Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 30, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Jenn Harney

Jenn Harney has been working in and around the children’s market for the last 25 years—first in coloring books and textbooks, then as a toy designer, and finally ending up doing what she always set out to do, illustrating for kids. Her work has been featured in Highlights for
Children as well as several picture book titles. She
has illustrated the Wanda Seasongood chapter book series by Susan Lurie, as well as the picture books How to Become a Knight (in Ten Easy Lessons) by Todd Tarpley and Never Trumpet with a Crumpet by Amy Gibson. Underwear! marked her debut as an author/illustrator, and she followed it up with another adorable read-aloud, Swim Swim Sink, both published by Disney Hyperion. She is the author of the Hazy Bloom series, including Hazy Bloom and The Tomorrow Power and Hazy Bloom and The Pet Project

Jenn lives in Clevelandish, Ohio, with her husband, her daughter, and a corgi named Steve, and a fish with nine lives.

Here’s how I work…this is a spread from SWIM SWIM SINK.

1. Before I hit the page, I try and work out the color palette and have an idea of the layout. I also do character sketches with all kinds of facial expressions.

2. I thumbnail everything really really really roughly on an envelope with a mechanical pencil. If I work on nice paper, I feel like I have to keep working away on something…with an envelope, if I don’t like what I’m working on, I can just toss it. Snap a quick photo and bring those roughs into Photoshop. I resize them to fit the page size and play with any layout problems…

3. then I tighten up the sketches, so everyone else can see what I’m seeing… (I like Kyle Webster’s Mr. Natural Brush for sketching…the non photo blue sketches are an old habit, plus you can see the black ink work clearly over the top of them)

4. then off to ink…I’ll refine things as I go along too…you can see the Mother Duck’s neck length shifted. (Right now, a modified version of Kyle Webster’s Runny Inkers) I ink on a lot of layers so I can put the colors overlapping the inking where I need to….

5. then underpainting. I like using a super bright color underneath to add some depth to the finals. Again, LOADS of layers…

6. then final painting…as big of a brush I can use and as fast as I can do it. I’ll start over if I get too tight…and I start over a lot.

7. Finally, I’ll add texture with overlay shapes that I’ve made over the years and washes that I’ve borrowed from an old friend….lots of adding and removing at this point until I like what I see. There is so much deleting and redoing and turning on and off layers, but eventually, I do hit final.

Below is the final spread with text.

Interview with Jenn Harney:

How long have you been illustrating?

Over 30 years in one way or another. I’ve worked in educational publishing, prepress and layout and toy design. I started back into Children’s illustration about 5 or 6 years ago.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I started selling early. My first job was as a caricature artist when I was 15. (It was a trial by fire, but thickened up my skin quickly and taught me that if people didn’t like your work that didn’t mean they didn’t like you. HUGE lesson)

Did you go to college to study art? If so, where did you go and what did you study for your degree? 

I have a BA in Studio Art with a Drawing concentration from Kent State. The plan was always illustration (after a brief flirtation with Paleoanthropology), but I hated the Graphic Design program and you HAD to be in the Graphic Design program to get a degree in Illustration. I basically took a ton of fine arts courses and life drawing and I did children’s illustrations outside of class.

What do you thing helped you develop you style?

I looked at a lot of artist and figured out what I liked. But, I never really see it as a style, it’s just how I draw. I do like making sure that everything I draw has weight and movement.

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

LOTS and LOTS of spot art for educational workbooks. It’s a crash course in how to draw EVERYTHING and hit tight deadlines. HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who wants to illustrate professionally.

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

Pretty early on…We had a program in the Cleveland area called “Young Authors’ Conference” It was a citywide thing. They brought kids in from all different schools and a famous author in to talk to us. I think I was in first or second grade when I went the first time and Tomie dePaola was the guest author. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that drawing could be a job.

How did you connect with Rachel Orr at the Prospect Agency? And how long have you been with her?

Rachel is the best! We’ve been working together, I think five (maybe 6?) years now? I’m not good with numbers. I had gotten to a point where I felt like my work was finally strong enough to stand on its own. I knew that I had no idea how to knock on the right doors (or where the doors even were) I started researching illustrators that I liked on Twitter and seeing who represented them. A lot of those people were at Prospect…I took a chance and sent a query letter. We started talking the next day. I think I signed with her within the week. I was VERY VERY lucky.

Was Hazy Bloom and the Tomorrow Power by Jennifer Hamburg that you illustrated and came out in Feb. 201, the first published book you illustrated?

Hazy was the first with a big, everyone would know the publisher if I said it, book that I illustrated. Everything before that was educational publishing work where I was either on staff or work for hire.

Did you sign a three book deal when you got that contract? Or did they wait to see how the first book performed in the market?

That was a three book deal. Again, I was lucky.

The Hazy Bloom series looks like they are illustrated middle grade books. How many black and White illustrations did you do for each book?

For middle grade books, I do A LOT more sketches than what end up being used. You’re never quite sure what the final page count is going to be, like you do in picture books, and a lot depends on layout. I like to give the designer (Elizabeth Clark at FSG) too many options so they can use what they need and toss what they don’t…much easier to toss things than to try and make due with not enough art. I’m never married to anything, so if something gets pitched, it gets pitched….whatever is best for the book. I think in the end we ended up with around 100 finished drawings per book.

Did you sign that contract before the Hazy Bloom series contract?

I think Hazy was signed before Knight. Hazy came in right as I signed with Rachel. Rachel sometimes pairs up authors she represents with illustrators she represents and sends out a complete package to prospective publishers. Rachel asked if I would do a spec piece for KNIGHT (by Todd Tarpley). I did, we sent it out, and luckily Sterling used both of us for the final.

Was How to Become a Knight (in Ten Easy Lessons) published by Sterling in August 2018 your first published picture book?

Knight was my first picture book by a publisher that everyone would know if I mentioned them.

Did you make up a timeline schedule to help you handle working on four books in 2017 and 2018?Did you finish one before starting on the others?

I think, ideally, I tried to make a timeline, but publishing moves at it’s own pace….sometimes you’re sprinting and sometimes you’re sitting and waiting. So, you kind of have to go with the flow and sprint when you need to sprint and take advantage of down time when you get it. I was working on a couple of things at once pretty much all of the time.

When you signed the contract with Boyds Mills Press for Never Trumpet with a Crumpet by Amy Gibson, did you know you would be illustrating Probably a Narwhal by Shelley Moore Thomas for them the following year?

Nope. You always hope that doing good work for a publisher means that you’ll work with them on another project. I was thrilled to sign a second book with Boyd’s. (and with editor Rebecca Davis again)

Was Underwear! Published by Little Brown in April 2, 2019 the first Picture Book you wrote and Illustrated?

No. About 25 years ago I worked at Landolls, a coloring book and mass market book publisher. I wrote and illustrated some books for them when I was on staff, so no real credit, but a WHOLE lot of experience in how to do books. Bleeds, trim, live area, gutter, pagination….all of that behind the scenes publishing stuff, I learned there. Probably the most important 2 or 3 years I had in the industry. It taught me so so much that I still use today.

How did you come up with the idea for the book and how long did it take for you to complete it?

UNDERWEAR! kind of wrote itself. I was walking my dog Steve. He was being super annoying and getting underneath every bush in the neighborhood. He’s a corgi, so when he goes under something, he goes under something. I was yoinking him out, and asked him “What are you doing under there?” He looked up at me like “Under where?” It clicked. He had an extra long walk as I worked out the story. By the time we got home, I had the basic thing done, typed it up and sent it to Rachel.

Since Little Brown published Swim Swim Sink that you wrote and illustrated less than year later. Did you pitch both books at once?

Nope. Both books were originally picked up by Stephanie Lurie at Disney Hyperion before they were purchased by Little Brown. After UNDERWEAR! Rachel asked her if there was anything in particular she was looking for. Stephanie let us know that she’d like a duck book for Easter. So, I sat down to start drawing ducks…and the ending of the book came first. I wrote the story from there.

 You had two middle grade books come out from Little Brown in 2020 – Wanda Seasongood and the Mostly True Secret by Susan LurieFeb 11, 2020 and Wanda Seasongood and the Almost Perfect Lie by 

Susan Lurie August 4, 2020. How many black and white illustrations did you have to do for these books?

Again, a TON of sketches so that the designer (Tyler Nevins) could pick and choose what he could use. I’d say an average of about 100 per book final.

I featured “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway by Beth Anderson that hit the market in October published by Calkins Creek. That is how I discovered your illustrations. How much time did they give you to work on illustrating this book?

I think it was about six months, it could have been eight total? It’s weird, I don’t really pay attention to the amount of time from start to finish…I work more deadline to deadline. There are a lot of eyes that need to look at artwork so, there’s a lot of time from start to finish that is spent waiting. That’s why I work deadline to deadline. Usually, I’ve had about a month or 6 weeks to get an editor the first layout/sketches. I’m probably (hopefully! I LOVE being busy!!) working on another project in between. There’s a lot of juggling. The bulk of your time on a picture book is spent sketching and revising. The final artwork is like getting to eat dessert. (Usually about 6 to 8 weeks for finals)

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

Honestly, no. I really don’t have much contact with the authors I work with until after the book is done. I think that separation really helps to let the illustrator see the book for themselves. I think having an Editor or an Art Director in between the author and the illustrator lends to both creators being able to do the best at their jobs. As an illustrator, I might have a different idea of the story than the author. I think working directly with a self published author I would be more worried about making the book look like what they had envisioned rather than being able to explore other visual ideas that the author might not have thought of.

I see you have two Picture book already scheduled for 2021. CATastrophe!: A Story of Patterns by Ann Marie Stephens August 10, 2021 Boyds Mills Press and Hornswoggled!: A Wacky Words Whodunit by Josh Crute  Sep 7, 2021 Page Street Kids. Are you still working on the illustrations?

Nope, I hit send on both of those before the end of 2020. The artwork is usually done around 9 months to a year in advance of the release date.

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

I’ve been working with Highlights for Children (Patrick Greenish is great!) for about the last…wow….maybe 8 years? Wow.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Being able to stay afloat as a full time freelancer for the last decade. (Fingers crossed I can keep that up!)

What is your favorite medium to use?

I love mechanical pencils when I’m just sketching. For final artwork, I’m completely digital now.

Has that changed over time?

Oh yeah, digital artwork completely changed the game for me. I never was able to “finish” a piece that I liked before I started working digitally.

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

Yup and yup. I use a 22HD Cintiq. I’d be lost without it.

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

When I’m doing thumbnails, I always use envelopes and mechanical pencils. Because they are both cheap, I don’t mind tossing them out if I mess something up.

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

No. I’ve learned that somedays I have a good drawing day and somedays I have a bad drawing day. No matter how much I try and push through a bad day, I’m better off just stopping and starting back up another day. Somedays are just better than others.

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

I am a research nerd. I love research. Two things I was told early on. First, you have to know your subject before you start to exaggerate it. You have to know how a giraffe is put together before you start taking it apart. So, I study everything I draw. Second, some kid somewhere knows EVERYTHING there is to know about something you might be drawing, you better get it right or they will tell you why it’s wrong. SMELLY was FULL of research…1930ish clothing, NYC sanitation carts, old gas stations, bulldozers…EVERYTHING had to be researched. I was in heaven. So, yes I research EVERYTHING.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely! First, you can research anything you need to any time. That’s amazing. Then, you have a 24 hour audience for your work. You can share whatever and whenever you want. You can have critique groups from all over. Your art friends are everywhere. I love being able to work with people when I’m sitting on my couch.

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

I just want to keep working. I love deadlines.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m in waiting mode. I have a couple of fun things that I’m waiting on, but I’m taking advantage of the lull and updating my OS, my software, cleaning my office so that I’m ready to hit the ground running.

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 buy my mechanical pencils and envelopes at Discount Drug Mart. I don’t use anything special and nothing tricky. I just play around with digital brushes until I find something I like. (Runny Inkers by Kyle Webster are great inking brushes)

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

Be flexible. Hit your deadlines. Take criticism. Try every revision requested. Explain when you think something doesn’t work. Work well with others.

Jenn, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and showing us your process. I really enjoyed viewing your illustrations. Please let me know your future successes so I can share them with everyone.

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


TWITTER: @jennharknee

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Jenn’s work is expressive and bright. Love it!


  2. Jenn, I love your art! And you know your illustrations for Smelly Kelly just blew me away. This was so fascinating to learn your process and see so much of your incredible work.


  3. Love Jenn’s work! What a great interview too! I’m the same way with early sketches. I love that she uses envelopes!😂 I like to use recycled printer paper or cut off ends of scratch paper that I could also use for making lists. Very cool to see her work process and I appreciated reading which digital brushes she likes.


  4. Thanks for a great interview. Jenn’s work is amazing! She is a versatile artist with an incredible body of work.


  5. Another great interview. Thanks for that. Jenn’s art is so cute!


  6. LOL. The illustration of the baseball team… Love all the movement and color and energy in your work, Jenn. Thanks for sharing with us!


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