Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 10, 2020

Illustrator Saturday – Michael Robertson

Born and raised in northern Ohio, Michael graduated from Bowling Green State University with a degree in painting. He spent ten years as a toy designer and character developer, before trying his hand at illustration. His work has appeared on many children’s products, greeting cards, books, toys and magazines, and has received multiple recognitions from the Society of Illustrators.

An avid collector of mid-century art and design since the 80’s, Michael’s vast array of influences include many modern masters such as Calder and Miro, as well as illustrators like Jim Flora, Alice and Martin Provensen, and Mary Blair.

Michael lives in a spacious industrial warehouse loft in downtown Cleveland, where he enjoys painting, cooking and listening to the extensive collection of vintage soul, jazz, and Brazilian music he has acquired over the years.

Michael is represented by Lindgren and Smith

partial client list includes:

  • St. Martin’s Press – Sterling Publishing – Penguin Publishing – Scholastic – Campbell/Macmillan Press
  • Target – Barnes and Noble – American Greetings – Galison Puzzles

  • Sesame Street – PBS Kids – National Geographic Kids – Highlights for Children – Clubhouse Jr. – Klutz

  • New York Times – Cleveland Orchestra – Intel / Katy Perry – USDA – Cengage

  • Mudpuppy – Peaceable Kingdom – Crocodile Creek

  • Today’s Parent – Family Circle – Live Happy magazine

Here is Michael discussing his process:

After signing the contract with Sterling Publishing to illustrate Monster Trouble, they sent me the manuscript to interpret. I was given about 2 months to complete the book layout, including the development of the heroine, Winnifred.

I started out by sketching random monsters. I love drawing monsters and my sketchbook is filled with many that I have sketched in the past. I used some of those designs as well as many new ones. By the end, I had so many monsters sketched out that it was hard to choose which ones would make it into the book!

I then went on to do sketches and development of Winnifred. After settling on a design I thought worked the best, I then sketched out her many expressions and a few poses to kind of flesh out her personality. I wanted her to be feisty and smart, a little bit of a tomboy, but still cute and feminine. She’s not scared of the monsters, just annoyed by their constant nighttime visits.

Once I settled on what the girl would look like, I did a quick color rendering that I sent to the art director who loved her attitude.

I also sent some sketches of Winnifred and the monsters in various situations. I do all of these in my sketchbook, scan them and eventually use them in the layouts.

In one part of the story, Winnifred builds a “prickly bum chair”, one of the traps she sets to hopefully catch the monsters that are interrupting her sleep. I did many different sketches to try to convey a chair that could capture those pesky monsters. Here are some developmental sketches.

Once I decided on an appropriate design, I incorporated it into the layout sketch.

Here is the sketch and the final art of the scene.

The final art for the book was done in Photoshop.

I did a couple of  cover sketches that I thought might be cool to use,

The art director chose the one where Winnifred is standing on her bed because it showed that a lot of the action takes place in her bedroom.

I was able to salvage a few of the monsters on the unused cover sketch and they show up in the book.

The publishers decided they wanted a wrap around cover so I continued the scene to the back of the book. I’m a little bit crazy with my Photoshop layers and the final cover had about 1,020 layers at the end! I often have to save a copy, and flatten things as I go, to make my files more manageable.

Here is another interior sketch and the final piece. I really love working with unusual color combinations and I wanted this book to be colorful but quirky. I was unsure whether the brown wallpaper would work but it did. In the end, I was really pleased with the overall color look.

The art director was pleased too!

Interview with Michael Robertson

How long have you been illustrating? 

I have been illustrating as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I would read books and afterwards, I would draw what I thought the characters would look like and tell my own story with pictures. It wasn’t till after college that I started illustrating on a professional level.

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

I guess the first piece of art I created for money was a caricature of a fellow classmate in high school. I  jokingly made a  few cartoon drawings of some of my friends and soon I was being approached by many students that wanted my humorous depiction of them. Before long, I turned it into a little business and actually made a few bucks drawing pictures of  a lot of the kids and teachers too!


What made you decide to attend Bowling Green State University to study painting?

Well, when I was trying to decide what career to pursue, I knew it had to be something creative.

I was interested in creative writing and languages, as well as art, so I decided that I wanted to get a more general education, rather than just focus on art. BGSU was a good school for me since I was able to take a variety of courses. Ultimately, I did end up focusing on art and got my bachelor’s degree in painting, with a specialization in watercolor.

Did you take any children’s illustrating courses?

No, children’s illustration is just kind of something I fell into. I never really took any illustration courses at all-just fine art and graphic design classes in college.

Did the school help you find work when you graduated?

No. After school, I moved to Cleveland tried to start a freelance career while interviewing at ad agencies and graphic studios. I eventually ended up landing a job as a character developer and toy designer at a place called Those Characters from Cleveland. We were responsible for  Care Bears, My Pet Monster, Madballs, Popples and lots of other toys that have since become classics.

So the puzzles and games that I noticed on your website, were some of them games you designed?

Yes. Since restarting my freelance career, I have done a lot of work with clients like Crocodile Creek, Galison Mudpuppy, Peaceable Kingdom, among others. When it comes to designing the games, I usually receive carefully thought out plans from the art director and I help build on the idea with my artwork. With some of the other toys, like the ones I designed for Crocodile Creek, I am given free rein to concept and contribute my own ideas, in some cases even designing the packaging.

Can you tell us a little bit about the basketballs with faces?

The colorful balls with faces were created for Crocodile Creek for a toy concept called “Creetures”. They are fun rubber balls that coordinate with a series of fun puzzles I created for the company. The puzzles come in a box that is shaped like a monster, an alien and a robot, which are all articulated, and become a toy themselves. Inside each “creeture” is a puzzle and an additional play piece. The balls were designed to go along with this concept. These fun images are also printed on lunchboxes, backpacks, water bottles and other products.

I designed the puzzles, box, play piece and the balls too. They are currently available on Amazon, Walmart and various other specialty toy stores.

I noticed a few things that looked like wrapping paper on your site. Were these things you did for American Greetings or Target?

I designed them for American Greetings and they were sold in Target stores. I have done countless greeting cards, stickers, wrapping paper, games and books that were sold at Target.

Did you do this type of illustrating after leaving the toy industry?

Yes, after leaving the toy industry, my career took a turn towards more illustration. Although I loved designing toys and especially developing characters, I was a bit frustrated that when working in the toy industry, all of my artwork was done in a more conceptual way, using only pencil and markers. I wanted to improve my illustration skills. This was before computers became such an important design tool and everything was done traditionally. Going into illustration gave me the opportunity to get back to paint and brushes and all the traditional tools I learned to use in school.

Do you feel the ten years you spent as a toy designer and character developer helped you develop your style?

Definitely, yes. Up until then, I really hadn’t focused on art or products for children but obviously designing toys and licensed characters steered me in that direction. It also helped to make me more versatile and helped with conceptualizing and coming up with ideas.

Were you able to use some of the contacts you made in the toy industry to get work?

Yes, mainly because some of my coworkers from that industry have moved on to other toy companies and we’ve kept in contact over the years.

What type of things did you do to promote yourself as an illustrator?

I try to be as visible as possible, mainly on the internet by posting frequently on Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, etc. I also have a website that I try to keep updated.

Do you have an illustrator rep.? If so, who and how did you connect with them? If not, would you like to find representation?

Yes, I am represented by Lindgren and Smith. I have been with them for about 12 years. They are wonderful and have gotten me some really awesome work over the years, including many kids books. I do a lot of promotion through them as well, such as mailers, email blasts and publications like Workbook. I’ve gotten a few pieces in the Society of Illustrators and that certainly help to promote my work.

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

It had always been in the back of my mind and finally, I was approached through my reps by Penguin Publishing to illustrate Play with Blue. After illustrating that, I was hooked and wanted to illustrate more. Luckily, I have been able to work on many more since then.

You list St. Martin’s Press as someone you did illustration work. Did you do book covers for them?

Yes I did a series of 4 sudoku puzzle books and a crossword puzzle book cover for them.

How did you get to do the crossword puzzle illustration for the New York Times?

This job came through my reps. The art director wanted a retro style Big Bad Wolf character on the cover. That was a lot of fun to do!

Was Play with Blue by Bonnie Bader and published by Penguin for Young Readers in 2013 your first picture book?

Yes, it was.

In 2014 you illustrated Go to Bed, Blue by Bonnie Bader and published by Penguin Young Readers. Was this a two book deal when you signed the contact for Play with Blue?

No, I don’t think so. When I originally signed to do just the first book. I believe the first book was successful enough for them to want to do a sequel.

In 2015, you illustrated Monster Trouble by Lane Fredrickson, published by Sterling Children’s Books. How did you connect with them to get that contract?

I also got this job through my reps. I had a blast illustrating this book-I love drawing monsters and this was a perfect opportunity for me to have fun.

In 2017 you illustrated another book for Sterling Children’s Book, titled Wakey, Wakey, Elephant! Was that a two book deal from the 2015 contract?

No, I originally signed for just the one book but again, I think that due to the success of Monster Trouble, I was asked to illustrate another book for them.

Congratulations! I see you have another book coming out in December, My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World by Malcolm Mitchell and published by Orchard Books. How did that come your way? How long did it take you to illustrate the book?

Again, this one came through Lindgren and Smith. I was thrilled to be able to illustrate a book by a high profile author such as Malcolm Mitchell, who is not only a literacy advocate but also was an NFL player for the New England Patriots. It probably took about 8 months or so from beginning to end to illustrate this book.

On a side note, Mr Mitchell will be making an appearance on Good Morning America on December  29th to promote this book. It is also being released that day. I am very excited !

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

Definitely. In fact, I recently finished writing my first book. I just started working on the illustrations but naturally, this has to get put on the back burner when a job comes in. I’m super excited about this one-it’s great to have full creative control from start to finish. Hopefully, I will be able to work with a publisher when I get it all wrapped up.

Have you done any illustrations for children’s magazines?

Yes, I have done many illustrations for kids magazines, including Highlights for Children, Clubhouse Jr., National Geographic Kids and Cengage.  I’ve also illustrated for other magazines like Family Circle, Todays Parent, Live Happy, New Jersey Magazine and Atlanta Magazine.

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

I have been able to work with many publishing companies and I think that working with a self publisher may be too risky. I have been approached by a few people with self publishing hopes but they are often wanting me to work for little or no compensation,

What do you think is your biggest success so far?

Tough question-I have had a lot of successes so far and hoping for many more in the future.

One that comes to mind is a job I did for Intel. They wanted me to design several avatars of different aliens, monsters and other characters. They also wanted me to design an avatar for pop star, Katy Perry. There were several artists contributing to this project and out of all the avatar designs submitted, mine was chosen to be used. The art director actually said “Katy liked yours the best.” I don’t really keep up on pop music, but I do know who Katy Perry is, and I was flattered that she liked my work!

What is your favorite medium to use?

I love painting and collage and try to incorporate it into my  illustration work, although most of my work is done digitally.

Has that changed over time?

Yes. When I first started illustrating, all of my work was done traditionally. I love watercolor, colored pencil, cut paper, gouache but with tight deadlines and ease of revising things, I find myself working a lot more digitally these days.

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

Yes, I have a Wacom Cintiq pen display tablet that I work on. I love it.

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

Ultimately, everything is done on my Cintiq but I do try to work traditionally and work it into my illustrations. I have an old school printing press in my studio that I love to use to make textures and patterns that I incorporate into my illustrations whenever possible.

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

Yes, I love working in my studio; painting, collaging and experimenting on my printing press whenever possible. I always have a sketchbook on hand, and frequently find myself sketching and doodling, even when I’m watching TV or sitting in a coffee shop or park.

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

Yes, definitely. I frequently google certain things if I need a specific pose or subject matter, especially with the human figure. I have always loved animals and can pretty much draw any animal out of my head but drawing people is definitely something I need to reference.

I would love to hear about your spacious industrial warehouse loft in downtown Cleveland and studio?

I live in a very large warehouse located in a very industrial area of Cleveland. I have probably around 3,000 square feet, divided into two halves. One half for living, the other half is my studio.

I have been a huge collector of mid century furniture, art and design since the 80s, so Im surrounded by lots and lots of cool stuff that always keeps me visually stimulated!

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

I would like to keep going on the path I’m currently on, illustrating and writing more books and finding other fun and challenging projects. I would also like to learn some simple animation programs so that I van bring my artwork to life.

What are you working on now?

I just recently finished a really fun book called Dino Pajama Party for Running Press Kids and now I’m working on a set of 10 short books for Scholastic.

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 am currently obsessed with Tombo brush tip markers. They come in a huge variety of colors and I love the way they look in my Molskine sketchbooks. They create beautiful, rich tones and are really fun to work with.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

I would say that one of the most important things is to develop a style that is uniquely your own. Take in inspiration from everything you see. Art, design, nature, film, music-everything you take in influences the way you see things and will help to develop your style. Study other artists, both past and present. Concentrate on  drawing what you like.

Always carry a sketchbook with you and draw whenever you can.

Be yourself, but also be open to advice from others. As an illustrator, you will have to work with art directors who have their own ideas and you will have to be flexible and easy to work with.

Thank you, Michael 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 Michael’s work, you can visit him at:







Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wonderful!!!!


  2. Super cute work. Thanks for such a fun post.


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