Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 6, 2022

Illustrator Saturday – Ryan O’Rourke

Ryan O’Rourke is a freelance illustrator and educator. He loves the process of solving visual problems in a variety of unique, dynamic ways. Ryan creates his work with a mix of traditional and digital techniques. He specializes in hand-lettering, map illustration, and children’s books. Ryan has illustrated fourteen books to date. His client list includes HarperCollins, Sterling Publishing, Boyds Mills Kane Press, Clarion Publishing, Charlesbridge Publishing, Greenwillow Books, and many more. 

Ryan lives in New Hampshire with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat. He enjoys hiking, gardening, basketball, horror movies, and coffee, lots and lots of coffee. Ryan is also an Associate Professor of Illustration at The Institute of Art and Design at New England College.  


I start with my sketch in blue pencil on graph paper. I go over my blue lines with graphite before bringing it into Photoshop.

I ink my lines in Photoshop using a brush that has a little bit of texture to it. I use a Intuos Pro Wacom Tablet for my work

I lay in a base color and a texture before I start laying in color.

Using a mixture of watercolor and gouache brushes, I lay in all of my base colors.

I then lay in all my highlights and shadows.

I add gradients to accentuate all light sources and adjust brightness and levels.


Interview with Ryan O’Rourke

How long have you been illustrating?

I started working as an illustrator in the fall of 2000.

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

My first job was a full page illustration and 2 spot illustrations for Plan Sponsor Magazine. The art director for the job was SooJin Buzelli. She was a huge help when I was starting my career as a freelance illustrator.

What made you decide to get your Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Illustration from the University of Hartford?

I loved the facilities, the faculty, and the location. Hartford was close to home so I could commute and save money on room and board. I also liked that it was relatively close to New York City.

Did U of H help find a job using your illustrating skills?

In a way, Chris Buzelli was one of my professors at Hartford. He introduced me to SooJin who he was dating at the time. She was willing to take a chance on me and use me for the magazine. Once I got published in Plan Sponsor more freelance opportunities started to come my way. However, the school didn’t have any kind of job placement program. Once I graduated, I had to work extremely hard to find work on my own.

Were you able to immediately start your career as a freelance artists?

It took a few months before I got that first job. Then it took about a year until I was getting steady work. During that time period I ate, drank and slept illustration. If I wasn’t working on a job, I would always work on promotional pieces. I didn’t have much to fall back on for a career so I knew I had to do everything I could to make it work.

What type of things did you do to help find illustrating work?

I spent a lot of time in bookstores looking through magazines for art directors to contact. I built up lists of contacts and then I sent them promotional postcards of my work. Once I started to get some work, I purchased lists of art directors from Agency Access.

What made you return 10 years later to the University of Hartford get your MFA in Illustration?

I went back for a number of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to get my MFA so I could teach full-time. However, I also felt like I needed to make some changes to my process and style. The program at Hartford provided the perfect opportunity to do so. I got the chance to work with some amazing instructors including Gary Kelley, Chris Payne and Nancy Stahl. I also made some great friends in the program.

Did you move to New Hampshire when you took the job as Associate Professor of Illustration at The Institute of Art and Design at New England College?

I did, one of the other students in my graduate program was Jim Burke, the department chair of illustration at the school which was then called New Hampshire Institute of Art. Jim hired me to teach full-time at the school. My wife and I relocated to Manchester, New Hampshire when I got the job.

How did you get the teaching job at The Institute of Art and Design at New England College?

Jim and I became friends when were in the program together. After a year of teaching at the school as an adjunct instructor, commuting from Connecticut to New Hampshire every Friday, a full-time position opened up at the school and I was hired.

When did you decide your wanted to illustrate children’s books?

It was always a goal of mine to illustrate picture books. When I was in school artists such as Lane Smith and Chris VanAllsburg were heroes of mine. I hoped that one day I might have the chance to also illustrate children’s books. It was kind of a surreal experience when I got hired for my first book.

What do you feel influenced your illustrating style?

I was heavily influenced by other artists- Lane Smith, Chris Buzelli, Russell Jones, Calef Brown and many more. When I was in my grad program I was introduced to a lot of other artists that became huge influences such as Alice and Martin Provensen, Mary Blair,JP Miller, and Charley Harper.

I see you are represented by Nicole at Tugeau2. How long have you been with them and how did Nicole find you?

I think it’s been around 2 years. Nicole is great, she’s helped me get some terrific jobs while also helping me mold my style to be more marketable. It’s been a terrific experience. I approached Nicole about representation after I had left my former agency. She got back to me right away and then we quickly started working together.

Was Bella Lost and Found published by HarperCollins in 2014 the first illustrated book you wrote and illustrated?

Yes, it was. The project actually started as my thesis project when I was in graduate school. I was extremely fortunate to sell it to HarperCollins before I graduated.

Did you illustrate a picture book written by someone else before writing and illustrating Bella Lost and Found?

Yes, I had illustrated 3 or 4 books before Bella, Lost and Found.

How did Charlesbridge discover your illustrations and decide to hire you to illustrate One Big Rain: Poems for Every Season that came out in 2014?

I did some illustration work for Antiques Roadshow in 2010 and 2011. My art director for Antiques Roadshow was friends with an art director at Charlesbridge. He recommended me for the job when she was looking for an illustrator. They had also seen my work in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

How many poems did you illustrate for One Big Rain?

Somewhere around 20 poems.

Was Alphabet Trains published in 2015 the first transportation theme illustrated book?

It actually started with Alphabet Trucks in 2013 by Samantha Vamos

Did you know you would illustrate Alphabet Trucks in 2016 when Charlesbidge hired you the previous year for Alphabet Trains?

No, we started with Alphabet Trucks, it went really well so they hired me for Alphabet Trains and then Alphabet boats.

When you signed the contract for Alphabet Trains, was it a two-book deal? 

No, I was hired from book to book.

Had you written and illustrated Bella Up, Up, and Away when you sold Bella Lost and Found? Or did Harper come to you to ask about your writing Bella Up, Up and Awayafter the first book was done?

No, when they bought the first Bella book, they gave me a 2-book deal. I wrote Bella Up, Up, and Away after I got the deal when I was working on other book projects.

How much time did Clarion give you to illustrate Mouseling’s Words?

We ended up working on that book for about a year.

How many poems did you need to illustrate for Wordsong’s READ! READ! READ!?

Somewhere around 25.

In 2018 you illustrated Alphabet Boatsfor Charlesbridge. Do you think you will do more transportation themed books for Charlesbrige? I

’d love to but I haven’t received any offers. Between trucks, boats, trains, and space shuttles, I think I might have covered enough modes of transportation for them!

How do the children sing-along with Lisa Loeb’s Songs for Movin’ and Shakin’: The Air Band Song and Other Toe-Tapping Tunes? Does it come with a CD?

They do! I loved working on those books. My art director allowed me the chance to experiment with my style, mixing painted elements with hand-lettering, graphic shapes, and textured backgrounds. I learned a lot through the process and got the chance to meet Lisa at one of her shows.

Where do you create most of you illustrations? At home or at The Institute of Art and Design at New England College?

Both, I try to sneak in work whenever and wherever I can. I love working in my studio, my office, and somedays in my favorite coffee shop.

How long in advance did Charlesbridge contract you to illustrate with Eight Days Gone for the 50th Anniversary of the moon landing?

I illustrated that book in 2012 so I guess it was 8 or 9 years before the 50th Anniversary.

Did you know you would be illustrating 22 poems for Write! Write! Write!, when you Illustrated Read! Read! Read! in 2017 for Wordsong?

No, we started with Read! Read! Read!, it went well so they hired me to do Write! Write! Write!

Did you need to do a lot of research of Mars before illustrating Night Night, Curiosity?

I did a ton of research for that book, looking at lots of different pictures and youtube videos. I even watched The Martian with Matt Damon a couple of times, hahaha. My art director, Sarah Richards Taylor was a big help. She was able to direct me to some great resources on youtube that were extremely helpful.

In 2021 Up! Up! Up! Skyscraper came out with Charlesbridge. That was your seventh illustrated book with them since 2014. Do you have an on-going contract with them?

No, I guess they just like working with me! I’ve done a bunch of books with Diane Earley and now I’m working with Jon Simeon on a new project with them. I’ve always enjoyed working with them. I feel like I’ve grown a lot since I first started working with Diane on Eight Days Gone. A lot of my growth can be attributed to her terrific art direction.

Let’s Build a Little Train is coming out on August 15th with Sleeping Bear Press. When did you sign the contract for this book?

A little over a year ago. I remember starting my research in May or June of last year.

Do you think you will write and illustrate another book?

I’d like to but writing is definitely harder than illustrating for me. I have a couple ideas I’ve been kicking around but I don’t think they’re quite ready yet.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?

Yes, I’ve created illustrations for Highlights, Spider, and Time for Kids.

How did you started doing lettering? Did you take a lettering class in college and discovered you were really good at it?

I never took a class specifically in hand-lettering but I learned a lot about type in my graphic design courses when I was in school. I started to play with hand-lettering on my own and developed my style over time. I love working on lettering projects, each assignment is like a puzzle, treating letterforms as shapes to fit into a space while maintaining legibility.

Your maps are gorgeous. When did you do your first map? Was it part of a story, article, etc.?

Thank you! The first map I created was of Cape Cod, just for fun. I was highly inspired by some of the old maps I had seen in stores around the Cape. I thought it would be fun to try doing one of my own. It led to a series of New England Coastal towns/regions that captured the eye of art directors in need of maps for their magazines or books. I’ve been very fortunate to be hired for some terrific map projects ever since that first series. The last one I did was for the Alliance for Coney Island. It was used in their visitor center and led to a series of ads I created to be used on buses and in the subway system.

I saw a picture of your standing in front of a big Manchester mural. How did that happen and how long did it take you to do?

The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce was renovating their offices in downtown Manchester and needed a wall mural to fit their new space. A friend of mine was the construction manager on the project and recommended me for the job. I worked with the head of GMCC to create the illustration of Manchester for about a year and a half. Once I was finished, the illustration was blown up and printed on a vinyl wall covering.

I notice you have recorded songs on Amazon. Is that something you do regularly?

No, no, no. I assure you that is NOT me. That’s a different Ryan O’Rourke. Trust me, you would never want to hear me sing anything. I guess my name is pretty common, when you google my name there’s another artist named Ryan O’Rourke that does live youtube paintings, then there’s a designer who also shares my name. There’s even a minor league pitcher named Ryan O’Rourke. I’m the guy who makes picture books and maps. No music for me, hahaha…

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

Yes, I use a Intuos Pro Wacom Tablet on my MacBook Pro. I also just got a new iPad Pro, I’m currently learning to use Procreate.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter to create your illustrations?

I primarily use Photoshop.

Do you have any career dreams you want to fulfill?

I’d love to do more murals like the one I created of Manchester. I love the mix of design and illustration. Seeing my work printed on a large scale feels extremely fulfilling.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on 2 books, a book called Our Wish For You by Dano Moreno, a sweet story about open adoption for Charlesbridge and a puzzle book called Name That Thing for Magic Cat Publishing.

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 don’t have many suggestions for materials since I’m primarily a digital artist. However, if you like brush pens I would recommend the Pentel refillable brush pen. I love the different qualities of line you can get with it. You can easily go from thin to thick, smooth to organic. They’re amazing pens. I also love working on graph paper whenever I work on a lettering project. It makes it easier to create consistent width and spacing of letterforms. It also helps create consistent baselines.

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

Be a sponge- always be open to new sources of inspiration. Be easy to work with- art directors will often talk to each other and recommend artists for jobs. Never, never miss a deadline- there’s too many talented people who will do a great job and hit their deadlines. Always keep sharing your work- look for different ways to expand your network, I’ve found that meeting people in person is the best way to establish some sort of relationship. Lastly, try not to be too derivative of your influences, there’s no sense in trying to sell a lesser version of someone else’s work. Try to be as authentic and original as possible.

Ryan, 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 Ryan using the following links:







Talk tomorrow,



  1. What a wonderful collection of illustrations! I love the maps! Thanks for sharing, Ryan.


  2. Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed learning about your techniques. You make wonderful books!


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