SCBWI Canada East Blog

December 1, 2014

6:22 PM 2

I am excited to feature an interview with talented illustrator Sue Todd. Sue is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art. She has created art for a wide range of clients from advertising and corporate to editorial and publishing. In children's publishing, Sue has illustrated many folktales and legends from around the world, and has fully illustrated five picture books and contributed to many educational collections.

Sue has a wonderful bold and graphic illustration style that she achieves using a linocut process. I asked her some questions about her illustration process, and on her experiences as an illustrator:

1. Have you always wanted to be an illustrator? And how did you enter the children’s book world?

I did! But originally I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. I had a very loose drawing style and not a lot of patience, so fashion suited me very well. Unfortunately my timing was a little off as the early 80’s brought a revolution of fashion photography that killed pretty much all fashion drawing. I was a retail layout artist for several years before turning to lino carving for a creative outlet and that led to a career in illustration. My illustrations were commissioned by a wide range of clients in all sectors but my favourite work has always been for children. I began to target my style to children’s publishers and that has been my main focus for about a decade.

2. Can you describe your studio set up and tell us about some of the tools that you use to create your work

I have a yellow studio in the basement of our Toronto home. I call it the main floor because that's where I spend most of my time, and it’s quite cozy with radiant floor heat. My studio consists of a computer desk, flat file unit that is pretty disorganized, a few tool cabinets, a large bookshelf full of inspiring reference, and a drafting board. I have a small tabletop printmaking press that is suitable for most of my work and larger pieces are hand printed using lots of muscle.

Sue's Studio

Computer work area

Love the yellow walls and red storage cabinets!

3. Your linocut style is very unique. Can you describe your process you go through when working on your illustrations?

I never studied printmaking at art college so in that area I am self-taught. Once my rough sketch is approved, I transfer it to the linoleum with carbon paper, clamp it to my desk and start carving, keeping in mind that the areas I do not carve will be the printed line or shapes. I have never injured myself because I always carve away from my body. I use disposable Speedball carving gouges in three sizes. When the carving is complete, water soluble printing ink is rolled onto the linoleum. I place it on the press, cover with a sheet of Maidstone paper, and run it through the press. I always use scrap paper for the first print and then typically create three good prints to choose from.  I usually print with black ink and colourize digitally but occasionally I’ll print in colour depending on the nature of the assignment. Once the print is dry I scan it at 1200 dpi and reduce it for colouring in Photoshop.

Photos of Sue's linocut process:

4. You've illustrated in a wide range of areas - corporate, editorial, book covers, and children's  - which area do you enjoy the most?

That’s a no-brainer – children’s publishing, hands down! I get to think like a kid, and the subject matter is always fun and interesting, and I often learn something too. Sometimes research is involved which I quite enjoy, and it’s a pleasure to visually interpret the world the author has described in the story.

5. When working on an illustration, what aspect do you find the most challenging? And which part of the process do you enjoy the most?

Undoubtedly the most challenging part of any assignment is the conceptual stage before the rough sketches have gelled. I sometimes call it the ‘drowsy rough stage’ because I feel an overwhelming desire to take a nap. Even after all these years there is still the nagging fear that the muses will abandon me in my hour of need. I do enjoy every aspect of my process and like the variety that comes with this technique. I am working in an ancient analog medium one minute and modern digital the next. Carving is a bit like knitting and that allows me to catch up on the news, listen to podcasts or think about the next assignment while working. My favourite task is adding colour in Photoshop. It’s a thrill to watch what has been a black and white process transform into full colour!

6. How do you manage balancing work/life?

It’s difficult, in this line of work, to maintain a balance because of deadline pressures and the feast or famine nature of the business. To keep myself going on a tight schedule I make time every day for exercise, including cycling and/or yoga. It keeps me walking upright and prevents repetitive strain injuries. I often hop on my bike at the conceptual stage and keep a notebook to jot down ideas while riding along the path. I am not one of those people who can make a clean separation between work and life. I find it more efficient to run errands in the middle of the day and have a habit of working until midnight. If I don’t have specific plans, I can usually be found in my studio not cooking and cleaning. Six hours sleep seems to do the trick for me. There are so many things on my to-do and want-to-do list that I wish I didn’t have to sleep at all! We creatives are fortunate that we don’t have to fear Monday mornings.

7. Whose work do you admire? Who or what inspires you from outside your own medium of work?

I am a huge fan of the art of Steve Simpson, Jim Flora, Jane Ray, and woodcut artist, Jose Francisco Borges, to mention only a few. For something completely different, I am learning to paint in oils and find inspiration from brilliant painters like Amanda Hall, Maira Kalman, Jody Hewgill, Anita Kunz and Wallace Edwards.

8. What advice would you give an aspiring illustrator? -In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

Do your research. Learn about the business of children’s illustration, connect with organizations like SCBWI and CANSCAIP, go to conferences, network with colleagues and share ideas and information. This is not always easy for creatures that tend to work in isolation but it’s the best way to grow and keep up with industry changes.

Hindsight being 20/20 I sometimes wish I had started on the illustration track sooner and not spent years as a layout artist. On the other hand, I did learn to work on deadline, draw daily under pressure and work with typography giving me a solid foundation for a career in illustration. I do wish had taken more time to play and explore new ideas and techniques. Time scarcity consciousness is the bane of my existence and it can be difficult to strike a balance when you are both the creative and marketing departments!

9.  What do you like most about your career?

The freedom to make my own hours (which usually means all of them) and the ability to make a living doing what I did in kindergarten.

10. Where would you like your work to lead you? Have you any aspirations or plans for the future?

I have a gazillion aspirations but two main tracks I am following now. First, I am learning to write and am working on my first graphic novel, a historical biography. I love distilling mountains of research into a coherent story and have plans for a whole series. Second, I am learning to paint portraits in oils and aspire to some day paint like Anita Kunz or Wallace Edwards, but this is the beginning of a very long journey. My next goal is to paint enough that it becomes fun and not agonizingly stress inducing.

Thank you Sue, for taking the time for this interview!
For more of Sue's work, please visit:


  1. Beautiful prints here - so inspiring - and so interesting to see the process broken down. I love the description of the "drowsy rough" stage of creation.
    This is such a great blog - thanks!

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