Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 25, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Sam Kalda

Sam Kalda is an award winning illustrator based in Minneapolis. His first book, “Of Cats and Men: History’s Great Cat-loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statesmen” was published by Ten Speed Press in 2017. He also illustrated the forthcoming picture book “When We Walked on the Moon,” coming out summer 2019 with Wide Eyed Editions. His work has appeared in the The New York Times, The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Vogue, as well as on products at West Elm.


Here are some process examples from my latest illustrated book, When Darwin Sailed the Sea, written by David Long. This book required a lot of research, both in terms of period details, such as Regency and Victorian clothing and interiors, as well as historical places and objects, like Darwin’s study and The Beagle.

As Darwin was born over 200 years ago, the photographs of him that exist capture Darwin in middle age and beyond, with his iconic eyebrows and beard. However, images of him in his youth survive in a small amount of paintings and engravings. I started by looking at those early references and sketching him at various stages of his life and in various poses.

When sketching, I usually thumbnail on paper. In one scene, I had to draw Darwin in his studio writing On the Origin of Species. I researched photos of his study from various sources.  In addition to the larger interior, it’s important to get detail shots of the various instruments and collections that give the space character. I assembled the visual research in a mood board, and created a corresponding palette. With the research material gathered and on hand, I roughly sketched the scene in my sketchbook.

At this stage, I keep my linework loose, working to find the right composition. Occasionally, I will write notes about the palette or particular paintings/ artists to look at for inspiration.

I then took a photo of the rough sketch with my iPad. In Procreate, I lowered the opacity of the sketch and drew over it, much like tracing paper. I refined the details into a finished line sketch.

Once my art director, Myrto Dimitrakouli, approved the sketch, I started to paint the final artwork in Photoshop. I paint in the basic shapes first, then slowly add in more details. To give the illustration more character, I added in handmade textures to mimic wood grain and dappled light.

>My sketches vary in their level of finish and detail. Sometimes, I’ll include tone to help clarify more complicated scenes…

Interview With Sam Kalda

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been a freelance illustrator since 2012.

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

I probably made a drawing for someone in elementary school for like 25 cents. In about 2010, I was in an art show in Brooklyn and sold a painting. That was the first piece of art sold to a complete stranger.

What inspired you to attend SUNY Purchase to get a BFA in painting?

I wanted an art school experience while also having the base of a liberal arts education. Purchase is a public university about 45 minutes north of NYC, and it offered both.

Did you immediately start your MFA at The Fashion Institute of Technology after you graduated?

No. I worked for a few years at several furniture stores in Brooklyn, then eventually started working at The Noguchi Museum in Queens. I think it’s good to take time off after graduation to decide if grad school is a good fit for you.

Why did you choose the Fashion institute of Technology for your MFA and did you have to move to go there?

I was already living in NYC and had become interested in illustration. Frankly, I applied on a whim, which ended up being an important decision. The FIT MFA was a newer program, was (is) much more affordable than other MFA programs, and allowed me to continue to work full-time while working on my degree.

How did you end up studying at the Yale Norfolk School of Art? Where did you fit this in?

The Norfolk program is for art students entering into their senior year of college. I applied and was accepted in the summer of 2007. Prior to that program, I was making more abstract paintings and installations. I experimented with more narrative, figurative work that summer, and was encouraged by a visiting professor to consider illustration.

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

Not specifically. In graduate school, we studied narrative illustration and certainly explored aspects of children’s book illustration in many ways. But I don’t think I ever took a full class in it.

I notice that you have many animated illustrations. Did you take animation classes in college?

I took one animation class in graduate school. I did poorly in it, and that might be apparent in the quality of my animations! But I was hired to do a weekly mindfulness column for The New York Times Well blog back in 2016, and had to learn to make GIFs. Subtlety is the name of the game when illustrating mindfulness techniques, so my somewhat limited animation skills were appropriate for the subject matter, I guess.

Do you feel school helped you develop your style?

Yes, for sure. But I think that’s largely because school provides dedicated time and space to focus on making art. I think you can find your style by making lots and lots of work, and absorbing artists, movements, and styles that inspire you. Also, being surrounded by other students making artwork and talking about it is pretty amazing. Certainly something I miss now!

Did any of your schools help you find work when you graduated??

I definitely made connections in the field while at FIT. I also started sending out samples of my work to art directors pretty early on.

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

I started doing editorial illustration, which I still do a fair amount of. My first commissioned illustration was a spot illo for The Chicago Reader. I was over the moon when I got that first job.

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

When I was a kid, I made little books—usually about cats and/or witches. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I don’t think I ever finished any of them, unfortunately. In the period after graduating college, while working lots of day jobs, I found myself thinking more and more about telling stories with pictures. It was an interest in children’s book illustration that drew me to graduate school.

How did you connect with Chad W. Beckerman and how long after did he become your agent?

I think I’d met Chad at different events at The Society of Illustrators, but I had mailed him work samples over the years and we followed each other online. I found out he was starting work as an agent and emailed him right away!

Was OF CATS AND MEN the first book that you illustrated?


Would you consider that book a coffee table book? How did that come your way?

I think of it as a gift book, but given my love of furniture, I’d be happy to call it a coffee table book. Maybe a credenza book? The book originated as my MFA final project. I spent about two years shopping it around to publishers. Just when I was about to give up on it and move on, I got an email from Kaitlin Ketchum, an editor from Ten Speed Press. She read about the series on a blog and was interested in the project. Still one of the most exciting emails I’ve ever received.

Is WHEN WE WALKED ON THE MOON a middle grade book?

Yes, it is listed for grades 3rd to 5th.

It is unusual to see a middle grade book with some much wonderful colored illustrations. Was this something you had to talk them into?

David Long wrote the text and has written many non-fiction children’s titles over the years. Wide-Eyed Editions commissioned the work. They really focus on heavily illustrated non-fiction books. I think non-fiction as a genre really benefits from illustration.

How did that project come about?

My UK agents at Folio were approached by the editor about the project. The agency had worked with Wide-Eyed in the past and the art director had seen my work on their site.

I see you have a new book titled WHEN DARWIN SAILED THE SEA that just came out. Does this book also have colored interior art?

Yes. This book is also written by David Long, and is some ways, a kind of sequel (prequel?) to When We Walked on the Moon. It was a dream to spend months drawing animals, bugs and period costumes.

I notice that you sell mugs with your art. Do you sell other things?

I sell prints and some original art. I have licensed artwork in the past, so some of my work has appeared on home products.

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

I worked for Anorak Magazine and a sadly defunct magazine called Stew.

I noticed you put your artwork on Mugs. Do you sell them?

I created four illustrated mug designs for West Elm’s annual ASPCA fundraiser collaboration for the 2019 holidays. I do sell prints. Here is the link:

Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes. I used to have a separate studio space when we lived in Brooklyn, but now work out of a spare room in our house.

Have you ever tried illustrating a wordless picture book?

No, but I would love to try it.

How did you do to receive The Society of Illustrators Gold Medal?

Sheer luck? I received it for Of Cats and Men.

Do you work full time as an illustrator?

Yes. I started freelancing while working full-time around 2012. Once my freelance work picked up, I was able to switch to part-time. In 2015 I made the jump to being a full-time illustrator.

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

Unless it was absolutely the right project with the absolute right person, probably not at this point.

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

Thank you. More than one project in particular, on a whole, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to make a living drawing pictures. That still amazes me.

What is your favorite medium to use?

When I’m working traditionally, I like Sumi ink and ebony pencils. I’ve recently rediscovered watercolor, which has been fun and challenging.

Has that changed over time?

My background is in oil painting, which I haven’t used in over ten years. I’d like to try working with oils again in the future.

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

Yep! I do a lot sketching on an iPad, and also use a Wacom tablet.

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

The vast amount of my commissioned work is painted with a Wacom tablet in Photoshop. I make textures with charcoal and ink, which I’ll add to the digital work to give it more depth.

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

I am very often working under deadlines, so my schedule adjusts accordingly. I have been trying, with varied success, to set aside time every week for personal work. That can mean painting, drawing or writing.

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

Yes. I think my strongest work has come from really immersing myself in research. In particular, non-fiction/ historical projects require quite a bit of research to make sure you get details right, or reasonably accurate.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t have a career without it.

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

I’d like to write and illustrate my own children’s picture book. While we’re putting wishes out into the universe, I’d love to design theatre sets.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the early stages of working on another book.

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’ve rediscovered tracing paper, which is admittedly not the juiciest tidbit in the world. I use it constantly for sketching and refining ideas. I get sick of sketching on a tablet, and find tracing paper is a great material for refining drawings.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

To the degree humanly possible, try not to compare yourself to others. Your path is totally unique, and your process will not necessarily look like someone else’s. In school, I was told, “Paint what you know.” At the risk of making another eye-rolling platitude, I would encourage you to find out what you love and make work about it. Also, keep reading. We need more intelligence, empathy and curiosity in the world, and books make that possible.

Thank you, Sam for letting me interview you and sharing your expertise with us. Please let me know your future successes so I can share it with everyone.

To see more of Sam’s work, you can visit him at:



Artist Agency:

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I think I just discovered my new favorite artist. Stunning work!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Kathy, for your in-depth interview of Sam Kalda, my friend and MFA-Illo classmate at F.I.T.! I can never get enough of his creative, quirky, retro, brilliantly-restrained style! Congrats, Sam, on your new book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kathy! Great! Isn’t Sam interesting and wildly talented?! But our website isn’t one listed ( not biz entity any longer!). It’s now going forward. ( might change in the listing for illustrator sites below too). Thanks again for the interview!!! Chris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris,

      I agree. Sam is very talented. What should I do? That is the URL to get to Sam’s page on your website. How should I change it?


      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really enjoyed the vast variety of work you’ve shared, Sam. As a cat person, I love to see cats figure prominently in your work. As they should (snicker snicker, from their viewpoints). Great work! Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Kathy, for this awesome interview! Sam, LOVE your work and appreciate your thoughts and advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a a distinctive style. Great interview. I could see him as a set designer. That makes perfect sense to me. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I especially love the animation!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] talented illustrator describes his journey and […]

    Liked by 1 person

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