Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 27, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Cynthia Cliff

Cynthia grew up in a tiny, historic village in rural Virginia, surrounded by simple living, animals and gardens, and a large extended family—all of which provided her with a love of history, family, nature, and folklore—themes that find their way into much of her work. This upbringing fuels her optimistic, whimsical, folk-art based style and aesthetic to this day.

She started her professional illustration career in 2019, after years of living many other lives, including a career as a graphic designer. Illustration was something that she’d always wanted to do, but never had the time or opportunity to pursue. Since 2019 she has illustrated for magazines—including two issues of Honest History, for a toy company, and her first authored and illustrated book “Pie for Breakfast” is out in Spring 2021. She is currently working on her second authored and illustrated children’s book.

She lives just outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband and not nearly enough animals.


I work traditionally and I also work in Procreate. The Procreate steps I’m sharing are for a page from my “Pie for Breakfast” book. I rarely take photos of my traditional work steps, but I’ll share what I have.

Procreate Steps:

Step 1: For picture book work, I create character studies and think about colors I want to use. The sketches I’m showing are some of the characters I developed for a recipe in the “Pie for Breakfast” book about two brothers.

Step 2: I use the character studies to create thumbnails specific to the story. The thumbnails are so the art directors can see my general idea for the page, they are tiny and without a lot of detail (this step is not shown). After approval of a thumbnail, I’ll work on more elaborate sketches for the art directors to see and approve. The sketches I’m sharing with you show the baking steps for one of the recipes.

Step 3: The finished artwork is created by using the rough sketches as a template. Flat color is laid down first, then I build all of the details on top, layer by layer, so it is easy to make changes later.

Traditional Steps:

Step 1: My traditional work follows the same steps as my Procreate work. I start with character studies and thumbnails (those steps are not show here). After a thumbnail is approved, I’ll complete a more formal sketch for the artwork, either in Procreate or on paper for approval.

Step 2: After my sketch is approved, I’ll start painting with gouache. If I make the sketch in Procreate, I’ll print it out and transfer to paper. I will often use toned paper because it provides a nice under-layer of color, which gives my work an earthy and rich feel, but I also paint on white paper.

Step 3: After the paint has dried I’ll add details with colored pencil, crayons and markers. I try to be fairly loose during all stages and just have fun.

Step 4: I’ll scan the final illustration into Procreate where I might polish up some details or play a bit with the color. In some cases, I’ll divide up parts of the illustration into different layers so that I can play around with colors independently for each layer.

Illustrator Saturday Interview with Cynthia Cliff:

How long have you been illustrating?

I could divide up the art-making phases of my life into two different eras. The “younger years” for when I was an arty, crafty child and 20-something, and the “later years” when I started drawing in 2016. In between those two time periods were over 25 years of not making art of any kind. When I started to draw again just a few years ago, I had very little to build on from my youthful art making. So, I began by just drawing something every day. After a couple of years, I felt more comfortable with drawing in general and started to gravitate toward an illustrative and story-telling approach. There is no hard line to when illustrating started to happen, but maybe around 2017-2018.

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

I did get paid for a drawing or two when I was a teen. Does that count? Then, in 2019 I got paid for a series of illustrations for Honest History magazine “The War of the Currents”—my first significant illustration job.

Where did you study graphic design?

I actually went to a community college for two years because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took a lot of general, academic classes there. After that, I went to a very small college in West Virginia, near where I grew up, to get a 2-year degree in graphic design. I was the first person in my large extended family to go away to college, and so I chose to go somewhere close by. Eventually, I was able to combine all of that course work to get my BA in graphic design.

Did the school you attended help you get work when you graduated?

If you mean did the school actively help us get interviews, then I’d say no. The school did have us all join the Art Director’s Club in Washington DC and we went to DC all of the time, so, I eventually ended up there working as a graphic designer.

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

As a graphic designer I did all kinds of work—logos, magazines, brochures, annual reports, and posters. For illustration, since I’m just now at the beginning of this career, I’ve illustrated for magazines, Eeboo Toy Company, and for Prestel.

Have you illustrated any greeting cards?

No, but wouldn’t that be fun! If anyone is listening…

What a treasure to be the keeper of generations of family photos. Have you ever used them to inspire an illustration?

Yes, sometimes. Knowing a bit about their lives, hearing their stories, visiting where they lived, and owning some of their belongings—those are the things that really inspire me.

What inspired you to decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

As a small child we lived in an old farmhouse in the middle of cornfields and my mother did not drive. My world was very small. But my parents had a friend who taught elementary school, and he was always bringing over books. The books made the little world in my head suddenly very big. They were exotic books to me—African folktales, a children’s history of flowers, a richly illustrated children’s poetry book, and many, many more. I was only 4 or 5 but I still remember the awe and wonder I felt looking at those books. At some point as a child I thought I wanted to be part of that in some way. After I started drawing a few years ago, I remembered that dream and I made it a goal.

Did you take any children’s book illustration classes since you started on this road?

Yes, I have. In 2018 I started seeking out on-line illustration classes of all kinds. I did take the Make Art That Sells Children’s Book Illustration course which runs around 4 weeks long. I have taken that a couple of times.

Pie For Breakfast is coming out in April from Prestel Junior. How did that contract come about?

Ok, this is a hard to believe but true story. I was on a weekend trip to an historical site for my birthday, and while waiting for a tour to start I checked email on my phone. There was an email from Prestel asking me if I’d like to write and illustrate a baking book for children. Best birthday present ever!

I visited their website and notice it is available in another language. Is that German?

Did they publish this version first and then decide to publish it in English? My original contract was for doing both the English version for the UK and USA markets, and a German version. I had to avoid drawing any lettering in my artwork because of this. I’m hoping that it gets published in other languages and we are working on that.

Have you illustrated any books for other writers?

Not yet, but I’d love to! I’ve only illustrated the one book so far, but I’m starting work on my second authored and illustrated book now.

You have a lot of beautiful detailed illustrations. Was your work always that detailed?

I guess so. Although I’ve not been doing this for very long I do love art that is packed with many things to look at. I love textures, patterns, fuzzy bits and blobby, splashy things. As a child I gravitated to the books that had lots of detail so I could go back to them over and over, and always see something new.

Was The Telling of the Bees used with a magazine article?

No, it was just a self-assignment to practice. Growing up, my family had a friend who was a beekeeper, and I remembered him telling us about this bit of folklore. I am fascinated by all kinds of folklore. As a child I was surrounded by people who were superstitious and lived by century old traditions, folklore was a part of their day-to-day lives, and I took notice.

Where was your illustration Shortbread with Edible Flowers used?

I made that for a They Draw and Cook challenge, just for fun. But that’s how you learn.

What magazine published the illustrations you show for Honest History: War of the Currents? Since you show four illustrations, it looks like it was used for a long story.

I’ve been fortunate to illustrate two issues for Honest History children’s magazine. One was about Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison in “The War of the Currents” issue, and another issue was about Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carson. I made a total of 14 illustrations for each issue, including the covers. They were both wonderful projects! If I were not an illustrator or a designer I’d probably be involved in history in some way. There are three archeologists in my immediate family, so the love of history runs deep.

Was the illustration Maine Cottages and Hotels used as an ad for Maine?

No, it was part of a large body of work that I made while on a summer trip to Maine. I was so relaxed and inspired. It was kind of a game changer period for me. On that trip we took our elderly dog with us, so we couldn’t stay away from the cottage for very long. While stuck there I was able to make a lot of art. Luckily our house was right on the Frenchman’s Bay, and we had our own beach—not a bad place to be stuck all day!

I also notice that you have many illustrations with recipes and or connected to food. Has food always played a big part in your work? What is the story behind this story?

Food is the universal connector and I think that making food is just another way to be creative. I have many powerful memories that involve growing food, foraging for food, learning to cook and bake, and very large extended family gatherings around a meal. The things that we choose to eat reveal so much about what we think is important, about our culture, experiences and upbringing. Food is beautiful, nurturing, filled with meaning and memories. I love the history and folklore that surrounds food.

How did you connect with your agent Kathleen Rushall at Andrea Brown?

I had a little flurry of agents reach out to me, but none of them felt quite right, and none were not on my top-ten wish list of agencies. I thought, “If there are people interested in me, maybe I should just reach out to some of my dream agencies and see what happens.” So, that’s what I did, not expecting anything. But Andrea Brown Literary got right back to me, and I was lucky enough that Kathleen was able to take me on.

Do you think you will write and illustrate another picture book?

Yes, I do because I am working on one now! I certainly hope that there are many more picture books in my future. I do have 3 or 4 stories that I’m working on, and I am excited about them.

Have you ever tried doing a wordless picture book?

Not yet, but I could see myself doing that.

Do you have a studio in your house?

I do. For many years I’ve had a design studio outside my home. I’ve had studios all over Washington DC, then in Alexandria, Virginia. Now, I have a studio at home that I share with my design and illustration businesses. It’s filled all kinds of talismans, plants and books. It’s small and cozy, but gets lots of light and is a wonderful place to create.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s Magazines?

If so, who? For children’s magazines I’ve only worked with the Honest History so far, again, illustration is a fairly new thing for me. I’d absolutely love to work with others. I have worked for adult magazines, like Sweet Paul magazine. I turned “Sweet” Paul into a paper doll. We are all children at heart after all, aren’t we? Who doesn’t love a paper doll?

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

Unfortunately, probably not. My time is so limited and I have to be fairly selective about what I can work on based on many factors. For the most part, self-published books don’t have the budgets to cover the huge investment in time spent on creating the artwork. They also don’t have wide distribution networks, so very few people would get to see the work.

What do you think is your biggest success?

As it relates to illustration I’d have to say my first book “Pie for Breakfast.” I’ve never worked so hard and for so long on any one project, and I’m really happy with the result.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Right now, I really love gouache painting. I finish off the paintings with colored pencils and crayons then scan them and pull them into Procreate to adjust colors and some details.

Has that changed over time?

Yes. When I first started drawing in 2016 I was using the materials I had at hand—some old pastels and my children’s colored pencils. Eventually I bought some more professional grade versions of these dry materials. In 2019 I got an iPad because I was having a lot of back problems (lots of illustrators deal with this). With the iPad I could lie down and draw, so I did that for a while until my back got better. But, I felt that the iPad was robbing me of some of the unique qualities in my traditional art. In the fall of 2020 I took the plunge and bought some good quality gouache paint and I fell in love with painting. I’ve hardly done any painting in my life, so it’s a new experience and I’m still learning. I’m also enjoying combining the traditional and the digital work, and think I’ve stuck a nice balance between the two mediums.

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

I use an iPad. I tried a Wacom for a bit, but don’t enjoy drawing in Photoshop.

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

I use traditional materials and an iPad, as discussed. I sometimes use a Wacom tablet to work in Photoshop on an iMac. I also have an Epson scanner, which I couldn’t live without.

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

Oh, my yes! I’m so addicted to art making. I do have graphic design work too, but I squeeze in as much illustration work as I can, usually 5-7 hours in addition to my design work. If the design work is slow, I’ll spend 8-10 or more hours making art. In the picture I sent you for this question, is a pile of paintings that I made during the month of November. It usually takes 2-3 days to make one painting, longer if it has a lot of detail.

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

Yes, I do a fair amount of research. I really enjoy it. You can totally go down a rabbit hole though, so I try to set a time limit on it.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, I do. All of the professional work I’ve gotten so far has been through Instagram. I try to regularly post process videos in my story and try to post 3 or so times a week. The community there has been really supportive and gracious. It can be a real time suck though, so I stay off it as much as possible.

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

Other than illustrating lots of picture books, I’d really enjoy illustrating for packaging, for adult books, magazines for children and adults, maybe some surface art for products. There are so very many things I’d love to do! It makes me happy just thinking about all of the possibilities.

What are you working on now?

I’m making some videos for the book and setting up author’s visits. I’m also starting work on my next authored/illustrated children’s book and I can’t talk about that yet, but it’s very exciting. I’m also polishing up a story idea that I hope to send to my agent soon.

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 already talked a lot about the materials I like to use in general. For colored pencils I love Prismacolor Premiers and Derwent Inktense, and I use Caran d’Ache Neocolor wax pastels. For gouache I use Holbein Acryla. I use various kinds of markers and pens for fine detail, brands like Micron and Faber-Castell. I love Prismacolor Ebony graphite pencils for sketching and soft line work. I use many different kinds of paper, most of them heavy and with a smooth or vellum finish which is perfect for mixed media. I often use toned sheets in gray, tan or cream.

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

Well, I wouldn’t say I’m successful yet, but I’m working on it! To be good at anything takes a ton of practice, so draw and create as much as you can, and keep experimenting. Have fun when you do it—you’ve got to be in love with art-making and a bit obsessed about it I believe. Next, study your art heroes, really look at it and analyze their work. Look at the marks they make, what colors and materials they use, and think about why you like it—but don’t copy. Also, and this is the most important thing, think about what makes you unique, not just your art, but you personally. Making art is personal. I love nature, history, and scenes from everyday life, and that shows in my work. If you can connect your art to yourself in some way—your journey in life, the places you’ve been, the things you’ve experienced, your beliefs—then your art will be unique. In the uniqueness you will find your own personal voice, and it won’t be just another version of someone else’s voice. As James Joyce once said “In the particular, lies the universal.” Finding your own style is what every artist craves—that secret sauce that makes your art desirable by many because it is different. Finding your art voice is like building a puzzle. In go the bits and pieces including your influences, your own personal journey, the materials you choose, and all of your practice and hard work. What you will get is your own voice and art making practice—your very own secret sauce.

Cynthia, 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 Cynthia’s work, you can visit her at:




Talk tomorrow,



  1. WOW – Beautiful! Cynthia, your work is very inspiring! Thanks for sharing!


  2. Your illustrations are just lovely, Cynthia. Thank you for sharing.


  3. Wow. This is one of the most beautiful posts I’ve ever seen. I tried to pick out a favorite, but but I loved all the illustrations! The interview, as always, was fun and interesting. Thanks!


  4. Thank you Kathy!


  5. Gorgeous! I love the magical feel to your illustrations, the bright colors, and all of the details! I could look at them all day. Thanks for sharing with us!


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