March 2023 Featured Illustrator
Carissa Shillito wrote and illustrated Innis and Ernest, a picture book about a boy and an elderly man whose friendship crosses generations. She lives in rural Kansas with her husband and four boys.
How did you get started in illustration? What is your background?
Besides loving to draw as a kid, I’ve earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, worked in a marketing position with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and did some freelance work. All those things afforded me the design skills that I continue to use. For the past 16 years, I’ve enjoyed a different kind of creative work as a full-time mom and teacher to our four boys. I began online classes with Storyteller Academy three years ago at the recommendation of an SCBWI staff member.
What is your preferred medium and method of working?
I alternate between traditional and digital media, beginning with sketches and using the computer for composition, editing, experimenting with value and color, and layering and editing final art. I favor watercolor, gouache, and colored pencils, and I am experimenting with acrylic (and glitter!) paint.
How did your style and technique develop?
My style and technique really took shape through on-the-job training while illustrating my first picture book. It was fast and furious and a trial by fire. The necessity of a lot of art in a set timeline forced me to make decisions quickly and not overthink it. I also made mental notes to “not do that again!”
What do you find the most challenging in your work?
My biggest challenge is managing time to work around my day job and family activities. I am striving to have an artistic outlet without missing out on life with kids at home. When it comes to illustration, I tend to have unrealistic expectations of how long it will take me to “knock this out,” which gets discouraging, especially when time is limited. Each step from sketch to final art has its fun but also its frustrations. Tedious elements for me include character consistency and technicalities like proportion and lighting.
What would be your dream project? Or what was your favorite project?
I love that as bookmakers we have the honor of connecting emotionally and physically with readers. We can help them feel known through our stories, and we can physically visit them during book readings and tell them how important they are. My dream book is one for kids who feel alone due to the loss of a parent through death, foster care, or incarceration. Doing readings of Innis and Ernest at retirement communities has inspired me to write for readers that might feel unseen and then go see them.
Do you have a favorite book(s) from your childhood?
My first literary memory is one of visceral doom which increased with each page turn of The Monster at the End of This Book. I can still feel the green towels of Amelia Bedelia, smell the dusting powder, and taste her lemon meringue pie. I recently reread Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories From Wayside School and remembered why it was — and still is — one of my favorites.
How did you get signed with Keely Boeving at WordServe Literary?
I fortuitously learned of #PBPitch party just in time to prepare for it, and I got encouraging responses and good practice querying editors and agents. A few weeks later during #FaithPitch, Keely responded to my pitch for Innis and Ernest and answered my many questions with kindness and clarity. I am so grateful for her support, proficiency, and rapport, and it is a joy to work alongside her.
Do you have any art supply-type tips you can share with us? Paint, paper or software that you love, a favorite art store or website to buy supplies or a new product that you’ve tried, etc.?
I actively seek advice from other professionals when it comes to purchasing supplies, so I don’t waste time or money. I use Holbein gouache, Liquitex and Golden acrylics, and Arches paper sized so I can trim it easily for scanning. I sketch on cheap computer paper to avoid the pressure of nice sketchbooks and work with a Huion light board and plain old tracing paper. I’m thankful that the Adobe software hasn’t changed much since my college years and use Photoshop and Illustrator on my iPad or with a Wacom tablet at the desktop. I’m not a demonstrative artist known to throw paint around, but I’m about to try it with the black Prismacolor pencils that keep breaking with each sharpening. I’ll leave them in a sunny window as advised, because I really do like using them, and paint with some Brea Reese liquid glitter to brighten my gloomy broken-pencil mood.
Any words of advice for those just starting out in illustration?
What do you wish you would have known earlier in your author/illustrator career?
I consider myself to have just started out in illustration when I compare myself to other artists in the industry. I vacillate between feeling embarrassed by this and being humbled and content. Comparison is helpful for inspiration and improvement but is counterproductive if I think my abilities define me. When I stopped striving to be published, I started to enjoy the process over the final product, and my work became a prayer and expression of gratitude. (And a lot more fun.) If I paint to gain accolades and attention from others, then I feel pressure and stress, and I’m not honoring the gift or the Giver. But if I paint in freedom, then I return to the nature of creativity and what drew me to art as a kid in the first place.
What’s next for you? Any upcoming book releases we should be on the lookout for?
I am near completion of my submission for a stinky scratch-and-sniff board book called Christmas Really Stinks. It’s about the first Christmas — the manger, donkey, and shepherds — and was the impetus for me to pursue writing and illustrating. They say your first idea isn’t published until your third book, so maybe there’ll be a second book first. My writing journal is full of ideas waiting for their turn, so I have plenty to keep me busy.
To learn more about Carissa, visit her website at carissashillito.com.
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