Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 13, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Emily Neilson

I am a children’s book author/illustrator and a stop motion fabricator based in Portland, OR.

As a kid I always wanted to write and illustrate books, and I think if I had known that animated films were made by actual humans, I’d have wanted to work on those too! So when a variety of stars aligned, bringing me into the world of stop motion, I was ridiculously happy. I’d skip into work every day and chip away at a miniature mountain, or tree, or prop and then skip home and make things for myself.

It was in my free time that my book “Can I Give You a Squish?” started to take shape. Then by some miracle, Christy Tugeau Ewers at the wonderful Cat Agency decided to represent it, and Dial Books decided to publish it. And now I can’t wait for it to come out this summer!

This past year, I’ve been working as a set dresser and model maker on a Netflix stop motion feature called Wendell and Wild, directed by Henry Selick.

Emily Sharing Her Illustration Process for Can I Give You a Squish?:

The first sketches for a story are really quick and loose. Through the process of editing and refining, I’ll wind up scrapping a lot of what I put in early on, so I don’t want to get too attached to any images or details.

Once the story is figured out, then I do some research and compile inspiration and reference images. It can be fun to plan the colors over the course of the the story, sort of like an animation ‘color script’, so I wind up making lots of different boards for different moods or moments.

Next I start working on the real sketches. This is when things like composition, background elements, poses, expression, etc. start to really matter. I usually do a fair amount of this in a sketchbook and put things together in Photoshop.

Finally, it’s time to paint, which is a very slow process for me. All my kids book stuff so far has been painted in Photoshop using Kyle’s water color brush set.

Eventually, after lots of squinting and frowning and turning my head sideways, I get to a place where I can call an illustration finished.

Interview with Emily Neilson

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve always been making pictures and writing words and trying to put them together, but I don’t think I would have called myself an ‘illustrator’ until about three years ago, right about when I started working on my first book “Can I Give You a Squish?”.

What and when was the first piece of art you created for money?

In middle school I drew a T-shirt design for a PE teacher conference in exchange for an art store gift card.

What inspired you to attend RISD and what did you study?

Art was always a really important outlet for me, but as a teenager my dream was to go to Brown University and study creative writing. It wasn’t until I got rejected from Brown that I started thinking more seriously about art school. Getting the acceptance from RISD was such a wonderful thing! I wound up majoring in Film/Animation/Video. And the funny thing is that since Brown and RISD have a partnership, I was able to take so many of my liberal arts courses at Brown that I completed their creative writing track anyway.

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

I only took a couple illustration courses, neither of which had anything to do with drawing or children’s books, so after graduation when I revisited my childhood dream of making kids books, I had a lot of learning left to do. But the amazing thing about my experience at RISD was that instead of learning a specific craft, it somehow gave me the tools I need to keep discovering and reaching toward my goals.

Do you feel school helped you develop your style?

Definitely not! While at school, I was learning how to plan a walk cycle, set up lighting, and correctly expose film, but my drawing ability just sort of stagnated. So when I started drawing my own story, I watched a ton of videos and tried to figure out what I liked and how to make it. At one point I became obsessed with ‘style.’ I was used to working in animation, where we try really hard to nail down the style of the show so that everyone can make things that work well together. But at some point I realized that in illustration, style is just sort of the thing that happens naturally. I’m still learning so much about how to build an image, and what illustration I like, but I’m starting to not worry so much about ‘style’ and instead put my art worries where they count: how best to tell the story.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

I was lucky enough to get an internship at Laika straight out of school. My senior film was in stop motion and I had a few other puppet and sculpture projects to add to my portfolio. I’ve been working in stop motion ever since. I definitely couldn’t have found work in animation so quickly without the friends, connections, and lessons that RISD provided. That said, I know so many people who have taken all kinds of different routes into the animation, film, and book worlds. When it comes down to it, it’s all about your portfolio and what you can make!

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

As an intern I landed in this odd little department at Laika called ‘Look Development’ where our job was to take concept art and interpret it in 3-d to help the production designer hone in on the look of the sets. You’d never believe the sort of things we could make out of hot glue and cardboard!

How did you start doing sculptures?

I always made little things when I was a kid. For a long time, I was obsessed with miniatures and building little environments. That obsession came in handy when I started doing stop motion in college, but at times it would get in the way—I’d spend too much time fabricating the characters and environments then have to rush through the actual filming. Making films is such an amazing lesson in project management.

Do you sell any of your sculptures?

Sort of, because making sculptures is pretty much my day job. Lately, I’ve been dressing sets and making props on a Netflix film called Wendell and Wild, which has been wonderful. We are currently working from home, churning out props as best we can. And sometimes I make sculptures for myself, which I don’t usually sell. They are mostly miniatures to help me visualize worlds for writing, and sometimes human scale props and costumes, because I love dressing up for Halloween!

I found a picture of the beginning of a mask you were working on. It looks like it is clay. Is that how you start and what was the rest of the process?

I think that mask was the one I made for one of my more frightening Halloween costumes—a Goodwill Barbie. I got the idea just a few days before Halloween, so the process was pretty speedy. I mashed some tinfoil together, sculpted air dry clay over top, and then did a process called vacuforming: where you use a combination of heat and suction to melt plastic over your desired shape. Just a quick paint job, a cheap wig, an old prom dress, plus an oversized goodwill sticker, and I was the scariest belle at the ball! One of the amazing things about working in stop motion is that I’m constantly surrounded by a wide array of artists who are trained in such a broad range of skills that it really demystifies the way things are made. It makes you feel like you could learn to make anything.

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

“Children’s book author and illustrator” was always my go-to answer when people asked what I wanted to be as a kid, but about three years ago was when I first started to work toward it seriously.

How did you connect with The CatAgency? And how long have you been with them?

I didn’t have a complete illustration portfolio when I reached out to Christy. All I had was the dummy and a couple finished illustrations for “Can I Give You a Squish.” It was such a stroke of luck that Christy even opened the email, and an even bigger stroke of luck that she related to the story and decided to try and sell it.

Is CAN I GIVE YOU A SQUISH? your first illustrated picture book?

It is!

How long did the publisher give you to illustrate that book?

There were several months of editing back and forth, but once the sketches were finalized I think it wound up being about six months for final illustrations. But I was working full time, and was painfully slow at painting, so that time flew by frighteningly fast! I even took a leap and left Laika toward the end so that I could have some extra time off to finish.

Did the Cat Agency get you that contract?

Yes! It was incredible. I had been sending out emails to agents and publishers for months without any interest, but when Christy decided to represent the book she turned around and sold it in about a month! She is so amazing.

Have you done any illustrations for other books?

Not yet!

How did you get to work on MISSING LINK?

That was the film they put me on when I first started at Laika.

What type of things did you do for that movie?

In the Look Development department, I made all sorts of stuff. Trees, rocks, buildings, mountain ranges, mud, snow, ice, elephant skin. And then I also spent some time in what we call the ‘Model Shop’, which is where we make the miniature props for the movie. I sculpted miniature taxidermy, folded tiny envelopes, and even made a stylized Statue of Liberty.

I noticed a picture of you in a black suit with sensors. Was that a motion suit?

It was! Laika uses digital crowd extensions in their films, for shots when it would be too difficult to build all the characters as puppets and animate them. And sometimes the crowds are large enough that they use motion capture technology for background performances as well as reference for the cg animators. They often get actors to play the characters, but one time they let me prance around and pretend to be an extra in the movie while the equipment recorded all my movements!

What does a motion suit do and when would you use one?

Motion control suits are these outfits that have a bunch of funny looking dots on them called markers. And when you wear those suits in a room with a ton of specially set up cameras, you can use a computer to track and translate all that camera data and all those dots into points of motion through space. Which means, you can make a little cartoon character do everything you do.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines? If so, who?

I illustrated a story in the April edition of Spider Magazine this year. So fun!

Do you have a studio in your house?

I do. I’m very lucky to have a whole room to contain all my many creative messes, but when I was first writing the book, my partner and I lived together in a studio apartment. I had two separate desks, both overflowing with paper and paints and books and supplies, all crammed into one shared bedroom. My wonderful partner was very patient.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

Not yet, but there are lots of things I’d love to try. But I would especially like to try writing things with more words than a picture book.

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


Do you work full time as an illustrator?

No, making books just happens in my free time for now.

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

Who knows! But for now at least, I’m very selfish with my illustrating. Since I spend the days working on other people’s stories, I like to spend all my free time hammering away at my own.

I know you will have many successes looming in your future, but what do you think is your biggest success so far?

That is very kind of you to say. I think success is a funny word. It’s so easy to see in others, but so hard to see in yourself. I am very excited about my book though. I haven’t given its release too much thought recently, because current events have been so all-consuming. But I’m excited to watch this thing that I made start to wander onto people’s bookshelves.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Whenever I’m feeling really stuck, I break out the Crayola crayons or markers, which is wonderful, because it lowers the stakes so much. You can’t render with a crayon, you can’t really shade with a crayon, you aren’t going to get complex colors with crayons—it’s so freeing!

Has that changed over time?

Oh yes. For a long time, whatever medium I learned next was my new favorite.

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

I am very lucky to have a Wacom Cintiq for drawing digitally and I use it all the time.

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

All the kids book stuff so far has been digital Photoshop paintings, but I often sketch in pencil and make textures with paint and ink to composite in later. And usually I’m slowly chipping away at an ink and watercolor drawing just for fun.

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

Not exactly, I’m still pretty slow at getting to a finished drawing. The thing I’m pickiest about is the expressions on the characters, and I’m not great at getting it right the first time around, so I tend to draw things over and over. And my favorite part of bookmaking is roughing out the story and trying to make it better, so making finished drawings is still a bit of a slough for me.

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

Oh yes! For ‘Can I Give You a Squish?’ I started with Pinterest boards full of illustration inspiration, and checked out loads of picture books from the library, trying to understand what made them wonderful. Then I filled my life with as much underwater inspiration as possible. I would wander around fish stores and check out library books about sea life, and at one point I was able to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium while in town for my friend’s bachelorette party. I even kept this little collection of shells at my desk to try and get myself in an underwater mood.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

I don’t really know life without the internet, so I would say: absolutely! I sometimes wish social media was gone, though. I’ve been on it since I was 13 and I still haven’t worked out how to build it into my life in a positive way. But if you are reading this and want to connect, I’m mostly just on Instagram @emilyeneilson

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

The big dream is to direct a feature film. But I feel like every opportunity I get to tell a story, or help someone tell theirs, makes me really happy.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on another picturebook, as well as the Netflix film I mentioned: Wendell and Wild. It is written by Jordan Peele, directed by Henry Selick, and the story couldn’t be more relevant to recent events. I’ve worked on projects before that haven’t completely aligned with my worldview, and it’s been so wonderful to work on something I really feel like I can actually believe in.

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 have this really old set of water colors that I absolutely love. I just looked it up and they are called “Gansai Tambi” and are a traditional type of Japanese paint. They behave sort of like gauche and sort of like really potent watercolor, depending on how you use them, and my set has a limited variety of colors, which helps me keep my pallet under control. I also love translucent liquid acrylics inks, because of the way you can layer them, and the fact that they come in really vibrant jewel tones. I haven’t had any of those for a while, though, because when they go bad, they smell terrible!

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

I guess it would be: don’t stop. You have stories to tell and pictures to make. And if you feel like you’ve been trying for ages, hammering on locked doors, then it might be time for another hard critique session and round of revisions. But you’ve got to do it so people can see your work, because your voice is important!

Thank you Emily 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. I would love to share them with everyone.

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


Instagram: @emilyeneilso


The CatAgency:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Fun interview! Thanks for being so open about still having to make repeated trys-I found that very freeing! I constantly edit my writing, but if I draw something, I feel pressure for it to be perfect the first time, so I end up not drawing much at all.


  2. Here’s a big CONGRATULATIONS squish – All the best!


  3. Gorgeous work! I loved hearing about journey. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with Squish! I’m looking forward to seeing all the books you make in the future.


  4. So talented!! Congrats! Looking forward to this book & future projects.


  5. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing your process.


  6. What a fantastic interview and incredibly talented Emily! Thanks so much for sharing about yourself!


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