Sue Cornelison has loved to draw since she was young. Now that she is grown, Sue illustrates in her “Tree Top” art studio in her backyard in rural Iowa. Some of her past projects include Sofia’s Dream, You’re Wearing That to School!?, Ten Turtles on Tuesday, the award-winning “Howard B. Wigglebottom” series, and the “Bitty Baby” series for American Girl.
We recently asked Sue a few questions to learn more about how she became an artist, her process, and what inspires her.
Tell us a little about your background. What led you to become an illustrator?
I grew up in a northern suburb of Chicago in a town called Libertyville. I am the middle of three sisters. As I remember it, as a child, my three favorite things were tree climbing, fort building and drawing. I drew all the time and especially wanted to draw animals, horses especially, and render them as realistically as possible. I entered Iowa State University as a plant and animal wildlife biology major but by the end of my freshman year, I decided to follow my passion and switch majors to art, much to my parents’ dismay at the time. But I knew I wanted to do what I loved and figured I would find a way to make it work. I was a determined idealist and I still am, I suppose. I transferred colleges and ended up graduating from Drake University with a BFA in drawing and painting and certified to teach art K–12. The year I graduated was the year they were cutting back and laying off art teachers right and left. After working a year I decided to enroll in the International School of Studio Arts in Florence, Italy and travelled alone to Europe determined to be an artist and it was one of the best decisions! It was an incredible experience—life changing, really.
After returning to Iowa, I married Ross, a jazz musician, who had two daughters. We had two sons and two more daughters and I was pretty busy being a mom and coaching gymnastics part time. I began designing all kinds of crafts and cross stitch designs for Meredith, a local publishing company, which led to being the color artist for a children’s book series there. This led to freelancing book covers for a local educational publisher. In time I was hired full-time as an on-staff illustrator for Perfection Learning Publishing. I got to illustrate in all styles and mediums and I grew out of my comfort zone, not just drawing from references, but doing all styles based on the reading audience. I started to work digitally a little bit too.
My first children’s book was by the famous coach, John Wooden, and getting to meet him and becoming friends was really special! This book led to more. I (ghost) wrote the early “Howard B. Wigglebottom” stories and illustrated them, too. I am the author and illustrator of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa, which led me to my New York agent, Lori from Painted Words, and through her, I am able now to work in my backyard studio that my husband built full-time! The large north windows overlook the massive maple tree and I call it my “Tree Top Studio.” I’ve come full circle. I love writing and illustrating children’s books, creating characters with subtle facial expressions. Some clients include Disney, American Girl, Harcourt, Highlights, Little Pickle Press, and Magination Press.
My journey to becoming an illustrator was a very winding road and not a direct path but with a little luck and a lot of hours of practice, it happened!
How were these illustrations created?
I used my Wacom Cintiq to create the digital illustrations. I work in Photoshop mostly in many transparent layers for shading.
What materials did you use?
I use graphite for the character sketches which I scan into the computer where I can manipulate the scale and adjust proportions more easily and make changes while working with the art directors, editors, and designers.
Tell us about your process.
I love sketching the characters. I prefer working on tracing paper at this stage. I then transfer the images into the computer. I usually create a variety so that the art directors have choices. We work back and forth until we get them just right. I make loose blobby thumbnail sketches just getting the basic compositions down, the action on each spread…which get fine tuned to the “rough stage.” I sometimes need models to help me or I model myself or I look online for ideas.
Once the roughs have been submitted, the designer places them in the layout and revised roughs are requested. To all you aspiring illustrators, this is a good thing. You want the book to be the best it can be and there will always be tweaks and sometimes do-overs.
Once they have all been approved I work at 400 dpi and make the files quite large. I play with color options and plan a color palette for the entire book so that the spreads have a cohesive look. Listening to audio books or podcasts really helps me to stay on task. I work long hours, sometimes well into the wee hours of the morning to make deadlines. I am usually juggling more than a few projects at any given time, and I coach my trampoline and tumbling team…so I juggle that too. Most of the time I can keep the balls from dropping, but it does get pretty hectic sometimes.
What was fun or surprising about the illustration process?
The projects! Every one is new and challenging and I am never bored! The process of creating is not without its challenges though. Every time, there is excitement at the start, feelings of inadequacy, struggle, the fear of not being good enough, hours of pushing, the satisfaction of completing it, and the promise of getting it more perfect or more “right” next time. When Picasso was asked which one was his favorite, he replied, “My next one.” I think all creatives feel this. I think that’s what keeps us going and striving to be the best we can be. I continue to learn new things and love to see what other illustrators do and how they work. I have gone to Illustration Master Class (IMC), where I met some amazing artists who continue to inspire me.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Early childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of illustrated poems, and all of the Dr. Seuss books. Charlotte’s Web, Caddie Woodlawn, The Call of the Wild, and To Kill a Mockingbird. One of my favorites that I read to my children was A Wrinkle in Time.
Do you have any favorite illustrators?
I have so many!! I am discovering new ones all the time. For various reasons, I love the work of Greg Manchess, Ofra Amit, and Nicoletta Ceccoli, who I met in Italy last summer at her studio! Also, Maurice Sendak, Gary Kelly, Leo and Diane Dillon, Kate Greenaway, Chris Van Allsburg, Lane Smith, Susan Saelig Gallagher, to name a few. Some of the masters were amazing visual storytellers: Vermeer, Mary Cassatt, NC Wyeth, Bougeureau, and Waterhouse inspire me as well.
My children have grown up to be quite creative. They are photographers, designers, and illustrators and I love collaborating with them as well!! It’s the best thing to be inspired by your children and see them pursue their creative dreams and goals! It’s fun to share the artistic journey with them. We continue to grow and inspire each other.