Illustrator Spotlight: Nat Iwata

© Nat Iwata

December 29, 2017

Today we have the pleasure of featuring illustrator, art director, artist, professor, and animator Nat Iwata.

Tell us about your background and how you came to illustrate for children.

Firstly, I’m the father of 3 young boys, 3 very energetic, inquisitive, talkative and creative boys. My wife Erin is a writer and poet and ridiculously supportive of my lifelong pursuits in art. For the past 11 years I’ve been a full-time artist, mostly in the video game industry, although I’ve worked on a lot of different types of projects. I’ve worked at studios, freelanced and even ran several Kickstarter campaigns. The games industry is great and has allowed me to make a very good living as an artist, but I’ve always loved the simplicity of illustration. There’s no 3D models or technical hurdles, just telling stories with pictures.

© Nat Iwata

My first Kickstarter was actually for a children’s book called The Steampunk Alphabet. The campaign went very well and I was intending to self-publish it when Cameron & Co., a small publisher from the Bay Area, contacted me and asked if I would publish through them. I agreed and got my first book deal. It was a niche book based on a passing fad, but I had a lot of fun with it and, since they had real distribution, I got to see it on store shelves and make a few sales.

After that I was hooked and have been getting more involved in kidlit. I’ve illustrated a couple more books but I really mark October 2016 as the beginning of my current trajectory with children’s books. That was when I was offered representation by my fantastic agent Jennifer March Soloway with Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

You wear a variety of artistic hats from designer to illustrator to animator. Do you find that the skills of each of these translate to the other fields? If so, in what ways?

Yes, I think anytime you invest time in one creative endeavor it can help strengthen and form your approach in another. I went to school for film, which still impacts my choices with composition and lighting. I later got an animation degree which taught me about weight, appeal, body kinesthetics, sequential drawing and motion. As an art director, and now manager, I have to evaluate the work of others and give constructive feedback, which definitely makes me reflect on my own.

© Nat Iwata

Although spending my time in other creative fields has not always left much time for illustration, I hope it adds unique elements to my work that otherwise might not have been there.

Was your road to publication (in children's books) long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?

I would say it was a mix. As I mentioned, my first book was a lucky break. The two books after that were good for different reasons. I illustrated another book with Cameron & Co., and the other came about because I’d gotten to know the author and his PR rep through a past project and they recommended me to SOHO Press. However, I didn’t feel I was making any progress breaking into the industry at large. That’s when I decided to really make a go of educating myself and getting involved in the kidlit community.

So, I think it was about three years ago, I joined SCBWI and attended a conference. I signed up for SVS Learn, an amazing online school dedicated to illustration run by Will Terry, Lee White and Jake Parker, which I highly recommend, read a ton of articles and started listening to podcasts like All The Wonders, and Stories Podcast. I also started researching and querying literary agencies. I did a first round of queries and was rejected across the board but received wonderful feedback, mainly that I needed to focus on showing more story in my work. I took the feedback to heart, entered an SCBWI portfolio contest, and a couple months later created my first book dummy. It was this book dummy that I submitted to Andrea Brown Literary Agency, my top choice of agencies, and was ultimately offered representation by Jennifer March Soloway.

That was over a year ago and I’ve just recently signed my first book contract with Lee & Low to illustrated the upcoming book Sumo Joe by Mia Wenjen, AKA the kidlit blogger Pragmatic Mom. In between signing with Jennifer and this deal there have been several book dummies, submissions and passes to editors, and so much growth. It has been a long road I suppose, but I’m glad I’ve taken it and am in the place I am today.

© Nat Iwata

Congrats on your book deal! Also for your existing books, including your illustrations in THE TRANSATLANTIC CONSPIRACY by G.D. Falksen. How does illustrating for a novel differ from illustrating a picture book? 

Thanks, illustrating for The Transatlantic Conspiracy was fun but challenging. I was hired for that book based on a lot of the work I’d done on my illustrated playing cards, which are more portrait art than anything, so it was harder than anticipated to take that style and create double page, full scene spreads for the book.

Ultimately I wasn’t totally satisfied with how the drawings came out and if I do future chapter books I think I’ll approach them with a different style. On that note, I think the cover art was the most successful part of the book from an art standpoint. This was a bit more like designing a card, so I think it came more naturally at the time.

© Nat Iwata

Chapter books are different in that your not sequentially telling a story, but rather just grabbing a few scenes from different places in the book, almost like creating snapshots from a movie. The pay’s also not as good as with a picture book, and there is rarely any chance of royalties once the book is released. 

What projects are you working on now?

As mentioned above, I’m currently illustrating Sumo Joe for Lee & Low, and I’m also doing a small project for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I have a few of my own books in the works that I’d like to start submitting to editors, but need a little more revision.

© Nat Iwata

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

This is a difficult question since every path to so unique to the person walking it, but I'll try and share some things that have worked for me and commonalities I see among other illustrators.

The first might seem the most obvious but can be hard to put into practice: make art, all the time. If  you don't find drawing/painting/illustrating/writing/creating compelling enough to do it in your free time, maybe you need to ask yourself if you really want to do it for as job.

Most illustrators don't get into it for the money, but because they're really passionate about what they do. I've watched many illustrators over the last few years get published for the first time and they all seem to be the people consistently pushing themselves to put out a lot of work, share it with others, get feedback and improve.

For many, the path to children's book illustration is like climbing a mountain. The industry is slow moving and impersonal at times, but each step you take toward your goal get's you a little closer. Work in the belief that what you're doing is cumulative and that you have something beautiful to offer the world.

Don't work in a vacuum! There are so many resources out there to help illustrators connect and improve. SCBWI is an amazing resource and a great place to connect with other illustrators and authors of all experience levels. The first SCBWI conference I attended really spurred me on to create work that ultimately led to being offered representation at ABLA.

I'm also a big fan of The School of Visual Storytelling (, which I believe offers the most extensive range of classes on children's book illustration available today. Even if you can't sign up for classes, the forum is free and an amazing place to make connections and grow with other artists.

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

I recently moved to the Netherlands with my family! I now work at a Virtual Reality studio in Amsterdam as an art lead, my family bikes everywhere (we don’t even own a car), and after just a few short months here my boys already speak Dutch. I never imagined I’d be here, but it’s been an amazing adventure so far. 

Where can people find you online?

Twitter: @NatIwata

Nat Iwata has worked as an art director, artist, illustrator, professor and animator on everything from video games to children's books. He lives just west of Amsterdam in the beautiful city of Haarlem with his wife Erin and their 3 boys, all of whom serve as an endless source of encouragement and inspiration. Nat runs on coffee, very little sleep, and an unshakable desire to create something new. 


  1. Way to go, Nat! Great advice and fantastic interview. Keep up the good work, and excited to see where the future brings you!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Penny, much appreciated! You do really nice work as well!

  3. Yay! Great interview. I really enjoyed it, Nat.


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