illustration at the Syracuse University. At that time, it was run by Murray Tinkelman and offered fantastic learning opportunities. That program showed me the whole world of illustration in a new light.

Did you work in-between getting your BFA and then getting your MFA at Syracuse University?

Yes, after I graduated from the University of Buffalo, I joined one of the children’s book writers and illustrators’ local group. We used to meet once a month at Borders, or Barnes and Noble bookstores. At one of those meetings we had a visitor – Little People senior artist, Janice Castiglione from Fisher-Price. Inc. We all showed our work and gave supportive feedback to each other and shared new project ideas. Janice liked my work and invited me for an interview at Fisher-Price. I was super excited, but nervous at the same time because I really did not have any toy designs in my portfolio. The meeting went well, and I started receiving commissions to do sculpture drawings for toys. This is how my long-lasting relationship with this company was born. Janice and I became good friends. I even was lucky to have an opportunity to work at Fisher-Price full-time for half a year as a temporary artist. It allowed me to really get my hands on designing Little People characters, their outfits, labels and decorative details for game sets.

Did any of the schools you attended help you get illustration work?

Not really, but both schools equipped me with the knowledge of how to get illustration work, where to look for it, how to prepare my portfolio and find my niche.

What type of illustrating did you do first starting out?

I started with editorial and illustrations for children’s publications.

Where are you living now?

I live in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY.

Was the Flowering House your first illustrated book?

Yes, it was my first published book.

How did get that contract?

I have had my portfolio displayed on, one of the leading professional showcases for children’s illustrators since its conception in 2004. It is there that Paige Stirling Fox discovered my art and contacted me. It was an inspirational project and I was thrilled that her book was meant to help people realize their potential.

Is Holidays in Poem for the Heart of a Child your most recent illustrated book?

Actually, my most recently illustrated book is The Crystal Quest, a wonderful folktale written by M. J. Fineberg. Currently, it is in the final process of being printed and should be released this summer.

Was that a picture book?

The Crystal Quest is a chapter book. Poem for the Heart of a Child is a picture book.

How did you get that job?

Both jobs I got from people discovering my work on-line at I haven’t been advertising my art anywhere else simply because between doing art for Fisher-Price and teaching art left me very little time to conduct any other self-promotional campaigns.

Would you like to write and illustrate a book?

I think one day I will.

Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who and how long have you been with them? If not, would you be willing to consider representation?

No, I don’t. I might in the future. I’m pretty certain that a good art rep would bring me much more work than I’m getting on my own, especially considering that many publishing houses work exclusively with reps.

How many books have you illustrated?

I have illustrated three books so far that got published.

Do you do freelance illustrating full time?

No, I’m also a professional art instructor and a dog trainer.

Have you done any book covers for novels?

Not yet but would love to. I did a few magazine cover illustrations.

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

I love working with authors who self-publish. There are so many talented writers that are simply overlooked by large publishing houses. Self-publishing has opened opportunities for such people to get their work out there and let people enjoy it. I feel like my art brings their writing to life and helps them to get noticed. I’ve had wonderful experience working with authors.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

Nature has the most influence in my work. I love how nature is in constant motion, pulsating with life. I try to create this movement of life in my compositions. Artistically, my biggest influences came from Marc Chagall, Pieter Bruegel the Elder – one of the Northern Renaissance painters, and French Expressionists, also William Blake and more contemporary illustrators such as Brad Holland and Maurice Sendak.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

No, I have not had a chance to work with educational publishers.

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

Yes, in the past I illustrated for Ladybug magazine, the New Moon Girls Magazine, and Scholastic UK.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

I think it would be fun to unleash the full power of visual storytelling without words. However, my first love will always be for a written story and pictures that complement and enrich it. As a child, I got the most powerful impact from books like that.

What do you think is your biggest success?

I think of success as being fulfilled. My biggest fulfilment comes from teaching art and passing my experience to students. I see my highest purpose in helping someone become a better artist and also create art that inspires and brings more goodness to the world.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Watercolor and digital, but I also immensely enjoy combining several mediums and making them work in unison.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, in the beginning, I worked mostly with oils, then egg tempera. Later, I used watercolor and acrylics, and only in the past 10 years, digital has won my heart.

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

My style is quite detailed, and it usually takes me about a week to complete a one full page color illustration.

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

Absolutely! Research is the first step I take. I don’t sketch ideas until I know the subject I’m about to illustrate as thoroughly as possible. The next step is finding visual references, or shooting them myself, and creating mood boards.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, it made everything so accessible. Before the Internet I used to spend endless hours at libraries, collecting magazines like National Geographic and such, for reference pictures and inspirations. Now, research via Internet saves me time and gives me a much richer and broader result. The Internet has also helped me advertise my work in a much more global sense. Finding the right publishers and connecting with fellow artists became effortless.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I create my digital illustrations using primarily Photoshop. When I discovered Kyle T. Webster’s digital brushes a few years ago, they changed my world. Finally, I could paint in Photoshop and achieve the look and feel of my favorite traditional media – watercolor. I also have done a lot of work in Adobe Illustrator creating vector illustration and labels for Little People, Fisher-Price, Inc.

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

Yes, I work on Wacom Cintiq Pro and love it! It offers as close to a natural drawing experience as it gets. The only thing I had to adjust is removing its anti-glare plastic screen protector and replacing it with a clear one. The original anti-glare screen protector really affected my eye sight due to its fine texture that took away clarity and sharpness of picture.

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

Yes, I would like to have a solo exhibition one day and also illustrate a children’s book that earns the Caldecott Medal.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a couple CD cover illustrations for piano music for ballet and modern dancing.

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 watercolor paint is Schmincke Horadam Aquarell. In my experience, it offers one of the best flows, brilliancy and lightfastness of pigments. When I paint with digital watercolor brushes, I find Lasso tool to be the most useful tool to control washes and achieve clean edges.

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

I don’t know if what I have to say is any new wisdom. I think for an artist it is very important to realize his/her skill strengths and create work that highlights those strengths. It is also important to realize shortcomings and tirelessly work on overcoming them. Another important part of becoming a successful artist is not to be swept away by rejections. Rejections are just a part of the journey. Networking with fellow artists/writers is also one of the key elements of finding work and also building long lasting connections and friendships. One more important part I want to mention is the importance of getting your work out there on the Internet as much as possible, especially on platforms that are regularly looked at by art directors, such as Behance. Constantly create new art. Target publishers, art directors, or art reps you want to work with strategically. Listen to their feedback, even if it comes with a rejection note.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Beautifully compelling artwork! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!


  2. I enjoyed hearing about Lena’s life and her process, as well as seeing her beautiful work. I was touched by her comment that “art should bring more goodness to the world.” Lena is kind AND talented woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m touched by your comment. Thank you, Carol!


  3. Lena has created such magical and warm illustrations,that are bursting with color! It is wonderful that she decided to live in the United States, and now we are able to enjoy her beautiful artwork. Thank you for sharing your journey as an artist with us, Lena. Love your work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Elizabeth.


  4. Beautiful earthy illustrations. Thanks for sharing your work, Lena!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wendy! I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  5. Lena, thanks so much for sharing your work! Love the nature influences and the fairy tale type of illustrations. Lots of colors, too, which I adore! Best wishes!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful! Ability and hard work are evident in what you do. You are an artist in both your illustrations and in dog training.


  7. Magnificent work! Delightful to the senses!


  8. Lena, your work is so beautiful, colorful and imaginative! 😀


  9. Hello Lena,
    I love your work! I am a first time self publisher looking for an illustrator for my children’s book. I heard of you from a friend at LoveJoy, where I also attend. I am hoping to talk to you soon.


  10. Beautiful work! Love the colors and detail and hearing of your artistic journey! You are very skilled and I can’t wait to see the Caldecott Medal award-winning book you most surely will illustrate! I also appreciate how you talked about what goes into each creation, from the preliminary research, to the many layers of the design and always working to improve one’s skills where needed! A very inspiring interview I truly enjoyed reading and seeing your work displayed in! 💜🎨


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