Illustrator Spotlight: Kary Lee

© Kary Lee

Dec. 19, 2014

Today we interview the talented illustrator Kary Lee, who has illustrated five picture books, including Mom's Choice Award winner DIZZY.

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

It’s my mother’s fault! Instilling creativity and abstract thinking was one of her primary agendas. It has not been confirmed, but she may have been the inspiration for Miss Frizzle. Instead of coloring books, I received oversized pads of newsprint and a huge basket of crayons. We were encouraged to peel their paper back and break them in half right out of the box so we could run them across the paper on their side, for ‘a different’ effect. This technique was amazing, but not supported by my Mrs. Swason, my kindergarten teacher. For some reason she only liked using the points. What a waste.

My early childhood was spent in Southern California mixing powdered tempera paints with a garden hose, and using our sliding-glass door as a canvas. I have fond memories of climbing onto my mother’s lap, fighting for position with my two little brothers and listening as The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff trip- tropped over the troll’s bridge, or following The Little Mermaid princess and her adventures with the prince and Sea Witch as she fought to become a real girl. 

© Kary Lee

Truth be told, I was a little traumatized when the Disney version was released. They gave her a name, Ariel (wouldn’t have been my first choice). The world in my head was nothing like theirs and the Disney characters in my opinion were way too happy. Laura Ingalls became my invisible friend. Raggedy Ann and Andy were my first character inspirations. And of course Judy Blume was there to ease me through the tweens. 

I suppose it was no surprise I wrote and illustrated my first picture book, a fantasy adventure, the summer before third grade. In junior high we moved to a little farm south of Seattle, complete with a hot sticky hay barn. I never spoke to any spiders, but we did have pigs. 

© Kary Lee

I think it’s fair to say my childhood positioned me well for this career, or set me up, depending on how you look at it.

I also love design, and my real career began after receiving a BA in Communications (the responsible choice) and minor in Graphic Design (where I spent most of my energy), as an art director. I loved the job but, becoming a mother brought me back to those days of books and bathing suits and I started wondered about how to incorporate book illustration into my overly booked schedule. My studio, Kary Lee Design and Illustration, handles graphic design and branding projects alongside my illustration work. But nothing compares to the storytelling bug.

© Kary Lee

In 1999, I decided to research this book illustration thing. I landed on Verla Kay’s website (before people really had them) and discovered SCBWI, Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators, a find that became worth its weight in gold. I attended my first LA SCBWI Conference in 2003 and was a portfolio winner (who knew?). 

In 2007 my fifth book DIZZY, Stonehorse Publishing, received a Mom’s Choice award for Children’s Picture Book Adventure. I had met the publisher two years prior at a NY SCBWI conference. Side note: virtually everything that has helped my illustration career has been either directly or indirectly connected to SCBWI. Founders Lin Oliver and Steve Moser are kind of a big deal in my book! Thank you, thank you for all you do! My illustration style coupled with my interest in early child education, has drawn me (puns always intended) to Historical Fiction, and Non-Fiction picture books. So that is where my journey is taking me these days. 

What projects are you working on now?

A non-fiction picture book, ELECTRIFIED, the story of Charlie Christian, the electric guitar’s first hero. He revolutionized the instrument and made it sing in a way no one had heard before.
And when I say currently working, I mean it. I took a break to do this interview. I am just completing the dummy and the pieces are falling into place. I know because I am dreaming about my characters and their world. It’s the sweet spot that feels so good because I know there’s a chance I’ve moved past the ‘hot mess’ phase. 

© Kary Lee

What kind of classes or mentorship programs have you done to improve your craft, and what impact have they had?

Over the past year I have been fortunate to participate in two formal programs:

2013 Nevada SCBWI’s Mentor Program, under the amazing past-regional advisor, Ellen Hopkins. I was mentored by award winning illustrators, David Diaz, and E.B. Lewis. This experience was a jump-start to my career after a stint when real life pulled me away from my work. Thank GOD that’s over! Immeasurable insight, advice and very much needed critiquing have been constant. The wonderful addition to the experience has been the amazing relationships I have formed with other incredibly talented and insightful mentees as well as their support and encouragement. They are my family now, no going back! Details are in my blog should you be interested.

My second and equally important experience was a summer intensive pre-animation Art Residency at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). I studied character design, and storyboarding and story under the character-animator and professor, as well as book illustrator, Linda Dorn, and Disney writer, storyteller and book illustrator, Robert Lence

© Kary Lee

The serendipitous acceptance into the program came about when I saw Linda Dorn’s book illustration portfolio at last year’s NY SCBWI conference. It was the one that spoke to me. She had that thing I knew my work was missing, but I couldn’t figure out. I was compelled to drop her a note and let her know how much I admired her work. 

© Kary Lee

What a difference an email can make! Word of advice folks, speak up! You just don’t know where it might take you. She saw my work and invited me to attend. (Thank you Mr. Visa card) The program was a logical progression after my Nevada experience. Linda and Robert brought a different kind of clarity, and that missing link I had hoped for. My best explanation is that they introduced the understanding and ability to pull the elements of design and realism together. I am so excited about where my work is going. I can’t wait to get into my studio these days, and push all the envelopes I can find.

Can you take us through your illustration process?

Before anything else, I pause and think about the project, a lot. Do I like the idea? Can I get excited about it? Can I STAY excited about it for six to twelve months? I used to jump into the project, any project. But, I have to learn things the hard way sometimes. I took a project because I knew it was time to have a book out. Good thought, but bad idea. If your goal is to simply produce, you will produce all right, lots and lots of stuff nobody wants, especially yourself. I understand now that I have to love the story enough to be completely committed to the project.

Once I’ve committed to a project I think some more, and start doodling, lots and lots of doodling. I think about the world, the setting, the voice, how this story should be told. My mentor David Diaz is the master of this domain, and his encouragement and support has helped me to understand this and not be afraid to just dink around, letting things mull a bit. At first I sketch from imagination, uninhibited by style or technique, getting into the world. When I’ve got a skeleton/blueprint, I pull in various types of reference to create my characters and scenes and again I draw, draw, and draw (are you reading this Linda?). 

When I feel like its time, I’ll Google images, tighten things up and set up photo shoots. I have established a relationship with my local theatre groups and my university drama department (great tip Tomie dePaola). I have found the connection helpful on many levels. The access to amazing costumes, and actors as models is a really helpful resource. Theatre people get it, what I do, why I need their help and they do it very well!

From a practical standpoint, I sketch, scan, and manipulate images to create compositions in Illustrator and Photoshop. I love having the computer as a tool, but once I have my composition down I head back to the drawing board to draw, paint and revise ‘old school.’ There is just something about the painting process for me; watching the paper suck up the pigment as my brush releases it.  

Although I currently do my final illustrations in watercolor, I am playing with some mixed media and (gulp) digital embellishing, always careful not to get pulled down the rabbit hole. “It’s a work in progress; this is a life’s journey” says Mr. Diaz. His words are relief. I’m not in a hurry, I’m on a journey.

Here's a PDF describing my process:

Who or what inspires you?

At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s my three young-adult children. When they were little, seeing through their eyes not only inspired me to create a world for them like my mother provided for me, but created an arsenal of data and research I now pull from for my character and story inspirations.

Now they inspire me because I am simply trying to keep up. They are all creative: my son, a computer software designer with a niche for apps, and my two daughters, both designers, one with a flair for photography and fashion and the other an illustrator with a niche for hand lettering and the quickest wit and dry sense of humor I’ve ever experienced (the pre-teens were interesting). It’s wonderful to get a phone call from my kid and have a professional conversation about a design dilemma or solving a creative problem. I couldn’t ask for anything more. No, really…. I couldn’t.

What is the one piece of illustration advice that you would give to others?
Don’t do it if you don’t love it, no matter WHAT. This also crosses as good advice for other relationships and other life challenges. 

© Kary Lee

What is something most people don't know about you? 

In addition to my creative world, I lead a secret life as a real estate buff. I was an agent for a few years and fell in love with keeping my eye on the market. I am mostly drawn to it from a design perspective, but in my next life I want to be the girl on The Rehab Addict. By the way, I’m currently looking for a good flip in South Seattle if anyone has any leads.

Where can people find you online?

My website:
My blog:

Kary Lee lives in Eastern Washington State. She is a full time illustrator and graphic designer and has illustrated five picture books including DIZZY, winner of a mom’s choice award for best picture book adventure as well as a series of early readers for Perfection Learning.

Kary’s recent illustration project is ELECTRIFIED, by Stacy Niykos.  It’s the story of the electric guitar’s first hero, Charlie Christian, who revolutionized the instrument and made it sing in a way no one had heard before.

Kary also does commercial and fine art waterolor illustration. Her work hangs in galleries, businesses and private residences throughout the Western United States.


  1. This was such a fun interview! Not everyone has a humorous flair but Kary sure does. I enjoy watching The Rehab Addict and giggled thinking about Kary wanting to do that. Great advice too! I wonder if I can have a career sleeping and being a lady of leisure because I think I would love doing both of those more than I love writing or doing art. :}

  2. Thank you for an amazing interview, Kary and Sylvia! I am amazed at Kary's illustrations, they literally "leap" off the page! Thanks so much for sharing your process with us!

  3. So glad to meet you, Kary...your work is fantastic! I loved hearing how your journey was enriched by SCBWI...and thanks, Sylvia, for including so many of Kary's illustrations in the interview. :)


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