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Let's Peek into Milanka Reardon's Illustration Process

Updated: Jul 17, 2019


Welcome to the blog, Milanka Reardon! Congratulations on your new book -

"Who Will? Will You?" written by Sarah Hoppe, which comes out in August, 2019.

Milanka: Thank you, Manju.

I read in a previous interview that your first children’s picture book illustration job was for a self-published book. How does the illustration process differ when working with a small publisher?


Milanka: Working with Blue Whale Press has been a wonderful experience. I had creative freedom with the illustrations and the editor and publisher were very supportive while providing professional feedback throughout the process. Also the author, Sarah Hoppe, did a fantastic job writing a fun story and making each word count. Illustrating for someone who is self-publishing their book is very different. The author of the story had definite ideas of what he wanted on each page and there was a lot more input on each individual illustration from the author throughout. It’s kind of nice with a small press because you have the best situation in that the publisher trusts you to create the characters and to come up with the book dummy but is available and provides professional feedback where needed. The overall process was very positive and supportive with great communication between the editor, publisher and myself.


Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Milanka: I love to research a project and do many sketches for ideas. When I started Who Will? Will You?, I had to figure out in my mind where this story would take place. The main character, Lottie, finds a pup on the beach and wanders to many different places throughout the story desperately trying to find a home for the lost pup. I had to research what areas might have an animal shelter near the beach, and bat caves and other types of animal rescue places. That led me to interesting architecture for my Animal Rescue Shelter, but I didn’t want every scene to be about a building so I had to find other facilities and types of people that would possibly take this pup. The best research was going to the beach and sketching and taking photos for reference. And then even better than that was finding all kinds of pups to draw. I remember pushing the stroller with my baby granddaughter and finding cute pups along the way. Then I had to figure out what Lottie would look like. I had some fun ideas for Lottie and at first she looked too young to be walking around town on her own with just her dog, Rufus. So I made her a little older and kept the messy hair and flip flops.


What medium do you prefer?

Milanka: I painted mostly with oils when I started painting portraits. Then I found that I could achieve some fantastic results with colored pencils. I love to explore different mediums. Now I am happiest working with watercolors and pencils. I love the looseness of the water and paint and watching it flow on paper, and then I like to have some areas more controlled with colored pencil or pastel pencil. I try to achieve a nice variety of textures. But most of all I am drawn to whatever works for creating that unique character that best fits the story. Lately I have been able to add finishing touches digitally with photoshop or procreate.


Where did you study art?

Milanka: I studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I earned certificates in Natural Science Illustration and Children’s Book Illustration. But my interest in art started many years before that when my children were very young and I took decorative painting classes. This quickly led to portrait and landscape workshops. I was really hooked with learning and as a member at the time of the Decorative Painting Society, I would take whatever classes were offered and enter some contests along the way. When I won a First Place and People’s Choice award at a show in New England, it was for a portrait of a little girl. And it was her expression that had me hooked on painting children. I love to see the life in the expression and to wonder about the story behind it.


When did you decide that you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

Milanka: I have always loved to draw from the time that I was a little girl living in Titograd, Yugoslavia with my mother. I was fascinated by the pictures in the old fairy tale books from that country. I still have most of them. That is the one thing that I carried with me when I emigrated from Yugoslavia when I was six years old. I left any toys I had behind. My aunt sent us a roll of toilet paper when we lived in the old country and I used to draw pictures on it. It made a great continuous storyboard and I filled each square with pictures!

When I decided to go back to school for art, I thought that Natural Science Illustration would be a great fit for me since my undergraduate degree is in biology, (art school wasn’t considered a practical thing for an immigrant girl). And while I loved drawing and painting plants and animals, I wanted to tell a story with them. I always loved the funny individual expressions of the animals and saw them as characters and I wondered about their story. So that naturally led me to the Children’s Book Illustration program at RISD. Once I started that program, I found that I had so many stories that I wanted to tell with pictures and that was just the beginning.


How has your role in SCBWI helped you as an illustrator?

Milanka: I attended my first SCBWI conference in 2010 when I was still at RISD. I loved all of the wonderful workshops and opportunities for illustrators to have their work viewed and critiqued by industry professionals. I entered the Illustration Challenge and Portfolio Showcase and took as many workshops as I could. It was during that time that I joined a couple of illustration critique groups and started volunteering at the New England SCBWI conferences. I became Illustrator Coordinator for New England in December of 2015. Being a member of SCBWI has helped me in so many ways. The best part is being part of a community of children’s book writers and illustrators who are so kind and generous with sharing their stories and their successes. The workshops provide so much information not only on the illustration process but about publishing in general. Everyone is so kind to share their experience in publishing. As Illustrator Coordinator, I can give back by helping to organize events, but I get so much more out of these events by the wonderful people that I meet, including art directors, agents, editors and some amazing authors and illustrators, both published and pre-published (a nice word I learned through SCBWI which refers to those not yet published people who have books in progress).


What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Milanka: Enjoy the illustration process by making art and challenging yourself. Work on having a professional portfolio and website. Join SCBWI, join a critique group and take as many workshops and classes as you can. But most of all draw every day and take time to draw what you love.



Milanka Reardon is co-Illustrator Coordinator for the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She is a graduate of the Children’s Book Illustration program at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her illustration of "A Beary Special Friend" won the R Michelson Galleries Emerging Artist Award at the NESCBWI 2016 conference. She has illustrated two picture books, Noodles and Albie’s Birthday Surprise by Eric Bennet, and Who Will? Will You? written by Sarah Hoppe for Blue Whale Press which will be out in August of 2019. She lives with her family in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

You can see more of her artwork at MilankaReardon.com, on instagram at milanka_reardon and on twitter at @MilankaReardon.


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