Interview with PB Illustrator Doris Ettlinger

I met Author and Illustrator Doris Ettlinger at the 2012 NJSCBWI Conference in Princeton, NJ.  We attended a Yoga For Writers Intensive Workshop and made an instant connection. Doris has illustrated such notable books as BLACK-EYED SUSAN written by Judy Young, and G IS FOR GARDEN STATE, written by Eileen Cameron .  Her most recent book WELCOME TO AMERICA, CHAMP! by Catherine Stier will be released in March 2013.  Doris’ books have received the International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award, National Parenting Publications (NAPPA) Honors and Gold Awards, Bank St. Best Books of the Year, the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award, and numerous state reading nominations. G IS FOR GARDEN STATE was chosen as featured book at the National Book Festival (2005) in Washington, DC.

Thanks so much for joining me Doris.

1. Where did you get your artistic training?  I started with how-to-draw books and the comics.  Eventually I earned a BFA in illustration at RISD and an MFA in printmaking from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

2. What led you to the field of Children’s Book Illustration?  I started out illustrating magazines, newspapers, and the occasional book cover.  When my second child was born, we moved from Manhattan to an old gristmill in western NJ.  Tight deadlines no longer fit my lifestyle.  I shifted my focus to educational illustration.  It didn’t pay as well as editorial, but the projects were bigger and the schedule flexible.  At this time my artist representatives, Cornell & McCarthy, were just putting together their stable of artists.  They had seen a piece I did for Parents Magazine in an illustration directory (RSVP).  Pat and Merial helped me develop my portfolio for the children’s market.   When one of their illustrators, Renee Graef, needed an extra set of hands on the Little House program for Harper Collins, they asked me.  I helped with everything from shading THE DEER IN THE WOODS to making sketches for Little House Chapter Books.  Eventually I illustrated my first two picture books, A LITTLE HOUSE BIRTHDAY and SUGAR SNOW, followed by Rose and Caroline chapter books and novelty books.  By the time the program ended I had 15 titles to my credit.

3. What was your first assignment? My very first assignment was to illustrate animals at the zoo in Providence, RI.  $15 per drawing.  And the client kept the drawings.

4. Many of your PB’s have been historical.  Do you feel a special connection with these time periods?  I didn’t enjoy history class in high school.  It was always about war, and what led to the next war.  I enjoy learning about how people lived their everyday lives.  Right now I’m reading Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk, an intimate history of the home.  What kind of preparation do you do before you begin drawings for this kind of book?   I research on the internet, my own image files and library.  Often I’ll read a book about the period for inspiration. I’ll sketch costumes or settings while I watch period films.  For A BOOK FOR BLACK-EYED SUSAN I read a woman’s diary from her trek on the Oregon Trail.  (It wasn’t until the last page – when she reached her destination and gave birth – that I realized she’d been pregnant for the whole trip.)  My latest book takes place in England during WW2.  I watched a few British movies from the period to sketch train compartment interiors.  Also, Masterpiece Theatre’s Foyle’s War for costumes and interiors was very helpful.  For color palettes I visit a web site called, where I could type in a key color or words to view a selection of color harmonies.  My color palette for CHAMP! is very different than that of ORANGE SHOES or …BLACK-EYED SUSAN.

5. Favorite medium?  Watercolor. Why?  It’s fast and doesn’t require ventilation. Watercolor requires careful thought before wetting the brush, courage when applying the paint, and restraint from fussing over it afterwards. Let the pigment do its thing. When done right the color looks fresh, not overworked.  If you are a control freak, avoid watercolor.

5. How long have you been doing picture book illustration?  Since about 1995.   Before that I illustrated textbooks and other products for the children’s market for 5 or 6 years.

6. Which book is your personal favorite and why? Each book has something particular I’m partial to. I’m very proud of my watercolors in …BLACK-EYED SUSAN.  I love my characters in THE ORANGE SHOES.  I love the boy Thomas in my latest book, CHAMP! I think my concepts for T IS FOR TEACHER and NUMBER ONE TEACHER are clever.  And I have a special place in my heart for Catholic Book of Bible Stories because the stories are very dramatic and I used many friends and family as models.

7. What factors do you consider before taking on a project? First the project has to come from an established publishing house through my agent. This tells me that the manuscript has been vetted by editors and others who believe in the story and its potential in the market.  I don’t illustrate self-published books for that reason. Also, I want to work with an art director or designer, not a non-visual person (the author). Then I consider the advance, royalty, and schedule.

8. What books are you currently working on?  I’m revising several stories I’ve written and making drawings for dummies; revamping my website; creating an etsy page to sell prints of my work; teaching 3 watercolor classes, one for illustrators; and painting watercolor landscapes and still lives.  In other words, I don’t have freelance work right now, but I want to make the most of my time before I get a call.

9. What’s the most unusual or extraordinary thing that has happened to you since you became an illustrator?  People from my past discover me by encountering my books.  A classmate from grade school was browsing in a tiny library in Alaska, when she came across T IS FOR TEACHER.  My name popped out at her.  She eventually tracked me down through one of my publishers.

 Where can readers find your books and learn more about you and your process? My website has a list of over 30 of my books, with descriptions and reviews of my most recent titles. Local bookstores are happy to order any of my books.  They are also available on line or directly from the publisher. To see what’s happening in my studio, visit If you’re on fb, give the studio a “like”.