Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 8, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Nadja Sarell

Nadja Sarell is an illustrator living in Helsinki, Finland. She graduated with MA in Dance from Theatre Academy Helsinki. Soon after that she moved to a small town in North Wales to study children’s book illustration. She graduated from North Wales School of Art and Design with BA in Illustration for Children’s Publishing in 2004.

Since then she has worked as a freelance illustrator for children’s publishing in Finland and abroad. She loves to teach art, illustration and dance for both children and adults. She is also passionate about surface pattern design and enjoys creating charismatic, expressive book characters.
If Nadja was an animal, she would be a cat living in an old mansion with a large fireplace and a comfy sofa. Her favourite things are her family, music, dancing, black coffee and chocolate.


I draw the line art with different kinds of pencils and crayons. These are usually scanned in grayscale.

I draw a rough with quite a lot of details. A lot of the details have been requested by the author Katie Petruzziello. She has been a great art director as well as an author and publisher.

After I have scanned the different parts of a spread, I clean up the scanned illustrations and start working on the colouring.

The final illustration of Mila’s bedroom with all the details has been really fun to work on! Since the book is based on the real-life Mila and her family, there is also little sister Sofia and our little side character the Purple Cat. I have added patterns and textures that I have created beforehand.


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been a freelance illustrator since I graduated from ”Illustrating for Children’s Publishing” BA course in 2004. I have also done several other jobs and been a stay-at-home mum for my son, so I have only been working as a fulltime children’s book illustrator for the past 4-5 years. I did a degree in dance before realizing that I really wanted to learn about picture book art, visual storytelling and illustration. So I have also taught dance for kids and adults as well as taught illustration and workshops.

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

I think my first paid commission was soon after my graduation. I illustrated a fun book for young girls with tips about games, recepies, sleepover activities, beauty tips and so on. The book had black and white illustrations, and it was for a Finnish publisher.

Have you always lived in Finland?

Yes, apart from the three I lived in Wales, UK when I was studying my illustration degree.

You mention you taught dance and graduated as a dancer with MA in Dance from Theatre Academy in Helsinki. Was dance something you always wanted to do while growing up?

When I was a child I danced all the time! I started dance classes when I was 3 or 4 years old. So I basically grew up with dance and music. But I was also into drawing and creating my own stories and little illustrations. We had lots of books at home as my Mum worked in a large publishing company. I used to cut out illustrations from their catalogues. I loved the smell of books, I still do. So I was also brought up with attention to language, narrative art and beautiful books. I also played classical piano, so when the time came to choose which direction I would take, it wasn’t easy. But I was in love with dancing, so I chose that. I did go to art classes as a child too, for which I’m so grateful for my parents. They gave me the opportunity to do all the things I loved, but it was never forced. I didn’t do any sports, though!

When did you decide you want to study illustration?

I had stopped drawing completely, when I went to Sibelius High School at the age of sixteen. Its’ emphasis is on music and dance, and lots of Finnish musicians have gone through that school. I dropped art and drawing, but continued with dance and piano lessons. So it was a natural choice to continue with dance, although my piano teacher and my Mum might have disagreed! I didn’t draw at all for many years, I simply didn’t have the time. But when I was on my MA year in Theatre Academy, I started to feel that maybe there was something else than dance for me after all. Freelance dancer’s work prospects were not great at all, and I felt the pressure of competition. I don’t think I was cut out for that career in the end. I preferred to create my performances on the paper! So I took 3 months off from the university and took part in a picture book competition. I hadn’t been drawing for so many years, but I wanted to write and illustrate my own story, and there was a deadline to do it. I loved it, even if I didn’t know at all what I was doing; how to make a picture book. There were no online courses at the time, obviously. But I did graduate with my dance degree six months later. I taught dance and worked in a department store and started to take basic art courses. We don’t have illustration degree in Finland, so I started to search for courses abroad. Then I found this course specifically for children’s book illustration and just applied for it. I actually wrote email to the course founder first! I hadn’t done a foundation course, so I had to do a lot of drawing before they let me in. So in 2001 I moved to a small town of Wrexham in Wales. I did have help as my aunt lives in the UK, and I had a boyfriend studying in England at the time.

What made you decide to attend North Wales School of Art and Design to study illustration for Children’s Publishing?

It was the course title, really! How wonderful it sounded, and really was great.

This school sounds like it is in the UK. Did you need to move to go there?

Yes, I moved there for three years.

Did North Wales School of Art and Design help you get work after you graduated?

We did have lots of advice from the tutors and a full portfolio before we left. We took part in New Designers Show in London and I did actually get an agent for a little while afterwards. But I moved back to Finland and started to contact Finnish publishers and joined our Association for Illustrators, Kuvittajat. This was a great way to connect with other Finnish illustrators as I didn’t know anyone.

Were you married at the time?

No, I wasn’t.

You mention that you create surface patterns and card designs for licensing. Was this something you started after you graduated from North Wales School of Art and Design?

I didn’t know or learn about surface pattern design until maybe 2016, when I did Make It In Design online courses and taught myself to use Photoshop and a bit of Illustrator, both of which I had been doing my best to avoid until then. I was really excited about patterns, and it took away my fear of computer software. I had been doing some card licensing before that with original gouache paintings.

What was the first book your illustrated?

It was the book I mentioned earlier, with black and white illustrations. We did create picture books at uni as part of the course, too.

In June of 2019 you illustrated the first Frankie Sparks chapter book series, Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet Did you know it was going to be a four book series at the time?

Oh, Frankie Sparks was so fun! Yes, I knew it was going to be a 4-book series written by Megan Frazer Blakemore.

How did you make the connection with Aladdin?

I got the commission via my illustration agent Astound. Aladdin’s Art Director requested a character sheet of the main character Frankie before hiring me as the illustrator for the series.

How many b&w illustrations did you do for each book?

I think it was agreed to be around 20 illustrations with variety in size.

I love the cover design and illustration that you did for Ada Lovelace and the Number Crunching Machine. Did you ever submit this to NorthSouth Books for consideration?

Ada Lovelace was a project I worked on with Make Art That Sells ”Illustrating Children’s Books” course a few years ago. So it was really a study project, but I have actually received several book illustration jobs from the art I created in that class.

How long have you been represented by Astound? How did you connect with them?

I started with Astound in 2017. I submitted my work for their consideration as I really wanted to find an agent that would help me to get work outside Finland. I contacted a couple of agents, and Astound was very quick in their reply.  I had studied my degree in the UK, so it was a natural step for me.

Was Little Dove and the Story of Easter your first illustrated Christian book?

I had illustrated Bible stories for children for a Scandinavian client before that.

Last month I featured EAT UP, BEAR by Terry Pierce. How did you everyone connected with the book find you. If it was Astound, do you know how they found Yosemite Conservancy?

I was contacted by my agent in late 2019 about this opportunity. We worked together with Nicole Geiger, whose client Yosemite Conservancy is. I was so excited about this book from the very start! I think the client had selected some of my illustrations in a style they were looking for. They were looking for interesting color combinations and lively characters, especially since the general color palette of eg. Yosemite National park is lots of green, grey and brown.

Was this your first illustrated board book?

It was my second board book, I had illustrated Little Dove and the Story of Easter a couple of years earlier.

What do you think helped develop your style?

I think it has been both practice and inspiration. I also have never felt I really have just one style, but many people say they still recognize it’s my work because of my characters and use of color.

I would love to hear more about your studio in the forest. How did you find it? Do you share it with someone?

Haha, I share my home and my studio with the same man, my partner Jussi Kaakinen. He is also an illustrator and graphic designer. We actually met when I interviewed him for an article in Finnish illustrators journal. We live in a cosy suburb in Helsinki, but there is a small forest between our home and our studio. I love that little bit of the nature I see every day! The studio is in a rather boring building, but if you go to the roof you can see the forest and our water tower that looks like a giant mushroom.

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

I do! But I’m also terrified of it, haha. I have written some texts in the past, for my chest drawer.

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

I had actually never considered this option as a possibility, until this year when I was contacted by a first-time author and indie publisher Katie Petruzziello. This was through Astound. Katie had written a picture book about her daughter Mila, who has cochlear implants and who would be deaf without them. Katie had a beautiful, fun story, great presentation and a very professional attitude. I thought about it long and hard, since I had never been commissioned by any other than publishers with their marketing, design and editorial people. Then I simply fell in love with Mila’s personality and the message of the book. I’m working on the illustrations at the moment, and it has been a wonderful process. Sometimes things just click and you know it in your heart! Mighty Mila will be published later this summer and Kickstarter campaign starts in mid May.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Probably the fact that I’m finally illustrating children’s books as a fulltime job. If I single out one projects that I’m really proud of, it would be illustrating four nonfiction picture books for Wren & Rook, who are an imprint of Hachette Children’s Group. These picture books are written by Dr Shini Somara, who is a mechanical engineer and TV presenter and a big advocate on women and girls in STEM. Two of the books have been published so far, and two more are yet to come.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I enjoy all! I used to paint in gouache, oil pastels or mixed media, but now I’m combining drawing on paper and working on the computer. This makes the process a lot faster. There is usually never enough time to work on a single book project.

Has that changed overtime?

I used to be 100% traditional artist, and I still can’t cope with drawing on a pad, I’ve tried…But I think it’s really beneficial to have the traditional background.

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

I use Wacom tablet, but I prefer the one where you have to look at the computer screen. This is so  much more ergonomic for my neck and shoulders.

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

I use a lot of different kind of pencils and crayons,  gouache, ink and collage that I combine with digital tools. I’m a huge art supply hoarder!

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

No, I don’t really think about it that way.

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

Yes, I love the research part! When I worked on the STEM picture book series I had to learn about everything from elevators and escalators to computer motherboards and inventors, scientists and mathematicians. When I saw an airplane from the right angle or a building site with a crane, I took my phone out. I illustrated a nonfiction picture book about bats last year, and I love the opportunity to spend time at the Finnish Museum of Natural History archives.

If I don’t do the research properly, I somehow feel that I’m not qualified to illustrate it.

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

I’m still to write my own picture book!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on Mighty Mila picture book illustrations and creating work for the educational publisher Heinemann, as well as reading manuscripts for a couple of chapter book series I work on in Finland. I just finished a packaging illustration for a large Finnish client, which was something very different from books.

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.

My favourite paper to paint on is thick Fabriano hot press watercolour paper. Last year I bought myself Holbein acrylic gouache paints, but I haven’t yet had enough free time to really try them out properly. Whenever I’m abroad I find a local art supply store and see if they have some great products or good brushes. I have a big selection of handmade Nepalese papers that I bought from a business that used to be in my studio building before they moved out.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

Well, number one tip is to never work for exposure only. But I hope they already know that! Read your contracts, ask advice from colleagues, enjoy your own art projects and take care to take time off too.

Nadja Sarell – Photo by Linda Manner

Nadja, thank you for taking the time to answer the interview questions and showing us your process. Please let me know about your future books and successes so I can share them with everyone. 

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




Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks so much for the interview!


  2. Wow! Your work is magical! Kathy, I’ve said it before, I love your illustrator Saturday posts. We usually go through and choose our favorites (never just one favorite because that would be too hard) but this time we choose them all. I love they way you create realistic people and the color palettes you use.


  3. Nadja’s work is perfectly enchanting. Thanks for a beautiful post, Kathy.


  4. So much color and beauty! I love Nadja’s style. This post is full of fun illustrations!


  5. These Illustrator Saturdays are amazing, SO many beautiful works shared and Nadja’s are absolutely gorgeous!


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