Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 20, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Ellen Rooney

Ellen is an illustrator, designer, and artist. She’s from the state of Massachusetts, but now lives in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Her first picture book as illustrator, Her Fearless Run, was published in April, 2019 and busy working on more!

Ellen loves graphic shapes, textured colour, printmaking, drawing outdoors, painting. Her hidden art powers are released when cutting up paper. As a designer, her superpower is x-ray vision: if she stares at dense information, she can see its lovely skeleton just waiting to be shown to the world. She  thinks this is why she really loves interpretive design (stuff like museum exhibits and nature trails). Or, she says, “Maybe I’m just a big nerd. Who can say?”

“I love what I do. I get to collaborate with nice, interesting people from all over the place to make wonderful things I couldn’t make on my own.”


Thinking about ideas and flow using pencils

Digital Sketch to explore lightning and start looking at pages

Cut paper sketching at full trim size to play with layout and shapes.

Digital grey scale sktech at full trim size.

Final color artwork finished in Photoshop.

Interview with Ellen Rooney

How long have you been illustrating?

I did a few pieces here and there over the years, but I think my current “career” goes back to around 2012/2013 when I did a few editorial pieces for magazines. I started working on my first picture book in 2017.

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

This goes way back, but I illustrated a book of haiku about Spam. Less said about that the better!

What inspired you to move from Massachusetts to southern Okanagan valley in British Columbia?

It’s not as direct a journey as that sounds. I met my Canadian husband when he was working in Massachusetts and when we got married we decided to move to Victoria, BC. A few years ago we came to the Okanagan to be closer to his family.

Did you go to school for art? Where you go and what did you study?

I have a chequered past with art school. Drawing and painting were part of my undergraduate studies years ago. Then I did evening classes in graphic design. Later I got a BFA after moving to Victoria BC. But I probably learned the most through illustration-focused online classes.

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

I took several of Lilla Rogers’ Make Art That Sells classes online. The instruction is really high quality, and the community of fellow artists around them is so inspiring. She and art director Zoe Tucker developed a book on illustrating children’s books in 2016. It was so useful I took it twice!

Do you feel school helped you develop your style?

Everything helped. I mix media a lot so all my explorations of art have benefitted my current way of working. I’ve always liked collage, but it doesn’t tend to be something you study directly. I have taken a number of printmaking classes and always felt very at-home there. I think printmaking has a kinship with collage and has definitely influenced how I work. So has working as a graphic designer.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

The online classes helped. They focused less on technique – everyone has their own approach to that – but filled in the gap of professional skills in the field of illustration. They really focused on creating pieces that demonstrate the skills needed for picture book work. Those pieces led to my first picture book project.

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

I’ve worked in graphic design for many years, and occasionally had the chance to do illustration work as part of my design work. I did a few editorial illustrations for magazines.

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

Picture books were always something I dreamed of doing but I always had a lot of interests, and for some years I was going in too many directions. I didn’t know how to focus myself to reach that goal. After we moved to Canada I took some time to reconnect with making art, including studying at the University of Victoria fine arts program. I loved my classes but realized my tendencies were not toward a fine art practice. I was drawn toward the work of illustrators and the medium of the book.

Have you always used cut paper to do your illustrations?

I have an eclectic style, and sometimes I do my cutting with a digital tool like Photoshop. But cutting and collaging has been part of my process for years, so yes.

Was Her Fearless Run you first picture book?

Yes, it was. I couldn’t have asked for a better first manuscript to illustrate.

How did Page Street Kids find you to illustrate the book?

Kristen Nobles saw my online portfolio. I believe she found it through the directory “Women who draw”

Do you have an artist rep, or an agent? If so who, how, and when did you connect? If not, would you be interested in finding one?

No, I don’t have an agent or rep now. I might be interested at some point, if the right one came along.

I just featured Dusk Explorers on Writing and Illustrating this month. Did you sign a two book deal with Page Street Kids when you illustrated Her Fearless Run?

No, two separate contracts. Once I had finished the art for Her Fearless Run, they offered me Dusk Explorers.

How long did PSK give you to illustrate that book?

About 9 months

Have you done any illustrations for other books?

Yes. Grandmother School, by Rina Singh and published by Orca, came out in May. I just finished work on Sounds All Around: The Science of How Sound Works (by Susan Hughes) with Kids Can Press, due out next year.

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


Do you have a studio in your house?


Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?


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

Yes. I would love to write my own. But I’m finding it slow going!

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

I work full time but that includes graphic design projects as well as illustration. Illustration is taking more of my time these days, probably 60%.

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

I wouldn’t say never, but probably not. I really appreciate the role of the publisher and what they bring to the process.

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

That’s kind of you to say. To me it feels like a huge success to be in the place I am right now. Busy with several book projects and more on the way. Having the opportunity to work with manuscripts I love and collaborate with wonderful people in publishing, and seeing the books come out and land in the hands of readers. I have to step back and really be grateful that I’m finally doing this.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Hmm. To actually create final art for a book, the answer is probably collage with textured and painted papers. But drawing in a sketchbook with my pencil is my happy place to be.

Has that changed over time?

My illustration process changes all the time. Because I am mixing together a lot of materials, I’m always discovering new favorites or looking for a materials that fit each new project. So it is essentially the same process but always changing too.

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

I often sketch with an iPad (an older, smaller model at present) and finish my artwork digitally on an iMac. I do have a drawing tablet for the computer – an old school Wacom pad that still works so I keep using it.

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

[see photos for some examples]

It’s very eclectic. The photos show some of the materials that were used for Dusk Explorers. I created textures with gouache and coloured pencil on dark paper. I often work on shapes by cutting up plain black paper or construction paper. I scan in a variety of textures and collage and paint with them digitally.

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

Lately I haven’t had as much time to play and experiment outside of my current projects. But each project includes a phase of playing with materials and finding the right mixture for that particular project.

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

Definitely. I use reference throughout the project. If it’s a biography I spend lots of time on research and collecting reference images. I also look for other sources of information about the subject, like interviews and other books about them. You never know what kind of details you’ll discover. In fact it’s sometimes hard to know where to stop with research.

Dusk Explorers was more open-ended, which was fun. I was able to generate a lot more reference from observation, which I really enjoy doing. I took walks around my neighborhood in the summer evenings and sketch details: gardens, walls and fences, types of houses, lighting and clouds.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely. Somehow projects keep finding me and I have the internet to thank for that.

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

Writing and illustrating my own work is a goal. I also dream of doing books in different media; I’d love to do more hands-on work and less digital. I would love to do a whole book using printmaking techniques, and a book just with very simple textured collage.

What are you working on now?

At this moment, I’m working on final artwork for two books. Heart of the Storm (by Sharon Mentyka), a biography of basketball player Sue Bird, will be part of Little Bigfoot’s “Growing to Greatness” biography series. I am also working on a second nonfiction picture book for Kids Can Press. It’s a companion to the book about sound, called Lights Day and Night: The Science of How Light Works by Susan Hughes.

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.

Dollar store paper! And old phone books. For Dusk Explorers I wanted to work on page compositions at the full trim size and be able to play around a lot with cut paper shapes. I buy sketchbooks and construction paper at the dollar store, and use whatever scrap paper I had around. It let me generate composition ideas in a very flexible and experimental way. When I had something I felt was starting to work, I took a photo. I would then use the photo as a starting point for a digital sketch. I don’t use this technique for every project, but it definitely influenced Dusk Explorers.

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

I think for me the turning point was focus. I was making art all different ways for years, which has all been useful in my process. However I wasn’t making work that would get me work. I learned to do that through some very focused classes that helped me understand how to equip myself to complete a picture book from start to finish.

Thank you Ellen 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 Ellen’s work, you can visit her at:




Talk tomorrow,



  1. Love your style -congrats!


  2. Beautiful work! I find it amazing how you can take all these different pieces, play with them, and come up with a combination that works.


  3. Such great work, Ellen! Kudos!


  4. Such a wonderful collection of work! Best wishes!


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