Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 15, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Elisa Paganelli

Elisa Paganelli was born in Modena, Italy, and since childhood has considered books to be her best friends. After a career in advertising and as an entrepreneur, she now works as an illustrator, often accompanied by her beloved pets. Elisa’s award-winning books include The Highland Falcon Thief (named a Waterstones Book of the Month), The House with Chicken Legs, and Moon’s First Friends. Her aim is to be involved in sustainable projects, and she feels most at home when she’s out in the natural world. On her bedside table one will find a pile of psychology books, and very often one of her cats. She now live and work in UK as a freelance Illustrator and Creative Designer, accompanied by my beloved pets. Learn more about her at

Elisa attended the Institute of Art and subsequently graduated from the European Institute of Design (IED) in Turin with a degree in illustration. As a post-grad, she worked as an Art director in a communication and advertising agency, and also ran a successful design concept store/studio for six years, which made me win the Ascom Confcommercio award “The idea becomes Enterprise” and CNA “Emerging Women” award.

STEP 1_Reading text and brief

When I am commissioned a new project my approach is at first to carefully reading the text of the book and the brief. In this way I can be inspired by the text by having a clear focus of what the publisher expect from my work in order to hit the market.

Each time I approach a project is like a journey where I see ahead a wide range of possible interpretation and it often comes that moment full of anxiety in front of the blank page. Nothing that a deadline and a clear goal can’t bmake you overcome.

STEP 2_Research

After gathering together a few first ideas I start digging deep into the key elements of the book by making hours of research on Internet.

For June Almeida, Virus Detective! I spent hours researching basically everything, starting from June’s School building, Electron Mycroscope, negative staining process, laboratories of the time and so on.

Research is one of the stages I like the most, because it always gives you the opportunity to learn something new.


STEP 3_The sketches

Depending on the publisher and the marketing department needs I might be asked to work first on the cover and then on the rest, or the other way round.

Both the cover and the internals requires first sketches to be approved by the publisher.

For June Almeida, Virus Detective! I worked on a few cover ideas. (See pics).

Apart from the editor’s indications I received, I’ve been lucky enough to have a certain degree of freedom in choosing the composition and the interpretation of the scene. After the first sketches usually it comes the feedback which might require some adjustements, minor or major.

In my case, on this project I didn’t have to change anything major.

STEP 4_ The colour

After the sketches approval it comes the colouring stage. I usually try to set up a colour palette that I can keep as a guideline throughout the whole book and then with my beloved set of digital painting I start page by page to complete the job. After the client feedback I adjust what is needed and then everything goes in house to the designer which does his magic before printing the book.

Eventually after some time the book comes to my door and it’s just like Christmas!


INTERVIEW with Elisa Paganelli:

How long have you been illustrating?

Drawing is something I’ve always done since when I was a child. I remember accompanying essays and homeworks with illustrations; it was somehow natural even before I could think of it as a real job. Illustration became a real job around 2007 when I used to mix drawings with graphic design for advdertising market.

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

My memory is really bad, but I can track down my very first published book in 2011.

What made you choose the the Institute of Art and subsequently graduated from the European Institute of Design (IED) in Turin with to get your degree in illustration?

I was very determined in following an artistic path; no one could made me change my mind, except for myself! And at some point I was actually changing my mind. When I had to decide what to do after high school I thought to follow one of my greatest passions: psychology. But suddenly an event kept me on my artistic path.

I entered an art shop of my birth town, Modena, in order to fix my exam art project with some materials. Talking to the owner of the shop I mentioned this wonderful illustration school that I wasn’t going to attend in favour of psychologic studies. I remember saying that IED was way to expensive, that I woulnd’t have won the scholarship anyway, and at that point my choice was already made.

The lady of the shop suggested to apply for the scholarship and don’t shut that door. I thought of her words so I aplied for the scholarship at IED and, guess what, I obtained a partial scholarship that made me reconsider my choice, and in the end I moved to Turin.

I’m still a psychology enthusiast, and I keep reading lots of book, and looking for interesting projects that involve mental health themes.

Did IED help you find illustration work before or after you graduated?

The school gave me the basic knowledge to look for a job after I graduated. Lots of things have changed since then, and I’m sure that today the students receive more support.

How did you end up moving from Italy to The UK?

The desire to explore other places and cultures is something that grew with me since when I was little. My dream is to live an itinerant life. UK came as a first choice when my husband received a job offer there as a graphic designer. I didn’t think on it twice.

Did you already know English when you moved?

I did know basic English which gave me the chance to work with foreign publishers before moving to UK. However, as soon as I moved, I started attending a course after the other, in order to improve my language skills. It’s still an ongoing process and I hope to keep improving.

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

I started working as a graphic designer in Advertising industry.

What made you decide to illustrate children’s books?

I have to thank my mentor Antonella Battilani for that. She was my design professor at the High School for the Arts A. Venturi (Modena) and she saw in me that seed, and stimulated me to cultivate and nurture it.

What was the title of your first illustrated book?

“È gelosia, piccolo Tobia!”  (Raffaello Libri)

My art style was very different at that time 🙂

How did that opportunity come your way?

I used to send my portfolio to several publishers, and one day I received this commission via email. I consider that my real debut in childrens publishing, because I never stopped since then.

Were the books Get Outdoors, Exploring Emotions, and Breath by Breath by Paul Christelis August 2018 your first English Language illustrated picture books?

I illustrated several books in English. If I am right the first was published in 2014 by Clever Factory. It was a series of pop-up books.

Have you illustrated other books with Paul or this publisher?

I hope there will be the opportunity to work with Paul Christelis again in the future, but for now we just worked on that series together.

For Hachette I worked also on “How to Build an Orchestra” and they bought the rights of “Breakfast is Served” which was firstly published in Italy by Nomos Edizioni.

The cover you did for The House With Chicken LegsSep 25, 2018 by Sophie Anderson is gorgeous. It makes me want to go out and buy the book. Did Scholastic hire you just to do the cover or did you do some interior art?

I worked only on the internals illustrations for that book, which was wonderful since I loved the story, and working only in black and white was truly inspiring.

The cover was illustrated by the talented Red Nose Studio.

It looks like you illustrated a number of Middle Grade books, titled The Travels of Ermine. How many did you do? Did you sign one contract for the whole series?

I signed a contract for each book, which are three in total.

Sourcebooks Wonderland published Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap for FriendshipJun 4, 2019 by Susanna Leonard Hill. A year later they published MarsFirst Friends. Was this a two-book deal? Do you expect more books to be added to this series?

It would be wonderful to add more titles to the series, but I don’t know what the plans are. Mars as well came as a great surprise because I had signed just for Moon’s First Friends in first instance, and I’m humbled I got to work on what has been a New York Times Bestseller and on another title after that.

How and when did you connect with your Artist Rep at Astound? How long have you been with them?

I’ve been represented by Astound US since 2016 We got in contact after the Bologna Children’s Bookfair and I’ve been offered a contract.

What was the first book contract they got for you?

The very first book was part of the series Wipe and Clean for Usborne Publishing.

The Highland Falcon Thief: Adventures on Trains Jul 28, 2020 looks like it is the first book in a series. How many have you done? Are there more to come?

So far three books of the series have been published, and one more is on its way. Release date in UK: September 2021.

Probably more will come but I don’t want to spoiler for now.

Was How to Build an Orchestra byMary Auld October 2020 a non-fiction picture book?

Yes it was and it’s been done with the support of London Symphony Orchestra.

The Dog that Saved the World (Cup)byPhil Earle came out in March this year (2021). How many illustrations did you do for this book?

14 black and white illustrations, plus the coloured cover artwork.

I just featured June Almeida, Virus Detective!: The Woman Who Discovered the First Human CoronavirusOn Writing and Illustrating. Because of the topic they wanted to get it out in the market quickly. Did you have to rearrange your schedule to do this book?

Luckily the schedule for this book perfectly fitted my calendar, and the publisher was great in setting the necessary time needed for research and artworks. There was absolutely no rush or pressure and we worked beautifully together.

How long did Sleeping Bear Press give you to illustrated the book?

Five months.

How many books have you illustrated?

I once came across an article about my job where they wrote I illustrated a hundred books. I thought it was a mistake, an exaggeration. But after that I decided to count them and I realised that it was true, more than a hundred among pictures books, activity books, board books, fiction etc.

How many cover only books have you done?

About a dozen.

Youve won a number of awards for the books you have illustrated. Which one was your most exciting win?

I think “The Highland Falcon Thief” is the book I’d link more to the joy of receiveing awards. The book itself received awards an not specifically my work as an illustrator, but the fact that the book was so appreciated marks a sort of key point in my career.

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

On 4th February 2021 has been published my very first book as an author and illustrator (“Un albero molto speciale” – Pane e Sale Editore). Weaving together words and illustrations is something I wish to continue doing.

Do you have a studio in your house?

Ha that’s a good question. The house where I live now is so small that it’s basically a studio itself so I can’t really do everything I wish especially when it comes to painting or crafting. I dream of a cabin in the wood where to have a dedicated room for art experiments.

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

Yes I’ve illustrated a Christmas story for Highlights Magazine that made me win the “Illustrator of the Month Pewter Plate Award”.

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

Why not? Life taught me not to shut doors 🙂 Everything depends on timing, and on the topic of the project.

What do you think is your biggest success?

I’m not sure I can speak of success. I see my path as a made by small goals that I reached step by step. Perhaps a big success is still yet to come? A personal joy is when other feel inspired by my career and decide to pursue their dreams.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I’ve always used digital painting for work and I explore different techniques in my spare time.

I’ve had the chance to take part to an exhibition in the past and I tried a variety of techniques such as pyrography, blockprint, and I realised how good I feel when working with paper. At the moment I’m exploring collage.

Has that changed over time?

My art style changed considerably from the beginning of my career, and it’s an ongoing process. The constant is the use of the digital techniques which I’m trying now to mix with traditional ones.

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

Ha yes, definitely. It’s an extension of my arm! I always use my Drawing Tablet which is now old and worn, but I’m too fond of her to replace it.

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

Mostly digital brushes.

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

I make a plan for each day of the week which includes drawing for commissione projects, emails, paperwork (which I hate doing), but I also schedule time for research and new techniques exploration. What I always forget is to schedule resting time, that is useful as much as the active part of the job. I’m still trying to find the right balance.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Internet definitely helped my job flourishing, because it has no geographic boundaries.

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

My goal is to make my work useful. Perhaps focusing on sustainable themes related to environment, animal welfare and human rights.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on the fourth title of Adventures on Trains and a few middle grade fiction books covers. Together with other projects that are still top secret. 🙂

 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.

Jackson’s Art Supplies I think is one of the best online shop I found so far, and I purchased recently Acryla Gouache which I’ve tried for the first time, and I highly recommend also for beginners.

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

As a Zen master once told me: the path is under your feet.

I believe that every human being has a huge source of inner creativity, which can only be expressed if ones avoid to overthink and avoid to shape oneself as something different from oneself. Sometimes we get stuck into our toxic thoughts and we believe in others judgement more than in our heart.

I’ve never had a great support from people around me, not even from most of my tutors , but it’s when I decided to go ahead and follow my heart that things started flourishing.

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

Talk tomorrow,



  1. What a great interview, and fabulous work! Thank you so much 😁


  2. Oh, my. What stunning work. I particularly like the cover for the House on Chicken Legs. Great stuff.


  3. Wonderful work! I love the details and feeling of whimsy. I especially love the tea shop window. 🙂 Thanks for sharing with us!


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