Getting Ready To Get Ready

This is a joke at our house, a phrase synonymous with procrastination, but I could argue that it does have a purpose. Left-brain can get in the way of creativity – it is thinking and worrying too much – so I give it a task, a problem to solve, keep it busy and satisfied, then the right brain is free to wander. What was that saying my mom had?  Many hands make light the work, no that’s not it…busy hands quiet the mind?

1. Measuring, counting, cutting and calculating how many sheets of paper you’ll need to start a new book illustration project is a good way to get ready. It is a thinking task, a way to cleanse the palette. Some times I need to clear the path to creativity, make a list and get everything done, then somehow feel free to do the creative work, but by then I’m exhausted and have nothing left – so not too much, not too little.  Sometimes when the creative juices flow, you must follow. When you have a day job or small children you get good at turning this faucet on, like exercise, you get better at it.

2. Still in problem solving mode, I decide which paper surface is right for the book. You must experiment and get some paint on paper to decide. This starts to get playful, right brain says. You can’t run out of a certain paper and have a page where the watercolor texture just doesn’t match the rest of the book – been there. All of these steps set a precedent for the look of the whole book so these early decisions are crucial. You get these out of the way so your mind is free to flow through the easy questions, such as, what color should this be? How do I paint this? And which color to paint first? All these just seem easy and thoroughly enjoyable.

3. The palette. I always add a new color (or two) to my existing favorite palette. My newest book features Winsor Newton Raw Umber and Daniel Smith Cascade Green. To my surprise and joy the color Cascade Green is actually made of two colors – Raw Sienna and Thalo Blue, so right out of the tube you have this perfect mix of two colors that tend to move or separate showing themselves, which is quite lovely. Nerd left brain kicked in and asked why – so I had to look up the properties. The two colors create a tension which causes them to move, one is granulating one is not, they both have some transparency and one is high staining the other low. It is beautifully explained here.

Interesting – but mostly beautiful to watch while painting!

4. Don’t forget the Color Key! I’m almost ready to begin painting the forty illustrations for the book. I’ve got my new colors, freshened up my palette trays and I’m ready for some doodling and noodling as test strips. Then as I began actually painting the illustrations I remember to take notes on my COLOR KEY so as not to forget what colors I used for consistency.

Happy painting!

Layers of Colors

I love color and I love to paint – white walls are like primed canvases ready to take color. Just give me a good angled cut brush.

My second job ever was on a crew of house painters. We were two men, two women. We got the job done but the women of the household appreciated us girls taking the time to put down the drop cloth, wipe up any little splatters and take extra care in their homes. I became a pretty neat painter.

Today, as I painted the pink over aqua, I thought of my mom allowing us to paint our bedrooms any color we wanted. My sisters chose red, white and blue because that was just cool then. I chose avocado green for the walls and bright yellow furniture to match my pop art daisy comforter. “It’s just paint,” my mom said as we beamed with the freedom of our creativity. I also thought how this very room had once housed my oldest son, and then my daughter and even my youngest son at one point in the house’s life, and now it was being painted pink for my granddaughter. The doors are accents in lavender and sky blue. I’ve got the first coats on and can now see the wood trim painted in bright glossy white like icing on this candy colored room. Oh, the stories the bones of this house could tell through layers of colors!

And…check out the walls that I helped paint at our local Food Co-op !

Finding A Way of Seeing

Magritte, Key of Dreams, 1930

When we hear words are we all seeing the same picture?

I remember this Magritte painting from the cover of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”, a mandatory reading assignment for art students. This painting from his Key of Dreams series displays simple flash card type image word pairs. They appear to be accurate, yet they are all wrong –except for the lower right corner. The displacement is the whole point.

      “What one must paint is the image of resemblance—if thought is to become visible in the world.“ —Rene Magritte

The paintings represent objects that are part of our common visual culture. He violates our earliest learning of recognizable words and pictures; A is for apple, B is for bear. Which brings the question. Do we all make the same universal associations? What if we are from different cultures?

As an illustrator I wonder how I can illustrate ideas and associations from someone else’s culture? I need a key in my lower right corner to guide me to the right answer.

Images symbolize concepts. Usually the simplest stylized version is effective because we all can recognize it. The symbol of a house as “home” has become an accepted symbol to guide you back to your “home” page on a website. But does that make sense in every culture? Does every culture have its own way of representing objects and ideas and images as concepts? A simple picture of a house can symbolize home (where you live) but does it say “navigation to the main page” or have we just become accustomed to it?

The word illustrate comes from the Latin illustrare ‘to light up or enlighten. To illustrate is to explain or make something clear by using pictures. It is also to show the meaning or truth of something more clearly by using pictures. My goal in illustrating a story is to add or enhance it in some way. My task of illustrating an idea or concept starts with a visual image that arises from words. The picture may be clear in my mind’s eye but in the translation between thought and the action of drawing many surprising things can happen. Sometimes I end up with nothing at all like I’d imagined and beautiful directions were discovered along the way. When you bring words to life through imagery it is a form of magic.

Some have the gift of words that are driven by imagery – good writing is usually full of visual ques. But a word can mean different things to different people. When you are translating someone else’s words you might not conjure up the same image. Hopefully this is a good and surprising thing – but sometimes not. A friend of mine, an author once had a story interpreted by an illustrator with a different gender. The story works both ways but it was not as imagined or visualized in the writer’s eye.

As an author I write with images. Because I am also an illustrator it would be hard to turn over my words to someone else’s pictures. It is this thought that drives me to succeed at the task set before me – to take great care of the author’s words and to find ways of seeing with another person’s eyes and thousands of years of a whole other culture riding behind it. I have to get it right.

Trinkets As Treasure

trinkets as treasure, coin button, worry dolls, sparkly button, crystal, seaglass

With the release of my latest book Treasure, I think back on the inspiration for this story. There was the little girl in Seattle who left food for a neighborhood crow and in return the crow left her tiny gifts. But the true inspiration began long ago with a small broken crystal, a tiny tear of glass that held so many rainbows. It was a thing of beauty, a small piece of magic that I squirreled away like buried treasure. It broke off of a chandelier that hung over the fancy dining room table where we only ate Thanksgiving and birthday dinners.

I keep that crystal and other treasures on the windowsill over the sink in a lumpy pottery bowl made with love by my son. I’ve never owned a dishwasher, but often pined for one as I washed the dishes. Gazing out the kitchen window, the suds caressing my hands, slowly the hot water transported me to another time and place. While hands do the work, the mind is free to play.

Looking at the crystal, I hear my mother say, don’t fiddle with the chandelier, and please put the dishes in the dishwasher. From inside the bowl are the the weary voices of Guatemalan dolls that keep your troubles. A piece of blue glass worn smooth by the sea calls me back to the waves, back to the place where we play in the water.

Why do we keep these things? They are reminders of how and where we got them, they are time travelers to embody a time and a place, and keep the memories for us.

Here are some of the items I found as trinkets for treasure, but they didn’t make it into the book. Button tins and sewing drawers are great sources of treasure as well as jewelry boxes. Do you recognize any of these items?

The Raven is Notable!


Each year a committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) identifies the best of the best in children’s books. According to the Notables Criteria, “notable” is defined as: Worthy of note or notice, important, distinguished, outstanding. As applied to children’s books, notable should be thought to include books of especially commendable quality, books that exhibit venturesome creativity, and books of fiction, information, poetry and pictures for all age levels (birth through age 14) that reflect and encourage children’s interests in exemplary ways.

Click to read more about the book.


The advance reader copy showed up for my new book, “Treasure.

The little square book features simple words and many lovingly drawn tiny treasures to help nature-loving kids learn to read. (Spring 2019)

It started with a newspaper article about a Seattle girl and a neighborhood crow exchanging gifts. Here is an early sketch.

A bird’s eye view

Then a more refined drawing introducing the child

Final color art

Reading = HOPE x CHANGE

Reading = HOPE x CHANGE

Jacqueline Woodson, novelist, poet,
and the 2018-2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature quotes,
“I definitely believe that reading can change us and shape us in so many ways, and through it we can be exposed to people and places and ideas that we might not otherwise come across or confront in real life. A platform about the importance of reading and having conversations across the lines of books is really important to me.”

Please visit to learn more

 download activities for 4-8 years olds, 8-12 years old, or 12-18 years old

One of my favorite books on Jacqueline’s list is The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 9780439895293).

The masterful story about the experience of immigration is told without words in mysterious sepia drawings that are haunting, surreal and so beautiful.

end pages from The Arrival by Shaun Tan, (Arthur A. Levine Books, 9780439895293)

How the Raven Got His Crooked Nose

“…the book’s creators have accomplished no easy task – a modern retelling of a traditional Dena’ina Athabascan tale that honors the story and makes it accessible to children both within and outside of the culture it comes from.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose is a teaching tale, as well as a story-within-a-story. Scenes with a modern day Dena’ina Grandmother and Granddaughter working at typical subsistence activies (berry picking, harvesting salmon) alternate withe sudku, or story, of how Raven’s nose became crooked. Artistic style and color palette help clarify the two. Dwyer’s illustrations skillfully weave back and forth between the Raven tale and the contemporary storytelling setting.”

-Ann Dixon/Kid Lit North: Where Raven’s Roam and Writers Dream


Read the whole review with snapshots of the book at

(Peak inside!)

Watch the book trailer!