Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 21, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Marty Kelley

Marty Kelley: Author, Illustrator, Recovering Second Grade Teacher.
I’m currently a children’s author and illustrator but have, in the past, been a second grade teacher, a baker, a cartoonist, a newspaper art director, a drummer in a heavy metal band, a balloon delivery guy, an animator, and lots of other things. I’ll probably continue writing and illustrating children’s books for many years to come because there are few other jobs where being able to paint a perfect booger-bubble is an actual job requirement.

My career as an artist started when I began drawing historically accurate pictures of spaceships dropping bombs on dinosaurs. When I started going to school, I found even more artistic fulfillment in creating advanced character studies of my teacher, Mean Mrs. Keane. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I had a regular comic strip published in our local town paper. After high school, I attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts to become an animator.

Shortly after art school, I had a career crisis and moved to Florida where I went back to school and got my degree in elementary education. I taught second grade for several years before making the difficult decision to pursue writing and illustrating full-time.
I’ve written and illustrated many published children’s books, including: Fall Is Not Easy; The Rules; Winter Woes; Summer Stinks; Spring Goes Squish; The Messiest Desk; Twelve Terrible Things; A Cape!; and Fame, Fortune, and the Bran Muffins of Doom.
In my spare time, I visit lots and lots of schools to show students how I create my books. I’m a juried member of the NH State Council for the Arts Visiting Artist Roster.


My process for creating art has changed quite a bit over the years. I have always used watercolor, because I love the way it looks and I enjoy the way it feels to work with it. For most of my early books, I worked in a very traditional manner. I drew my sketches, transferred them to watercolor paper, and painted them. The biggest downside to this technique is that I always felt like the artwork lost some of its liveliness when I transferred it.

Several years ago, I started using toned tan paper to draw on. I loved the way it acted as a middle value, allowing me to develop lights and darks on top of it. I knew I wanted to find a way to combine using tan paper and watercolor.

It took me almost a year and a half of experimenting with many, many methods before I finally found one that works for me. My new method involves drawing the illustration on tan paper and then doing a bit of magic using Photoshop. I can then paint directly on that drawing. The huge benefit for me is that I don’t lose any of the spontaneity of that original drawing.

I’m still working on perfecting this technique and there is still a lot of work to be done, but that’s why they call it an art practice, right?


Interview Questions with Marty Kelley

It sounds like you were drawing as a very little boy, even before you went to school. Where you family members artists and they sparked your interest or was the spark those dinosaurs?

My mother drew a bit when she was younger and I was always a bit in awe of what she did. Mostly, though, it was something that I did for myself because I enjoyed it so much.


What did Mean Mrs. Keane think of your character studies of her?

Mrs. Keane was an old-school teacher. She never saw the drawings I did of her and I”m thankful for that. I suspect they wouldn’t have been well-received.

Does Mrs. Keane know how successful you have been with your art?

Probably not, to be honest.

How did you end up getting a published comic strip in your local newspaper before you went to high school?

I had been playing with the idea of making a comic strip to be syndicated. I even tried sending it to a few syndicates. Eventually, I walked into the office of the local town paper with my plastic portfolio of comics and asked if they might be interested in publishing them. They did. It was my first job. I got $10/week!

What made you choose The School of the Museum of Fine Arts to study in Boston for animation?

At the time, they had an animation program that was very appealing to me. They had great equipment and a terrific staff.

When did you fit in Sheridan College in Canada?

I went there for a summer program after my second year of art school in Boston.

Did you grow up I the Boston area?

I grew up in (and still live in New Hampshire – about an hour north of Boston).

What made you want to move to Florida?

I actually had a few part time jobs I wasn’t thrilled with and my girlfriend (now my wife) was moving down there, so I thought I’d try something different.

When you went back to school at the University of Central Florida to get a degree in education, why didn’t you look for a job teaching art?

I really wanted to keep my art and teaching totally separate. I create art for myself, first and foremost. I did eventually start teaching adult art classes, but I enjoyed being a classroom teacher and letting someone else teach the kids about art.

Did you do any animation work before you started teaching second grade?

I had a very brief internship at a studio called Olive Jar Animation, just outside of Boston.

When you decided pursue your writing and illustrating career full time; is that when you moved to New Hampshire?

I graduated from college and moved back to NH. Then, in one whirlwind year, I got married, bought a house, got a job as a teacher, and had an offer on my first book.

Do you think the time you spent with your second classes, helped you with the school visits you do?

Absolutely! I use the skills I learned as a teacher at every single presentation. It has helped me more than I can tell you. I understand how to talk to large groups of kids and keep them engaged and entertained for 45 minutes, which can be a big challenge at times.

When did you decide you wanted to write and illustrate children’s picture books?

I tried a few times while I was working as a baker, but I really got serious about it when I started working in schools and seeing all the amazing books that are available.

Was FALL IS NOT EASY your first illustrated picture book?

It was! It was over 20 years ago.

How did that contract come your way?

I made a hand-sewn, hand-painted original watercolor version of the book and, against all advice to the contrary, sent it out to publishers. It was actually purchased by the second publisher I sent it to.

Was I’m an Alien and I Want to Go Home, the first book you did not write and illustrate?

No. I had illustrated a few other books that I hadn’t written before that one. The first was actually a parenting book called, “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons”.

Is that book a chapter book or would you say it was a middle grade book?

Probably a middle grade book.

What inspired the all the Molly Mack Series? Is she someone you know?

My son, who is now in college to be a teacher, had two friends in high school named Molly & Kayley. They were two funny kids. When I started working on that series, I used their names and tried to capture some of the exuberance in their personalities and their friendship.


The Molly books are not picture books, would you say they are chapter books?

They are early chapter books for younger readers.

What inspired your new picture book EXPERIMENT #256?

It actually started with a couplet: “I built a jet pack for my dog/From parts found in a catalog” I have no idea where that particular phrase came from, but it sounded like a fun idea so I ran with it.

How did you sell it to Sleeping Bear Press?

I had worked with them on some previous books that I illustrated. This is the first one that I wrote with them. When I complete a book, my agent, Abi Samoun at Red Fox Literary, takes over and does all the really hard work of sending it out to publishers and negotiating contracts.

Sleeping Bear Press sent me a copy of this book and I lOVE all the illustrations. They are so full of action and detail. How long did it take to illustrate this book?

Thank you! I spent about a year on the illustrations. That was a brand-new technique for me, so I was still learning as I went along. It was frustrating at times, but I’m really happy with the results.

How many books have you illustrated in one year?

The most is 5. Four Molly Mac books and one picture book that was written by someone else. That was a very challenging year and, quite honestly, something I’d rather not do again. I prefer to be able to work more slowly and think things through more.


Do you have an agent?

Abi Samoun at Red Fox Literary.

How many books have you illustrated?

About 33, I think. Some were self-published by authors, some were educational, but most were for traditional publishers.

What does a juried member of the NH State Council for the Arts Visiting Artist Roster do and how did that come about?

The NH State Council on the Arts provides grants to help public school incorporate arts into their curriculum. They have a fairly involved process to be juried onto their artist roster so I’m proud to have been accepted.

Do you have a studio in your house?

I do. I built my own studio in what used to be an attached garage. The commute to work is very pleasant!

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

Nope. I’ve done it a few times, but I really prefer to work with publishing companies now.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

I would love to. I’ve tried a few times to work something out and it may happen someday, but it’s a big challenge.

What do you think is your biggest success?

As far as books, Almost Everybody Farts is definitely the most successful one. It seems that people, despite what they say, actually like farts. In books, at least.

What is your favorite medium to use? Has that changed over time?

I adore pencil and watercolor. It really hasn’t changed. I’ve added a few different techniques, but I always go back to pencil and watercolor. I love the process of stretching the paper and the slow way the art develops and changes as you work on it.

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

No. I try to do some drawing and/or writing every day, but life happens. When I”m working on deadline for a book, I do get much more serious about regular studio time, but between books, I can relax and do it at my own pace, which is nice.

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

Yes. I use a LOT of reference pictures to help me with my art. Often I use images I find online, but just as often, I take my own staged photos.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

Very rarely. I admire people that can use it well, but I’m not one of them. My current technique has a small digital component, but it’s about 5% of the art that I create. I have been playing with Procreate, which is a lot of fun.

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

I have a Wacom tablet that I use when I use Photoshop and an Apple Pencil that I use for Procreate. I honestly prefer Procreate to Photoshop. It’s much more responsive and natural feeling to me.

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

I just want to keep writing and drawing. It’s a very satisfying job.

What are you working on now?

My next project is going to be a chapter book/graphic novel hybrid. I can’t say too much more than that at this point.

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 get most of my art supplies from Cheap Joe’s Art Supplies. They are GREAT to work with. I love Arches 140# watercolor paper and Strathmore 400 toned tan drawing paper. I’d suggest that people try as many types of materials as they can. Everyone has different needs and tastes.

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

There’s only one way. Write and draw as much as possible. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Keep going.


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

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I can feel the different emotions in the illustrations. Great interview!


  2. I absolutely love these characters! And it’s so interesting to read how you’ve developed your process. Thank you for sharing, Marty. Amazing work!


  3. This is such great stuff. I read and LOVED Experiment #256. So smart and funny. I particularly like the illustration of the lunchroom lady with fairy wings. Adorable. Thanks for an interesting interview and all that fun art!


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: