Hi, everyone! First, thank you all for the wishes of prompt recovery. I’m doing much better, though I still have to be careful. 🙂

Now the good stuff: I first got introduced to Lea’s work thanks to SCBWI. I fell in love with it right away, and I still can’t figure out why her paintings made me think she was Black. 😀 Lea Lyon is an award-winning illustrator, an art teacher, and she organizes SCBWI events for illustrators. Hope you’ll enjoy this interview!

Lea, it is a great joy and honor to interview you on Multiculturalism Rocks! Thank you for joining us. You’ve been drawing and painting since you were a child. When did you know that illustrator was the profession that you wanted to embrace? Was there a defining moment?

Lea lyon: I know that I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when I grew up, but I can’t remember what book sparked that dream or at what age. I do remember having the dream when I was a teenager, though. And I remember getting discouraged by one high school art class. By the time I went to college, although I took some art classes there, I had forgotten my desire to be a children’s book illustrator.

I always did love to draw and paint as a child and took a wonderful art class for children from the ages of 10 – 13. Fortunately, my mother kept all my paintings from that time. Starting next week (note from MR: week of March 29, 2010) one of these childhood paintings will be on display in the Now and Then Exhibit of children’s book illustration at MOCHA (Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, CA).

For a while, as an adult, I had a cottage industry making dolls, puppets and soft sculpture mannequins which I sold to stores. That was my creative outlet. And I took a figure drawing class every 10 years or so whether I needed it or not.

About 12 years ago I found a class on Illustrating Children’s Books at UC Extension and my dream was reignited. I took that class, joined SCBWI and finally fulfilled my dream. What I’m so pleased about is that even though I forgot about my dream for many years, and did a variety of other things with my life, I am now doing what I always wanted and loving it. Which goes to show it’s never too late!

Which artists did you admire growing up?

I always have loved the Impressionists. And an artist named Franz Marc inspired me to do at least one painting of colorful horses as a child. I have it hanging on one of the walls in my house now. I had many favorite children’s book illustrators while I was a parent of a young child – I remember Brian Wildsmith especially. And even more now. The difference is that now, as Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI, I am getting to meet my illustrator heroes personally. What a thrill!

Indeed. It must be fun to shadow you! 🙂 One of the elements that struck me in your paintings is how incredibly multi-ethnic your characters are. I was in awe of your work and focus before I got to know you personally. Could you share with us what cultural diversity means to you and how it has impacted your life?

Thank you so much for the compliment.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I am fortunate to be surrounded by people of many ethnicities and backgrounds. Aside from that making me happy on a life-enriching basis, it has been wonderful artistically as well. As a painter of people, I really notice faces. I find the variety of faces around here a delight. There are so many beautiful faces in the Bay Area with such rich cultural diversity and history. Having been raised in West Los Angeles in a largely un-diverse community, I find the Bay Area wonderfully alive and inspiring.

I love painting people, especially children, and was thrilled when the publisher of my first book, “Say Something,” by Peggy Moss, requested that the children in the school be multi-cultural. I would have done that anyway. Variety makes life so much more interesting for me and, I would hope, for the children who read my books.

In the books I’ve illustrated the race or nationality of the characters was not mentioned and was not part of the story. The fact that they vary illustrates that people are people. Only in one of the books, “Playing War,” is it important that one of the characters is from another country. This is because he was in a war – torn place and knows about war first hand. The specific country he is from, though, is never mentioned. The universality of war, unfortunately, meant that he could have been from any of a number of countries.

Note from MR 4/13/2010: Adding Lea’s comment here as well:

“I realize that I didn’t mention two other benefits of using people from different races and backgrounds in my books. One is that more children can identify with the characters in the books –see “themselves.” Another is for children across the country to see children from all backgrounds in these books – kids who are not fortunate enough to live in multi-cultural communities.”

Though you use several media, watercolor is your medium of predilection. What about it won you over? 🙂

As a child I painted in oils. After many years of not painting much at all, I started again by taking a watercolor class. That led to other classes and I found it a very satisfying medium. About 10 years ago I had a breakthrough and learned how to paint faces in watercolor. I love the luminosity and looseness that watercolor allows in painting people.

I recently took an oil painting class and thought it would be like going home – but it wasn’t. The technique is so much the opposite of watercolor that it will take me a bit of time to get used to it again. I am tempted, though.

You have illustrated several books–The Miracle Jar (Audrey Penn, also author of the Kissing Hand), Keep Your Ear on the Ball (Genevieve Petrillo), Playing War (Kathy Beckwith) and Say Something (Peggy Moss). If I may ask, do you visualize the illustrations of the story as soon as you read the manuscript?

Interesting question. I get a general feel for what the book will look like when I read the manuscript. It isn’t until I find models and take many photos of them acting out the story that I really know what the characters will look like. The final images on each page develop from how I want to interpret the action and feelings, and add to the words in the book, along with the specific people in my photos.

For the neophyte, do you interact with the author as well as the editor during the illustration process?

In general the illustrator and author have no interaction at all. In fact, I hear that many publishers don’t even want them to meet each other. In the case of my books, I did get to meet and/or email the authors, but they really didn’t participate in what I put on each page. We just became “mutual admiration societies.” As the illustrator I work with the editor and the art director.

Lea, congratulations on the personal note you received from the President of the United States, thanking you for the portrait you made of him and his daughter. I wish I had been a fly on your wall when you receive it! What was your reaction when you read his letter?

Well, I got a lovely, cream color, high quality envelope in the mail with the return address of “The White House, Washington DC” with my name and address typed. At first my heart skipped the proverbial beat, but then I told myself not to get my hopes up, that it might be just a fund raising letter.

When I saw that it was, in fact, a thank you note and had two signatures, “Barack Obama” and “Michelle Obama,” I was overjoyed. In fact I could hardly breathe. I had been waiting a long time to find out if they had actually received the painting.

I immediately emailed my contact, a friend of a friend who had helped me get the framed painting to the First Family, and shared with him what the note said. He said that they only sign thank you notes for gifts that are very meaningful and that they received personally. He also promised to find out, on a future trip to DC, “where the President’s painting is” and told me that he, himself, was hanging the copy I gave him in the American Embassy in Canberra Australia. I was fortunate to be connected with a man on the transition team who ended up being our Ambassador to Australia. It’s been quite an adventure.

I gotta ask: you work in the corporate world (though I am not sure that part is still current, you seem already so busy as is ), you work as an illustrator, and art teacher, and you are a SCBWI event coordinator– one of the upcoming events you set up is a workshop with none other than the award-winning illustrator E.B. Lewis!
How do you do it all? Do you have any time management tips (I was going to add “for the rest of us, mere mortals”) ?

For starters, I don’t work in the corporate world any more. Now I use what I learned there and while getting an MBA to market myself in this new field of Children’s Book Publishing. And now I wonder how I ever had time to work a 40+ hour week in the corporate world.

I am very busy with teaching painting and coordinating SCBWI events, and spending time with a recently retired husband. Lately I haven’t been making enough time for my own creating, which is frustrating. I’m working on writing and illustrating a few picture books that I want to submit to publishers in the near future, but before I know it another week has passed. So, I’m concentrating on scheduling my time more carefully, including setting limits on email and Facebook – it’s amazing how much time we can spend there. If I had the time problem figured out I’d be very rich J

A word of advice for aspiring illustrators?

I strongly advise aspiring children’s book illustrators to join SCBWI and go to as many conferences and workshops as possible. I have learned so much about this field and what it takes to illustrate a picture book through workshops. I’ve also made a new circle of friends and colleagues who share my love for children’s books.

Also read and study many many picture books. I often leave the library with over a dozen picture books in my arms – and I don’t even have a toddler in the house!

And draw and paint and continue improving your craft. They always talk about “voice” in writing, but we illustrators definitely have a voice in our painting. Cherish that voice and keep making it stronger. You can learn much by analyzing other artists’ styles to see what makes them so strong and appealing. Then find a way to put elements into your own art to make it strong and appealing in its own way.

Last but not least, what is your favorite color? 🙂

Pink – I mean blue!

(That’s from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, actually. I don’t really have a favorite color.)

Dear Lea, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience with us. I look forward to your next projects and when that will be possible, to attending one of your workshops.

For more information on Lea Lyon:
Lea’s Upcoming Events
Email: Lea_Lyon@pacbell.net

Lea’s Books:
Thanks for reading & merry Monday! 🙂

16 thoughts on “Monday Interview: Lea Lyon, Award-winning Illustrator & Teacher

    1. I’m glad you like my illustrations.

      If you, or anyone else reading this, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and would like to take the 2-day watercolor workshop with E.B Lewis on May 22-23, let me know. There are still a few spots open. You can see the flyer with more info at http://www.lealyon.com/ebflyer.pdf


  1. Thank you so much for the interview, Nathalie.

    I realize that I didn’t mention two other benefits of using people from different races and backgrounds in my books. One is that more children can identify with the characters in the books –see “themselves.” Another is for children across the country to see children from all backgrounds in these books – kids who are not fortunate enough to live in multi-cultural communities.


  2. What a great interview. Lea Lyon’s artwork is really beautiful. And I loved what she had to say about living in a multi-cultural surrounding makes a life-enriching experience.


  3. We recently hosted Lea as a visiting illustrator at our elementary school and she did a fabulous job in introducing the illustrator’s world to students in grades 1-5. Her presentation was well-organized and inspiring to both the students and the faculty. We are fortunate to have such a
    devoted artist and teacher in our midst in the Bay Area.


  4. what gorgeous art! lea’s work is so smooth, but it has so much texture, if that makes any sense (which, yeah, it doesn’t). an inspiring career story. so glad you’re back, nathalie — great interview!


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