Teacher in class for “Highlights for Children” by Mary Sullivan
From “Hidden Picture Playground” (“Highlights for Children” magazine)

There are a few things you should know about illustrator Mary Sullivan.

She is a yoga instructor.

She has a dog named Scout and cats named Rasta and The Cheat who often keep her company in her studio when she’s working.

She draws all the time.

She’s not driven to draw, she says. She just likes to draw.
But — and this is important — she does not much like to paint. Not with a real brush, I mean.

She does paint with the brush tool,  in Photoshop, on the computer.

That speeds things up a bit. And it’s a good thing because in recent years
her workload has grown and grown and grown  — to include hidden pictures, puzzles, stories, poems, nursery rhymes, books, covers,  cartoons, and even kids’ comics — for the Highlights Magazine GroupBoyds Mills Press, Phonics Comics, School Zone Publishing, Scott Foresman Co. and other clients.  Last year she was signed up by the Kid Shannon Agency of New York, which means that her assignments won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Scene from ____________ needs description by Mary Sullivan
From “Innovative Kids”

Mary graduated with a B.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. As a child, she had dreamed of being a fine-arts painter maybe one day.  But early in her college career, she was told point-blank that she was not a painter. She was an illustrator.

She was devastated– then relieved, because she was already starting to see that she did not care that much for applying pigment to canvases.

Many years later she brought her art-making into the world of the Apple computer and became one of the pioneers in the digital-resistant-world of children’s story illustration.

She still draws with a pencil and paper. She uses an old fashioned lightbox to trace her sketches, like the children’s book illustrators of yore.  But when it comes to coloring those sketches and “completing her vision” Mary is all about the electrons.

With Photoshop CS2 and a Wacom Graphics Tablet, she has forged her own, unique… —  actually, it has moved beyond a style to a kind of personal grammar and syntax, her own freakin’ universe, really, that she creates with very few software tools.

A few weeks ago she conceded to being interviewed while she was on a white-knuckles deadline and really should not have been talking to anyone.

First here’s Mary’s artist’s mission statement from her website.

“I am excited by the ability to bring to paper any thought, dream or experience. Drawing allows me to translate emotions and experiences through my own language of line, shape and color.”

Mary Sullivan works on her initial drawing (on a cold day.)
Mary working at her home studio on a cold Texas day.

So you have classical music playing in your studio right now…

The radio. I always have something on when I’m working. The music depends on the mood.

How did you become a children’s book illustrator?

Mostly I just drew all my life. I was a studio art major. But I didn’t take commercial art in school. I’m really a self-taught illustrator.  I had Michael Frary for life drawing. Life drawing was a big deal and painting was a big deal. It was really cliquish in the Art Department at the University of Texas back then and I didn’t fit into that whole painting scene. I took as much life drawing as I could take and lithography. I think really at heart I was an illustrator. And I think there’s a big difference between a fine artist and an illustrator.

Because I sit around and wait for people to tell me what to draw. And artists don’t do that. They have things they want to say. They had an illustration sequence at U.T. But I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be in the fine arts and have a passion. But one day when I was in college I took I my best work to a collector. I must have been like 19 or 20. And he really liked my work, but he said ‘You’re an illustrator. You’re not a fine artist.’

I was absolutely crushed.

What made him say that?

Well, it was my art. My art was very representative. There were some pen and inks of some women in Bali and it was all very detailed. And so he saw right away. But eventually, it emerged and I accepted it.

I finished my BFA. It was really hard and it took me forever, but I did. And I had some shows. I have a pile of fine art. I still do it but I don’t have the drive to do it.

Rat outside in the rain Mary Sullivan illustration
From “Banjo”, Mary’s story about a homeless dog
You have the drive to draw.

I have the drive to cook. I don’t have the drive to do anything.  

Every time I see you you have your sketch open and your working on it. You’re one of the few people I know who really draw in their sketchbook.

I do. And I really don’t want to have to use the computer. But you have to.

So what happened after school? 

I came home and put everything on hold and raised my kids. And of course, I was inspired by them the whole time. I would draw for them. I would make them worksheets. ‘Mommy, make me a coloring page.’ ‘Make me a hidden picture.’  Even back then I did a hidden picture — I don’t know how many years ago — 20 years ago? — pretending that I was a Highlights hidden picture artist. I still have it somewhere.

What got me to be an illustrator was I made some cards for someone once. And I ended up having my own card business. People would give me a list of everything they wanted on the card and I would draw a picture from the list. And I did that for a long time. Ten years. So that was how I got my practice. Not just doing the cards.  But getting the list from the customer and translating it into a drawing.

I got written up in a book and a magazine, about my card business.  These were birth announcement cards. I was busy. They were all hand made, hand painted. I got started in ’89 before there were any computers. I mean I had a computer but I wasn’t using it for my art. I look back and I think they’re really corny. I mean they’re really funny. I look back and I think ‘Oh my God.’ Interspersed with cards I did logos and brochures and posters for people. I was all over the place.

So then after about 2000, I decided that was it, as far as being all over the place. I knew I needed to hone in on one thing. And I decided to do children’s illustration. So I sat down and did a bunch of self-promo pieces and mailed them off and I got a job working for Highlights. 

Right out of the chute…

Which is crazy. Yeah. Right out of…the blue.

Why did you focus on children’s art?

Well I don’t know if it had something to do with doing birth announcements all of the time. I was drawing kids all of the time. So I think that’s why I did that, probably.

I sent to Highlights, Cricket…Not that many people. I think I went to BookPeople, the book store and looked at what children’s magazines there were and sent to a couple of them. I made little cards. I drew some things. I didn’t know what I was doing really. I was just drawing stuff and I thought, ‘Wow, that looks good. I’ll send that.’

What did “Highlights” tell you?

That they liked my stuff and wanted to keep it on file. And then they called me.

How soon? Soon. It was crazy. I wasn’t even prepared. Because I was trying to make a transition to the computer but I was still drawing and painting traditionally. So my first job for them was traditional. But I scanned it in, so I was able to send them a digital file. It was an illustration for one of their stories in the magazine, Highlights for Children.

Mary Sullivan draws on a warmer day.
 Working on a slightly warmer day…

They have so many magazines I work for. I don’t so often draw for the magazine now. I have. But mostly I draw for the other magazines they have. There are Highlights. That’s for older kids. Then there’s Hidden Pictures Playground for a little younger age. Then there’s  High Five, which is like for three-year-olds and four-year-olds. That’s their new magazine. Then they have sticker books and hidden picture books.

There are a couple of art directors that I work with. There are probably three or four at Highlights.

I was really scared. But they loved it. And I went to Highlights after that to a conference. And they were all like so happy to meet me. And I thought, ‘What is this — some kind of fantasy world?’ It was really surreal. I had just gotten into it and I didn’t know what I was doing. They were so nice. Then after that I got a book deal for Boyds Mills Press, which Highlights publishes. That’s their book division.

From “High Five” magazine (a “Highlights” magazine)

Book illustration is not at all what I expected. I got the job and started on it and I thought an art director was going to be saying, ‘No, this really should go here and this goes here, Move this. Do that…’ You know?  But he pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. He didn’t make any comments. I designed the cover and got to layout where the text goes and drew everything. I did everything. And they did everything that I said to do. I did it just for fun, you know? And they said, ‘Okay.’

I had a big bowl and cut up little pieces of paper and wrote the page numbers on them. So I would reach into the bowl and whatever page number I pulled out, I would go to work on that page. Because you don’t want to draw the first page first.

Where did you hear that?

I made it up. You don’t always get into the groove of it until you’re into the first few drawings. You don’t want to see that progression in the book. And it’s really subtle. Some people might not notice it. But I notice it. And I would rather that first drawing was in the middle of the book. And the second drawing was maybe at the end. It works really well with me. And I always do it.

Except I forgot to do that on this book I’m working on now and I’m so mad. Because I just started with the first book out of five books I’m doing for this contract for Scott Foresman, Co.  I’m really tempted to redo the whole first book at the end of the five books. I don’t know if I will or not. I have to work so fast. You have to work so fast for these people. There are 35 illustrations in each book and I’ve had less than a month to do each one. So I’m basically doing two illustrations a day nonstop.

Highlights Magazines with Mary S. covers 

They’re due Sunday. Actually this one has turned out really cute. I had to draw cars and I hate drawing cars. But it’s not too bad. But look how complicated it is. I had to make them getting in the car and have mom getting the dog. And over here he’s telling the dog, ‘No.’ I had to get all that into the drawing.

This is what I do. I draw the sketch I scan it and send it to the publisher. So this is the sketch I sent to the publisher. They approved it. So I used my light box and traced this original pencil sketch on this nice paper.

You made another pencil drawing?

A tracing.

Why nice paper?

Because I like nice paper. I wouldn’t draw on anything else. I really like these more sketchy things — the roughs that I do first. But you must remember these pictures are for little kids and everything has to be really clear. You can’t have weird lines.

Editor’s note: Mary will scan this second, more finished pencil sketch and open it up as a file in Photoshop. With some rapid keystrokes  (involving ‘load selection’ and ‘edit fill’ on the Photoshop menu) she’ll copy and paste the lines of her sketch on to a “new layer.” She’ll enlarge her sketch until she can almost see the carbon flecks left by her pencil point. “The lines are really sloppy but when I get them in the computer, I clean them up and erase some of them,” she says. Though she may ‘clean them up,’ she leaves her original grainy pencil lines in the illustration. She does not “fill in” her lines to create the smooth solid outline that you often see in cartoons and comic book art —  because she does not want her picture to look like it was drawn with a software program, which it wasn’t.   When she gets her drawing just the way she likes it on her monitor, she uses the Photoshop “paint bucket tool” to turn the entire layer yellow.

Oil painters like to scumble their canvases with burnt sienna, unifying their picture 
in one giant midtone — before they pick out their lights with turpentine and a rag and move in with dark paints to paint the deep shadows. This is what Mary does, but instead of turpentine and cloth, she uses Photoshop’s ‘eraser tool’ to remove the transparent yellow glaze in strategic spots.  She erases the yellow to bring out the whites of her picture: a character’s eyes, or clouds in the sky, or a button on a sweater. The revealed white is actually the white background behind her first layer.  With the stylus that comes with her Wacom Graphics Tablet and Photoshop’s “brush tool” she then applies the muted pastel colors she likes in a series of transparent ‘new layers.’ Last she adds the shadows, with the Photoshop “brush tool,” applying her “shadow color” in a 30 percent opacity. In fact, she tries to avoid the Photoshop “fill tool” generally because she wants her work to look hand-painted, so she can feel like one of those ‘fine-arts painters’ she wanted to be but was told she wasn’t and then decided she wasn’t.

Mary Sullivan Comic Book for “Phonics Comix”
Phonics Comics presents “Clara the Klutz“.  Mary uses an assortment of tricks she’s either invented or taught herself to “paint” her pictures in Photoshop.

Except for cleaning up your lines a little when you retrace, you don’t re-work your sketches a lot.  You seem to just be able to draw out of your head.

For some reason I’m able to see things on the paper, then I’m able to draw them. I don’t know if it’s photographic memory or because I practice and draw all the time but I can just remember. I can close my eyes and see a hand position and I can draw it.I’ve drawn all the time. I remember drawing in high school. When the teacher was talking, I’d be drawing feet and hands.I always noticed when other illustrators hid the hands or didn’t draw them too well. It does help to be able to draw from my head. I can’t imagine having to look everything up. That would be a pain.

A lot of times I’ll sketch the feeling I want. Then I’ll fill in the details. Like I kind of want this person to be leaning over. I’ll kind of do it in my head, and I’ll draw a line and say, ‘Yes, that’s how I want him leaning over.’ And then I’ll fill it out. It’s like a gesture drawing. Remember that in life drawing? Yeah, I used to love that. I did a lot of it. That’s where you get the feeling of the pose.

For the BFA in college, I took the maximum class number of hours in the drawing. I wasn’t that good with faces and the small details. I was very good at the body.

Well, there’s something about the way you get the whole thing down and the viewer accepts it and doesn’t question your figures at all.

I feel really fortunate to have that. Editors and art directors like that. And you can tell a drawing that’s very strained.

Mary trying to draw
 Mary trying to draw

Will you talk just a little bit about the computer?

For working on the computer and color, I had to practice a lot to try to find my voice. That sounds really corny, I know, to say ‘find my voice.’  But I really had to find myself on the computer. I could do what other people did. But what was I? I mean that’s a good starting point, to look at what other people do and do that.

You know, you’re unique in your painterly working ways. 

I have a book on paintings of the old masters and one of them — I can’t remember his name — but he always started with a yellow canvas. He’d always paint yellow first over everything. I don’t know what the name of the yellow was but it was some kind of yellow or ochre and I saw that and thought, ‘Hey, I do that.’

I almost never start with a white page. I lay in the midtone and take away for the lights.

Here’s the duck. It’s going to be white. Shadows don’t come until the very end. The shoes will be white. The rocks will be grey but they won’t be white. And then I start with the color. My first layer is this color right here. Then this color comes on top of this color. It’s really complicated what I do. There turns out to be maybe ten layers of color. And in the end, the last layer I do is the shadow layer.

I tend to go with really light, muted colors, more sophisticated colors. And they always want you to do bright…And I fight that all the way until the very end when they will not give in. I don’t like bright primary colors. They really bother me. But once I merge them,  all the color layers together, I ramp up the red so that it gives more warmth. It basically turns the black [of the pencil line] to more of a different color.

If you zoom in for a close-up to look at the line, it’s like trashy — broken and sketchy looking, but I really like that. Because that’s how it is in real life. If you were to do a painting, you wouldn’t do it pixel by pixel. I don’t want this to be clean. It looks softer like this. You can see the original pencil sketch lines and where the first transparent yellow has been left in patches.  It looks better. It doesn’t really show up that much in the picture but it gives a feeling of looking less computery.  A lot of people use the fill tool to color their illustrations. But I use the brush tool.

How did you learn to do this in Photoshop?

A friend of mine that I met, a graphic artist was so supportive and he was like a big brother.  He came over to my apartment and put Photoshop on my computer and I said, ‘I don’t know how to use it,’ and he said, ‘ You’ll figure it out.’ And I did. I went through every button on Photoshop and figured it out myself. I get everything I need from it. There are all kinds of other stuff that I never use.

Mary Sullivan at her computer
Mary Sullivan, who doesn’t like to paint. 

Mary’s sites: www.marysullivan.comher artists’ blogher agent’s site