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From the Studio

By Jackie Urbanovic

alligator GreenwillowI am a hopeless experimenter. Like an alchemist, I’m always mixing one thing with another, hoping to create gold. This happened to me after I finished writing and illustrating my fourth Max the Duck book (Sitting Duck). As lovable as Max is, my painting style for him was, well, inside the lines. When I paint my illustrations I slowly build up layer upon layer of  watercolor in a technique called glazing. Everything is controlled: every line, every hair, every shadow, every pattern is placed slowly and meticulously to form a perfect whole.

I once thought perfection was my goal, but these days I’m after imperfection. I’ve discovered that while perfectly graduated colors are beautiful, there is also a beauty to the splash of color that falls uncontrolled, outside the lines. After Sitting Duck, I found myself ready to switch gears and paint with wild abandon, to escape the controlling person within. I was ready to take advantage of the beautiful irregularities of watercolor. I dreamed of capturing energy on paper.

Jackie painting Greenwillow

In my studio.

April Pulley Sayre‘s book, If You’re Hoppy, turned out to be a great vehicle for this new style. It’s a silly, wild romp. It’s all movement and rhythm. 

It was my opportunity to break out. But, how to do this? I not only needed to change my viewpoint,  I also needed to paint with something that would encourage me to let loose and not worry the details.

I realized quickly that my usual way of painting wouldn’t work. For my Max the Duck books I used tiny brushes. These allow for a lot of control and fine details, needed for this style.

tiny brushes Greenwillow

My tiny brushes.

I needed a tool that was more dramatic for my new style.

Jackie with big brush Greenwillow
I started by using some bigger brushes like this Chinese one.

lots of brushes Greenwillow

You can see how much bigger it is in comparison to my usual brushes.

handmade brush Greenwillow

And I chose this handmade brush for my outlines because of the marvelous lines and squiggles it created. It brought life to the outlines of the animals.

But as I worked, I thought again about brushes. While my outlines were loose, my colors were still too stodgy. I still needed some tool, technique, or some way of thinking that would allow me to capture that sense of movement, of life. 

kleenex Greenwillow


kleenex as brush Greenwillow


I found it, of all places, in a tissue box. Tissues are a great painting tool. And cheap to boot. I layered swipes and dabs and smudges on top of what I’d already painted with brushes.

closeup2 Greenwillow

BREAKTHROUGH! You can see that the color surrounding the “hop” lines is rough and that the background color is full of irregular splashes.

bear Greenwillow

You can see the dabs of purple over the bear’s head. While his fur was painted with brushes, his nose was done with tissue. The outline shows the quirkiness of the brush here, especially in his nails and nose.

closeup1 Greenwillow

You can see the effect of the tissue just above and below the cricket.

endpages Greenwillow

I decided to apply my new tissue technique to the end pages. I used both tissue and sponges to create the background behind these footprints.

Inspired by what I’d learned I tried yet another new technique. (I told you I was hopeless!) I needed to create a series of shadow puppets.  My first thought was a smooth graduation of blue and black. The usual shadow colors. But I was on a roll. I wanted them to be more colorful, more vibrant. So I tried a new technique: I drew a light outline of each shadow. Then I painted a layer of water inside those lines.  I laid paint on top of the water. Paint floats on top of water and moves to the edges. I put down one color, then another, watching them move and blend.

shadow1 Greenwillow

I was delighted with the effect.  I’d done more than create gold:   

I’d achieved HOPPINESS.

If You're HoppyJackie Urbanovic is the New York Times best-selling author and illustrator of Duck at the Door, Duck Soup, Duck and Cover, and Sitting Duck. Her newest book, If You’re Hoppy, by April Pulley Sayre, went on sale last month!


  1. Jody Feldman says:

    I love these … and especially your use of color. Wow!

  2. Tania says:

    It always amazes me to see how a picture book comes to life. I have this book and love it! The illustrations are bright and colorful and certainly show lots of movement. Very well done!

  3. […] From the Studio « Under the Green Willow This happened to me after I finished writing and illustrating my fourth Max the Duck book (Sitting Duck). As lovable as Max is, my painting style for him was, well, inside the lines. When I paint my illustrations I slowly build up layer . […]

  4. You’ve inspired me to experiment!

  5. Gina Capaldi says:

    Your work is so lovely! Not only have you inspired me but I must purchase your book.

  6. This is a great article. That is always the struggle, to capture the freedom and energy of unorganized color and line, in an organized manner.

  7. Jackie,
    Your article is so well expressed, both literally and visually. You have captured the predicament
    Well done, and thankyou for the inspiration.
    of not only all visual artists, but ofillustrators in particular. Your words are particularly apt for me at this time as I come to the finish of a series of books I wrote and illustrated and look for new and fun ways to experiment with freedom in paint.
    I am going out to buy ALL of your books.

  8. What a fun glimpse into your illustration techniques… and also into the workings of your creative mind! Thanks Jackie!

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