Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 12, 2022

Illustrator Saturday – Gabriella Vagnoli

Gabriella Vagnolli was born in Pisa, Italy, from a Brazilian mom and an Italian dad. With my heart already divided between two countries, she decided to add a third by falling in love with an American man and moving to the United States to be with him. Gabrielle is now raising two beautiful multicultural boys that think, like me, that the world is after all a very small place. 

Maybe because of her background, communication has always interested her in all shapes and forms: before becoming an illustrator, She studied languages and theater and worked in entertainment, travel and language instruction.

Gabriella has a BFA in Children’s Book Illustration from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and a BA in English and Spanish Language and Literature from the Universita degli Studi di Pisa.

In 2020 she won the SCBWI ILLINOIS Prairie Prize for the fall conference “Full Zoom Ahead” with my space themed illustration.


I usually start with a very rough draft, just to set down what will go on which page and how the whole book will flow. This is a great time to discuss big changes with the editor/art director and to establish general composition of each spread or page.

Once the rough draft is approved I create a clean line sketch. This is also a good point for some changes and to spot mistakes.

<The last part is just coloring: in this example it is a black and white illustration, but it is a great way to establish value in a color illustration. When I do color I try to establish my palette ahead of time, usually starting from a complementary or split complementary theme and I am leaning more and more toward limiting my palette in that sense.

I start by blocking out the shapes with an opaque gouache brush and then I go over them with a texture brush, depending on the book it could be another gouache or watercolor, using the previous block as a selection mask. Finally I go over everything in multiply mode for shadows.


How long have you been illustrating?

I have been drawing since I was young, but I didn’t take my passion as a serious possible profession until I came to the United States. I think this is a country where the idea of pursuing a dream job is encouraged a lot more than Italy.

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

I think it was an illustrated Christmas card for some friends.

What made you decide to attend the Universita degli Studi di Pisa in Italy to get a BA in English and Spanish Language and Literature?

It was a combination of realism and passion: I loved Shakespeare plays and languages in general, but also, at the time, it seemed like there was a lot of demand for English teachers in school so I thought it would make for a stable job.

How did you meet you husband?

We met backpacking in Scotland. I like to say that ours was a vacation fling “gone wrong” since they are usually supposed to end with the vacation.

Is that when you left Italy and moved to the US?

No. We actually didn’t see each other again until a few years later, and only then we decided we wanted to try having a long distance relationship. A year later I got a visa to come teach Italian to children in the US to see if things would work out and I never left.

Did you know when you moved to the US, that you would get BFA in Children’s Book Illustration from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design?

No. When I first came to the US I was teaching Italian to children at a school and then at a local community college and privately. I actually used a full immersion method and used to end up drawing a lot of little sketches to help people understand, especially kids. I think that was one of the sparks that got me back into drawing. I was also very lucky to have a husband with a good job that believes in my talent.

What made you choose Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design?

RMCAD had a great online program. While in the post-covid world it might not sound like a big deal, but at the time it was one of the very few art schools that offered a solid online program. I live in a rural area on the outskirts of Chicago and commuting to the city was not an option for me, so RMCAD really opened a possibility for me that would have been otherwise precluded. I am extremely happy I chose it, I had some amazingly talented teachers like Kaz Windness and Brizida Magro and I have learned A LOT from them. I am not sure that I would have been able to do college remotely when I was younger, but as an adult it was just amazing to be given this opportunity.

In 2020 you won the SCBWI ILLINOIS Prairie Prize for the fall conference “Full Zoom Ahead” with your space themed illustration. How long did it take you to did it take you to create that illustration?

Thank you for this question! I think a lot of people don’t think about how long it takes to create an illustration. Since I created that piece in Procreate (that automatically keeps track of such things) I can tell you exactly how many hours it took: 30 hours and 15 minutes. Considering I wasn’t working only on that piece at the time it was spread out over 10-14 days probably.

How was the judging done and did you receive a prize?

The judges for the Prairie Prize were the creative committee for Illinois SCBWI chapter and the prize was that I got to attend the regional conference for free and I got a free critique of my portfolio and of a manuscript. A nice perk: They made a giant banner to use during the conference and after the conference I got to keep it and it is actually hanging on my wall right now. It is a very nice reminder of a success!

What made you want to illustrate children’s books?

I am a big kid at heart, and I always loved illustrated books, but beyond that, there is something about communicating visually that has always interested me. One of the reasons why I always enjoyed learning English in school was that the textbooks were the only ones that were picture-heavy and even used comics to teach kids. One of the reasons I loved Shakespeare and the theater in general was the combination of linguistic and visual representation: reading a Shakespeare play is nothing compared to watching it performed. Children’s books, the good ones, combine picture and image in such a way to create another form of language that is similar to theater and that is just amazing to me.

Was the picture book Two Tortoises in the forest by Bahar Sener your first illustrated book?


How did Bahar Sener discover you?

She didn’t. It was the publisher, Dixi Books, who found me, through social media. The book ended up being published in Turkey, so I can say I am a “world published” illustrator!

Daniel Feels Purple by Fernando Gonzalez III is on Amazon but your name is not hot-linked with the book, so anyone who searches your name will not find this book. Is that something an illustrator can correct on their own?

No, it isn’t something easy to correct. Daniel Feels Purple was a lovely project, created mainly as a tool for the author, who is a therapist, to use with his patients and their families to learn how to deal with emotional outbursts. Since it was a work for hire arrangement I don’t get royalties from it so I don’t worry too much about the whole Amazon credit thing.

I love the cover of Daniel Feels Purple and was excited to “Look Inside,” but nothings inside. Do you know why?

I think because it was not originally an Amazon publishing venture, Fernando used a different service to print the copies he needed to give his clients. Amazon was sort of an afterthought, as I said the book was mostly a tool for his job.

How did you connect with the publisher of The Cayuga Island Kids(Chapter Book Series) by Judy Bradbury?

I submitted my portfolio to the Publisher City of Light Publishing the traditional way, with a postcard.

How did you get the contract to illustrate The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship that was published in April 2021?

Marti Gorman, the owner and editor at City of Light Publishing, liked my portfolio and contacted me and offered me the opportunity to illustrate all three books in the Cayuga Island Kids series. She wanted to be sure she would be working with the same illustrator so that there would be consistency throughout.

I assume The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek was included in that contract, since it came out five month later. Was the third book part of that deal, too?

Yes, it was one contract for all three books and we worked on all three of them in swift succession, within a year and a half.

How did Elena Garcia Dauenhauer find you to illustrate The Very Thirsty Mama and how much interaction she expect from you while working on the illustrations?

I was hired by Elena through the freelancing website Upwork. Working with her, like with other self publishing projects I worked on, has been very straightforward: setting clear expectations and clear milestones with definite deadlines right off the bat usually make for a very pleasant and smooth work partnership. I thought Elena’s writing was really funny and, as a mom, I could definitely relate to many of the struggles of the mom in the book, and I hope I brought some of that into my illustrations.

Did the picture book The Extra Special Birthday Gift by Kim Jayhan change it’s name after you illustrated the book? It is now The Very Special Birthday Gift.

I think Kim is still working on printing that project. She has been having some health issues that have delayed the project. She had published the book before with the same story but she wasn’t happy with it so she hired me to completely redraw it as well as an editor to work on the text. I hope she gets to see it published soon.

I have Kindle Unlimited read Lucy’s Engineering Adventuresbook for free, but it has to be read on the Kindle App. You did a great job with the illustrations. Do you know how the author got their book on Kindle Unlimited?

This was not a self publishing project. This book has been published by ASHRAE which stands for American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and if you are looking for a printed copy it is available at

The book was written by Danielle Passaglia, who is an engineer and a member of ASHRAE and it is part of their educational outreach efforts. While ASHRAE is not a traditional publisher, they publish hundreds of trade books and manuals every year, but this time they wanted to do something that could be used to promote civil engineering as a career for girls. They have their own printer and that is why you cannot get it printed through Amazon.

How did you get the contract to illustrated Let Mommy Poop in Peace?

The author saw my Behance profile, which is funny because Behance is something I never remember to update.

You list Baby Celebrates Both by Caitlin Alexander and Ian Roth as coming out from Beaver’s Pond Press in 2021. Was that pub. Date pushed back?

Yes, while I completed the work last fall,  they decided they wouldn’t have enough time to promote the book before the holidays and since it is a Hannukkah/Christmas book they pushed it back to 2022.

How do you find illustration work?

If you have been reading so far, it really has been a huge mix of experiences. Some of it from social media, some of it through networking, some by sending postcards or emails. Right now though I am really focusing on getting an agent though.

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

Yes, but I had to work to overcome my fear of writing in English. I have one book dummy that is ready and several that are in the works.

Are you still open to working with a self-published author to illustrate their book? Yes and no. At the moment I am working on completely redoing my portfolio and I am also finishing a big project with Blue Manatee Press called “Billie the Brain”. I am also in the middle of a huge move with my family (we are moving from Illinois to Seattle) so I am trying not to take on too much. But if the right project came along I wouldn’t say no to it, time permitting.

I know you will have many successes in your future, but what do you think is your biggest success so far?

I would say it is always the next book! Jokes aside I think illustrating the three Cayuga Island Kids book was a great experience for me because it really gave me the chance to work with character design, consistency and to produce a lot of work on somewhat tight deadlines. It gave me confidence. I am also extremely excited about Billie the Brain, the Blue Manatee press book, I think it’s going to look amazing and I am enjoying working on the non-fiction scientific aspect of it quite a lot, so I hope it will bring me more work of the same kind.

What is your favorite medium to use?

I work digitally, mostly in Procreate but I think that within Procreate there is a world of different media. I have used a lot of the Gouache Max Pack brushes but now I am leaning toward the inky brushes by the Rusty Nib and the Watercolor Max Pack.

Has that changed over time?

Yes, I used a lot more gouache like paintbrushes initially and now I am leaning a lot more toward ink and watercolor.

What type of Graphic Drawing Tablet do you use when illustrating?

I have an Ipad pro.

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

Yes, I work every day between 6-8 hours a day. I have a more flexible schedule, but I try to follow my husband’s schedule since he works from home and he has an amazing work ethic. It is very inspiring for me. We both firmly believe in work-life balance so I try not to work evenings or weekends, because I need to recharge and spend time with my family or pursuing other hobbies.

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

Yes! My kids have posed for me sooooo many times, but unfortunately they are now getting too big, I don’t know what I will do! Sometimes I just look up refernces on the internet, a couple of times I have made clay models of characters and I have even used sketch up ( a basic 3d modeling software) to design a 3d space of a room so I could look at it from different angles.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Absolutely! I would not have been able to go to school remotely and I would not have been able to find any jobs or attend almost any of the SCBWI conferences and events I regularly attend without the Internet. Plus, the internet is how I kept a long distance relationship going with my husband while we were still apart and it is how I keep in touch with my family in Italy.

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

I try to take my dreams one step at a time, right now I really would like to find an agent, and that is what I am focusing on. But if I had to dream big….I would like one of the books I work on here to be translated back in Italian and be sold in Italy as well.


What are you working on now?

I am working on Billie the Brain for Blue Manatee press. It is a book that teaches about the brain and its functions, and it was written by two doctors who are very very particular about scientific accuracy.I had to do a lot of research for it and I have learned a LOT through the process, which for me it is a huge plus. Unfortunately working with doctors during a global pandemic has also meant a lot of delays, but I think we are getting toward the final push now and I am really looking forward to seeing the finished product.

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 work digitally so there are three accessories for the iPad I always recommend: one is a chunky grip for the pen that has saved my hand from becoming a “claw” after hours of drawing; the second one is the Paperlike screen protector for iPad, which makes the iPad less slippery and  a lot more like paper and finally any kind of drawing glove: I didn’t think it was necessary but my iPad is way less glitchy when I use it.


Any words of wisdom for new illustrators?

All illustrators think they aren’t as good as other illustrators, be kind to yourself and keep working at it.

Gabriella, 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.

You can visit Gabriella using the following links:






Talk tomorrow,



  1. 👏🏻❤️👏🏻


  2. Beautiful. I especially love the mom and little boy in the snow saucer.


  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing!


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