Like most illustrators, my work reflects my personality and taste: colorful and contemporary with notes of nostalgia. Sweet (so they tell me) with a hint of edge.

bus stop

Watercolor and gouache were my media of choice when I started illustrating, because those were the tools of my former trade, designing costumes and scenery for stage plays.


As a busy illustrator and new mom, in an effort to speed up my process, I learned to work digitally. After a decade, however, I realized that clicking away in Photoshop—although helpful in the realms of color control and revisions—wasn’t saving me time. Watercolors were calling my name. So, three years ago, I pulled out my sable brush, but as they say, you can’t go home again. I had learned too many helpful digital tricks to abandon Photoshop completely.

crowded bed

Sometimes I still work 100% digitally. In fact, I’m creating art that’s 100% digital for a book way right now, at the specific request of the art director. She preferred the digital samples on my Web site.

Usually, though, I layer bits and pieces of scanned watercolor paintings in Photoshop to produce my final art these days. I just painted a book with acrylic on canvas paper, however. Go figure.

shoe dog

My technique is always evolving, but in my opinion, the way an illustrator draws does more to define her style than her chosen media. Think about Peanuts: Snoopy is Snoopy whether he’s outlined in ink surrounded by flat color in an animation cell, painted with oil on canvas, or scribbled on a napkin with a ballpoint pen. The drawing defines Charles Shultz’s style.

I’ll never forget a video I saw many years ago in which preeminent American illustrator and SVA professor JamesMcMullan demonstrated his watercolor technique while answering interview questions. When asked about the evolution of an illustration style he said,“Style is what happens when you stop trying.”

He was right, of course. Far be it from me to argue with the amazing James McMullan! But here’s the thing: James McMullan is much cooler than I will ever be. As an artist, when I stop trying, the results are bland. “Milk toast” comes to mind, which, let’s face it, is not a compliment. I prefer work that is more stylized, and for me, that requires conscious effort. To circumvent my natural boringness I have learned to add a step to my process, which I call “intentional stylization.”


Despite my desperate need to include this step, I am often tempted to skip it. For reasons that I can’t explain, I tend to attract complex projects that require tons of research. It can take several days for me to pull together a rough sketch for a single spread, let alone sketches for an entire project. Deadlines are always looming. The time cop in my head argues with the artist in my heart. Crossing things off my to-do list helps me sleep at night (and prevents the need to breathe into a paper bag). But if I fail to take extra time to intentionally stylize my sketch, I won’t love the final art, and then I’ll have to avoid looking at it for the rest of my life, because who needs a visual reminder that her personal style lacks pizzazz? Oh, honey, life is short, and my studio bookshelves are packed. There’s no room for books that don’t make my heart sing.

Taking a few extra hours to refine my final sketches has become the most important and enjoyable part of my process.

 Violet Lemay