Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 29, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Sheryl Murray

Sheryl grew up near Chicago in a rambunctious family of eight kids. Storytelling was an everyday thing in her house: whether it was being part of her sister’s backyard theatrical productions, making up bedtime stories for her four younger brothers or trying to convince her mom that she couldn’t possibly have been the one who drew on the baby with her best lipstick. She was also the family artist, drawing on everything and everyone (Sorry, Danny!). Sheryl says she always knew she wanted to write and illustrate children’s books when shegrew up.

Since earning her BFA in Illustration, she has drawn storyboards for ad agencies, produced handmade tile, helped restore lots of old houses, exhibited my ceramic sculptures across the U.S., traveled six continents, and became a mama to two very sweet, sometimes silly, always creative girls who just keep growing and growing themselves. All these experiences has influenced her style of drawing and filled her head with stories and characters that are just too good not to share.

Sheryl now lives in Portland, Oregon and she never tires of exploring it’s misty beaches, mossy forests and friendly mountains. And she’s always on the lookout for secret swimming holes. She loves rainy day tea parties, reading aloud to her daughters, and libraries – especially the children’s section, which has the best books and those cozy little chairs that are always exactly the right size, no matter how grown up she becomes.


Thumbnails: My visual process usually starts with thumbnails. I still find this easiest to do on large sheets of marker paper, keeping everything quick and loose. I try out a lot of ideas; developing ones that interest me with further sketches.

Color Palette: Once I’ve roughly figured out my idea, I continue to refine the image digitally and do some basic color comps to plan out my palette.

Transfer Pencil: I use Saral transfer paper between layers (or a lightbox behind) to trace the line drawing onto a textured paper and start building value with pencil.

Pencil Work: I often work at a reduced size to allow for more texture to come through in the final illustration – it makes for more dramatic linework.

Ready to Scan: The completed pencil drawing is now ready to scan. I move back and forth between Photoshop and Procreate during the digital process.

Final Image: I like the ease of coloring my images digitally. It feels a lot like how I used to do marker work and keeps things feeling gestural and intuitive for me. I’ve learned to keep each color on a separate layer to make changes less of a hassle. I added the snow by erasing the B&W layer digitally.

Many thanks to my studio assistant for the “help” styling my process shots. Here Tatum displays an array of pencils and erasers I favor. (Not shown: the indispensible Prismacolor Kneaded Rubber eraser)

Interview with Sheryl Murray


How long have you been illustrating?

I have been working on and off as an illustrator for almost 30 years.


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

In college, students in my illustration class were given the opportunity to illustrate early readers for the DR-TA Reading Series published by Trillium Press for classroom use. I illustrated THROUGH ROSE-COLORED GLASSES. I posed my roommate’s family for reference photos for the 20 black and white ink illustrations. I still have a copy of that little reader on my bookshelf.

What made you leave Chicago to live in Portland Oregon?

The easy answer would be that I moved for love. I fell head over heels for both my then boyfriend/later husband who was planning to move to Portland even before I met him, and the city itself when we visited the area. What’s not to love about a vibrant, creative city that’s a short drive to beaches, mountains, hikes in the wilderness, and wine country? It’s so wonderfully green here and very friendly. I adore Chicago too, and miss the hustle and bustle energy and people-watching sometimes but not the more extreme weather.

What school did you attend to get your BFA in Illustrating? 

I attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. My year was the first year the school had an Illustration major. Our professors were working artists in many different areas of the art world: from fine artists who exhibited in large galleries to a well-known comic book illustrator with mad inking skills.

What type of classes were your favorites?

Looking back, I think classes that took me out of my comfort zone and exposed me to new ways of thinking were the ones I now value the most. I had a fine art professor for a drawing class that made me think so hard that I’d be holding my head after class. My high school had a very limited art program so I was also exploring many art mediums for the first time. I loved watercolor and spent many happy hours layering abstract pools of color on giant paper. I learned to build and stretch my own canvases and created even larger works in oil paints.

Did art school help you get illustrating work when you graduated?

My college art classes definitely taught me a lot about composition, color theory, and techniques like inking and line work that I still use today. Unfortunately my portfolio was not focused towards children’s publishing, which was my dream job even back then.

What type of illustrating did you do first starting out?

There was a lot of free-lance advertising work to be had in Chicago, if you were determined and persistent. Every agency I showed my portfolio at right out of school asked if I did marker work. So I taught myself to do marker illustration and built a busy free-lance career creating storyboards for client presentation at numerous advertising agencies. It was kind of like Mad Men without the daytime drinking and fabulous dresses. I also was hired to do final illustration work developed from the initial marker comps I created.

How did you get involved in doing sculpture?

While I was free-lancing as a storyboard artist in Chicago, I took several clay classes for fun at Lill Street Studios, a little ceramic studio in my neighborhood. One class was an introduction to tile making, from doing mosaic to painting flat tile to carving bas-relief and learning to make plaster press molds. I was entranced the first time I carved into a slab of wet terra-cotta. I still have a deep affinity for clay.

I moved to Portland shortly after that class and began taking ceramic classes full-time at the Oregon School of Art and Craft. I learned to slab-build sculpture and spent a lot of time carving and working into the surfaces. My work was always very narrative and often figurative. A local gallery owner saw my work and asked me to be in a group show. I also won several awards at the annual Oregon Potters Association show around the same time. From there I began exhibiting my work nationally.

When did you decide to illustrate children’s books?

I’m not sure I ever didn’t want to illustrate children’s books! I grew up in a boisterous family of 8 kids. I was pegged early as the artist in the family. And I always had my nose stuck in a book. I was also a dreamer, always lost in some wonderful internal story. I read a lot to my younger brothers and we were always making up stories for them and putting on plays. At some point as a teenager, I just knew it’s how I wanted to contribute to the world. I would love my stories to spark the imagination and creativity in another child’s life.

Have you had an opportunity to illustrate a picture book?

I am thrilled to say I am just finishing up final art for HAND IN HAND, my first illustration project with Simon & Schuster. It is a sweet board book about a mom and toddler heading out together for a day’s adventure. It will be published in Spring 2020.

I see The Cat Agency represents you. How long have you been with them and how did they find you?

Yes, they do! How lucky am I?? My agent Christy Ewers is simply a gem and a fantastic partner in my career. I met Christy through SCBWI Oregon at a retreat for writers and illustrators last fall. I have been volunteering as the Illustration Coordinator’s assistant for our region for several years. I got to know Christy while assisting her at the retreat, which I was also attending. I also did a one-on-one portfolio review with her during the weekend where we started talking more seriously about working together. We stayed in touch after the retreat and Christy offered me opportunities that gave me a feel for how well we communicated and what it would be like to work together. She offered me representation and I signed just before Thanksgiving 2018.

I am so happy to be part of such a talented bunch of illustrators and writers – Christy and her mom, Christina Tugeau have really created something special – it’s like being part of (another!) big family!

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

I think the biggest influences on my style come from my background in storyboarding and carving clay tiles and sculpture. Drawing for storyboards taught me a lot about sequencing the narrative and changing up perspective to engage the audience and keep things interesting. Drawing for clay pieces and actually carving them influenced the way I use weighted line and composition to direct the eye across the piece. I also think time and life experience have shaped my illustration style for the better.

I have spent many, MANY hours pouring over picture books and reading to my two daughters, who are now teenagers. I’ve travelled a great deal; exploring art museums, and absorbing the architecture, textiles and culture of the many different countries I’ve been lucky enough to visit.

Being a member of SCBWI, attending conferences and retreats and participating in one-on-one critiques with art directors, agents, and editors has also definitely influenced my style and helped my identify what was working and what I needed to change up to best communicate the narrative and emotions of a story.

Do you work full time as a free-lance illustrator?

My studio time is split between free-lance illustration jobs and writing and developing my own stories and book dummies with the hope of soon being published as an author/illustrator.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate a book?

Absolutely (see above)! I have several book dummies that I am tweaking right now as well as a half dozen or so new story ideas in various stages of development. I also keep a notebook with scribbled bits and drawings that have potential.

Do you exhibit your art in galleries?

I was in a wonderful group show of Portland children’s book illustrators at a local gallery last summer; sharing both our process and final art. I am also part of another group of local artists and illustrators currently developing a show that will be happening during Portland Design Week next fall.

Have you ever illustrated a book cover?

I illustrated the cover for my book project with Simon & Schuster, Inc. mentioned above, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to work on a stand alone book cover. It’s definitely another type of illustration I’m interested in pursuing, along with interior black & white illustrations.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Sometimes I think my whole house is my studio! I do have an actual studio space that is half of one large room under the eaves shared with my bedroom. I often choose to write at the dining room table for a change of pace. And sometimes I even work at my daughter’s desk in her bedroom (when my space gets too hot or messy). I will be converting my too-small-for-a-car garage to an official studio space soon so stay tuned…

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

At this point, all my work for the children’s publishing industry is contracted through my fabulous agent Christy Ewers at the CAT agency.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

I haven’t had an opportunity yet but look forward to the possibility.

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

I haven’t illustrated for children’s magazines yet but would love to do so!

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

I’m definitely a visual storyteller first, so a wordless picture book is very enticing. My own writing tends to be sparse with a lot of weight placed on the images. I am currently developing on one that feels like it might work best without words. And I think there are many children with big imaginations that love getting lost in the illustrations and adding their own story. I love to include lots of little details in my work for the non-reader to discover.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Besides my two daughters, Zoe and Alice, who I think are incredibly amazing?!? I feel like I’m just getting started with children’s books. I would consider it a big success and be happy and content making good books that touch young minds for as long as I can hold a pencil.

What is your favorite medium to use?

In the past year, I’ve gone somewhat back to basics. I am really enjoying just using pencil on paper for most of my work. I can create a lot of movement and value that way. After the black and white work is done, I have been adding color to my illustrations digitally. I’m also experimenting with cut paper work – I think it could work well especially for middle grade covers (and it’s so fun to do!).

Has that changed over time?

I am always changing up my mediums. I believe that different stories and age groups call for different materials and textures. I have worked in a wide variety of mediums and like to experiment with different combinations when first developing a look for the story.

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

I very rarely go more than a day or two without working in some creative mode that hones my craft. I usually try to spend a little time experimenting with materials at the beginning of the work day. My agency encourages us to submit new art for postcard mailings centered around a theme or for holiday mailings, which is a great chance to show something fresh. I also enjoy going to art workshops and social drawing nights with friends. I definitely get a lot out of SCBWI events too – I’ve gained some major technique tips from listening to lecturing illustrators and talking to my peers. All of this has become part of what I consider my process and lends itself to developing my craft.

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

I do some research before I start and more after I have done initial thumbnails. I do a lot of google searches and sometimes hit the library or delve into my own collection of books. I have many reference selfies of myself and my kids on my phone in crazy positions when I just couldn’t figure out how to draw it without an image.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

The internet can be a great tool. I have definitely benefited from editors and art directors being able to view my work on my website. Social media is another great resource for getting work out there and to connect with other artists as well as see what is new and happening in the children’s book world.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I do use Photoshop, mainly for technical things like cropping, correcting flaws, and adjusting final colors. I used completely traditional materials up to a few years ago and finally taught myself how to do what I needed. I add to my PS knowledge base on a need to know basis through advice from artist friends and online tutorials.

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

I started using the Procreate app on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil about two years ago. It’s now a regular part of my process. I use it to develop my pencil roughs and to add final color to most of my current illustrations.

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

My dreams feel like they are starting to come true! I am over the moon to be working with Christy Ewers at the CAT Agency. I love collaborating with art directors, editors, and writers to bring stories to life with my illustrations. And it’s very satisfying to know that my pictures will add to the experiences and imagination of so many little developing minds. My biggest hope is to also write my own books as well as illustrate them.


What are you working on now?

I am just finishing up illustrations for my first book with Simon and Schuster. I’m excited to have some studio time to get back to work on my own stories and book dummies after a really spectacularly busy spring.

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 am a big fan of Blackwing pencils. I like how truly dark of a line I get with a lot of grainy texture. I still brainstorm, sketch, and create final line work for transfer on 100% rag marker paper like Bienfang Graphics 360 – a throwback to my years as a storyboard artist.  And I do my final pencil illustration on Strathmore 400 Series Bristol Vellum.

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

Join SCBWI and participate! Go to conferences, retreats, and other events. I learned so much from faculty presentations, from looking at other illustrators’ portfolios, and from participating in both group and individual critiques. Talk to other artists and form a critique group – I have received endless support and invaluable advice from my group and from other illustrators and writers I have become friends with over the years.

Be curious, listen carefully, and always keep on creating!

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

Twitter: @Sheryl_Murray

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Really fun to read about your background and process. I took a mosaic workshop at Lil Street about 5 years ago. Definitely harder than it looks, at least for me. My friend who continued going after our initial 2 sessions, has made some beautiful artwork there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your work is so full of life and warmth! The figures dance on the page. And your color palettes are just amazing. Thanks for sharing so much detail about your process and the materials you use. Looking forward to seeing “Hand in Hand” on the bookshelves!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing! Beaiutiful! Sweet! Captivating! Makes you want to jump into the middle of the story and perhaps imagine yourself as one of the characters. Can’t wait until the first book comes out…have preordered it on Amazon. One is never to old to love a board book.
    Congratulations Sheryl,
    Love to you
    Joanne Ader

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely! Nice helper you have there! 🙂 Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Real nice interview Sheryl!


  6. Just gorgeous, Sheryl! I, too, am a big pencil fan 😀 Thanks so much for sharing your process and beautiful work 🙂


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