Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 11, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Cheryl Pilgrim

Cheryl Pilgrim is a  writer, illustrator, and public school art teacher living in the Houston area with her husband. She has two grown children and a menagerie of rescue cats and dogs.

Her debut author/illustrator picture book, Big and Little A story of Opposites was released Spring, 2019 (Holiday House). Cheryl also illustrated a middle grade chapter book, THE LITTLEST VOYAGEUR (Spring, 2020, Holiday House).

As a kid she always loved drawing, painting, reading, and writing, so it’s no surprise that she still spends most of her days creating stories and using her art to bring them to life.

​She works in a variety of media including pencils, watercolors, oils, acrylics, and digital collage and is represented by Essie White with Storm Literary Agency.


When I first started planning the book cover for The Littlest Voyageur, I drew lots of small thumbnail drawings. It helps to start with small compositions when planning a drawing so you can see quickly what works without spending a lot of time during the initial stage. And since book covers are often shown as thumbnails on handheld devices and on shopping sites, the image and title should read as a small image as well as on a full book cover.

One of the struggles with this cover was how to highlight the main character, the squirrel, who also happens to be the smallest. In addition, it was important to include the canoe and the men paddling. After drawing many versions and trying various angles, I narrowed it down to a handful of
ideas. Then I drew larger sketches with more details and values.

These were the five sketches I sent to Holiday House.

So which one did Holiday House pick? None of them! Well, actually, it was a combination of two of them. They wanted #5 with the squirrel facing the viewer like in #3. Which makes so much sense, I am not sure why I didn’t think of it. Thankfully, there are editors, art directors, and designers weighing in on the decision.

After they approved the final sketch, I started painting. I traced the final sketch onto a piece of smooth multimedia board. I plan colors out on a separate board before starting. While planning I knew I wanted the red squirrel to contrast against the light blue sky, so even though the squirrel is small, he would read as the most important character on the cover.

Even though I usually paint a scene more than once, in this instance I was happy with the first painting and did not end up redoing it. Holiday House later decided the image should wrap around the entire book jacket so I painted additional scenery being careful to leave space for text and then combined them together in Photoshop.

Interview with Cheryl Pilgrim:

How long have you been illustrating and when did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

While I’ve always loved to draw and paint, I didn’t consider illustrating as a career until I was older. Growing up I never saw illustrating as a real career choice mainly because I never knew anyone who made a living making art. I grew up in a family of teachers, so while I took lots of studio art classes in college, education was my major. In my mid 30’s, while teaching elementary school, we had an author/illustrator visit from Loreen Leedy. After hearing her speak, I knew that is what I wanted to be when I “grew up.“ It wasn’t until was my mid 40’s that I became serious about illustrating so I’ve been working at this for about 10 years.

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

When I was in high school, my grandmother paid me to paint a picture of her house. It was an old two story southern colonial with the large columns. That painting hung in her house for years. After she died it was then passed down to a cousin who has it hanging in his house. I cringe now when I see that awful painting.

Where did you study art?

I studied a little bit throughout my life. When I was young, my parents signed me up for art classes with a local artist who taught painting out of her home. We did a lot of copying and then eventually created our own compositions. When I went to college I took art classes. but found they were focused mainly on modern art and free expression. I was so hungry for realistic drawing and painting classes, I lost interest in pursuing art in college. I eventually found other avenues of education such as live portrait/figure drawing groups and classes with artists such as Susan Hotard and Cheng Lian where I learned most of my basic drawing and painting skills. I have also taken online classes with E.B. Lewis, The Illustration Dept. , and SVS Learn

What types of classes did you enjoy the most?

If it is an art class, I enjoy it, so it is hard to name a favorite. I especially enjoy classes where I can get one-on-one critiques of my artwork.

Do you feel school helped you develop you style?

I did not learn as much in my art classes in school as I did in my independent learning with local artists and online classes. My “style” has developed over time but not intentionally. I think a style develops organically and changes the more you draw and paint.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

It helped me find a teaching job and I still teach art to this day. Teaching pays the bills so I can create my art!

Did you leave college and go directly into teaching art?

I started out as a classroom teacher then later found a job as an art teacher.

Was Hound Dawg first book illustrated book?


How did you get that contract?

Patricia Vermillion, the author, contacted me about illustrating her picture book, Hound Dawg (TCU Press). I loved her story and her characters. At that time I worked mainly in collage. Everyone of those pages was completed with cut papers. It was so much work, but so satisfying as well. It also showed me that I could complete a picture book.

Was Big and Little: A Story of Opposites the first book that you wrote and illustrated?

Yes, I worked on that book for over two years before it was picked up by Holiday House. Then they
asked me to revise it again.

Did your agent ask you to revise before selling the book?

No, but my editor at Holiday House did.

Did you sign a two book deal with Holiday House with they offered you the contract for BIG AND LITTLE?

No, just one.

Have you been able to line up school visits with your teaching schedule?

I definitely want to do school visits in the future, but it is difficult to do right now with my schedule. I have been able to do some bookstore and preschool visits.

How did Holiday House come up with the idea of getting you to illustrate a middle grade chapter book, THE LITTLEST VOYGEUR? Do you think your black and whites on Instagram were the spark?

When my editor left Holiday House, they handed me over to editor, Margaret Ferguson. She happened to be looking for an illustrator for The Littlest Voyageur. I am not sure exactly why she picked me, but I did happen to have illustrations with boats and an old farmer along with some of my black and white images on my Instagram and website so maybe she knew I could do black and white images of adult men paddling a boat? Maybe it was just being at the right place at the right time? Either way, I am so thrilled she hired me for that project.

How long did they give you to illustrate the book?

It took me about 6 months to complete. Along the way, there were changes and additions. At one point, it was decided they needed individual portraits of all eight men (voyageurs) for the book. Even though the portraits are only about one inch tall in the book, I drew the originals as 8 x 10 drawings. I am sure most people would not realize how much work went into those “tiny” portraits.

How many B&W’s did you have to do for the book?

This book is heavily illustrated so there are twenty-three drawings along with the eight portraits.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

Yes, I have a picture book dummy that is wordless, but I was never satisfied with the ending so it lives in my file cabinet along with all my other unfinished stories.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate more picture books?

Yes! I have another picture book dummy completed that my agent, Essie White, is currently submitting, and I have a new one in the works I hope to finish soon. And maybe someday I will go back and revisit all those unfinished stories in my file cabinet.

How long have you been represented by Storm Literary Agency?

I’ve been with Essie at Storm Literary Agent about four years. She found me through Twitter when I posted some art and she commented on it. I did a little research and saw she was a new agent but already had sold several picture books. I reached out and asked it if was possible to submit my picture book dummies. One of those was Big and Little. There were a lot of questions back and forth and she gave me some of her clients to contact as references. I contacted two of them and they gave glowing reports. I signed with her and shortly after she sold my debut picture book to Holiday

Is working with a self-published author to illustrate their book something you would consider?

If it is the right project at the right price, yes. The main thing is I have to be excited about the story.

What do you think is your biggest success?

My biggest success is starting an illustration career late in life and sticking with it despite a huge learning curve along with the failures and
struggles I faced (and still do!).

What is your favorite medium to use?

I like pencil for black and white work and acrylics and oils for my color work.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, at one time I did primarily collage.

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

I use a Wacom tablet with my Mac. I still like to work traditionally but use Photoshop for adjusting and editing.

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?

Some of my favorite materials include: Bristol board for final drawings, Strathmore Heavy Mixed Media Board (vellum finish) for my paintings, Liqiuitix acrylics, Rembrandt and Schmincke Norma oil paints, and Blackwing pencils.

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

Both of my kids are grown so I no longer have Mom duty. I always keep a sketchbook with me so I can work on projects while stuck in line or in a waiting room. I am also a night owl so I like to stay up late and draw and paint. I’m probably a little obsessive about it.

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

I do gather lots of references for any illustration I am working on. With Big and Little, I had my two dogs, the inspiration for the story, for references. I also collected pictures from magazines and the internet for character poses. Since The Littlest Voyageur is historical fiction, it required quite a bit of research. I found pictures and read books and articles about the subject matter and time period. Everything needed to be accurate: the clothing, setting, and character design. My husband was the model for many of the poses in the illustrations. Steven Veit, a park ranger at The Grand Portage National Museum in Minnesota, was also a huge resource for me. He answered many questions, sent me pictures, and checked some of my artwork for historical accuracy. At one point I had the boat coming in from the wrong direction toward Grand Portage. Those small details really matter for

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

The Internet has definitely opened doors for me by providing illustration and writing classes and critiques, helping me find my agent, and providing a space to display my art for the entire world to see, 24/7.

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

I want to write a MG novel some day.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a picture book dummy about a little girl and her fear of swimming. It is somewhat autobiographical. I am also working on a preliminary sketch for a dog portrait oil painting I’ve been commissioned to do.

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 tip for illustrators is to be open to revisiting or starting over with a piece of art as many times as it takes to get it right. As I improve, I hope it will get easier, but at this point, most of my final drawings and paintings have been redrawn or repainted at least once, and some, multiple times.

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

In a few words: Patience, persistence, tenacity, and a willingness to learn.

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



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

Talk tomorrow,




  1. Thank you Kathy for sharing this. Your blog is an amazing resource!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love seeing this fabulous array of art and hearing about the process! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I enjoyed this interview and learning about Cheryl’s journey. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What wonderful work! Full of emotion and overflowing with charm. A great lesson in the right way to do it. Many thanks Cheryl

    ps my website is

    Liked by 2 people

    • I checked out your website. Nice! I especially love the images for Butterflies for Rosie!


  5. You are so talented, Cheryl! This is a tough, competitive business. Keep up the wonderful work and hang in there!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Love all the colors n characters!


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