Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 16, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Eileen Ryan Ewen

Eileen is a freelance artist with a background in Fine Art and Creative Writing. While spending years painting portraits and other oil commissions, Eileen kept thinking about what made her fall in love with art and words in the first place–children’s books. After the birth of her youngest child, she decided to delve headfirst into the art of children’s books, and hasn’t looked back since.

Using traditional mediums such as watercolor, ink, and gouache, Eileen enjoys nothing more than the challenge of making characters and worlds come to life on paper. She has had the recent privilege to work on books that range from whimsical fiction, educational fiction, and historical non-fiction. And somewhere in between, she’s always working on the stories that are floating around in her own head. To date, Eileen has worked on multiple books for Sleeping Bear Press, as well as other commissioned work. Eileen lives and works in Cleveland Heights, OH, with her husband, four young children, and two very old cats.


Final Pencil Sketch (I submitted 5 cover ideas.  This was, ironically, my first idea, and they liked it the best.  Some cover concept art can take quite a long time to time for agreement between art directors, editors, marketing experts, etc…This was by far the fastest a cover design was approved for me.)

I cover the sketch with tracing paper and copy, which is going to allow me to transfer the drawing onto my good paper.  It’s a very old-school process, but works for me/ I also hand-lettered the title, but not the author or illustrator names.  You don’t see the letters in the finals, because I did them on a separate piece of paper, and they laid that in digitally later.

Image has been transferred to 300lb cold pressed water color paper.

I lay a light wash on the piece.  Any parts I want to remain white for now, I cover with masking fluid.

Blocking in more background color. I ink the parts of the cover that I want to stand out.  The rest remains pencil.

Close up view

Adding rain clouds

More background color

Masking fluid pulled off of Jonas, first wash of color being added to Jonas

Adding Color Saturation to Jonas

Building more color

Most of the body of the work is finished

Up close

Background closeup

Background Closeup

Raindrops are added.

Finished Product.  Umbrella is different in finished cover.  The team of art directors, editors and marketers decided that the umbrella in the original art looked too much like bat wings.  I didn’t redo the entire piece—simply did another rendering of the umbrella on a separate piece of paper, which Page Street then digitally put into the original piece.

Some interior art

Another double page spread.

One More double page spread.


HEADS UP WRITERS:  Eileen talks about getting her MFA in writing.

How long have you been illustating.

I’ve been illustrating children’s books professional for six years, since 2015. Prior to that, I created and tweaked illustrations for my portfolio, and worked on book dummies. I was also a freelance artist who would do portraits and other commissions right after college .

I was in the Fourth Grade the first time I was paid money for my artwork. My elementary school had a Literary Annual. Each year every student submitted writing, usually as part of class assignments. At the end of the year a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Place winner was awarded a certificate and a $100, $50, or $20 prize, respectfully. On a rainy day, I wrote and illustrated a story, and submitted it to the Annual on my own. At the end of the year I was thrilled to be awarded Second Place. I couldn’t believe I’d won for doing something I’d enjoyed so much! Technically, I guess I’d won for both writing and illustrating, but that award is what sealed the deal for me as far as what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was the first time that I realized real people, adults, not only write and illustrate the books we read and love, but get paid to do so. It’s their job. I was very lucky to have that Literary Annual at my school. I won that prize, and then a cover art contest a few years later. For a child to be acknowledged by others, especially adults, for creative writing and art, to be told those things matter, can change a child’s course in life. It certainly did mine.

What made you choose to get a BFA in Painting from Miami University (OH)?

Both of my parents encouraged my siblings and myself to be creative. But my father, who was artistic himself, really poured himself into drawing with us, and for us. My parents were also academics—both were college professors, in English and History. They were the first generation in their respective families to not only go to college, but become professors themselves. So while the arts and creativity were always embraced and encouraged, the practical side of a traditional liberal arts education was extremely important to them. I had a yen to go to art school, but they weren’t so keen on that idea. So we compromised and settled on a liberal arts school with a good Art Department. I truly loved my time at Miami University!

The Art Department was, in fact, excellent. And I’ll be damned if my parents were on to something, too. Because Miami is a liberal arts school, I had the opportunity to pursue other interests in addition to Fine Art. I loved History like my father, so I minored in it. I love to read and write like my mother, so I took as many literature and creative writing courses I could fit into my schedule. I met my husband at Miami, who was a Finance major, and wonderful friends who were both fellow creatives in the Art Department, but also in pre-med and chemistry and education programs.
If I had one disappointment, it would be that at the time, Miami did not offer an Illustration Major, which is why I chose Fine Art/Oil Painting as my major. I adored, and still adore, painting. But I knew I wanted to illustrate books, and that wasn’t really an option for me to explore in depth. I think there was one, maybe two illustration classes offered my entire time there, and I was very disappointed by that (keep in mind, Miami is where C. F. Payne graduated). Other than that, Miami was a fabulous place to study Art. It pushed me, and gave me the foundations and work ethic to be ready for a career in the Arts, as well as a wonderful, diverse education and friendships.

Was studying painting in college, inspire you to do portraits?

Oil Portraits. Goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve painted a portrait! As touched on above, I was a Painting Major, not an Illustration Major. My first children’s illustration portfolio pieces were completed in oil paint. I had never been taught how to use watercolor—I’d teach myself that later. And while the longing deep inside of me was to illustrate stories, I also truly loved oil painting. Most of my paintings had a narrative context to them, which is what I preferred to paint. Many did, in fact, accompany stories I’d written. But I could paint realistically, and had always been good at the human form and faces. And the fact is, when you graduate from Art School, you’re desperate to prove that you can find creative work. Most people didn’t want my narrative paintings for their homes, though. They did want portraits of their families, or kids, or pets, or all of the above.

I’ll be honest and say portraits weren’t my favorite thing to paint, but I am grateful for the experience, for the trust people put in me, and for the opportunity to create something that I hope will be treasured by others for years to come. It also helped me prove that I could find use for my Painting Major that did not entail painting the outside of people’s homes (if I had a dollar every time someone told me that joke about using my degree for house painting…).

What drove you to get a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis ?

As I was entering undergrad, I actually wasn’t sure if I wanted to major in Fine Art, or Creative Writing. At Miami, you have to go through a separate portfolio submission and interview process in addition to the regular Admission process. Not everybody who applied was accepted. It’s simply not possible to have a lecture hall full of 50 or 100 art students while painting on an easel, or molding with clay. As I went through the admission process, it became clear that with all the speciality that comes with Fine Art, the tools and space needed, the instruction, the time, it made more sense to focus my four years at Miami on Fine Art. I knew I might never have that opportunity again. Writing, while no less difficult to do and an art form in and of itself, is easier to do in almost any environment. It’d be easier for me to get into writing classes in my undergrad years as a non-Writing major, then to get into any art classes if I wasn’t majoring in the Art Field. So I chose Fine Art, and took as many writing classes as I could during my time at Miami, and told myself that someday I’d go back for my Masters in Creative Writing. I finally did go back.

I was married and we’d just moved to St. Louis from Chicago, and I was about to have my first child. In some ways, it was the worst time to start a Masters program. In others, it was the exact right time. I was having a little alarm bell go off in the back of my head, or maybe my heart; an alarm that was saying if I didn’t do it Now, I might never do it. So I jumped. The University of Missouri-St. Louis was very close to our home, affordable, and had a well respected Creative Writing MFA Program. Almost all of the classes were in the evening, as well, which was key for me, since I had one, and then several, children. I finished my MFA while having three children in three years. My third child was about a year old when I completed the program. It wasn’t the prettiest or most graceful graduate school performance, but I completed it and put all that I had to give at that time into my work. To this day those years are a bit of a blur. But in retrospect, I’m glad that I did pursue my MFA in Creative Writing when I did. Because as I look at my very full life right now, I suspect if I hadn’t pursued my degree then, I’d still be waiting for the next time to jump.

Did U of M help you make connections with publishers when you graduated?

The University of Missouri-St. Louis MFA in Creative Writing was a fantastic program to learn the art of writing. And many of my fellow students in the program have gone on to have their work published in literary journals and books. I, however, am still waiting. Perhaps it’s because my time in the program correlated so closely to the time my family was growing and shifting at a hyper speed (a fourth child was born about a year and a half after I graduated, and three more home moves were in the wings). Perhaps it’s because I learned that while my visual art skills were quite well honed, my writing skills were still raw and in need of more attention—a hard but necessary thing to learn and accept without giving up. And perhaps it’s due, in part, to the fact that The University of Missouri-St. Louis MFA Program did not teach, or consider, children’s literature as a feasible thesis for its candidates.

I knew that last bit. I also knew that I wanted to improve my writing, and while I had a very strong inkling that I was interested in writing for kids, I wasn’t totally sure what age range I wanted to focus on. I’m also a firm believer that if you understand literature and writing and can write well, with work and reflection and more work, a good story will emerge, whether it’s in the form of a 32-page picture book or a 1,000 page novel.

I’m not a published writer at this time. However, the thesis I worked on for my MFA, a novel intended for an adult audience, I’ve since come to realize is actually a heavily illustrated middle grade novel waiting to find its way out of my head and heart. So while I did not emerge from UMSL with literary contacts like some of my classmates, but I did emerge with a much stronger sense of where I need to go as a writer.

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

Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to illustrate children’s books. Always. When I graduated from reading picture books (though I’ve never truly graduated—I still love reading them), I wanted to illustrate the middle grade novels I was devouring. It killed me that they had few, if any, illustrations. As a young adult and into adulthood, I’ve so often had to put down a good book so I can close my eyes and envision the scene I’d just read. But picture books were my first love. The place where the illustrator, if different from the author, has the amazing privilege of helping tell the story. So the desire to illustrate has been with me from the beginning. I’ve always drawn my own stories, as well. As I mentioned in Question 2, however, it was upon winning an award in Fourth Grade that I realized I could actually make a living out of illustration.

I see you are represented by Nicole Tugeau at Tugeau2. How did the two of you connect?

Nicole is wonderful, and it’s sort of a funny story, how we met! I grew up in Cleveland. Nicole grew up in Cleveland. I moved back to Cleveland with my family in 2016. A grade school friend told me about a children’s book agent he knew in our hometown of Cleveland Heights, and how he’d love to introduce us. Not a week after moving to my new home in my old city, another person mentioned knowing this agent, and then a third person mentioned her. Interestingly, all three of these people were also telling Nicole about how they knew this children’s book illustrator she should meet.
Of course I looked up Tugeau2 (T2), and very much resonated with the artists, as well as T2’s mission statement. I liked the diversity of styles, and the variety of publications. One of our three mutual friends set up an introduction, and Nicole graciously agreed to meet over coffee. We talked and walked, my then three-year-old in the stroller, and discussed kids’ books, art, Home and Family, everything. We met several more times over a year, and then I signed with T2. I can’t speak enough about how supportive, available, hard-working, and kind Nicole has been as an agent and a friend. Plus, I don’t know too many writers or illustrators who live quite literally a few blocks away from their agent, and have her daughter babysit your kids. It’s pretty great!

Was Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs your first published illustrated picture book?

Yes, Mr. McGinty’s Monarch’s, by Linda Vander Heyden, was my first published illustrated book.

Did Nicole get that contract for you at Sleeping Bear Press?

No, I actually didn’t have an agent when I signed the contract for McGinty. In fact, I didn’t have an agent until after my third book was published.
I’d just sent out my second batch of promotional postcards back in 2016. My first set ever had been sent roughly two months earlier. A few days after the second batch went out, I received an email from Jennifer Bacheller at Sleeping Bear Press, asking if I’d be interested in illustrating a book. I think I stared in disbelief at that email for at least twenty minutes before responding.

A few months later, Miss Colfax’s Light by Aimee Bissonette was published by Sleeping Bear Press. Did you sign a two book deal with Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs contract?

I did not sign a two book contract. Mr. McGinty’s contract came in January, I believe, and Miss Colfax came in early spring. I did not expect to receive another contract at all, let alone a few months after the first one and before I completed the first book. I was both terrified, and elated.

Did you have any idea that you would win the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA), Children’s Honorable Mention, Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs, 2016? How did that feel?

Oh, not at all! First of all, hats off to all the amazing authors I’ve worked with, and in particular Linda Vander Heyden for Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs!
When I’m illustrating a book, I’m so focused on trying to capture the characters, and do them justice for the story, the author, and the readers. I’m focusing on page turns and trying to envision their environment, the knick-knacks they might have in order to give extra layers to their personality, all while keeping with the rhythm and feel of the book. I enjoy the stories and know they are very well written, but any awards that come to them upon publication, I am always just so delighted and grateful to have been of the book’s journey.

You must have been flying high when you followed that up by winning the International Literacy Association (ILA) Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Awards, Primary Nonfiction: Miss Colfax’s Light, in 2017. What that a surprise?

I was ecstatic to win the ILA! And again, Miss Colfax author Aimee Bissonette must be mentioned for the amazing job she did writing about Harriet’s life. And yes, the award was a complete surprise. Sleeping Bear always lets us know what awards our books are being considered for, so I did know we were in the running, and then a finalist. I feel like I should say, “Of course I knew we’d win!” It’s not that I ever doubted the book or the writing, or even the illustration. It’s because when I’m working on a book, it’s an all-consuming process. It’s a little like labor and birth. It’s not always pretty, by a long shot. It’s so much work, so much research (especially for a nonfiction Historical biography), so much joy and frustration and exhaustion. Behind all those soft watercolors in the book, are heaps of scrapped paper, destroyed drawings, research notes, reference books, doodles, etc…Combine that with the fact that I’m being entrusted to illustrate another person’s manuscript. I wanted to do Harriet justice, and Aimee. So when the final art went out into the world, I just hold my breath and hope what I created can be good enough. Beyond that, I really can’t give much thought. If awards happen to come our way, it’s pure joy.

Was it hard to do two books so close together?

If I could say “Yes” a thousand times, I would. It was very hard to complete books so close together. I had a Kindergartener and 2nd Grader, a baby/toddler and a pre-schooler at home. We were living in St. Louis where we didn’t have family, and an illustrator’s pay does not cover child care. I was very lucky that my youngest child was an excellent napper (my only child to fit this bill). So when the pre-schooler was in school 3 mornings a week, the baby would sleep most of the time, and I’d chain myself to the drawing table and work as long as I could (2-3 hours). The rest of the work happened at night. Late at night, and all night, sometimes. It was grueling, but seeing those books afterwards was totally worth it!

Did you work with the same editor and art director at Sleeping Bear Press with Symphony of Cowbells by Heather Preusser, published the following year of 2017?

Yes, I worked with Jennifer Bachellor (Art Director) for McGinty, Colfax, Cowbells, and Gwen Frostic.

Was Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt, also published by Sleeping Bear Press, in 2018 a two-book contract?

No, I’ve never had a 2-book contract.

Was Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt, also published by Sleeping Bear Press, in 2018 a two book contract?I probably have had an open tab on my computer with the cover of Nature’s Friend for over a year, so I was not surprise when I read it was a Michigan Notable Book, Winner in 2018. Was this book eligible because the author Lindsey McDivitt is from Michigan? Is this an award where the prize is the purchase of so many books?

I honestly am not certain if Lindsey’s personal connection with Michigan had anything to do with the prize, or the number of books sold.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

I do work full-time as an illustrator. When I’m not working on books by other authors, I try to focus on writing and creating dummies for my own stories, which I hope to have published some day. I also create art to sell as individual prints, as well as some seasonal, handmade items around the Holidays. And….I’m currently working on two portraits again. Not oil paint, but watercolor. I haven’t touched oils since my oldest child was born (although I’m getting an itch to return to them). But most of my time, by far, is spent on art for children’s books.

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

I have never created art for children’s magazines. I loved Cricket as a child, so it’s a dream
of mine to someday create art for Cricket!

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes, I am very lucky to have a studio in my house! It was part of my house criteria when we were home-shopping almost four years ago. My studio is in our attic, and is one of my absolute favorite places to be.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

I’ve never tried to illustrate a wordless picture book, but would definitely be game!

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

Oh, absolutely, if you can’t tell from some of my previous answers. I have several manuscripts in various stages of completion for possible submissions.

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

After a very negative experience before I was traditionally published, I will not work with a self-published author. I know those relationships can be wonderful and produce positive, fruitful results. In fact, I did work with one gentleman who wanted to see his story come to life when I was still living in Chicago. It went very well, he was great to work with, and the pay was fair. I don’t believe he had more than a handful printed, or promoted it much, but it was a good learning experience for me. However, my second experience was quite negative. I did a lot of work for absolutely nothing. I will not do that again. I figure if I’m not working with a traditional publisher, then it’s time for me to put my efforts into my own ideas, not someone else’s who might take advantage of me, or take my art for granted.

What do you think is your biggest success?

This is very hard to answer! Every time I finish a book, I feel like I successfully climbed a mountain and crossed a major finish line. And each book has delights and challenges. Well, I’ll just say the last two books had their own unique ups and downs that made completing them feel triumphant. Jonas Hanway’s Scurrilous! Scandalous! Shockingly Sensational! Umbrella by Josh Crute and published by Page Street Kids was fun, silly, and interesting to work on, which isn’t something one often says about a nonfiction biography. However, it required so much research (which I don’t mind—remember, History minor—but it’s time consuming!), and was so very detailed in nature (aerial views of crowded 17th century London, and so much rain…) it was an extraordinarily time consuming book to work on. Likewise the book I just completed, H is for Honeybee by Robbyn Smith van Frankenhuyzen, published by Sleeping Bear Press, also demanded great attention to detail about a subject I don’t know a lot about, and where I needed to be absolutely accurate about bee anatomy. It was also the first book I worked on where there was no main character to develop, and no plot. On one page I’m depicting ancient Egypt, in the next I’m drawing honeycomb and drone bees, and in the next I’m depicting a classroom of kids learning about bees. That was a challenge! So seeing both of those books in completed form—holding Jonas in my hands (it was just released yesterday), and seeing Honeybee in layout format, is an enormous feeling of success!

What is your favorite medium to use?

My go-to mediums for illustration is pen and ink, watercolor, with some gauche highlights. My favorite part of that process is the pen and ink portion.

Has that changed over time?

Interesting you ask….I’m sort of getting sick of the above. I’d like to explore a few other mediums, though I’m not sure how far I’ll stray. And obviously the above mediums are different from what I was trained in, oil paints. After my son was born, I finished several oil commissions and never touched them again. I realized they were too toxic and time consuming with kids in the picture. So in between nap times and the like, I taught myself watercolor. It was faster than oils, I could safely leave it out, and it did lend itself better to my book illustrations.

Do you own and use a graphic tablet?

I’m 100% traditional. Sketch pad, pencil, putty eraser. I do not own an electronic Drawing Tablet.

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

Pen and ink describes itself. I use a combination of watercolors and Dr. Ph Martin’s Hydrus inks, and Golden Fluid Acrylics.

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

If I could, I’d spend all day making art. Now that all of my kids are in school from 8-2:30 (well, were in school), I use that time to work on my art. I don’t go grocery shopping while my kids are at school. I don’t clean the house. I work. Once they’re out of school, we’re off to about a hundred different activities, and I often still work at night once they’re in bed. I’d say on average I work close to 40-hours a week, more during a deadline.

With Covid-19 and my four kids at home, and the fact that my younger two need someone to sit with them to help them through most of their distance learning, I have almost no time to work during the day. My last book was completed as if I had infants again—late and all-nighters. We do what we have to do.

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

I do sometimes take pictures. I don’t often take pictures of people posingn. I love anatomy, and all those life drawing classes paid off in college. And once Stay at Home orders are lifted, I’d like to return to life drawing classes. My books have all required , some little, some a lot. The internet is a great tool, of course, but I also go to libraries and check out books that have to do with whatever I’m working on. I was lucky enough to actually visit the Michigan City Lighthouse that Miss Colfax operated, and talk with local historians there.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

For illustrators and writers, I think the Internet has proven to be a great resource. It’s connected me with other artists, it helps me feel less like I’m in a bubble or void when I’m working alone for long hours with no feedback, and I’ve made virtual friends and relationships
within the industry.

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

My goal is to both write and illustrate a book!

What are you working on now?

I just just just finished H is for Honeybee, so right now I’m trying to finally clean my house and focus on my family’s needs during this Pandemic. I’m finishing up the portraits I’m working on as well. However, I admit that I’m always thinking about when I can focus on my own stories again.

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’m lucky to have a Blick Art Supplies in my town, so I always buy my art products there. I use 300 lb cold pressed watercolor paper for all of my illustrations, and my other tools are pretty standard.

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

I’m not sure I have any profound words of wisdom for aspiring Illustrators. Most have already heard what I have to say, but the advice I have to offer has proven to be the most beneficial to me, on my journey. Don’t give up. Stay focused. If life demands you can’t focus on your craft at that time (and it can be years when life demands this), keep your passions and dreams close for when the time is right. And “right” doesn’t mean perfect, or easy, or nothing else to do. It simply means you can’t wait any longer—you have to start creating even if it means early in the morning before your other job or the house wakes up and sucks you into its vortex. Maybe it’s late at night after everyone’s asleep. Maybe it’s on your lunch break or in the pick-up line or after classes. Creativity can claw at you if it’s not let out. However, on the flip side, sometimes you have to harness that clawing, gnawing feeling and channel it into those imperfect times when you can actually focus on it. You had an overwhelming desire to create while at the office and couldn’t do it then? As you were changing diapers and chiseling slime off the wall? Harness that inspiration and desire, and return to it during those quiet, off times, even if it seems to have vanished for the moment. I promise it’s still there. As Edison said, “Success is ten percent inspiration, and ninety percent perspiration.” It took me years to land my first book deal. It took teaching myself new methods, listening to criticism and advice, utilizing some of that advice and discarding the rest, as well as determination combined with focus and perseverance. Illustrating children’s books is a Dream Job. It really is. But by no means is it easy or something most people can simply chose to do one day on a whim.
So stay strong. Stay focused. Allow yourself time, if you need it, but don’t allow yourself to give up.

Thank you Eileen for sharing your talent and expertise with us. I really appreciate all your thorough answers. Make sure to let us know about your future books and books. I would love to share them with everyone.

To see more of Eileen’s work, you can visit her at:


T2 Agency:



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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow! Love your work. Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs is one of my favorite books!


  2. WOWOWOWOW! I loved reading about your process, Eileen, and seeing all your gorgeous illustrations!


  3. Your illlustrtions are wonderful! They are full of details, which is what my 4 children loved. Every time I read a book (again and again) they found more details to explore. I love them, too.


  4. LOVE your illustrations! The characters are just so, perfect for the stories. Great colors, details, and wonder in each illustration. Just made me want to gather all of these books and sit around reading them! Congrats!


  5. Thank you for this inspiring and beautiful interview. Your illustrations are amazing. I own a number of these books and want to get the rest. I hope to see some books both written and illustrated by you before too long.


  6. The time you spent answering these questions in your busy life is much appreciated, Eileen – and your work’s mesmerising. Thank you so much for all that you’ve shared! And Kathy! I’m mainly a calligrapher and illuminator, and only an occasional illustrator, but have no desire to use an electronic device, either (though I do love the work that many people create with one).


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