Illustrator Interview – Sylvia Lu

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Sylvia-LiuI feel like I have known Sylvia for eons. She is in so many of my favorite picture book groups and challenges, always interacting with others, supporting and encouraging. I love her sense of purpose and momentum, always moving forward, trying new things. What a cool multi-cultural background she has to draw from, too. I am thrilled to introduce you today to Sylvia Lu.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?

[SL] Illustrator, and wannabe author-illustrator. I’m working on several of my own stories but they are not published yet.

[JM] What’s your nationality and which and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?

[SL] My parents are originally from China and immigrated to the United States, where I was born. When I was five, our family moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where I lived until college and where my parents stayed for 23 years. So my work habits come from a fairly strict Asian immigrant upbringing, but my love of bright colors, contrasts, and hints of chaos come from growing up a third culture child in Latin America.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings as an artist.

[SL] The schools I went to did not have strong art programs, but I was lucky to have several adults encourage me early on. My mother signed me up for oil painting classes when I was around 10. My 7th grade English teacher, Janet Steinmiller, noticed my doodles in my journals and installed me as the yearbook designer, cartoonist, and artist for the next three years. I credit her for giving me a love of illustration and indelible memories of rubber cement. Here’s a drawing I did when I was 13:


When I went to college, I almost majored in art, but my practical side won out, which led to law school and a decade-long career as a marine conservation attorney. Art during those years was a hobby, but I continued to take classes at night, including a children’s illustration class taught by author-illustrator Nina Laden.

[JM] I would love to know more about your work in marine conservation, but on with the blog focus! What have you done/are you doing to grow in your craft?

[SL] Since quitting the law and moving to Virginia, I’ve taken more art classes, exhibited my work, and taken online courses in children’s illustration taught by Mark Mitchell and Will Terry (links are to my reviews of their classes). I also paint and illustrate as much as possible. I really enjoy Alison Hertz’s daily doodle challenge. A recent doodle on the inner workings of my brain:


The most exciting thing I’m involved with now is the Nevada SCBWI mentor program, a six month program starting in October where illustrator David Diaz (he won the Caldecott for SMOKY NIGHT) will be my mentor. I will meet with him in person at two writer/illustrator retreats, in October and April, and work with him remotely in between.[JM] Yay, I loved my time on this program last year.

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[SL] I used to love oils for their subtleties, but I switched to acrylics when my children were born. Now I’m exploring digital painting and collage and having a great time.

[JM] What does your workspace look like? (Photo if you like??)

[SL] Ha, like the rest of my living space – a complete and utter mess. I know where everything is, but my habit of wandering off holding a brush, a Wacom stylus, or kneaded eraser means I often waste time looking around the house for those items. My studio where I paint and draw is also a guest bedroom, so the bed is my flat storage space for works in progress. My computer and Wacom tablet live downstairs in our family office.


[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[SL] My work process is very streamlined because I’m impatient. I will do several rough thumbnails to work out a composition, that may look like this:


Then I will go straight to a sketch like this:


I realize this is not the usual way of developing illustrations, but I find that I don’t focus until I think I am doing a final draft. If it doesn’t work out (and often it doesn’t), I will redo the final sketch until I am satisfied. After scanning the sketch, I clean up the lines and color it in Photoshop:


My latest work is an illustration of a kraken done collage style. I started out with a rough sketch:


Which I refined: 


Then I cut out tissue paper and glued them on paperboard to make the background:


I scanned pages from a Sinbad story from an old, out-of-copyright (1912) children’s book I have (I picked up about eight volumes of this series in a used book sale). I put all the pieces together in Photoshop and played with the coloring of the kraken, the hues and saturation of the waves, and came up with this:


I belong to an online illustrator’s critique group, and I will often run my pieces by them and get their advice.

[JM] How does law tie in with illustration/writing? 🙂

[SL] Knowing the law has made me aware of copyright and intellectual property issues. Hopefully it will also help me when it comes time to negotiating a contract with a publishing company!

My career in marine conservation has influenced my art, but that’s mostly my love of oceans rather than of the law.


[JM] How do you approach the marketing/business side of the picture book world?

[SL] I maintain an active blog, Sylvia Liu Land, and am involved in several kidlit communities such as 12×12. I haven’t published a picture book yet, but when I do, I hope these platform-building and networking activities will help me get the word out. At this point though, I’m more focused on making art.

[JM] What authors and/or illustrators influenced you growing up?

[SL] M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali were the first artists that fired my imagination. Growing up, I was exposed to the usual suspects like Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak and loved reading Mad magazine and comics. When I had children, I learned about many of the amazing illustrators working today. Some of my favorites are David Wiesner, Lane Smith, Sophie Blackall, and Ed Young.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?

[JM] What word best sums you up?

 [SL] Eclectic.

 [JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?

[SL] Hawaii, anytime. I spent a summer there in law school and loved the clash of cultures and island vibe. I didn’t even mind the overly touristy spots though the local culture was much more interesting.

[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?

[SL] Dark chocolate is always my go-to snack, for any reason.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[SL] Cats, but my family is allergic to them so I can only admire them from afar.

[JM] If you could spend a day with one children’s book illustrator, with whom would that be?

[SL] David Wiesner. I love his wordless and near wordless books.

[JM] I’m a Wiener groupie, too. Where can we find/follow you and your work, Sylvia?

[SL] You can find me all over the web. Come visit and I’d love to meet you (virtually): my portfolio (, my blog (, Facebook (, Twitter (@artsylliu), Pinterest (, and Etsy shop ( .

[JM] Thank you so much, Sylvia, especially for sharing so many examples of beautiful artwork with us. Your style would go so well with some of my endangered species books! To your continued success!

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57 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Sylvia Lu

  1. Tina Cho says:

    Fun interview, Sylvia and Joanna! I enjoyed getting to know Sylvia more. How neat to have so many cultures in your background!

  2. Dana Carey says:

    Hi Sylvia and Joanna!
    I love this interview. I’ve ‘known’ Sylvia a while now online but I learned a lot more about her. What an interesting background. You must be bilingual, maybe trilingual? Your work is great and I love the way you try new materials. Good luck with your illustrations and writing.

    • Sylvia Liu says:

      Thanks, Dana. I was once trilingual. Mandarin was my first language, English my second, Spanish my third, and I took 2 years of French. I also found out that I could get by in Italy by speaking Spanish with an Italian accent, though I could not understand any of the replies. But now I can only claim to be mostly fluent in English (my husband sometimes begs to differ).

  3. Sylvia Liu says:

    I am honored to be featured by someone I admire so much, Joanna. Thanks for the interview!

  4. Sylvia is one seriously talented lady! I’m honored to have her in my writing critique group and also as part of her illustrators critique group.

  5. How great to get to know more about Sylvia! What a varied and interesting background. I especially love seeing the process photos – how she can take that quick thumbnail (that looks like the way I draw) and turn it into a refined piece of work. I’m a fan of Sylvia’s fish paintings and her use of those vibrant colors.

    Thank you both for this excellent interview!

  6. Margaret Barbis says:

    Sylvia is wildly talented, and this interview was great. I loved reading about how she creates her art — especially because I have one of her pieces hanging in my daughter’s room. I can’t wait to share this interview with her!

  7. Fantastic interview, both of you! The progress from rough sketch to finished product was awe-inspiring. LOVE learning more about illustrators’ processes, and it was so great to get to know Sylvia better. Thank you both!

  8. Darshana says:

    That was a wonderful interview. It was wonderful to learn more about you Sylvia!

  9. Julie says:

    Wow, Sylvia – eclectic is definitely a good word for you! What an interesting journey so far! I’d like to thanks you here and now for starting the PB Illustrator’s critique group ion FB – it’s been a super way to connect, share and learn! So excited for you and your participation in the mentor program too! Thanks for a wonderful interview, Joanna

  10. Genevieve says:

    Fascinating! I love seeing the process of making nothing turn into something. I mean really – SOMETHING!! The kraken. GAH! Love it!

  11. Adrienne May says:

    What a wonderful interview. I’ve met Sylvia online via Julie Hedlund’s 12 x12 PB Illustrators and Mark Mitchell’s illustration critique group, but she has so many other layers.

    Thank you and Sylvia for sharing about Sylvia’s background in marine conservation law and exposure to various cultures. I’m looking forward to seeing more images and the publication of her first picture book.

  12. Fantastic interview, Joanna and Sylvia! So great to get to know more about you, Sylvia. You’re art is so amazing! I, too, am interested in your career in marine conservation law – it makes law sound interesting 🙂

  13. Sylvia is one talented artist. And, I love that she focuses her work on marine life. Great interview ladies.

  14. Yvonne Mes says:

    What a great post, about an inspiring illustrator and I am sure soon to be published author/ illustrator! I am fortunate to share a few groups with Sylvia as well, and she always has the best advice. I love the ducks on her drawing table.

  15. Great interview! Now I know law and love for picture books aren’t the only bonds Sylvia and share. Dark chocolate and chaos resonate with me! Thanks for sharing this Sylvia and Joanne.

    • Sylvia Liu says:

      Hooray for dark chocolate! When I was pregnant with my second I read that women who eat chocolate during their pregnancies have happier babies. Needless to say, I took that study to heart and did everything I could to produce the happiest baby ever.

  16. Hannah Holt says:

    I like what you did with the octopus, Sylvia. It’s a nice touch with the arm behind the book. It was fun to hear more about your process (and the view from your workspace looks lovely!).

  17. Gayle O'Donnell says:

    Thank you, Joanna, for sharing this talk with Sylvia! Knowing her through several online illustrator groups, I can tell you she is modest and generous, as well as very gifted. I didn’t know her space was a mess! That makes her endearing as well!

  18. Great interview! I like the Kraken illos.! 😀 I now know what I want to learn in college – major in History and English/Literature, and minor in Law! 😀

  19. Tara Moeller says:

    Sylvia is a wonderful artist, and having read her manuscripts, a wonderful writer, too. This is a great interview. I’m glad Sylvia has been able to share some of her beautiful art.

  20. Ellen Ramsey says:

    Love those waves and that octopus!

  21. Loved getting this inside look into your work process Sylvia! Love the Kracken collage!!

  22. Ramona says:

    Great post – I love seeing your work processes Sylvia!

  23. Wendy Myers says:

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful work and a bit about your life. It’s fun to see and to learn more about you. I always love seeing how & where other illustrators work.

  24. WONDERFUL interview. Sylvia is so creative and encouraging to everyone. Excited to hear about the mentoring program…awesome opportunity! Will look forward to hearing about it, Sylvia. Thanks Joanna for sharing withheld.

    • Sorry that last word was supposed to be with us not withheld..I am on mobile and can’t see the whole line….then auto correct takes over…grrrrr.

      • Sylvia Liu says:

        I think “sharing withheld” is a good concept. A bit of an oxymoron, maybe, but sometimes I feel that way about my art – I want it out in the world, but I’m not sure it’s ready. So I do have several pieces that are sharing withheld. 🙂

  25. Meg Miller says:

    Interesting interview Joanna and Sylvia! What a neat background you have Sylvia. And I love your artwork, so fun!

  26. Cathy says:

    Well done Sylvia and Joanna – great interview!

  27. Joanna says:

    Thank you all for your wonderful enthusiasm and support of Sylvia and her creations! I can’t wait to buy her first picture book!

  28. How wonderful to get to know Silvia better. I love your process from rough draft to amazing sketch,I’m that impatient too 🙂 Best wishes with your writing, I think you’ll make a great author/illustrator.

  29. Pingback: Author Interview with Sylvia Liu about her debut PB, A MORNING WITH GRANDPA | Miss Marple's Musings

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