Illustrator Interview – Ruth McNally Barshaw

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ruthmcnallybarshawI have many different reasons for inviting illustrators onto my blog. Many have become  friends, all are gifted artists whom I admire, sometimes their daily doodles inspire me, others have won portfolio awards or I have contacted them after drooling over their artwork in a new picture book. Ruth McNally Barshaw has wowed me and other middle grade fans with her highly illustrated Ellie McDoodle series and I am often touched by Ruth’s honest and gutsy updates on FB.

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?

[RMB] Both! I am the illustrator for an upcoming picture book, LEOPOLD, written by Denise Brennan-Nelson and I’m author-illustrator for the Ellie McDoodle Diaries and other forthcoming picture books.


When writing stories I will also illustrate, I usually start with a concept. Next come a few images in my head, both character and situation. By the time I’m drawing the art ideas onto paper (often in a journal), a few words are coming. Until the book is finished it’s a constant juggle between the art and words.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived, and how has that influenced your work?

[RMB] I was born in the Detroit area, and moved to East Lansing, Michigan, to attend college. I married a writer and we settled in Lansing to raise our four kids. I appreciate that illustrators don’t have to live near New York City in order to stay busy, as they did in the 1970s. In college an art instructor told me I’d never have much of an art career if I stayed in Lansing. He was wrong; I’m doing just fine.

Michigan is beautiful nature, huge lakes, trees, waterfalls, hiking, sand dunes, beaches, boats, winter sports, and four distinct, glorious seasons. Nature plays an important role in all of the Ellie McDoodle books; I feel strongly that kids need to get out into nature to think, to be inspired, to grow, and to play.

I think I am part nomad. I love traveling and then working bits of what I see into my books.


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

[RMB] In third grade I knew I was good at drawing when my teacher asked me to draw bulletin board art from popular kids’ books.

In high school I enjoyed drawing cartoons of my friends. I wanted my art to be like Norman Rockwell’s, illustrative and expressive, but I was frustrated that it wasn’t better.

My art teacher gave me my first blank journal. I’ve been documenting events in art and writing ever since. (I have about 400 journals at my house. They need cataloguing.)

This image is from that first journal. I was 15 when I drew it – it surprises me how similar my style was, back then, to my Ellie McDoodle style today.


In college I took classes in advertising, psychology, landscape architecture, mechanical drawing, and two studio art classes. I worked for the student newspaper creating ads and a daily comic strip. Then I was hired as a graphic designer/illustrator for the university. I loved my job but wanted to work at home with my kids and create comic strips and books for families. When I finally stumbled into kids’ books full time in 2003, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

It’s been a challenge balancing the art and writing, and trying to improve both. I was told I was a better writer than illustrator, and I always wanted to create great art.

[JM] You have written six books in the delightful Ellie McDoodle chapter book series. How does chapter book art differ from picture book art for you?

[RMB] Thank you! The art for Ellie McDoodle is like the art in my journals: quick pen and ink sketches on plain paper, sometimes drawn in sequential panels. There’s art on every page (170 pages in each book).


By contrast, the picture book art I’ve done so far is in watercolor and ink on big, fancy, expensive paper.


It takes longer to do a painting than a sketch, but there are only 32 pages so it almost evens out. I love doing both.

Still, it was daunting to switch from doing picture book art to the Ellie McDoodle art in 2005. And it was daunting again to switch from doing Ellie McDoodle art to picture book art last year. To help me do my best on Leopold, I meet with E.B. Lewis, master illustrator, on Skype. As my art teacher and mentor he pushes me hard.

[JM] Oo, lucky you to work with E.B., he’s such a gem. What author and or illustrator organizations do you belong to?

[RMB] My heart belongs to SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, There I have found peers, inspiration, and motivation.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

I want my work to be uplifting, fun, and useful, and to show characters using creativity in unusual ways.

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

In coming up with the art for Leopold, first I tried to decide how he should look. I told myself I’d draw 100 lions before deciding. (I ended up drawing 200 lions.)


Next I drew dozens of sketches of the family. This is an early image.


Then I researched where they live. (This is a house in Denver, CO, purported to be a PT Barnum house, but it was built after he died. Leopold comes from a circus. I thought the house would be a nice tie-in, but I don’t expect anyone to notice. I love doing this kind of research for my books.)


Next I put the characters in scenes to figure out how they interact. This image isn’t in the book, but it helped me figure out how the boy and lion get along.


Then I sketch the characters into scenes in the book.


Then I figure out how the art will look when painted.


Then I paint.


Now I’m working on other books: One about a baby,


one about cars,


one about a horse,


and one about a girl who loves nature.


[JM] Thank you so much for sharing so much of your process with us. Do you have a few words of wisdom for someone trying to break into this industry/profession now?

[RMB] Read, read, read. Read everything you can, especially well-written books. Read with a discerning eye. Analyze what works and why. Figure out what your superpower is (mine is on-the-spot sketching and author visits in schools). Work hard at your craft, and keep learning. Kids deserve the best books – there’s no shortcut to quality.

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[RMB] It’s a mess. When I am on a deadline I say the studio’s messy because I don’t have time to clean it. When the deadline’s ended and I’m working on something new, I don’t clean the studio as much as I should because I’m too excited about the new project. I need a secretary or a very stern personal organizer. But the good thing is I can work anywhere – and I do, even at my daughter’s tennis matches or in the car on the way to school visits. (My husband drives.)


[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?

[RMB] My walls are a work in progress. I had my kids’ best art hanging in the living room, but one of the kids decided the living room needed updating. She took the art down, painted the walls, and put up photos.

During March, when my final art was due on the Leopold picture book, I had watercolor paintings tacked up all over in the living room, waiting to be sent to the publisher.

Hanging in my studio is gorgeous art by some of my dear friends.

 Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                              [JM] What’s your favorite park (urban, state or national) in the world?

[RMB] Hawk Island park – a lovely local park with water, playground, a dog park, and memorial gardens I helped plant 14 years ago.

I also love Grand Haven (beach and camping!) and Sleeping Bear Dunes. It’s hard to pick a favorite.

I am getting so many great park recommendations through this question       [JM] Cats or dogs?

[RMB] Dogs. I like that they’re more trainable and slightly less destructive.

I volunteer time at the local animal shelter with my daughter.


[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?

[RMB] I’m kind of afraid of the dark. I won’t watch scary movies.

[JM] I don’t do scary movies either! One word to describe your art.

[RMB] Expressive.

I’m great at characterization. (There’s plenty I am *not* great at, but I’m working on it…)

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

[RMB] Mints to keep me alert and tea with lemon. I’m making a chain out of Mentos wrappers. It’s getting long, fast.

 Ruth, thank you so much for sharing today and we isn you continued success, especially right now with LEOPOLD THE LION, which releases on Sept 1st.

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8 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Ruth McNally Barshaw

  1. I can tell Ruth is great at characterization even if she hadn’t said it! All her pieces are so beautifully expressive. I can attest to the fact that quick sketches are the best. I can’t wait to read Leopold The Lion!

  2. shirley says:

    What a wonderful interview! I can’t wait to read Leopold the looks marvelous, Ruth! And thank you Joanna for your’s always a treat to get to know a little better the people I’ve admired on social media. Keep up the great work! Thank you!

    • Joanna says:

      Shirley, so glad you have been enjoying these interviews, and I always feel more connected when I have done an interview with someone.

  3. What a lovely interview! Thank you for sharing!

  4. All those lions look fab together. I think you should sell it as wallpaper 🙂 Your artwork is delightful, Ruth. You are an inspiration.

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