Illustrator Spotlight: Mary Reaves Uhles

© Mary Reaves Uhles

Today we bring you the talented Mary Reaves Uhles, who shares her journey from inspiration to publication (and all the hard work in between).

Tell us about your background and how you came to children's illustration. 

I've wanted to be a children's book illustrator since I was 16. In fact, I decided while I was reading Marguerite Henry's book DEAR READERS AND RIDERS in high school. In it she described her collaboration process with Wesley Dennis, the illustrator of most of her books. It sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world. 

I got up off the couch, went into the kitchen and told my mom I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I've worked toward that goal every day since then. I majored in illustration at Ringling College of Art. 

After college I was a graphic designer, caricature artist, and animator but I always had my dream in my mind. After work, I would often come home and work even later creating pieces for my portfolio or researching publishers. During this time I also decided I was more cut out to work for myself than for someone else so about 16 years ago I made the leap to freelancing full time.

Cover for BEYOND THE GRAVE (see process post) © Mary Reaves Uhles

I learned the difference between the education market, mass market and trade books. I've worked on several educational, leveled reader books and some mass market books as well. Of course trade books were what Margerite Henry and Wesley Dennis produced so over time I refined my focus toward that. 

I started attending SCBWI conferences in the early 2000s and started getting the real inside scoop on the industry. I've been pretty heavily involved with our Midsouth region since 2007. I can't overstate how much of a blessing having an active, talent rich region has been. 

You recently blogged about getting your first trade contract ("The Moment I've Been Waiting For"). How long did it take to get to this point? What was the key one or two things you did to make yourself and your art ready for this assignment?

Well, obviously the time from that day on the couch when I was 16 until March 20th of this year has been a loooong road. But I guess we don't always count the days from our childhood dreams do we? Because if we did it would take 26 years, 3 months, 20 days, and 14 hours. LOL. 

Instead I'll count from a key turning point in my career. In 2007 I had a portfolio critique from Laurent Linn, who was, at the time, with Henry Holt. During the review he told me I needed more 'story' in my pictures. My characters were too perfect. Not everyone needs to smile at the camera. Think of EVERYTHING as a character, even the background. He liked my work, but it was too reflective of my mass market/educational roots. 

© Mary Reaves Uhles

I've emphasized to several up and coming illustrators to get their work in front of Laurent Linn at any cost. He gave me by far the most helpful review I've ever had. At the time I knew my work wasn't good enough… yet…. but I didn't know how to improve. 

I took his words to heart big time and never worked on another piece again without trying to put his advice to use. I still thought it mattered more to show an art director how I had experience on other books (albeit education ones.) But after a couple of years of trying to make educational work look like trade work (a tall order as educational deadlines are ridiculously fast), I learned it doesn't matter if you have experience. All that matters is the work. 

So in late 2010 I revamped my entire portfolio. My plan was to create seven phenomenal pieces, all focusing on character, drama, voice, and story. A couple of years ago Laurent Linn returned to the Midsouth for an illustrators intensive and I nervously showed him my portfolio again. That story has a happy ending which I blogged about here

One of Mary's upgraded portfolio pieces © Mary Reaves Uhles

From the time I started sending out promos with those new pieces I started getting a different kind of attention. I was contracted for several Ladybug pieces. I did illustrations for a chapter book series. I've been asked to sample illustrations for three other picture books at large trade publishers. While those projects haven't materialized yet I feel like I'm no longer stuck at the bottom of a filing cabinet.

When you get a book assignment, what do you do to research and prepare? What do you work on first (character sketches? thumbnail dummy?)

I start with a lot of thinking. I'll mentally run scenes through my mind  trying to figure out how to bring the most drama to any scene. Then I start sketching, really small... just to get a gesture composition done. When I get something I like, I'll sketch a little bigger, maybe 4 x 5 inches. A lot of time this is where I get the whole comp nailed down. I hang all these slightly larger sketches in front of me like a storyboard of the book and look for places where it seems like a page design is repeating in a bad way or if there's a place I should change the angle from page to page to increase drama. 

During this process I'm simultaneously doing character sketches. I might start with a character sketch then try it in different scenes. One thing I'm sensitive to - and I think this is from working in animation - is that I want to make sure it's a character I can carry over several scenes. For example I don't want to design a beautiful hat for this character to wear if it's going to be hard to make that hat work everywhere. Of course if the text calls for hat then there's a hat. I'm referring more to the extraneous details that illustrators add that turn a drawing into a character.

This pieces went to the Bologna Book Fair as part of the SCBWI Gallery © Mary Reaves Uhles

Once all of these are done I scan in each 4 x 5ish sketch and enlarge it to the size of the final. In Photoshop I can move elements around to fit the exact trim size. Then I print, and sketch again using my light box to pick up the over-all composition while adding details like expressions, shadows, or details in clothing. I do this for every spread.

I do research to get reference on things I just feel like I can't quite see in my mind. For example, I just had two different projects featuring a bicycle, which is like drawing a bunch of spaghetti on wheels. So I printed lots of different angles of kid's bikes. I also do this for lighting. If I have to do a dramatic lighting situation then I find reference images because it's just not something I can fudge.  I also keep a mirror over my drawing table that I use to get facial expressions and hand angles right.                                      
What is your typical work process for an illustration?

Once I get the sketch to a semi-tight place I transfer it onto 140# Arches watercolor paper. I say semi-tight because one of my weaknesses is feeling like I lose some energy between the sketch and the final. So I leave some details to finalize on the Arches. 

Then I'll pencil in tonal areas, bringing out serious dark areas, sketching in where shadows would be. I think of this as a pencil underpainting. It helps me map out in an editable medium where the lights and darks will be. Once this is done I start painting with watercolor. 

If there's a particular color that will take up much the scene (for example, a lot of blue in an ocean scene) then I paint all of the blue first because that color will affect every other color in the scene. Once I have the painting finished, I scan it into photoshop. From there I punch up colors, saturate darks, emphasis highlights or take care of any oopsy splats from painting. 

I did a process blog post last year for a Ladybug illo that shows my process in more detail: "How to Catch a Ladybug." I show how I started with this sketch:

 I was told there were too many silly things going on, so I simplified:

and ended up with this:

© Mary Reaves Uhles

What is your preferred medium?

I work primarily in traditional media, watercolor and pencil and put finishing touches on in Photoshop. Believe or not, I do not have a Wacom tablet. I know, how can I call myself an artist. I really need to get one this year. I like to think that I'm 60% traditional, 40% digital. All my sketching and drawing is done paper and pencil. 

Now that I have kids, it's extra important to be able to work on the go. So I drag multiple sketchbooks with me everywhere. One of my time saver tricks - for all you mom illustrators out there - is to have job jackets with info about the project inside along with blank paper, two sharpened pencils, an eraser and a little school type pencil sharpener. Then everything is always packed. When I'm dashing out to the pick-up line or gymnastics practice I grab something to work on.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

My best advice is 1) never give up and 2) always look for opportunity in everything

There will always people out there who are better than you. Talent is nice but it will only get you about 30 percent of the way. The rest is how hard you work every day to get better. There will always be people who get the dream projects before you do. Don't let this distract you. 

Instead, learn what the weakness and strengths are in your work. LEARN THE INDUSTRY. Every time I pick up a picture book I flip it open to see who published it and when. Doing this will build up a mental rolodex of publishers and imprints. Read picture books constantly, especially new ones and draw a little fun stuff every day.

Who or what inspires you?

I'm very much inspired by movies, any kind. I still love animation and often watch scenes of animated movies in slow motion so I can analyze what makes it work. I sometimes do the same thing with live movies. My kids think I'm terrible because the first thing I do when I walk out of the theater is start deconstructing whatever we've just seen - listing what I thought the strongest and weakest aspects of the movie were and why.  

Some of my favorite artists share what I consider that "cinematic look" - Dan Santat, David Shannon, Shaun Tan. Even more than being able to create one beautiful illustration, I'm inspired by artists who can create a beautiful story experience over several pages. I really think great picture books "play" like a polished movie. When I'm reading a book and find an illustration that I love I make copies and pin them up all over my studio. 

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

Wow this was kind of a hard question! I think one thing people don't know about me is if I wasn't an illustrator I think it would be fun to be the person who designs soundtracks for movies. That's one thing I'm looking forward to if I ever make a book trailer! 

Where can we find you online?

My website is From there you can get to my blog which is and my Etsy shop. I'm also on Twitter @maryuhles and Facebook Twitter is my professional social media outlet. Most of my contacts are colleagues or folks in the industry. Facebook is where you will hear me ramble on about my kids, my cat, my husband and how much coffee I drink.

Mary Reaves Uhles has created illustrations for clients such as Cricket Magazine Group, McGraw Hill, Magic Wagon Press, and Thomas Nelson. In 2013 she illustrated BEYOND THE GRAVE, a chapter book in the Up2U Adventure series from ABDO Publishing. That same year she was awarded the Grand Prize for Illustration from the SCBWI Midsouth Conference. Her piece, Eat, was a finalist in the 2014 SCBWI Bologna Book Fair. She is currently illustrating The Little Kid's Table coming soon from Sleeping Bear Press. Prior to beginning her career as a freelance illustrator, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. To this day her work features a cinematic quality essential to bringing characters to life. A PAL member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mary lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. Since creating characters and stories is her favorite thing in the world (even more than mocha fudge ice cream) she feels mighty lucky to do it every day in her hilltop studio.


  1. Thank you for a great inside look into your process, Mary! I am really inspired by music as well! Thanks for a fantastic interview!

  2. Great interview with Mary! I appreciate Mary's comments on films especially, because I have done a lot of sketching by pausing them and now I'll try studying in slo-mo too.So glad to hear things arelooking up after much pepersistence! GO, MARY!

  3. What an ab fab interview from a fellow Ladybug alum! Great, great advice and I just love how hard she worked to get to where she is today, as well learning about the path she took (I'm regretting not having an animator's training now..) and why she loves the illustrators she does.

    And every time I hear about Laurent Linn, I adore him more. I swear if the illustration profession were a religion, he ought to be sainted. He has helped and inspired so many people I know or have read about. Whatta guy!

    Thank you for sharing this, KidLit411 and Mary!

  4. Thanks for sharing Mary. It especially hit home when you talked about talent and hard work. It's a lot easier to put in that hard work with great artists like you leading the way!

  5. Yes thank you so much for sharing. It is encouraging to know that if I keep working hard that there's hope for me

  6. It's so neat to hear about your illo experiences. Everyone has different conference experiences, but I SO agree with you about Laurent Linn. I just luv that you de-construct movies TOO! **grin** I so thrilled about your upcoming trade book. Fantastic!


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