Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 17, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Ela Smietanka

Ela Smietanka is a Polish illustrator. Her adventure with drawings started when she was a little girl. In order to make her dreams come true, she graduated from the Faculty of Graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where she now lives with her husband, two sons, a cat named Zuzia, and some other cats from the neighbourhood. She is a freelancer. In her work she combines pencils, paints and Photoshop, happily discovering again and again new digital techniques. When she is preparing draft illustrations, she listens to audiobooks, and with a good novel she may work until dawn. In her free time, she likes to cycle listening to energetic music. If she were to choose a job other than an illustrator, she would be a dancer.


Layout of publications is essential. On its base, I make a black and white sketch in Photoshop.

The second stage is coloring the drawing.

In the final, I make a correction of the illustration taking into account the comments from the publishing house.

Below are some book covers:


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve just realized it’s been a long time already, 25 years! I started during my last academic year.

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

I made my first money on designing some characters for an animated movie for children, commissioned by a small, Krakow-based, animated movie studio.

Have you always lived in Poland?

Yes. I only moved to Krakow from a smaller town where I grew up.

What made you decide to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow?

I drew ever since I can recall. I never had doubts or hesitations what I wanted to do. The Academy in Krakow was the closest location. I passed exams and started studying at the Faculty of Graphic Arts.

I was the happiest student ever.

What type of classes were your favorite?

Drawing and illustration courses.

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

For my graduation diploma I prepared illustrations for “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”. My work was awarded with a distinction, which enabled me to start a paid internship at a graphic company. It was a place where I learnt how to prepare my diploma to print and, at the same time, designed labels for beer bottles. After a year of such work I knew it wouldn’t be my choice for my professional life and I wanted to focus on illustrating books.

What type of illustrating did you do when you first were starting out?

It was a simple book for very small children, simple single illustrations.

When did you decide to illustrate children’s books?

One day I took my printed diploma and took a train to the capital city, Warsaw.

This is where the majority of large publishing houses were based. I spent a whole torrid day walking from one publisher to another. The situation was extremely stressful, but brought fruit in the form of cooperation with a magazine addressed to children and a contact from an educational publishing house. I liked making illustrations for children, but illustrations for grown-ups were a rare thing in the publishing market.

Was PIRATES STICKER BOOK with Sterling Children’s Books the first book you illustrated?

It was the first book I illustrated for a foreign publisher. It was Salariya, an English publishing house.

How did they find you to illustrate that book?

2014 saw a crisis in the market of educational publishing in Poland. Thank crises! This made me create my own website. Next, a friend of mine, an IT guy who had an e-mail address search engine, found contacts for me. I sent e-mails with a link to my website, although I was not sure whether the contacts were art directors or e.g. accountants in the publishing houses in Europe. But just on the next day I got an answer from David Salariya, and later from two German publishing houses.

How did the contract to illustrate your latest book, WINTER CATS come your way?

It was thanks to the cooperation with the Advocate-Arts. After a year of my cooperation with this agency I was offered to illustrate a book about cats. And I love drawing animals.

Can you tell us a little bit about Advocate-Arts. How long have they been representing you and how did that come about?

I’ve been cooperating with Advocate-Arts from 2017. A year before, me and some of my friends also involved in illustration had visited the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. It is a great event for illustrators – not only can you watch beautiful books for children but also talk with representatives of publishing houses and agencies. On the stands you can find information on meeting schedules. There were long lines of artists, I also showed my portfolio with printed illustrations. This is how I got contacts to some agencies, including Advocate-Arts.

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

Unfortunately I don’t feel capable for such a project, albeit I admire illustrators who did it.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

I watch loads of illustrations, some delight and inspire me.

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

Yes, in my case it’s a full-time job, which includes weekends. The deadlines for books rule my time, sometimes it is not easy when they overlap.

Does the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators (SCBWI) have a chapter in Poland? If so, do you belong? If not, are you involved with another illustrator group?

No, there is no such institution or an SCBWI branch in Poland.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, I have a studio in my house – and lots of audiobooks and podcasts. They help me better concentrate on my work.

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

At the moment I’d rather cooperate with publishing houses.

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

My work was based primarily on cooperation with publishing houses for a very long time. The ones I still cooperate with are Wsip, Nowa Era and Mak.

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

I worked for two such magazines in Poland, I made comics for them. Unfortunately they don’t exist anymore.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

It is a great idea, although work-consuming. I made some large boards of this type for educational publishers.

What do you think is your biggest success?

That I can do what I like best and get paid for it.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Now it’s Photoshop which I combine with lines and spots made on paper.

Has that changed over time?

At the beginning I used watercolor, tempera, combined with ink drawing. Then I made drawing with pencil, graphitized it in Photoshop, changed color and colored in the second layer. Now I don’t use contour which gives more pictorial effect to my illustrations.

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

Deadlines which I must keep make me spend a lot of time on my work. Some artists devote their sleep to meet a deadline, which I find admirable. It has never happened to me, I would be unable to work after a night without sleep.

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

Of course, it’s fundamental. This is the starting point for my work on a book. I don’t take pictures, but browse the Internet, use Pinterest. For example I’ve discovered American illustrations from the 1950s there. For me it’s awesome. Recently, during the work on “Little Women”, I discovered dolls from the Civil War period and I was amazed how beautiful they were. I like this stage of work very much, it’s enjoyable.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely. I still cannot believe that I make books for publishing houses in the UK, Germany, the USA, and Korea. A good thing is also the time difference – 6 hours between the USA and Poland gives me this feeling of having a lot of space before deadline. It’s worse with the publishing house from Korea – 8 hours backward makes me anxious as I think I’m late.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

Photoshop is the program I know best.

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

Currently I use the Ciniq graphic tablet. The shop assistant who sold me the tablet, said that after some time graphic designers tend to hug this device. I fully agree.

The work with my previous Wacom was very tiring, my brain got crazy. A direct painting on a tablet is priceless to me.

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

It is rather a wish that the joy I feel when I make illustrations does not become a routine.

What are you working on now?

A book on dinosaurs and a book on unicorns.

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’m sorry, I can’t give any advice. For drawings, spots and imprinted textures I use ordinary copying paper.

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

In addition to answering a question: “Do I really like spending time on illustrating?” children book fair are also a good experience. Direct talks with publishers, their reaction to your artwork, and their feedback are priceless.

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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I love the colors and wide variety of illustrations you have shared with us, Ela. Thank you for sharing!


  2. Hi Kathy. I enjoyed learning about the very talented Ela! Thank you for giving us a chance to become acquainted with her work. Please get in touch with me about a question I have. Thanks.


  3. Wonderful artwork, Ela! I especially love the little pig, the forest scenes, the two children and the night scene with the bat and the deep sea one. And Angie, I agree, the variety of illustrations and the colors are amazing. Thank you for finding and interviewing her, Kathy. Much appreciated!


  4. I loved learning more about Ela and feasting on her many colorful illustration samples. I am so grateful that Albert Whitman selected her to illustrate Winter Cats, my picture book releasing next month.
    And great interview! I especially love Ela’s insightful answer to a question Kathy posed:

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

    It is rather a wish that the joy I feel when I make illustrations does not become a routine.

    The joy that Ela feels while creating certainly comes through in her illustrations. Here’s to continued joy, for all of us!


  5. Ela, your work is so playful and distinctive. I just LOVE it! 😀 ❤ And be glad you don't sacrifice your sleep for your work. I've always sacrificed my sleep and sleeping properly (and early enough!) is critical to good health! I never knew how much till recently.


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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: