Cathy Morrison – Illustrator Interview

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Very happy to once again be interviewing an illustrator whose illustrations will be showcased in my perfect picture book Friday link this week.

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

[CM] I consider myself an illustrator. I have one book that I wrote and illustrated, published with Tiger Tales Books. I have two books I’m working on now and I have to say that the illustrations seem to drive the projects, at least in the beginning. Once I’ve written the manuscript I feel it can stand alone without my illustrations, but while I’m developing the book I go back and forth between words and pictures. Writing is a very different mindset from illustration. No deadline, no direction, sort of like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle without seeing the final image on the box.

[JM] I love Fort Collins. One of my best friends lives there. Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

[CM] I grew up in a small town in Texas, not far from Dallas. We had a family farm where we would spend a lot of time in the summers.

After college I got a job as an in-betweener at K&H Productions, an animation studio in Dallas. I worked there until I moved to Colorado where I started freelancing which developed into Big Chief Graphics, a boutique graphic design and illustration studio in Denver. The skills I learned as an animator and editorial illustrator all apply to children’s book illustration so I like having that background to call upon.

I’ve lived in Colorado except for a 10 year period where my husband transferred to Pennsylvania for work. We lived in West Chester, PA about 4 years, moved back to Colorado and through an odd set of job circumstances kept an apartment in Philadelphia for about six more years while commuting between Philly and Denver. This was during the period where we bought land and built our cabin in Livermore, CO, about 40 minutes northwest of Fort Collins. Since moving to this area I’ve renewed my love for nature that I had a kid. Most of the projects I’m working on currently are based on the environment, science and nature.                    

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

[CM] I always wanted to be an artist. I’m from a family of insurance agents, farmers and ranchers, but nobody looked at me funny when I said I wanted to be an artist. My family was very supportive and I think this was my main reason for working as an artist today.

I earned a double major in fine arts and education from East Texas State University in Commerce, Tx., now Texas A&M. It was a “cow town” but the university had an amazing liberal arts program. All the instructors where working artists in their field as well as educators. Charles Mcgough was department head and some of my instructors were Jack Unruh, Lee Baxter Davis, James Allumbaugh, Gerard Huber, Karl Umlauf, Sam Hernandez, Denis Burke, James Waltrell, and Dennis Nechvatal. It was a great foundation. During student teaching, I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher and figured I would go into fine arts. Then during my last year of school I took some commercial art/illustration classes from Jack Unruh which resonated with me so that was the direction I went towards.

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

[CM] For the last ten years I’ve been digital, working on a Wacom Cintiq mostly using Corel Painter and Photoshop. Prior to that I used watercolor and pastels. I love working digitally because I feel I can be more creative. It’s easier to experiment and when I make a mistake it’s so much easier fix than back in the day. Also certain elements of the artwork can be isolated to use for marketing materials, book apps, etc. I’m not a “computer person” but drawing with the Cintiq is a very intuitive process, much the same as drawing on a piece of paper except now I draw directly on my monitor.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe Baby on Board, and the process of creating them?


[CM] The first piece of art I illustrated was the Otter spread. I don’t necessarily start with the first image, working my way through the book. When researching the animals in the book I always learn new things. I had no idea the mom sea otter wrapped her baby in kelp to keep her pup from drifting away. These animals are fascinating and this spread felt like a good place to begin.

Baby on Board Otter spread

Another spread I enjoyed illustrating was the one with the Common Loon family. My art director, Carol Malnor is a bird expert and loons are one of her favorites, so this spread was intimidating.  Plus, water is hard, there’s reflections to consider, where the type will fall on the image, etc. Several challenges to this piece. But the loon is such a beautiful bird that once I started working on the spread I totally enjoyed it.

Baby on Board Loon Spread

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?

[CM] When I was very young I would go with my big brother to the local Post Office where they had a magazine stand and we would look at comic books. Those are the first books I remember buying with my own money. I think they cost 12 cents.

Also, we would do “Book of the Month” club through school. I had Dr. Suess books and lots of Golden Books. Later I loved the Nancy Drew detective stories and I got all the books in the series. 

But I think the first real book I bought with my own money was To Kill A Mockingbird. I first checked it out from the library. I remember asking the librarian, “Do you have To Kill A Mockingbird?” She said, “No, I don’t have to do that.” Then she poked me in the arm and said, “Get it?” Anyway, we had a funny librarian. I fell in love with the book and wanted my own copy. It’s still my favorite book.

[JM] What does your workspace look like?

[CM] Almost 10 years ago when my kids were out of high school, one off to college and the other in the military my husband and I downsized and built an energy efficient / green constructed cabin. It’s passive solar and made of SIPs (structurally insulated panels). I finally got to design and build a real studio. It has a lot of natural light, vaulted ceiling and enough space, but not too much.

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

[CM] I have a lot of family photos and family artwork – like that macaroni framed crayon drawing from my son when he was tiny and a monotype from when my daughter was in college.

[JM] What is your favorite spread in Baby on Board and why?

[CM] I think my favorite spread from Baby on Board is the final image with the baby resting on dad’s shoulder. Drawing kids, especially babies can be difficult and I really wanted to get it right. Also we finalized the ethnicity of the baby after working on the first spread which shows people carrying babies in a variety of ways. I think it was Carol, my art director, who asked me if the baby in the final image was going to be the same one from the first spread. I hadn’t really thought it through at the time, but when she asked that I thought that was the perfect solution so that’s how the baby came to be.

Baby on Board last image copy

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

[CM] While I was working at the animation studio I took a leave of absence to study at the Parson’s School of Design’s Study Abroad program in Paris, France. It was a great opportunity and I absolutely love their park system. My all time favorite park is Luxembourg Gardens (Jardin du Luxembourg). It was the closest park to student housing and I went there almost every day, enjoyed the gardens, people watching, picnics, and sketching. I far as I’m concerned that park is perfection.

[JM] Cats or dogs?

[CM] Dogs

Reading to Crowley

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

[CM] This sounds very strange since I’m an illustrator, but I used to be legally blind. I was probably in first or second grade when they realized I was badly nearsighted and I got glasses. I still remember walking around and telling people (whoever would listen), the trees have leaves! Those curtains have a pattern! I see clouds in the sky! It was amazing and wonderful. I think that’s one reason I tend to have so much attention to detail in many of my illustrations. I’m still fascinated by details.

When I was 30 I had radial keratotomy which corrected my vision to 20/20. This was back in ye olden times before laser surgery.

[JM] Wow, what a redemptive story! What was your first paid job (besides babysitting)?

[CM] When I was 16 I found a beautiful red bike with three gears and had to have it. It was $75 and my parents couldn’t understand why I needed such an expensive bike when I had my driver’s license and access to the family car. So I became an Avon lady to earn money to buy the bike. I remember the lady who gave me the route told me I was lucky because it was the best route in town. It was on Park Street in Greenville, Texas which was made up of big, historical, beautiful homes and all those ladies living in those big homes loved Avon. I was so shy at the time that I hated the job, but it didn’t take long to earn enough money for the bike.

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

[CM] I’ve always been a coffee drinker. I can’t start my day without a cup of black coffee. I also love wine and that’s a great way to end my day although I’m not sure how creative my juices are afterwards.

Joanna, thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of Miss Marple’s Musings. I’m a long time fan of your blog and this is a big honor!

[JM] Mmm wine and coffee, I knew we had plenty in common!

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3 Responses to Cathy Morrison – Illustrator Interview

  1. What a fascinating interview with Cathy! She has an interesting background and journey. Her beautiful wildlife artwork is so realistic, detailed and makes you feel at peace when you view her spreads. The photo of father and child is exquisite! I’ll look forward to your review of her book Friday! I enjoyed the interview ladies.

  2. I’m in love with Cathy’s space and her green cabin…as well as with her detailed art! I adore detailed art but don’t have the attention span to do it myself. 🙂 Can’t wait to check out Baby On Board!

  3. Cathy Mealey says:

    Love the rich color tones in your work!

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