Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 15, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – MacKenzie Haley

MacKenzie Haley is an illustrator, runner, and cat whisperer who currently resides in Louisville, KY. She has her BFA in illustration from the University of Dayton, and is represented by Advocate Art. Her clients include Harper Collins, Cottage Door Press, Page Street Publishing, Albert Whitman & Co, Highlights Magazine, Magination Press, Oxford University Press, Apples & Honey Press, The National Center for Youth Issues, Worthy Publishing, and Storytime Magazine. She’s completed three full marathons (slowly), fostered about twelve cats (not at the same time), and has two codependent cats named Booger and Abby. She has drawn her whole life, and flunked a math test in the third grade because she turned the test over and used the entire time to draw characters and faces out of numbers.  She loves including small, interesting details in her work, and uses bold colors, patterns, and textures. 


For the characters in THE NINJA CLUB SLEEPOVER; first is the pencil sketch of them.

Second is the first round of color.

Third/Lastly are the final characters in color with modifications made to them, like changing body shapes, facial features, etc.

I’ve attached some jpegs of the process I went through to create the first page of The Ninja Club Sleepover.

1st is the thumbnail sketch, and I kept the thumbnail at the top I didn’t end up using so they can see that I play around with different ideas.

2nd is the larger tighter pencil sketch.

3rd is the color blocked piece, where I’m blocking in the basic colors but haven’t added all the details yet.

Last, is the final piece that was used in the book.

My Interview with MacKenzie:

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating since 2002, when I graduated from college.

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

It was an editorial illustration for The Wall Street Journal way back around 2003 or 2004.

How did you decide to attend BFA in illustration from the University of Dayton? 

When I was looking at possible colleges, I wasn’t sure I was going to major in art. I thought I might head into the medical field, become some kind of doctor, because my brain is pretty analytical and I enjoy that subject matter. When I shadowed at Dayton, I really liked the school and felt comfortable there. I looked at both the pre-med department and the art department, and that’s what decided it for me. I knew my heart was in art.

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

No I didn’t. My school didn’t offer illustration classes specifically for children’s books. While UD was and is a good school, it’s not exactly geared towards illustration. We had introduction to illustration classes, then actual illustration classes, but we never delved into children’s books, which I would have really liked.

Do you feel school helped you develop your style? 

Oh wow, that’s such a complex question! I don’t think I developed the style I currently work in until about three years ago. School didn’t help me develop a style, it was a starting place for me. It gave me the tools and knowledge about drawing and the basics and some computer art(although what we had then doesn’t compare to today’s technology at all!). It gave me really good teachers who taught me the fundamentals of art and who let me constantly pick their brains, even after I graduated. I never go away! Haha.

I notice you have a lot of animated art. Did you take animation classes in college? 

No, I didn’t. I wasn’t able to fit that into my curriculum. The animations you see are gifs. I got interested in those years ago, I don’t remember quite when. So I did research online about different ways to make animated gifs. I make mine using Photoshop. It was frustrating at times, because you are limited with what you can do using gifs, you don’t want them to be huge files so they don’t load for the viewer. But the more I did it, the better grasp I got on it and realized what kind of work it was best suited for.

Did UD help you find work after graduation? 

Unfortunately, no. UD is a great school, but at the time, it had basically no real world illustration connections. I did get a summer internship with a freelance illustrator my Junior year when one of my teachers recommended for it. But other than that, the University of Dayton had no connections with the real world of illustration that I wanted to enter.

What year did you graduate? 

Oh man, 2002. I feel really old now.

What type of work did you do after you graduated? 

Well, I immediately got a job waiting tables to bring in some income. I lived with my parents for a year or two after college in order to get on my feet. After about a year of waiting tables, I became a bank teller. That lasted for about 2 years or so. Then in 2005, I started a job at a car insurance company handling medical claims, and I worked there until 2018. During that whole time span, I was always trying to freelance, chase leads, apply to the few full time illustration jobs I could find. When I first graduated and moved back to Louisville, KY, I physically took my portfolio around to different design companies and art galleries here in town to see if I could drum up some freelance work that way. It didn’t really help to be honest. My work has never been Louisville centric, it’s never really had an appeal to this specific city. So I knew I needed to look beyond the local scene, look at the big picture, which for me at that time meant looking nationally for work.

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

I made that conscious decision around 2006 or 2007. At the time, I was working a full time unrelated art job(insurance), and working on my illustration in the evenings and on the weekends. I was trying to get any kind of illustration work I could, editorial, product advertisement, anything. When I determined that I really wanted to illustrate children’s books, I realized that I needed to hone in on that specific area of the illustration world and build a portfolio taylored to that field. There just aren’t enough hours in each day to be chasing all the different types of illustration. Or at least I wasn’t good at that. I needed to focus on one area.

Was A Flicker of Hope which came out in December 2018, the first picture book you illustrated? 

No, it was actually the second. I illustrated a book for a small publisher in England, but I don’t think the book ever went to print. They paid me though, so I could keep paying rent thankfully! Then I illustrated two books at the same time, A Flicker of Hope, and Snitchy Witch.

How did that contract come about?

I currently am represented by Advocate Art, and was at that time too. That publisher,  reached out to my agent and said they were considering me for the book. I then made some samples of characters, and got the job.

You illustrated Laugh-Out-Loud Back-to-School Jokes: Lift-the-Flap book that came out on June 9th with Harper Collins. How did they find you to illustrate the book? 

That was another case where the publisher saw my portfolio with my agent, and they were interested in using me as the illustrator. It was down to myself and two other illustrators. They asked us to make a sample spread, and were kind enough to pay for the sample even. After I turned my sample in, a little while later my agent contacted me and told me I got the job!

Snitchy Witch by Frank J. Sileo came out in September 2019, how long did it take you to illustrate that book?

I signed the contract for that book in June of 2018. I turned in the final artwork at the end of February, beginning of March 2019, I can’t remember the exact date. Every book is different; each publisher has different timelines that I have to work within. I really liked working with Magination Press, the publisher of Snitchy Witch, in part because they gave me plenty of time to develop characters and the book as a whole. I didn’t feel rushed, which is always a good thing.

How did you connect with Advocate Art and how long have you been represented by them? 

To give you the full story, before Advocate Art, I was represented briefly by a smaller agent in New York in 2016. My work was sent around to publishers and we got good feedback, but I didn’t get any actual work at the time. Then in May of 2017, my agent suddenly dropped me. I was pretty devastated and thought that was the end of everything, that I would never get a chance to break into this field. I let myself be sad for a little bit, then took stock of things. I realized I still had that spark in me that wanted to illustrate and I didn’t want to give up. I took the rest of that year and worked on my portfolio. I decided to stop creating what I thought agents and publishers wanted to see, and started drawing the things that I wanted to, subjects that I was interested in. I also decided to stop trying to emulate the lighting and techniques of other artists I admired, and just create art my own way. This was a big turning point for me. When you draw things you like, that you’re interested in, it really shows through in your work. You could tell I was more enthusiastic about my subject matters, like little vampires, ghosts and witches. I had more fun with it and finally stumbled upon a style that I felt good about. In November of 2017 I submitted my portfolio to Advocate Art, and shortly after I signed with them. I wanted to give you the whole story so that other illustrators know that it’s not the end of the world when you get turned down, rejected, or dropped by an agent or publisher. If you really know in your heart this is right for you, then keep going. You will hit bumps in the road, heck sometimes really big ditches, but that’s part of this career, and it will only make you stronger.

Was it your agent that introduced Page Street Kids and inspire them to give you the illustrating job for the Ninja Club Sleepover by Laura Gehl? 

Page Street Kids actually contacted me directly for this book if I’m remembering correctly. I then looped in my agent to work on it together.

In September If I Lived With Noah by Pamela Moritz is coming out. Was this your first chance to illustrate a religious book? 

Yes, it was my first “religious” book. However, I took the job because it wasn’t really religious. There is no preaching in the book, no pushing of a certain religion or belief system. It’s about a boy who dreams of being on the Ark with Noah and the fun he would have with the animals. That was what drew me to it. Religious books that push a certain faith aren’t something I’m interested in illustrating. Mainly because I don’t follow one certain religion. I was raised Catholic, but I’m not sure what I believe in these days. I’ve realized that’s okay though, that I don’t have to have the answers. The most important thing to me is to be kind to others and show them love.

Are you still working on the illustrations for Patrick’s Polka-Dot Tights by Kristen McCurry coming out the first of January? 

No, that book is all wrapped up! I turned in the final work a month or two ago. I recently got to see the finished cover for the first time, and I’m really happy with it. It was such a fun book to illustrate. (I’ll attach the cover for you.)

Did you find it hard to illustrate Pockets Full of Rocks: Daddy Talks About Depression, coming out later in January by Magination Press while working on Patrick’s Polka-Dot Tights? 

At the time, I was actually working on five different books! I don’t want to take on that kind of work load again, but it was a good learning experience. It was difficult at times. I had to be super organized with the different deadlines for all the different books and prioritize what to work on each day. At one point I had it broken down day by day exactly what I was going to doing for each book. And there were weeks of very long 12 and 14 hour days. Ultimately it was worth it because I feel good about the work I turned in; I want to give my all to every book I illustrate. Moving forward though, I’m going to limit the amount of books I do at a time though, because I want to have a balanced life and be able to see friends and family, and do things like sleep!

Why do you sell things on Etsy using the British Pound when you live in Kentucky? 

Haha, I actually wasn’t aware I’m doing that. I’m going to have to check my Etsy store!

When did you decide to go full time as a freelance illustrator

I made the leap in June of 2018. It took a few months after signing with Advocate, but then book deals started coming in, and at one point I realized if I accepted them all, that I wouldn’t have time to illustrate and keep my day job. So when I had a few contracts signed, I quit my day job in June, and became a full time illustrator. It was really scary at first. I was so excited, but I would wake up each morning and my stomach would be in knots because for the first time in my life, I didn’t have a guaranteed income/long term job. I didn’t know if books would keep coming my way, or if it would stop. But I decided that I would rather fail trying to do the thing I love, instead of never trying and regretting it later in life.

Have you ever tried to illustrate a wordless picture book? 

I have not yet, but that is one of my longterm goals! I’ve seen so many beautiful wordless picture books, and I would absolutely love to illustrate one. I think they can be quite magical, and I love that they leave a lot of room for intepretation to the readers.

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

Absolutely! Actually my first book that I wrote the text for and illustrated will be out in 2021 with Little Simon. It is called How To Hide A Ghost. I’m so excited. It’s a short lift-the-flap board book, so there’s not much text, but it’s been a great introduction on how to write for children. I would eventually like to write a longer, 32 page book.

Have you done any illustrations for children’s magazines? If so, who? 

I have. I’ve illustrated for Highlights Magazine and Storytime magazine.

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

Ultimately, yes. But there are conditions, because this is now how I make a living and pay my rent, so I can’t do it on a shoestring budget. People approach me for self published books, but they often don’t have any idea how much an illustrator makes for a 32 page book. If they were able to pay be a comparable amount to what a publisher would pay, and I liked the story, I would do it. The hard thing is, a lot of people don’t have that kind of expendable money available to pay me enough to live on. It’s not that I charge really high rates or anything, it’s just more than people usually think, because there is a lot of work and time that goes into illustrating a book.

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

Overall, I think my biggest success isn’t one book in particular, it’s the fact that I am finally able to do this full time to support myself, and that I have had steady work for the past two years. I dreamed of this and worked toward it for so long, sometimes I can’t believe I’m actually getting to do the thing I love.

What is your favorite medium to use? 

I create all of my final color illustrations in Photoshop. I start every piece by hand though, drawing with pencil or pen on paper. There’s no equivalent to me for drawing by hand. I know some artists are good at sketching on the computer, but I find I do better the old fashioned way. I’m able to keep my work looser and I like the end results better. It’s important to me to continue to hone my hand skills. Then I scan my sketches into the computer and use that as a template to paint/color in Photoshop. However, sometimes I use traditional media to create certain elements of a piece. I like to play around with chalk pastels and scan those elements in. I then manipulate them and integrate them into pieces. I would really start to like using watercolor too.

Has that changed over time? 

It has changed. When I first graduated from UD, I was working mostly by hand, doing collage. 95% of my work was collage on thick paper, then I would scan that into the computer and add to it using the program Illustrator. I continued to use Illustrator a lot when I got my first Wacom tablet and taught myself how to use it. In the past 5 years though, I work pretty much exclusively in photoshop though. Because it’s bitmap, instead of being vector based like Illustrator is, I find it is much more natural to me. I have a Cintiq that I work on now, which I draw directly on the screen with. It feels more like painting on paper to me than using Illustrator.

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

Yes. I now work using a Cintiq, which you draw directly on the screen with a stylus(pen). Before that, about seven years ago I think, I purchased a Wacom tablet. None of that technology existed when I was in school, so I had no idea how to use any of it. But I was interested in trying these new things, and it was a big game changer for me. Before that, everything was done using a mouse. My artwork was completely different. Now it is much looser and feels more like real life drawing to me. I’m so glad this technology came along when it did. There was definitely a learning curve for me when I began using each new product, but it’s been worth it!

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

As I mentioned, every piece starts with a hand drawing for me. It’s kind of an unspoken rule I have. Then I create the color in Photoshop. But I like experimenting with traditional media, such as painting, paper collage, chalk pastels, etc. I also like finding interesting textures in my day to day life, taking pictures of them, and working them into my pieces in Photoshop.

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

These days, it’s not really something I keep track of, because I do it full time so I’m working on something at least five days out of the week, if not more. When I had a full time day job though, I would aim for working one hour a night after my day job during the weekdays, and between 3-5 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t always hit those marks, but it gave me something to strive for and kept me actively illustrating. There are many days when you don’t feel like sitting down to draw/illustrate. But you have to make it a habit. I’ve found that I can’t wait for inspiration to strike. I have to act first, and then often the ideas will start to come once I’m drawing.

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

If the subject matter is something I’m not really familiar with, I definitely look online and collect reference photos. I may think I know how a certain animal looks in my head, but when I go to draw it, I’ll realize that I don’t know how the legs connect to the body, or the shape of the head, etc. It’s important for me to have the subject matter in front of me so that I can capture it’s essence in my own way.

Do you think the internet has opened doors for you? 

Absolutely. Years ago I made my own portfolio website,, using Squarespace. I like Squarespace because it’s simple, and I’m able to update my portfolio and change things around anytime I want. Nowadays, I think there are quite a few websites like that. I’ve also learned that some publishers have found me online with my website or on Instagram, where I mostly post my art and pictures of my cats, haha. The internet has given publishers and agents the ability to seek out artists on their own, instead of waiting for illustrators to submit to them. So I would definitely encourage artists to have some kind of web presence. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but it’s good to have a way for people to find you.

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

Yes. For one, as we talked about earlier, I want to author and illustrate my own books. I also want to create a wordless picture book. Next, this isn’t really a dream, it;s more of a goal, but I hope to one day be able to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy.I would also like to be able to have the time to interact with children, perhaps offer some kind of art classes. Children are the reason I do what I do, and I would love to interact with them directly.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on four different books. But the timelines are much more staggered than when I took on five books earlier this year, so I feel like I have time to breath and have a balanced life this go around. I’m not sure what I’m allowed to tell you and what I’m not, but one of them is my own book, How To Hide A Ghost.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? 

Tracing paper! I learned this from one of my illustration teachers in college. I do my hand drawings for the beginning of each piece on tracing paper. I buy so much of it I should probably invest stock in it! The reason tracing paper is great is because it allows you to layer different drawing elements, and not have to redraw the same thing over and over. When I draw something again and again it can start to look stiff, and it’s just not an efficient use of my time. For example, if I’m happy with the body of a character, but not the face, I’ll lay a piece of tracing paper over it and start experimenting with the head. I feel free to play around more because if I don’t like what I just drew, I move the paper over a few inches and try again. I’ve had a character I’ve drawn whose face I was completely happy with, but the hair was harder for me to work out. So I put a piece of tracing paper over the face, and drew about 20 different hairstyles before hitting on the right one. Once I’m happy with what I’ve drawn, I tape them all together and scan that into the computer to work from. Also, I’ve recently started using a mechanical pencil. I keep traditional pencils around because there are times when I want to use them for shading and such, but I love mechanical pencils because I don’t have to stop and sharpen them every few minutes. I’m lazy that way, and it’s a time saver to me!

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators? 

Wow, there is so much to say to new illustrators. One piece of advice I would give is to have grit. You’re going to need it in this field. You’re going to get knocked down multiple times, and it’s up to you to get back up and keep going. Learn from those times; what happened to make those events occur? What can you use from those experiences to further your art and make it more your own? Second, This field is darn hard. When you tell people you illustrate children’s books, they think it’s all fun and rainbows and magic, but in reality, it’s an extremely competitive field. It can be hard to reconcile the two, because personally, I myself am pretty sensitive. I take everything that people say to heart. Just know that you’re in a tough career or trying to break into a tough career, and be gentle with yourself and have patience. Some people break into it at 23. Others, like myself, take years, until you’re 38. Everyone has their own timeline. Third, listen to constructive criticism from agents and publishers, but know where to draw the line. This is a hard one, because agents and publishers do what they do for a living, so they are knowledeagble. But the advice or suggestions they give you aren’t alway right for you. Think on what they tell you, and decide what changes or advice to incorporate into your own art. If I did everything that each agent or publisher has told me, my art wouldn’t look like it does, and I wouldn’t be happy with it at the end of the day. It’s a fine line to walk. Fourth, have fun! You likely started drawing because you enjoy it. I know I did. Sometimes though I get so caught up in the job and put so much pressure on myself that I lose sight of the enjoyment of it all. Remind yourself daily to have fun and let yourself have time to doodle and draw just for yourself.

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

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





You can contact MacKenzie directly at, for all inquiries about illustration work, or if you know any good jokes. She has currently reached the maximum amount of cat shirts a grown woman is allowed to have, and is banned from buying any more (but can accept them as gifts).

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wonderful range of illustrations! I love the colors and the many, many cats I noticed. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and best wishes!


  2. Oh, my. These are simply adorable. I love the bunnies on the bed and so many others. So cute. Thanks for a wonderful post.


  3. Wow! What a gorgeous group of illustrations. I love the color palettes, warmth, and adorable animals.


  4. Amazing interview Kathy and Mackenzie! Thanks for the great questions, images, and Mackenzie all your experience, advice and wisdom. Greatly appreciated, especially the tip about tracing paper. Another illustrator recently recommended that, too. 🙂 Thanks again!


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