Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 20, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Kirbi Fagan

Kirbi Fagan is a Metro Detroit based illustrator who specializes in creating art for readers. She is recognized for her cover art in Adult, YA, and Middle Grade fiction as well as her numerous covers for comic books on projects such as Black Panther/Shuri and Firefly.

Her illustrations are known for their magical themes, nostalgic mood and feminine heroines. Kirbi was traditionally trained as an oil painter but now works in mixed media techniques including digital drawing tools. She received her bachelor’s degree in Illustration from Kendall College of Art and Design.

Outside of creating artwork she is Co-Regional Illustrator Coordinator with the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. Kirbi also teaches illustration at College for Creative Studies in Downtown Detroit.

Represented by Kayla Cichello |


For me, the sketching process is the most exciting. I can often be found in the studio acting out scenes or posing on camera.

At the beginning of the sketch process, I often have a flurry of ideas, curating my concepts down to a smaller

selection is a crucial part of this process.

Sketches for title page “Summer   Of The Tree Army”


In my experience working on covers, I find conversations are more creative if my client has a very clear idea of my vision and what the final will look like. At this stage, I look forward to hearing the team’s thoughts and brainstorming any ideas that can improve the narrative. My sketches leave no surprises and working up the final for me is the easier part of the job believe it or not!


After the sketch is approved, I move on to the final. I have a very traditional approach to how I use digital tools. My students often comment how I call colors by their paint tube name rather than how they appear on the computer. Sometimes, I will paint directly on my digital sketch by mounting it to a board, other times I will paint select areas of the illustration on board or paper to be scanned in, no job isn’t complete until my hands have paint on them.

Interview with Kirbi Fagan:

How long have you been illustrating?

I graduated art school in 2013 and hit the ground running. In the beginning, I was doing small gigs for just about anybody who would pay.

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

Hard to remember as I was also doing commissions while in art school. But I will say, one of my first big breaks was doing the cover for Mocking Bird series for Marvel.

What made you chose Kendall College of Art and Design to get your BA in Illustration?

I took my first year of college at community college and met a wonderful mentor, who encouraged me to check out KCAD. I visited Grand Rapids and I loved the city. KCAD was smaller and less expensive than other competitors too. Best of all, when I looked at the drawing skills displayed on their walls, nothing at other schools really touched that level of craft and it made me eventually choose illustration as my major.

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

Just about anything, but my determination led me in painting covers for adult, middle grade and comics.

Did you take any children’s book illustration classes at KCAD?

I was serious (maybe too serious) about doing covers and I focused a lot on techniques and fundamentals. I didn’t take advantage of children’s book classes. But children’s books was always in the back of my head though…

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

I had been dipping my toe in the children’s work doing middle grade covers. Middle grade was my favorite type of cover to do but my portfolio mostly brought in adult cover jobs. I started to make more middle grade samples and the work followed. The opportunity to do Summer of the Tree Army came out of the blue. When I illustrated it, I loved the flow of my days. I was happier working on longer term projects compared to the fast pace of turning around paintings every week for covers. I was happier with how the work looked too. That’s when I really I shifted my focus to children’s.

What do you think help you develop your style?

It’s ever evolving! At KCAD I was trained very traditionally as an oil painter and that background in deep rooted in every choice I make. I’m not a “draw-er,” it’s something I’m still learning to embrace. I see shape, color and light…  PLAY and experimentation are the keys to finding and developing my voice.

Did the art school help you find work when you graduated?

The kind of jobs I wanted to do was freelance. It was up to me to get out to conventions, meet art directors, find gigs, seek out more education to advance my craft. You don’t get interviews to do this stuff,  you can’t apply, it’s you and your portfolio.

Was Tornado the first book you illustrated?

Actually, I think I did the Wild Tail first. I remember because I was really excited to draw the bear. I had done many covers at this point but this was the first series that I illustrated the insides.

Are these Capstone books, chapter books?

Yes, I did two illustrated series with them.  Survive! (four books) and Dark Waters (four books.) The Survive series are black and white but the mermaid series is painted in color.

How did you connect with Capstone?

I sent some email samples. I sent some postcards. If I remember right, I think one of the ADs who I was sending to gave it to another art director who actually hired me.

What is the latest cover you illustrated?

Jodia Anderson new book. I actually painted this a few years ago… but it’s just coming out now!

Is SUMMER OF THE TREE ARMY your first illustrated picture book?

It is! (Big smile.)

Did your agent, Kayla Cichello at Upstart Crow Literary Agency find this opportunity for you?

I only just recently signed with Kayla, after the book had been illustrated.

How did you make the connection with Sleeping Bear Press?

They were looking for a MIchigan illustrator for the book and found me!

How Long did it take you to illustrate the book?

At the start 2020 we signed the contract. I remember being in NYC for the SCBWI conference in February and I was sketching on the plane.  We finished up in the summer.

How long have you been with Kayla and how did the two of you meet?

We met on a grey hound bus believe it or not! The bus was filled with SCBWI regional team members heading to Lin Oliver’s house. We were seated next to each other and chatted. Fast forward a few years later, we reconnected and it felt right.

How did you get your job teaching at the College for Creative Studies in Downtown Detroit?

I was invited to lunch with some artists in Detroit, to share work, swap stories with other working artists. The next thing I know, I’m grading homework and planning lectures!

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

Very much so and that is why I signed with Kayla!

Have you ever tried doing a wordless picture book?

I have a dummy of one. I still really like the main character… hey, thanks for the reminder!

Do you have a studio in your house?

Our lower level is devoted to our studios. For me, it’s really important that I’m close to my work at all times. My partner is a musician and tinker-er, there is a room for each of us. Though, mine IS bigger! It’s a sacred space for us and we are constantly feeding off of each others energy.

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

I have done a few but they were overseas and quite a while ago.

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

I used to do lots of book covers for self publishers and still do occasionally. However to work on a picture book, it’s a long process and right now I am deeply invested in my own projects, so that time is spoken for.

What do you think is your biggest success?

This may sound anti-climatic but my biggest success is that I keep going. Some people are truly afraid to even get started. I get rejections, I made bad art, I wrote bad stories, I did jobs I didn’t like, I did jobs I did like… I keep going.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Today, I love colored pencils. Tomorrow, I will love cut paper. Monday I will say I love pastel. It’s all gold to me.

Has that changed over time?

The mediums I use have changed over time very dramatically. I started as a purest, in college working in oil was everything to me and in my eyes there was nothing better. But after school, I kept working in oil for covers commissions. I found out the time it takes for oil to dry isn’t compatible with the hard deadlines. (Plenty of artist do make it work, but at the time I wasn’t a strong enough painter.)  It was really hard to scan and send to my art director if the paint is still wet. When clients asked for changes that was really hard to do too! So I picked up a wacom tablet and I didn’t touch traditional paint for YEARS. But when I finally picked it back up I was actually a better oil painter because of painting on the wacom. Now I’m shifted back to mix medium and use what the story calls for.

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

It’s a combination of tools. I start my sketches in digital. Then when I do the final, I choose certain elements to paint in something water based usually. Then I scan those in, place them on top of the digital sketch, and the rest is just really fleshing out what is left of the sketch on the wacom or on paper, whatever it calls for.

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

I don’t. The joys of this career is flexibility! I take full advantage of that. Don’t let me fool you, I put in the time. It’s not something I have to push to do, I’m drawn to be in my studio. I love working and the intensity at which I practice is fierce.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Yes, in that I get to connect with interesting creatives online (like you Kathy!) and have had really great learning opportunities and experiences online. But no, in that no one has ever contacted me saying they found me because of my instagram or anything like that. The internet and how it makes me feel can even be a distraction.

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

This makes me feel very vulnerable telling you my hopes and dreams! Alright, I want to write books. Picture books and graphic novels. And if I’m really honest and vulnerable, I’d tell you that I want my books to say something that makes people heal.

What are you working on now?

I have some snowy scenes on my easel currently… I’m writing up storm, I’m very focuses on my stories right now. I’m preparing to launch my new blog soon. I’m also preparing my lecture for an upcoming Michigan SCBWI conference.

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.

If it feels great, use it. Lots of artists think if they just have the “right” pen or “right” set up they could begin or finally advance their work… but I believe, a well skilled artist could say something beautiful using only the contents of freezer section of the grocery store! Use what you can afford to use comfortably.

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

I tell my students at CCS, to be a racehorse with your blinders on. Figure out what you really, really, really want, in your heart of hearts, get laser focused on that …then keep going.

Kirbi, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and showing us your process. Loved showing off SUMMER OF THE TREE ARMY. Please let me know your future successes so I can share them with everyone.

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




Talk tomorrow,




  1. Wow! I always look forward to these Illustrator Saturday posts. I like so much of the art you shared here, Kirbi but the one with the sunflowers and the children holding paper airplanes took my breath away. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Beautiful and so colorful! Loved looking at your work, Kirbi. Thanks for sharing with us!


  3. Kirbi: So nice to see you and your wonderful art here.


  4. I think there’s also a dreamlike quality to Kirbi’s work. Really lovely!


  5. I have a book of Kirby’s on order and can’t wait to get it. I am in love with the field of sunflowers illustration. Thanks for a beautiful post.


  6. Absolutely wonderful work. So enjoyed reading about your journey and process.


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