Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 22, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Stephanie Laberis

Stephanie has loved drawing for as long as she can remember, and was raised on a healthy diet of cartoons, video games and getting muddy in the New England woods. She also loves crafting, particularly needle felting, and loves to bring her drawn characters to life with real, tangible materials. She attended RISD and has a BFA in Illustration, and currently enjoys working in many artistic fields; illustration, character design for animation and toy design. She works out of her home studio in the San Francisco Bay Area.

She also enjoys tending to her small army of pet rats (who are also her official muses), sampling the best coffees and chocolates of the Bay Area and obsessing over what her next side project will be. When she grows up, she wants to be a real artist. Or be a unicorn! Current clients include Random House Golden Books, Henry Holt/Macmillan, Holiday House and Simon & Schuster.


Figure 1: I usually start with a neutral, toned background (50% gray). I don’t worry about color at this point, only general shapes & values.

Figure 2: I use a large brush to block out big shapes. I keep it loose & don’t commit to any details, as this is what I consider a rough sketch.

Figure 3: I go back in with a more textured brush to add some details in the fur. I will also use a fine point brush to define important features like the face, & where the limbs overlap the body. I’m still not worried about small details at this point, only the silhouette & the gesture of the pose.

Figure 4: There’s a lot that happens in this step! I lock the transparency of the shape I’ve drawn (this is a feature in most digital paint programs) & paint in some different colors & values to create an interesting texture. The linework from the previous step is preserved on its own layer. I make adjustments to the value of the background color if needed & I add the major color landmarks, such as the white of the face, mask & paws.

Figure 5: I go in with a fine point brush to add strands of fur & finer details, like the whiskers. I also darkened the background a bit to make the racoon pop. And voila! We’ve got a racoon!


Below are some book covers that were not discussed during my interview with Stephanie.

Interview with Stephanie Laberis:

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating children’s books for 5 years, but I’ve been working as a professional artist for 16 years. In terms of drawing, I’ve been doing that since I was really small!

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

That’s a really good question. When I was in high school I did commissioned artwork of cartoon characters for my classmates, but professionally speaking, it would have been for my first job as a toy designer in 2004. Granted it was work-for-hire, but it marked the beginning of my professional art career.

Did you study art in college? Where did you study art?

I majored in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a focus on designing characters for animation.

What did you study? What types of classes did you enjoy the most?

My major was illustration, which focused on figurative art, traditional painting from observation & digital art. I enjoyed character design the most, it combined elements of all of my foundation art courses, but also required lots of critical thinking & visual problem solving to learn how to design a character effectively. I also had a fantastic teacher, Shanth Enjeti, who breathed so much life into that class.

Do you feel school helped you develop you style?

Absolutely! I took a variety of other art classes, which expanded how I saw the world & changed my art style for the better. Some of those classes were directly related to my field, such as character design, comic book narrative & color theory, but others were more unexpected, like paper making & glass work. I am very grateful that I was able to take classes unrelated to my major to help keep things fresh & peak my curiosity.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

My school was directly responsible for my first job. I snuck into the Industrial Design department, where Hasbro was interviewing graduating seniors for their internship program. I had some toy concepts I had done for class, as well as a few prototypes I had sculpted & presented them to the recruiters. I am also a die-hard My Little Pony fan, which is one of Hasbro’s biggest brands, so I made sure to ask about Ponies & gush about how much they meant to me. A month later, I found myself starting my internship at Hasbro, designing My Little Ponies! And when that job eventually concluded, I found my next gig at an animation studio via some of my former classmates that were working there. The friendships & connections I made at school are precious to me, & I still keep in touch with those friends 16 years later.

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

It was about 5 years ago; it was a little late in my career & it happened very organically for me. I had worked full time in the games industry for about 8 years & was growing tired of start-up culture, not to mention I wasn’t too keen on the types of games I worked on. I left the industry to try freelancing on my own, but the first year was slow & I had trouble finding long-term work. Originally I thought working on children’s books would be a good way to supplement my income. I hadn’t illustrated any books prior to this, but I had a portfolio of funny, lively animal illustration that I had created on my own time. Using this body of work, I contacted a bunch of kid lit agencies online to see if they saw potential in me. The Bright Agency offered to work with me & within a couple of months I had an offer for a Little Golden Book! I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had & I NEVER knew it would have blossomed into a full time career for me. I am so grateful for my wonderful team of agents & the publishers who have entrusted me with their books! Illustrating children’s books has been an unexpected expansion to my career & I look forward to where things are going!

Was PRETTY KITTY the first picture book you illustrated book?

Actually, no! My first books were song books for Cantata, followed by Prudence the Part Time Cow by Jodi Jensen-Schaffer!

How did you get that contract?

I am represented by The Bright Agency & they’ve been shaking the trees for me!

Was Unhappy Birthday, Grumpy Cat! the first book you illustrated for this series?

Nope! That was one of the later books. The first book was The Little Grumpy Cat Who Wouldn’t for Little Golden Books!

There are a lot of Grumpy Cat books. How many have you illustrated?

There Are! I believe I’ve done 4 Little Golden Books, Un-Happy Birthday, Love & Grumpiness, & Grump in the Night. So that’s a total of 7.

You had two books, JUST SO WILLOW published by Sterling and FROCKODILE from Hachette Children’s come out in October of 2019. How were you able to juggle the schedule deadlines. Did the publishers work with you to work around when they needed things sent in?

Oh goodness, I juggle a lot of deadlines at once. On top of illustrating children’s books, I also do work for animation, so at any given time I’m working on 3 – 5 projects simultaneously. I keep a digital calendar with color-coded project deadlines & I generally have a good grasp on how long tasks will take me, as my workflow is somewhat regular. If I do fall behind schedule, usually on account of health issues or unforeseen circumstances, I let the publishers know as soon as possible that I need more time. It’s so important to communicate to clients that you’re running late – odds are they will not be mad & have a buffer already built in to accommodate delays. The worst thing you can do is turn in late work without communicating!

The same thing happened this February with WHEN LETTERS MET NUMBERS from Holiday House and AFTER DARK: POEMS ABOUT NOCTURNAL ANIMALS put out by Wordsong. Which one contracted you first? Did one give you more time to work on the illustrations?

I believe Holiday House contacted me first. One thing to keep in mind is that just because books have a similar or the same publishing date doesn’t mean that they had the same timeline. There were many internal delays with When Numbers Met Letters & it took nearly 2 years for that book to be published, whereas After Dark stayed on schedule, so I wasn’t simultaneously working on those titles much at all. I generally try to arrange my schedule so that each project has little to no impact on the other projects’ schedules. When I get an offer for work, there is a window of time in which I can request to shift the due dates if needed. If I see an overlap in due dates between two projects, I ask to shift the dates of the newer project (this is usually before the contract is drawn up, so it’s very early on & this is when there is the most wiggle room to do so).


I just featured AFTER DARK: POEMS ABOUT NOCTURNAL ANIMALS by David L. Harrison. It is stunning. How much direction did the publisher give you with this book?

Thank you!!! I really connected to this book because many of the animals featured are regular (and welcome!) visitors to my backyard, but also because I volunteered at a wildlife hospital & got to know & experience many nocturnal species in a way that most people don’t. The publisher gave me SO MUCH freedom with this book, it was glorious! I settled into my art style & our exchanges went very well. There was some back and forth about certain animals’ anatomy or posing, but that’s to be expected, especially in a nonfiction book.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

I do.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines? Who?

I haven’t done much, I think I did a spot for Hilights many years ago? I generally prefer to do books over editorial or magazine illustrations.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, I converted the back bedroom to a guest room/work space. Since I work digitally, my computer & tablet are set up here, but I also have a table set up for painting traditionally, when I have the time. I also have a window that looks out into my backyard & I make sure to take work breaks with the squirrels, jays & towhees who visit me daily!

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

I haven’t yet, but I really want to! I’ve done wordless comics before & I love how challenging storytelling becomes when you must represent everything visually!

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

I definitely want to illustrate more picture books, preferably fiction involving animals doing weird things. Animals being weird is my happy place, haha! As for writing, it’s tricky. I don’t fancy myself a writer & I find I do better working off of other people’s ideas, at least using them as a creative scaffolding, to make something more than I could have on my own. I do have a story idea that’s unfortunately on the back burner for now, but my agent has been very supportive in me developing this idea.

How did you connect with Ann at The Bright Agency? And how long have you been with them?

I sent them an email with my portfolio a little over 5 years ago. Anne is both a wonderful agent & friend to me. She’s brought some amazing projects into my life, & also provided so much support during times of stress & loss. I’m very lucky to be working with her & Bright as a whole.

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

I would, but I cannot work directly with authors while I am represented by an agency. If said author went through my agents, it’s all well and good. A good story is a good story, whether self-published or professionally done.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Tough question, because I can be a bit hard on myself & it’s hard to see successes sometimes. I think it was working on the Grumpy Cat series. I set the style & tone for that brand, which other artists are using to illustrate the other books now. I also had a lot of fun working with Random House & just the artwork in general. I had a lot of creative freedom. Outside of publishing, I worked on a couple of animated feature films & I’m really proud of the work I did for those.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I mostly work digitally out of necessity – it’s fast, easy to change & fairly universal nowadays. However I do like painting with Acrylagouache (a glorious mix of acrylic paint & gouache) whenever I do gallery work or commissioned paintings.

Has that changed over time?

Not by much? There was a period of time where I loved doing needle felting & sculpture, but those have taken a back seat as my schedule got more busy. But I’ve always liked painting, digital or otherwise.

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

Yes! I use a Cintiq & I also use my iPad Pro for on-the-go doodling.

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

I work in Photoshop for all of my digital work. I may switch over to ProCreate on the iPad though, I don’t like Adobe’s subscription model & ProCreate is already a fairly robust little program.

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

I have a timer app where I log my hours daily. I try to spend a minimum of 5 hours a day drawing (this doesn’t include the email/admin stuff) but I never draw more than 8 hours a day if I can help it. I developed wrist problems last year & I am much more mindful of my limits now.


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

Always! I do extensive image searches online for reference, particularly for nonfiction books. My work is always stronger when I have used reference.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Of course. I advertise my work online, via my website & social media. So much of my employment post-2004 has come to me through clients who saw my artwork online, or were referred to me by people who saw my work online. My work has been introduced via the internet to the galleries that I work with, to the other artists I can now call longtime friends, & my children’s book career started with an email. It has been an invaluable tool for me.


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

I’d like to work on an animated short or feature that’s based on a book I’ve worked on! It would combine my two passions wonderfully.


What are you working on now?

I just finished up another nonfiction animal book, I’ve got a fictional animal alphabet book in the works, plus two more fictional animal story books on the way! I’m also doing a couple of personal pieces for an upcoming convention, preparing some other new works for a gallery show in May, all while packing my entire house for a move across the state. It’s… it’s busy, haha.

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 cannot sing enough praise for Acrylagouache. It’s a water-based paint that is also water proof, which means you get the nice matte look of gouache, but the waterproof quality of acrylics (without that icky plastic sheen). The pigments are rich, it can be applied thick or as thin as you like. I use it for my gallery pieces, usually on hot press water color paper. You can buy sets online – it’s amazing!


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

Be active. Whether this means posting your work frequently to social media, attending SCWBI meetings, conventions, whatever – let the world know who you are & what you are making. Listen to critique with an open mind; you need not take every bit of advice you hear, but outside perspective is invaluable. Be kind, but also respect your boundaries. This sounds simple & trite perhaps, but your relationships & friendships in the art world are so important, not just for networking but for the love, support & inspiration we all need to share as artists.

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

Bright Agency:



Twitter: @StephLaberis

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy, I’m so glad you featured Steph on your site. I’m enjoying our relationship and getting to know more about her background, her approach, and the wonderful results she produces. I think our partnership in AFTER DARK is a good one. Now we’re about to find out!


    • Thanks David!! It was a total pleasure working with you & your fabulous writing on this book. I could not be happier with the book’s debut & how well it is being received! I also feel like our partnership was a good one & so far many readers seem to agree!


  2. Thanks for sharing Stephanie’s wonderful work! I LOVE it!!


  3. Stephanie’s art is wonderful…I especially love her Grumpy Cat illustrations. 😀


  4. Wow, so many wonderful colors and characters! Love Grumpy Cat. The rat is also especially cute. Nice work!


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