Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 22, 2021

Illustrator Saturday – Fia Kilbourn

Fia is a freelance illustrator who has been filling the world with rainbows through her art and sartorial choices since she was a little girl in pigtails. She loves to create illustrations, hand lettering and surface pattern designs bursting with color. As a former graphic designer, she has an eye for design.

Her published works include My Trip to the Alphabet Zoo written by SueAnn Kiser available at and upcoming 2021 release, Joy the Pandacorn written by Maggie Lauren Brown. In 2017, I was awarded honorable mention in the SCBWI San Francisco North & East Oktoberfest Portfolio Showcase.

When she is not expressing herself through art, she also knits, crochest, and I is known to boogie down anytime a good song plays anywhere, even the grocery store aisle.​


I illustrated Joy the Pandacorn with Procreate exclusively, so I’ll show you how I took a spread featuring a sweet moment Joy has with her parents from start to finish. I often have two steps to my thumbnails. At first I will create a really small, really rough thumbnail. I’m just looking for the big shapes, not details. It’s like drawing in shorthand. I’m just taking notes. This will become more refined as it progresses but it’s good to work out the design and composition in the beginning because it is much harder to fix later.

[First thumbnail]

I will then copy and paste this thumbnail into a slightly bigger thumbnail template and start refining the shapes and add a tiny bit of detail, but still really loose and focused more on composition.

[Second thumbnail]

Once I like the composition, I will copy and paste that thumbnail into the actual size of my final art. It might be a little pixelated because of the size difference but I’m still concerned mostly with composition. I will bring down the opacity of the layer and create a separate layer for my final sketch.


[Final sketch]

When I have the final sketch which will have much more detail, I will again adjust the opacity of that layer to be more transparent and then start a layer for painting. I mostly paint in a three part process. I say mostly because I am always open to experimentation and play so I can discover some happy accidents. The first part is where I will lay down the flat color on one or more layers. I usually use multiple layers for painting because I will treat different areas with different techniques in the next stage. Layers are one of my favorite things about digital art. For example, I knew I was going to work with background, middle ground, and foreground layers for the bamboo to give it some depth so each one got its own layer.

When I have the flat color the way I want it, I will turn off my sketch layer and create a new layer for my line work. I will also clean up any of the flat color shapes that need it before moving on. I try not to refine too much because then I might lose some of the looseness and spark of my sketch.

Next, I will add two clipping layers on top of the flat color. Clipping layers are great because anything you paint into these layers will only show up on the layer they are clipped to. This is great for texture and shading because you don’t have to stay within the lines. You can try techniques like stamping the texture and not have to worry about erasing what paint goes outside the shape.

[Texture Clipping Mask]

The first clipping layer will be to add texture and I have a few methods for this. It really depends on the look I want. I have some crunchy and splatter type texture that I used on the bamboo by just stamping them in places by tapping my Apple pencil on the screen. I have some soft fuzzy textures that I used on the unicorn’s mane with more of a wash technique that I brush on. I also sometimes like to add dry brush textures or hatched pencil textures. Texture is so important for digital art. Digital art can look dull and lifeless and this texture will add warmth to your artwork.

The second clipping layer I use is for shading. I often set this to the Color Burn blending mode and just use tones of grey for the shading. This is a really simple technique to get the shading to match the base color. Sometimes I will want a warm or cool tone to your shading, so I don’t always use color burn.

[Final Art]

After I have finished the flat color, the line work, the texture, and the shading, I will step back from the piece and scan for details I missed. Places to add maybe some highlights or some warm tones. Maybe some pencil scratch marks because I always love to throw in some scratchy pencil marks. I’ll add any last minute details or tiny refinements. I don’t want to make too many changes that will tighten up the illustration and make it too neat. Finally, I will send it to Photoshop to give it one more look on my computer screen since it’s much bigger than my iPad screen. I think my process is often changing based on new things I’m learning or new things I want to play with but this is my current process.


How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been illustrating professionally for about 10 years, but drawing has been one of my first joys in life.

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

It’s really hard for me to remember the first piece of art that I sold. Before pursuing illustration as a career, I was in graphic design and the line between what I was doing as a designer and illustration was somewhat blurry. I do remember when I decided I wanted to become an illustrator, the first item I sold was a pair of baby leggings on Art of Where to a sweet Instagram follower who sent me a photo of her baby wearing them! I melted from cuteness. It was such an amazing moment.

Did you attend an art school to study art? If so, where did you go and what did you study? If you are self taught, what type of things did you do to improve your skills?

I graduated with an associates degree from a two-year graphic design program in Columbus, IN in my 20s and I can say that definitely still informs the decisions I make in my illustrations to this day. I still remember the things my instructors taught me not only about design principles, but also how to create a fulfilling career and how to generate ideas and inspiration. After that, I went on a long roundabout path through a BA in English and a slight detour into an MA in TESL that I didn’t complete, then on my way to motherhood and finally to illustration. Since I started pursuing illustration later in life, I wasn’t interested in going back to school so I have sought out teachers outside of a traditional art school. I just love this era of online connectedness and if there is an online class available, chances are I’ve taken it. I’m like a sponge soaking up all the knowledge out there.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue illustration?

I took some time off from freelance graphic design when my first child was born. When I was thinking it was time to start looking for jobs again, I just didn’t feel excited about it anymore. Around that same time, my kiddo, who was a toddler at that time, was always asking me to draw things for them. It’s how I found my way back to my first joy in life. Of course, this required a lot of work to learn what it meant to be an illustrator, what gaps I needed to fill in education, what markets excited me. There was a lot of exploration and discovery in those early years. Honestly, there still is!

Did you take any online courses for illustrating?

Yes, I took a lot of online courses. So, so many! I’ve taken classes with Make Art That Sells, Society of Visual Arts, random classes on Skillshare, you name it. Most recently, I took The Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books from The Children’s Book Academy twice and it really helped me to channel all that I had learned up to that point into a path toward working in children’s books. I’m very grateful for the opportunities I received from that class. I got feedback on my portfolio and website. I won a Golden Ticket which put my work in front of art agents. And the second time taking that class, I got my first picture book contract for Joy the Pandacorn written by Maggie Lauren Brown coming out this summer!

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

Since I was doing a lot of self-discovery and just trying to understand all that a career in illustration could be, most of my work early on was creating patterns and designs that I sold on print-on-demand sites such as Society6 and Art of Where.

Did you do freelance graphic art while working?

I did not. When I was staying home with my kids during their early years, I was really given space to grow and explore illustration. I am aware that it is a very privileged position to be in and I’m very grateful for that.

Have you designed greeting cards?

I have, but I haven’t ever put them out there. I personally prefer to buy humorous cards and I’m not quite confident enough in my sense of humor to feature it on a greeting card.

Do you sell any of your illustrations on the Internet?

Not currently. I have in the past and I want to again so maybe soon.

Did you ever do any art exhibits to help promote your art?

I did participate in a local exhibit in San Jose, CA a few years ago and I think it would be fun to connect with local artists in that way again.

When did you decide to focus on Children’s illustration?

I went to my first SCBWI Summer Conference in 2017. There are many markets I am interested in as an illustrator and children’s books has always been one of those markets. It was at that conference that I found a great community that I wanted to be part of. The earnestness and desire to create art for children was so infectious then and even now.

How did you get involved in doing the art work for My Trip to the Alphabet Zoo written by SueAnn Kiser at Shutterfly?

Shutterfly reached out to one of the local SCBWI chapters that I’m involved in to have a meeting about a new product they were launching. I attended the meeting and left my postcard with them. They contacted me a few months later and asked for a few sketches. They liked the sketches and I got the contract!

Is JOY THE PANDACORN the first picture book you illustrated?

While My Trip to the Alphabet Zoo is a children’s book, it is also a personalized product and the process for creating it was much different. In that sense, yes, Joy the Pandacorn is my first traditional picture book.

How did you get the job to illustrate the book?

My second time taking The Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books, Mira Reisberg, the art director and Maggie Lauren Brown, the author liked the work I was creating for that class and felt like it was the perfect fit for the story that Maggie was writing. Working with both Mira and Maggie has been such a wonderful experience and I’m happy that I got to bring such a loveable character to life on a very supportive team!

Would you like to find representation?

Yes, I am looking for representation! I fully acknowledge that there are parts of this job that don’t come naturally to me and I think it would be wonderful to partner with someone who enjoys those aspects of the work.

Did you take pictures or do research before you started illustrating this book?

Sometimes I think if I had another life, I would love to be a researcher. The great thing about illustrating is that I get to do that as part of the job. I love that stage of the process. Sometimes, it will be learning about the animal a character is based on, sometimes it will be “shopping” for all the items in the environment. For Joy the Pandacorn, Mira stressed how I really needed to bring in the adorable factor for the main character. So I went around and took pictures of all the toys in my house that were adorable to analyze what made them adorable.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own children’s book?

I do have some story ideas that I would love a chance to put into the world. I’m still developing my writing voice, but the ideas I have are special enough to me to continue to strengthen that. I have a story with the working title, The Sidewalk Gardener, loosely based on an eldery neighbor I once lived near who tended a garden on the sidewalk in a condo community. It was impressive how he was able to get plants to grow there in this small space on the pavement. At the heart of my story is elderly loneliness, intergenerational friendship, and building community.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

That is not something I’m interested in at this point.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines?

No, but I would love to! Isn’t it amazing how many wonderfully illustrated magazines there are for kids these days? Illustoria, Bravery, and Honest History are some of my favorites.

What do you think helped develop your style?

I think the design principles that I learned in my graphic design program are very much a part of my style still. I also think taking the time to really study and pick apart the artists that inspire me has helped me understand what I like about their work and how I can bring those ideas into my own work. My love of color always comes through in everything I do. My pieces are very vibrant because I just love color. I also love to hand letter. It started out as a way to decompress at the end of my work day but it gradually made its way into my work and now I’m always looking for ways to include it.

Do you have a studio in your house?

I do! Though since the pandemic, I now share the space with my husband and oldest child. It was hard giving up that private space for creating but I know we have all had to make sacrifices and shifts in our lives over the last year.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Wow! Hmm. I think that each new opportunity just keeps getting better. Personal growth and development is so important to me that I often don’t look back. I like to keep pushing forward and so to me that’s what is exciting and successful.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I almost exclusively use Procreate these days. Sometimes, I will do some finishing work in Photoshop. Digital art has opened up a lot of freedom for me in so many ways. Of course, I’m always playing with my work to make my digital art look more like traditional media.

Has that changed over time?

I started out with watercolor. I actually finished a whole graphic novel for a non-profit organization in watercolor really early in my career. The graphic novel was never distributed though because the client and I really struggled to digitize the work for print within their budget. It was a big disappointment and it was around that time that I also discovered Procreate. I think that has had a big impact on how readily I embraced digital art.

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

I use an iPad for illustrating.

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

Mostly an iPad, Procreate, Procreate brushes from Bardot Brushes, Jingsketch brushes, and Maxpacks brushes. When I work in traditional media, I really like soft watercolor pencils like Caran d’Ache, Copic markers, Tombow markers (for lettering), and any paper. Newsprint is fun paper because I think sometimes the tone of it makes it less intimidating than a blank white sheet.

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

I think a daily routine can be helpful for a lot of people, but I personally find that it is too binding. I think craft is more than just the hand skills of drawing. There have been times in my life when caring for my family has made it hard to stick to a regular schedule of drawing because I really need to be alone in my own private space to do that. However, I have found other skills that I did during those times such as nail art, makeup, knitting and crocheting that trained my hands in ways that made it into my art when I was able to come back. With that said, whenever I have had to take these breaks, there is always a period when I have to be gentle with myself because it feels a little rusty. However, I have found that I have put in enough hours in the past that the rusty period is very short lived.

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

For me right now, I just want a steady career being able to do what I love doing. But I’m always open to what life might lead me to.

What are you working on now?

Great question! I’m wrapping up homeschooling my third and sixth graders which was something I never set out to do but became necessary for the mental health of my kids during the last year. After I sent the final art for Joy the Pandacorn to Mira, I took the rest of the school year off from illustrating. Now that summer is on the horizon and we’re confident that our kids will be back to in person school in the fall, I’m looking forward to the freedom to get back to illustrating. I’ll be promoting Joy the Pandacorn with Maggie which will be a fun new thing for me to learn. I will also start working on some new portfolio pieces and looking for representation.

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.

Skillshare is a great place to learn the ins and out of Procreate. There is so much it can do if you know how to do it. Honestly, any material you are using, give yourself permission to play with it. You don’t have to use it the way it was intended to be used.

Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

Find a community of artists. Also, find a critique group! I am the artist I am today because of my wonderful critique group. It’s such an important part of development to have people who know what to look for giving you constructive feedback on your work. Family and friends are going to tell you it’s great. A good critique group is going to tell you it’s great and it could be better if you considered making this change.

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








  1. Very cute. I love the bandas.


  2. Love the colors and movement in your illustrations! Thanks for sharing with us!


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