Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 9, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Milanka Reardon

Milanka Reardon is a children’s book illustrator and portrait artist who lives in Massachusetts. Her love of art began at the age of six, when she emigrated to the U.S. from the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Since no one in her school spoke her language, her teachers sketched images of the English words they were using to communicate with her. Instead of copying the words, Milanka spent most of her time trying to draw more interesting pictures. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, earning certificates in children’s book illustration and natural science illustration and she was a recipient the R. Michelson Galleries Emerging Artist Award. Milanka is the central New England illustrator coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Here is Milanka discussing her illustration process for the book cover on An Old Man and His Penguin:

My process for illustrating An Old Man and His Penguin: How Dindim Made Joao Pereira De Sousa an Honorary Penguin started with researching Ilha Grande, Brazil—and then doing lots of character sketches of Joao and Dindim, the penguin. I initially wanted to illustrate Joao and Dindim walking together on the cover. But I really wanted to emphasize the love between the two characters (and the honorary penguin part of the title), so instead I decided to bring the two characters closer to each other in a way that makes their shadows look like two penguins interacting.

These were my initial cover art sketches in pencil:

This is when I decided that I wanted the characters closer together, and I did some more quick sketches and some color studies, this time in Procreate:

The book editor, Alayne Kay Christian, decided that she liked the first cover and color sketch best since it emphasized the close bond between Joao and Dindim. So I took the rough sketch and traced it onto watercolor paper, leaving extra room at the bottom for the rocks and the shadows.

I masked out some of the stars so that they would be a bright white, and I painted the sky first. I let that dry and then painted the moon and the water. Then I painted Joao and Dindim, my main characters. I painted the rocks last. I usually paint from the background to the foreground.

After that, I painted the rocks. I don’t usually outline them first. I drop in color and then shadows and then add some outlines for their shape here and there. It’s not exact, so it always comes out a little different, but it’s an easy way to paint rocks. This is the full painting with the sky painted on the left as well for the back cover. I painted the art for that separately and scanned it and added it in with Photoshop.

Then I deepened some of the colors and painted the highlights and final touches on my main characters before adding the shadows, trying to make them look like two loving penguins. I was able to use my characters walking for the back cover art. That was painted separately and scanned, then added to the back cover with photoshop.

Interview with Milanka Reardon:

How long have you been illustrating?

I have been illustrating since 2012 when I graduated from the Children’s Book Illustration Certificate program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

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

Before attending RISD, I sold some portraits of people and pets on commission and at a small shop in Massachusetts. I sold my first painting in 2005 to a couple who asked me to paint a horse and carriage going through a covered bridge on a sign to hang outside their cabin in New Hampshire. That sign is still hanging on that cabin.

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

I studied Biology as an undergraduate at Providence College. Even though I’ve always loved art, it wasn’t until my children were very young that I took painting classes. This quickly led to many portrait and landscape workshops, which then led to studying art at the RISD, where I earned certificates in Natural Science Illustration and Children’s Book Illustration.

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

I really enjoyed all of my classes at RISD, both the natural science illustration and the children’s book illustration classes. I was finally doing what I loved! But drawing animals in the nature lab at RISD was probably the most interesting.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

My children’s book illustration teachers told me about SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I attended my first SCBWI conference in 2010 when I was still at RISD. I loved all of the wonderful workshops and opportunities for illustrators. I entered the illustration and portfolio showcases, which forced me to get a portfolio together and to work on my website, which then ultimately led to my first picture book illustration job, illustrating Noodles and Albie’s Birthday Surprise by Eric Bennett.

What type of work did you do when you started your career?

I painted portraits of people and pets and I did some book covers for ebooks.

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

When I decided to go back to school for art, I thought that Natural Science Illustration would be a great fit for me since my undergraduate degree is in biology, and while I loved drawing and painting plants and animals, I wanted to tell stories with them. I always loved the funny individual expressions of animals and saw them as characters. I wondered about their stories. So that naturally led me to the Children’s Book Illustration program at RISD. Once I started that program, I found that I had so many stories that I wanted to tell with pictures… and that was just the beginning.

I see you mention you attended Rhode Island School of Design and received certificates for Children’s Book Illustration and the Natural Science Illustration programs. How do these certificate programs work?

They are two-year programs which use RISD’s facilities, including their wonderful nature lab, and help students learn how to create portfolio-ready illustrations for professional presentation and possible publication.

Do you feel RISD helped you develop your style?

I feel that my style developed over time, lots of time. At RISD I was able to experiment and learn about lots of different media and try many styles. I used to worry about having a style, but with consistent drawing and time spent creating art, your style finds you. It’s what works for you and what you’re drawn to.

Was Noodles’ and Albie’s Birthday Surprise the first picture book you illustrated?

Yes, it was my first picture book illustration job.

How did you get that contract?

One of my critique group friends told me about the illustration job. I sent the author a link to my website, and the author hired me to illustrate it.

How did you get the job to illustrate Who Will? Will You?

I was contacted by the editor for Blue Whale Press, Alayne Kay Christian, who liked the illustrations on my website. She wanted to know if I would be interested in illustrating a story about a lost pup by Sarah Hoppe. Once I read the story, I loved it and I knew it would be so much fun to illustrate.

I just featured An Old Man and His Penguin on Writing and Illustrating, which you illustrated. Did you have a contract to illustrate this book, when you signed the contract to illustrate Who Will?

No, but it was shortly after completing Who Will? Will You? that I was asked to illustrate one of Alayne’s books. I was thrilled to do it! I read about Joao Pereira De Sousa and his penguin in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. I cut out the article because I thought it would make a great picture book story. Needless to say that when I saw that this was the book that Alayne wanted me to illustrate, I knew that it was meant to be.

Do You expect Blue Whale to create a book trailer for the new book like they did for your first book with them?

They have created a book trailer for An Old Man and His Penguin, and it is so cute!


Do you have an agent? If so, who and how long have you been with them? If not, would you like to find one?

I do not currently have an agent, but I would love to find one!

Do you feel that winning the R Michelson Galleries Emerging Artist Award at the NESCBWI 2016 conference for your illustration of “A Beary Special Friend” was the inspiration that started your journey?

It was definitely a wonderful part of my journey. It was so exciting and so humbling at the same time to have my artwork in a gallery with so many famous illustrators that I admire.

Do you still exhibit your art in New England Galleries?

I will be having my artwork for Who Will? Will You? and from An Old Man and His Penguin in the Story Book Art show at the Rye Arts Center in New York in the fall, hopefully. An art show in May that I was supposed to have my artwork in was just cancelled because of Covid-19. Hopefully the one in the fall will happen.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

I work part time as an illustrator, but it definitely turns to full time or more when a book is due. And I try to find time to draw or paint each day, even when I don’t have a project due.

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

Not yet, but I would love to.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, a small studio off of my kitchen. It’s nice to have a place for all my art supplies.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

I would love to make a wordless picture book, maybe start with my Beary Special Friends painting.

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

I have two picture book dummies that I have written and illustrated, and one is ready for submission now. It’s called Nina’s Wall, and it is a story loosely based on my immigration experience. It’s about a little girl, Nina, who arrives in America and is overcome with memories of her home city of Titograd, Yugoslavia. She remembers her grandmother and grandfather, and especially the wall that surrounds their garden and extends through the city. When she finds a similar looking wall in America, she thinks that if she walks alongside it long enough, it just might lead her home. The second one, The Trouble with Seymour, is about a curious baby swan that falls down a waterfall and gets separated from his family.

Would you work with a self-published author to illustrate their book?

My first book, Noodles and Albie’s Birthday Surprise, was with an author that self-published. It really depends on connecting with the story.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Reading my books to classrooms and seeing the fun reactions that children have to the stories feels like the biggest success to me. When a story connects even with one child, it’s an awesome feeling. That’s really what it’s all about, and that’s why I illustrate children’s books. And then, of course, seeing my own little granddaughter squeal with delight and laughter when finding out what kind of pup is at the end of Who Will? Will You? and recognizing herself in An Old Man and his Penguin. That’s the best!

What is your favorite medium to use?

Right now, I really love painting with watercolors. I love the looseness of the water and paint and watching it flow on paper, and then I like to have some areas more controlled with colored pencil or pastel pencil. I try to achieve a nice variety of textures. But most of all I am drawn to whatever works for creating that unique character or scene that best fits the story.

Has that changed over time?

A lot of the portraits that I have painted in the past were with oil paints.

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

I have an iPad-Pro and I love the Procreate app. I have been using it a lot lately. I just learned how to animate with it. I can take my paintings and scan them, then use them in the procreate app. to animate or to adjust and create more illustrations.

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

I painted mostly with oils when I started painting portraits. Then I found that I could achieve some fantastic results with colored pencils. I love to explore different mediums. Now I am happiest working with watercolors and pencils. I love the looseness of the water and paint and watching it flow on paper, and then I like to have some more controlled areas with colored pencil or pastel pencil. I try to achieve a nice variety of textures. But most of all I am drawn to whatever works for creating that unique character that best fits the story. I have also been able to add finishing touches digitally with Photoshop or Procreate.

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

Yes, I try to make time for my artwork every day, even if it is just sketching for a few minutes a day.

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

I love to research a project and do many sketches for ideas. When I started Who Will? Will You?, I had to figure out in my mind where this story would take place. The main character, Lottie, finds a pup on the beach and wanders to many different places throughout the story desperately trying to find a home for the lost pup. I had to research what areas might have an animal shelter near the beach, as well as bat caves and other types of animal rescue places. That led to some interesting architecture for my animal rescue shelter, but I didn’t want every scene to be about a building, so I had to find other facilities and types of people that would possibly take this pup. The best research was going to the beach and sketching and taking photos for reference. And then even better than that was finding all kinds of pups to draw. I remember pushing the stroller with my baby granddaughter and finding cute pups along the way.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

I spent a lot of time researching An Old Man and His Penguin on the internet. I suggested to Alayne that it would be fun to visit the location where DinDim lived with Joao on Provetá Beach in Ilha Grande, Brazil… but since that wasn’t a possibility, I did my research online and found that Dindim is a Magellanic penguin. That type of penguin has special markings: two black bands that run across their white bellies and white feathers around each eye, forming a strap around their neck. I had a lot of fun getting the details right as I sketched Magellanic penguins in motion: waddling, walking, swimming, and jumping.

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

I would love to have my picture book dummy, Nina’s Wall, published one day. I have been working on it since 2012, and I finally feel that it is in a good place after many rounds of editing.

What are you working on now?

I am revisiting another picture book dummy that I started a long time ago. It is my swan story, The Trouble with Seymour. I feel that I am in a better place to revise it yet again, especially after having illustrated my last two books.

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 love painting with watercolors, especially because of the looseness and textures that almost paint themselves at times. One thing that made it easier for me is just using good paper—I love using Stonehenge 300 lb cold press paper. Also, I also found out not too long ago that you can erase small mistakes in watercolor with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

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

Have fun sketching and creating art. Everyone has a different path towards publication. Enjoy the path as well. Join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; it’s a wonderful resource where you can meet agents, editors, and other people who love the same things that you do: making books for children.

Thank you Milanka for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure to let us know your future successes. We’d would love to see your future books and hear about all your successes.

You can see some of Milanka’s artwork at:


Instagram: milanka_reardon

Twitter: @MilankaReardon

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Inspiration! Thank you, Milanka, for sharing your amazing journey. Your illustrations speak volumes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much!


  2. Lovely , just lovely! Thanks for sharing your process with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Debra!


  3. Perfectly adorable. Thanks for a beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much!


  4. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Angie!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great interview. I love seeing your process. And you know I love your art! Thank you Kathy for all your fabulous posts!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alayne! You are too kind! 💕


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