Posted by: Kathy Temean | December 14, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Heather Bell

Heather Bell whole-heartedly believes that hidden within our everyday lives is a secret realm glimpsed through books, music, and children’s laughter. Holding a BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute, she is a member of SCBWI, a participant in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, a Children’s Book Academy graduate, and a mommy. When not illustrating and writing, she searches out story ideas as an undercover school bus driver.


My first step is to sketch. I sketch a variety of thumbnails for each idea. I don’t have an example of these sketches as I’ve scoured 5 sketchbooks already and can’t find the one that has the precursor to this spread (sketchbooks are my weakness. If anyone has a way of organizing/keeping track of what is in each sketchbook, I’m all ears).

When I finally think I have something that works, I jump on Procreate or Photoshop (mood dependent) and use the image(s) to create a larger black and white rough sketch.

Working digitally at this stage is important because I can stretch, rotate, and move elements around the page to see what looks best. This is also a great time to play around with values.

The next step is feedback (from critique partners or, in this case, the art director). Sometimes it’s easy to become too close to your work, and listening to someone else’s opinion on what is working/not working for them is extremely helpful.

Once I’m fairly happy with the digital black and white, I draw the image on watercolor paper with my handy dandy mechanical pencil. I use some watercolors, but have found that inks have an intensity that I prefer (and I like the fact that once dry they do not lift).

These drawings are scanned in and I return to Photoshop to edit. I generally draw the characters separately from the background and other objects. This allows me to keep them all on isolated layers so that I have the freedom to adjust levels and place everything where it feels “right.”

After more feedback (and sometimes a couple rounds of adjusting and tweaking), I have my finished spread!

Interview With Heather Bell

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember. I turned my focus to children’s book illustration in 2016.

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

In 5th grade art class, one of my classmates was asked to pose surrounded by colorful fabrics for the rest of us to paint. Her mother loved the painting I did and asked to purchase it. This began a very long line of commissioned portraits.

What made you decide to get a BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute?

I had attended Magnet Art schools since elementary years and going on to receive a BFA in Painting was the next logical step. My teacher encouraged me to attend the Kansas City Art Institute because of it’s challenging Foundations program. I also received many scholarships which was a big part of the deciding factor.

What type of classes were your favorites?

I loved practically every class. Learning is what keeps me motivated. If I had to choose, it would be Philosophy and Foundations. Philosophy because I think it goes hand in hand with art and understanding our world. The Foundations program because our teacher gave us rules for projects and it was our job to figure out what rules she did NOT give in order to think outside the box. My high school teacher was right. It was a difficult program, and I LOVED the challenges.

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

No, but I was not in the Illustration program. Instead, my painting degree took me into teaching art to adults with developmental disabilities for a while.

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

Most of the work I did when starting out were commissions. Many were portraits (retirement gifts, wedding presents, etc.), some were fine art pieces, and there was even a mural at Wild About Harry’s (a store with a Harry Truman theme here in Missouri).

When did you decide to illustrate children’s books?

I think a part of me has always wanted to illustrate children’s books. After my son was born, that want turned to need.

How did Clearfork/Spork find you to illustrate Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader?

I participated in the Children’s Book Academy Craft and Business of Illustrating Picture Books course in 2018, which was led by Dr. Mira Reisberg (who is the editor/art director at Clearfork/Spork). Not long after, I was posting some ink illustrations for #folktaleweek and Mira commented on one about possibly working together. She told me the premise of a story she had acquired and asked if I would be interested in submitting some sample work and character sketches. And, of course, YES!

In your bio you say you are a Children’s Book Academy graduate. Did their classes help with your career?

I would never have been a part of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader without the CBA courses. It will be my illustrating debut in the publishing world and the class really gave me a solid foundation for understanding how I can continue on this path. I already have another picture book project in the mix and I have to thank Mira and the Children’s Book Academy for helping me to better understand the process. The course really jumpstarted my illustration career and I couldn’t be happier.

Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who? How long have you been with them and how did they find you? If not would you like representation?

I am not currently represented, but would love to find an agent as an author/illustrator.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

Most of my illustrations are somewhat representational, but stylized. I think a lot of that has to do with my Fine Art background. However, I am still exploring style and think the story should dictate what the art looks like.

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

Not yet. I’m a school bus driver by day and illustrator by night!

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

That is my dream. I don’t think the characters in my head will let me rest until I get them out into the world.

Are you active in your local SCBWI chapter?

I LOVE our KS/MO chapter! The conferences are always super motivating and we just had our first Children’s Book Illustrator gallery showcase. It was a blast to be a part of the show and then to meet some of the talented authors and illustrators that are from around here (stifled “sqeee!” at hearing Ann Ingalls read and to hear Elizabeth Baddeley’s story about illustrating I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark!).

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

Actually, the other picture book that I’m working on is with a self-publishing/small publisher author and so far, it’s been a blast! It’s really interesting to see both approaches to illustrating picture books and I feel well equipped to bring this other book to life because of what I learned through the Children’s Book Academy.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

My husband is also an artist (we met at the Kansas City Art Institute), and we’ve pushed around ideas of possibly collaborating on a wordless picture book. I think creating a story and world without words is a unique challenge in itself.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Not sure I can pick a particular piece. I think my biggest success, so far, is simply finding a supportive writing and illustrating community. I wouldn’t be anywhere without my critique partners. Shout out to my Awesome Ladies!

What is your favorite medium to use?

Before starting this illustration career, I would have said acrylics all the way. But I have found that in children’s books, I really enjoy the layering and breathability that watercolor inks offer. There is also a sort of magic that happens with inks, because mistakes DO happen. With acrylics, you simply paint over. With inks, you choose between letting it happen or starting over.

Has that changed over time?

Aside from a new love of inks, editing digitally has become a huge part of my process.

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

As a school bus driver, I have a split shift. I try to use my break to work on craft. The main problem I have is keeping focused. Writing is just as important to me as illustrating and finding time to fit both into the schedule is not always easy.

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

Ha! As in, yes. A gargantuan YES. My phone and computer are filled with photos, screenshots, and notes. My desk is always half covered in project related findings. 90% of the research I do will probably never even be utilized, but I think it’s the process of really digging in that means everything.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

I can order books to be shipped in to my library from another, I can find reference images for just about anything, and I can meet like minded people from all over the world. All of these things are possible because of the internet.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I’m a Photoshop fanatic. Once I scan in illustrations, I can spend hours on Photoshop just tweaking this and that (I’ve also been known to need a timer…it always surprises me how quickly time passes while I’m adjusting layers). Procreate is also super fun.

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

I was gifted (well, after tons of research and lots of hints at what the “right” gift would be) a Huion graphics display drawing tablet (where you can use a pen to draw on the monitor…somewhat of an affordable Wacom, but not touchscreen). I have never been happier. It makes editing drawings feel so intuitive. If you’re looking for a tablet, drop me a line. I mean it when I say “tons of research.”

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

As I mentioned earlier, I would love to write AND illustrate. I think the part of children’s books that has always drawn me in is the sense of viewing the world through another’s eyes. And there are characters in my head that want to get out and show the world how they see things.

What are you working on now?

I am currently finishing up edits on Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader, written by Jolene Gutiérrez. You can pre-order your copy at It will be out in early 2020!  I’m also working on another picture book that is still in its early stages.

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 really love our local Artist & Craftsman Supply in KC. Every time I walk in, it’s like a giant candy store…of art supplies. To this day, I’ve never been able to walk out without a big handful of new things.

Mechanical pencils are one of my favorite drawing utensils. I love the sharp lines they can achieve and I’ve found even the dollar store ones fit my need.

As far as papers go, I’m on my third round of Canson 140lb watercolor paper. It’s been my favorite so far—one side is more textured than the other, so the choice is yours! And the 12”x18” is the perfect size for my work.

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

Find yourself some amazing critique partners. When your close friends and family are tired of hearing about your writing or drawing endeavors, your CPs will be there for you. They are also there to give you truthful and constructive guidance. So, take the time to find others who will help you achieve your best possible work.

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



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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Oh Heather! This was a great interview and I love seeing Mac and Cheese coming to life! I also like so many of your other works of art! 😊


  2. I agree with Laura, I just adored this interview. Thanks Kathy for these lovely questions. Heather and I are OG CPs, we both started in 2016 and quickly became not just CPs but friends and theres still so many tidbits here that I didn’t know! I love these progressions of you amd Jolene’s gorgeous book and can’t wait to get that copy in my hands and you know ive always adored the bakery book too. I hope your find yoir agent soon and get that book done with you and hubby because I adore you and your funny hubby and I LOVE wordless PBs and I can just imagine your little man giving some cool idea that just pops off the page, too😍 always hoping dornthe best for you, my friend. I truly enjoyed reading this and also finding out where hjj met your hubby*swoon


  3. My first glimpse of Heather’s illustrations was through a course we both took from Mira Reisberg. I knew then she’d be illustrating picture books in no time. I really enjoyed the interview (and will be giving watercolor inks a try) and the art work is wonderful!


  4. What an amazing interview! Heather, I’ve seen some of your other art before, but there were pieces here that were new to me. You are SO gifted, Heather, and the variety of styles is impressive. I’m honored that you’re illustrating our book. ❤


  5. Wonderful interview, as usual. Nice work. I especially like the girl surrounded by fireflies.


  6. What a wide range of styles and medium! Love the different looks you’ve accomplished with the variety of techniques. I LOVE Mac and Cheese! Best wishes!


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