Posted by: Kathy Temean | August 27, 2022

Illustrator Saturday – James Rey Sanchez

James grew up in a humble home in Santa Maria, California, where his love for art first began from countless hours of reading comics, playing video games, and 90’s Saturday morning cartoons. As a kid and into adult hood he would travel America with his Grandpa camping across the 50 states and growing ever inspired by the beauty of the land and towns he visited.

James graduated from the Academy of Art University, with a BFA in Visual Development, studies in Children Book Illustration, and top honors. He started his career in the animation world with Class Dojo and soon transitioned to creating Picture Books. Sanchez’s art is uniquely stylized, focusing on the beauty of simplistic design that evokes emotion, and color that expresses his heritage more than words can. James loves spending time traveling the world and finding new things that inspire him and sipping on a Mexican Mule every now and then.


For this illustration and almost any I do I generally start with a very simple rough sketch to block in the big shapes I need to use to bring a character to life. Overall thinking about the shape language of the entire character and personality.

After I have found the shape language I need to bring a character to life I move on to the next step of defining the lines and tightening everything.

Once I tighten my sketch I’ll then add a base. Blocking in everything with the skin tones I want to use and finding where I need to put in my final lines to separate and make distinctions. All minimal line work but very important.

Next, color is added and this is the fun part for me. I get to play around and find what works and what’s the best contrast. I then add texture into the shading to try and get a more real world gouache look while still being a digital work. Finally, lines are done. Colored darker to match whatever object they belong to.

When my characters are finished I have fun with the backgrounds and use the exact same principles to breathe life into the environments. For this story I wanted something lovecraftian and strange and weird. Hence the tentacles, tentacles are definitely strange and make you feel chills.


How long have you been illustrating?

I started drawing when I was very young, about 5 I’d say. My brother, Chris, was always better than me and it pushed me to draw more and more. In high school I made it my mission to become an artist and through years of schooling I proudly started my Illustrating career in my senior year of college in 2017 getting my first book deal for my Irving Berlin book.

What was the first thing you did where they paid you for your art?

The first paid opportunity that I had was with Class Dojo and right about the same time Creston Books to illustrate Irving Berlin.

How did you decide to attend the Academy of Art University, to get your BFA in Visual Development, and studies in Children Book Illustration?

Well, I really wanted to be a Character Designer and work in a studio like Cartoon Saloon, Double Fine, SPA, or Tequila Works. I knew that the Academy of Art University excelled in producing amazing concept artists and designers so, my senior year of High School I dropped all classes that didn’t involve art or weren’t need to graduate and I decided that I’m going to do everything I can to develop my skills to thrive at AAU

Did you take animation classes?

I didn’t but I wish that I did! I really want to become an animator to bring my illustrations to life in another form.

What were your favorite classes at AAU?

Hands down, my two favorite classes at AAU were Character Design 2 and Children’s Book Illustration 1. The teachers that taught those classes became my mentors and we formed bonds that are still going strong today. I learned an incredible amount from those two classes and wouldn’t be where I am today without that knowledge.

Did you do any freelance artwork while in school?

Not until my senior year. This is when I got a job freelancing for Class Dojo and Creston Books.

Did AAU help you find work as an artist before you graduated?

Yes, Julie Downing, my Children’s Book teacher helped me freelance with Creston Books and helped me get signed to my first agency. My department heads also tried helping me get jobs in the animation world, which led me to Class Dojo.

What did you do at Class Dojo?

While I freelanced at Class Dojo I was actually in charge of creating an entire cartoon (I was in WAY over my head). I designed the backgrounds, characters, and got everything set for animation but the cartoon never saw the light of day, sadly.

What type of things did you do to get your work seen when you first started out?

I worked HARD! I tried promoting myself on social media, I took any job I could get, I freelanced a lot and just hoped that one day someone would notice me.

Was Nancy Churin’s Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing your first illustrated book?

Yes, that was the first book I illustrated and it was such an awesome eye opening experience filled with a lot of difficulty and hurdles. I was actually run over by a truck right when I started the book and I had to deal with that, being forced to move back home from San Francisco, and dealing with strange illnesses. I think that that book was a safe haven away from real world complications.

How did you get the contract to illustrate Nancy’s book?

Julie Downing helped me get in contact with Creston Books after taking me to lunch one day during a class. We talked a lot about art and how I approach it and what I want to do when I graduate. I was worried about the competitiveness of the Animation world and paying off loans. After our lunch she put me in contact with Creston and they offered me a book right then and there! I was beyond ecstatic. It was like a dream come true and a push towards a life I wanted.

Were you excited when the book was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book?

Oh my goodness, one hundred times yes!!! My first book wins an award, who wouldn’t be stoked?! I think I ran around the block in excitement that day.

A year later Scholastic Non-Fiction published, Dream Big. Do you think the Irving Berlin book helped you get that job?

Definitely, in one way or another. I know that it helped me get signed to Bright Agency which is how I got the Dream Big job. Having Irving Berlin in my portfolio was an awesome accomplishment to put in my portfolio.

How many illustrations did you do for Dream Big?

Oh man, that’s a tall order! How many pages is it? haha. That book took a whole lot, I believe that did very close to 100 portraits for that book.

Was Welcome to Your Haunted House a picture book or a chapter book?

That was actually a small educational chapter book. It was a fun early project with Bright.

Were you working on Big Dream while illustrating Welcome to Your Haunted House?

Yeah, that was at the same time as Haunted House. When I first signed with Bright I took every single job they offered, I think I had 12 jobs at one point. I used this time and these jobs to build a name for myself at Bright and get better at my craft. So many sleepless nights meeting deadlines, but so worth it.

This Magical, Musical Night, was your second book illustrated for Little Bee. Did you work with the same people?

This Magical, Musical Night was the first book I illustrated for Little Bee and it was a tremendous experience! The folks at Little Bee are amazing in every aspect. They make you feel right at home, so when they wanted to sign me on for another book, Battle of the Books, I jumped at the opportunity. I worked with a new group of people on Battle of the Books and it was the same thing, absolute brilliance.

Was Jonah’s Tale of a Whale published by Apples & Honey Press in 2021 your first Christian book you illustrated?

Jonah’s Tale was the first Christian Book I illustrated. It was a daunting task being that I am an Atheist and I didn’t want to screw up such a celebrated story. I was relieved when it was well received by the Christian community.

I just featured Battle of the Books on Writing and illustrating. How long did Little Bee give you to illustrate the book?

I usually get a few months to finish a picture book. From start to final deadline I want to say it was 4-5 months total that I had to get the job done.

Did Little Bee Books give you any guidance on what they envisioned for the illustrations?
-Not much, there were only a few suggestions from Little be to alter something slightly. All in all I think I only had notes on how a spread should look or how they wanted it on 3 total. The rest was up to my imagination. I figured that little bee trusted me and my art and design after working THIS MAGICAL, MUSICAL NIGHT so they gave me a lot of freedom.
How long did it take you to do the illustrations?
-The illustration process was really hard this time. About half way through the project Microsoft decided that any old laptops or PCs that couldn’t upgrade was incompatible with all creative programs so I had a huge stall with finding a new PC to finish the project. So long story short, it took me the entire deadline time. I probably put 8 hours total into each piece to get it just right or fix any mistakes.

How did you find your agent Alex Gehringer at the Bright agency and how long have you been with her?

That gem of a human being? I was originally under James Burns. I worked with many agents at Bright but James and Alex found me all of the big jobs at Bright and when James went on leave Alex took over on my account. Shes been my head agent for the better part of two years now. She is the best Agent ever, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better and any agency better.

I noticed that This Magical, Musical Night was printed in French recently. Was there anything you needed to do or is this all handled through your agency?

This was actually done by the publishers. Little Bee had all my original art so I imagine it was pretty easy to change the layers and word play to make it work out in French. It was incredible to see that. I actually just got my copies in the mail a few days ago and seeing it in French is definitely magical.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate your own picture books?

I’m actually in the process of that right now. It’s been a dream of mine to be an Author-Illustrator of my own books for a long while now. I have 12 book ideas floating around in my head and I’m currently plotting out a Picture Book dedicated to my Mom and Grandpa. I’m also taking on the daunting task of developing my own Graphic Novel that focuses on my Mexican heritage and will be written in a bit of Spanglish. Right now I’m wrapping up the final illustrations on my first GN I got to work on and it makes the aspect of writing my own a whole lot easier, still daunting but in a manageable sense.

What do you think helped develop your style?

Definitely the Animators and Art Directors I look up to. Genndy Tartakovsky, Scott Wills, and Craig McCracken. Those three men helped define my style and the way I think about shape, form, color, and Character Designing as a whole. Their cartoons like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Samurai Jack, Power Puff Girls, and Dexter’s Lab helped shape the artist that I am today.

Have you done any illustrations for children’s Magazines?

The most recent was for a Poem titled “Fog.” I did that for Highlights Magazine.

What do you think was your biggest success?

I don’t think I have reached my biggest success just yet. I have certainly had a lot more successes in the recent past with more and more books coming in. But, I have to save that title of “biggest success” for my debut as an Author-Illustrator and when that comes the next biggest success will be winning a Caldecott Medal, and then writing a Novel, and so on. I think success comes in different forms and in steps. I don’t think I can allow myself mentally to settle on a “biggest success” just yet or I’ll get too comfortable.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

I do a fair amount of research for my books, mostly pictures I find online or of the ones I take on my trips around America and in nature. I usually wait until I have the full script in hand so I can pour over the story and decide where the subject matter needs to go and what reference material I’ll need to breathe life into an illustration. For the Picture Book I’m working on right now I’m looking at a lot of cities and trucks and utility vehicles in order to get the right feel for the story. I’ll often look for references I can mentally jot down when I go downtown.

Have you ever used Photoshop with any of your illustrating work?

Yes, I strictly use Photoshop. I’d love to work traditionally but it takes so much longer and there’s no ctrl z in the real world. I think I’d cry if I made a mistake on a final illustration and had to fix it with gouache. Doing art digitally is just a whole lot faster and allows for a lot more freedom of mistakes.

Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

I use a 22 inch Wacom Cintiq. It has been a life saver going from a tiny tablet to drawing on a huge elevated surface as if it were an easel with an oil canvas. I’ve been drawing on it for about 4 years now.

Would you be willing to work with a writer who wants to self-publish a picture book?

If I liked the project and would be getting paid enough then yes. At the end of the day it is a career and I have to make enough to put food on the table same as any other job.

Do you have a studio in your house?

One day maybe I’ll be able to have a room designated as my studio room, but for now I have my setup in the reading room. I have an awesome standing desk (which I recommend to any artist out there), my desktop, cintiq, and another desk for my sculptures and oil paints. As mentioned above, I’d love to have a studio room one day. I want all my novels, art books, Picture Books, comics, and prints to line the walls in shelves and frames. Big windows that let the sun light in and the moon shine as well and hardwood floors with a soft cozy rug in the middle.


Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

D.E.D.D! DRAW EVERY DAMN DAY! That is the biggest routine you need to follow as an artist to reach your goals. It’s like when Bruce Lee talks about practicing a single kick 10,000 times. It’s the same principle. Practice your color, shapes, light and shadow, characters and backgrounds 10,000 times. Practice to master and take classes to learn. Once you stop learning you stop growing and you can’t afford to do that as an artist.

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

SO MANY! I am truly astounded at all the cool books coming my way. Bright is always looking out for their artists and it shows. Battle of the Books is dropping on Aug 23rd. I am finishing my first Graphic Novel called Super-Serious Mysteries, it’s a two part GN series that are tongue and cheek detective books following a group of young kids as they solve mysteries. I’m wrapping up on my new picture book Big Truck SUPER Wash where I got to base the main character on my dad and include some fun easter eggs for my family and friends to find. And the biggest news of all, Justin Colon and I are teaming up with Disney-Hyperion for an awesome villainous two-parter picture book series called Impossible Possums.

Do you think the Internet has opened any doors for you?

I think that it has allowed me a lot of friends in the art world. I have friends all over the world now because of it. Because of that it allows me to strengthen bonds with other artists, art directors, and business people. So, long way about, I’d say it’s starting to open up a lot of doors and recognition.

What are your career goals?

I have a lot! I have a bunch of step goals. Some of the biggest goals are to win a Caldecott Award, become an Author-Illustrator for my own Picture Books and Graphic Novels, write a full fledged novel, start a studio, develop a clothing brand, start a life in Europe, and become debt free through my art. I have a whole bunch of goals in mind and that I want to see accomplished. And I think I can get them done!

Are you illustrating a picture book now?

Several books are in the works right now, from PB’s to GN’s. I am taking on a lot of heavy jobs and it is paying off. The next title to be released is Big Truck SUPER Wash.


Are there any painting tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips? See my blog, illustration fixation.

Nowadays I am pretty much only creating art digitally, work demands too much for me to relax and paint or sculpt a lot. In terms of digital painting, the biggest tips would be to find brushes that feel traditional. Some that have texture and stroke like an oil dabbed brush or a dry gouache brush. Make sure you always draw through on your characters and find the anatomy, people will be able to tell if you don’t understand it. And learn your shape language. What shapes define your characters and the worlds they live in. A single shape can define whether they are mean or nice, hard or cuddly. Make sure you design around basic principles.

Any words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

Always try to grow and take any criticism you can get. It’s a good thing to learn where you fall short and how to fix it. I think we often give up far too easily but we don’t have to. Follow your dreams and work hard to get them. You are only one hurdle away from your dreams taking shape in reality and your life changing for the better. My grandpa used to say, “stop saying CAN’T!” There is no can’t in this life, if you want something you can get it you just have to work hard enough.

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

You can visit James using the following links:





Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow, I love his illustrations. One more to be added to my list of illustrators I dream of illustrating one of my books.


  2. Loved learning more about James’ art process!


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