Vanessa Morales on Becoming a Children’s Book Illustrator

Vanessa Morales is a freelance concept artist and illustrator with a deep love of nature, the whimsical, and fantasy.

Vanessa initially studied graphic design but quickly found her calling as a children’s book illustrator after graduating. Between her brilliant color palette, cute character designs, and inviting environments, it’s easy to see why she chose this path!


Hey Vanessa, it’s great to have you here with us! Please introduce yourself to our readers; we all want to know what makes you, you.

Hey there! I’m Vanessa Morales, an illustrator based and raised here in the southern part of Mexico. I decided to give art a try during my early childhood. Back then, I never even imagined I’d be doing it for a living, yet here I am today!

Hey there! I’m Vanessa Morales, an illustrator based and raised here in the southern part of Mexico. I decided to give art a try during my early childhood. Back then, I never even imagined I’d be doing it for a living, yet here I am today!

I graduated from college with a degree in graphic design, and even though I liked it and found it interesting, I felt that my “true” field was going to be drawing or animation. At the time (I’m talking 10 years ago here, I’m not that old), I loved themes like nature, fantasy, and the impossibilities and magic of everyday life. My work is always rooted in that.

I also love colors and combining them in pleasant ways. I’m a bit restless, so I’m always working on something new, even if it’s old work or a brand new sketch just waiting to be developed. Other times it’s something completely different (cooking is a hobby I love). This is a helpful habit because I can practice my art a lot more in-between jobs.

Mexico is a beautiful country with a rich culture and unique landscapes. What was it like growing up there as an artist? Did it influence your work in any special way?

Growing up in a country like mine can be bittersweet. I love it, though, and I need to start saying this more often.

Much like any other place on earth, there are negative things to be said about Mexico, but I want to focus on the positives and show people the fair and the good.

When I entered college, I realized I was about to study something that not too many women here were interested in (or at least it was a bit strange to see a woman pursuing such an uncommon career), so I ended up being the only woman in my class.

It was a bit intimidating, but my mom always told me I could do anything just like the others. The emotions that arose from that were like fuel to me.

It was sometimes discouraging because I felt alone or like I was being treated differently from my classmates, but I made sure to give it a 110% and show them what I could do. This is why I always try to encourage others to give things their best shot or at least try.

Do you feel studying graphic design changed or improved your work? There was always a debate about formal education vs. self-teaching; maybe you’ve got something to say about that, too, since you’re running an illustration course this year.

This is a very personal opinion since I firmly believe this is a choice we make according to our possibilities.

While I could have been doing what I’m doing now without going to school, I think there are experiences you could only go through there.

The lessons we learned are valuable, and I don’t just mean the classes but also the interactions between people.

You can learn to work in a team and meet interesting people who might become collaborators in the future, who knows?

Of course, you’re also going to have some bad experiences. But even knowing about them, I would never advise anyone to not give college a try.

My career was ultimately different because I became an illustrator, so I self-studied what was more interesting to me and what I thought I needed more, but in the end, I can still apply all of the design concepts in my work. I’ve been studying online as well these days. That’s the other great option.

In short, yeah, go for it! If you can go to a specialized school, please take the chance. A lot of people would love to have the opportunity, so it’s sad to see it go to waste.

In cases where you can’t attend, try to find alternatives and avoid the immense debts. I know people who are still paying off their student loans after years of working! Consider all the paths you have to reach your goal and choose what is best for you.

Who do you create art for and why?

I create work for everyone who needs a spark of joy in their life, even if it’s only for a second.

I believe that every artist has their own goals and a purpose. While some artists are here to show life’s cruelty in a truly visceral way, others can help us better cope with reality through fantasy.

I want to be in the second group. Everyone is welcome in the worlds that I draw, but I primarily love painting for children because their world is so full of possibilities, and at the same time, I can create the things I wanted to see when I was a child.

You’ve done a lot more commercial projects recently. Tell us about the one you found most exciting and what you learned while working on it.

Oh! I’ve been lucky enough to work on many different projects, and every one of them has taught me something new. Sometimes I learn a technique or even a whole workflow, and other times, I just get to grips with the project pipeline and meet with the team. The point is that I’ve always been able to try new things.

One of the projects I’ve worked on recently is the Nick Jr. Hispanic heritage month campaign. The task was about creating a series of title cards and other items made to be animated by the Nick Jr. team for a TV campaign.

It was a bit exhausting since I only had two to three weeks to make everything, so I had to quickly learn how they work with such a limited amount of time. I also got a tremendous amount of information about the topic. The three countries that they featured were Colombia, Panama, and Puerto Rico. I learned about the folklore, instruments, and traditions they have in these places. All the diversity we have in Latinoamerica inspired me a lot! I would really love to be involved in more of these projects.

How has your approach to art changed over time?

At first, I thought I needed to practice all day and night. I also thought that references were a bit shameful to use, but this is not the case. To get an accurate depiction of something, you need to use references.

I avoid drawing without resting now. I try to be smart about it by practicing whatever I need at the time. I’ve also learned to observe and study everything, not just make copies, so my whole art process has evolved.

I still mess it up while working on something sometimes, but I try to learn from every new situation.

Are there any techniques or processes you really like using? Maybe you could talk us through one of your favorite pieces and tell us how you made it.

All of my pieces have their own process, but some of the most recent ones are worth highlighting here.

The Red and the Wolves series was born thanks to some deep emotions I’ve been going through. I needed to get them out of my heart and mind, so I started to doodle different thumbnails and sketches. It’s a mix of Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood, along with everything I bring to the table. There’s also a healthy dose of inspiration from Spirited Away’s No-Face character.

After sketching, I block out the base colors while maintaining the flat style. I also love to render, though, so I may paint here and there to show some depth. Since I usually stylize everything, I mix the shapes and colors together to create something special here.

I’m sharing a little timelapse video with you all to make it easier to understand the process:

I always notice the color palette first in your illustrations. They just really stand out! Do you have any advice for beginners who might want to get better with colors?

I appreciate what you said, so thank you! I think the best advice would be to be observant. Like I said before, no matter what your creative process is, always take a moment to analyze how the world’s colors work together.

Light and shadow are a part of this spectrum, so try to do studies without using the color drop tool. I personally recommend you use your own perception instead. Aim to choose colors that are out of your comfort zone, too. I didn’t like red and blue together before, but now it’s one of my favorite combinations because I’ve learned to pick the right hues for both of them.

Artists often struggle to create consistently, and I imagine that many want to know how other people overcome these challenges. Tell us, what gets you in the mood to draw? Do you have a routine or a ritual that can put you in the right headspace?

I don’t think this counts as a ritual or routine, but I always wash my hands before I start drawing, haha~ It’s not like I feel dirty, just that I want to feel fresh.

My schedule begins early in the morning, so I take a light breakfast before work. I always need to have a glass of water or some tea to start, and after that, I try to spend at least 30 minutes replying to emails. I will admit that this part can be difficult to maintain sometimes.

I try to draw something for myself before or after work, so I usually have my sketchbook near me. It is good to warm up the hands with some mindless doodles here and there. I draw personal things whenever an idea appears, even if it’s just a sketch that’s fated to remain unfinished forever. I just need to try and get the idea out of my head before I can focus on my work again.

Do you have any favorite children’s books? Please share a couple and tell us what makes them so special to you.

I like Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. She’s a classic author and illustrator with such lively and lovely work. Just knowing her story inspires me a whole lot! I also love Nightlights and Hicotea by Lorena Álvarez. These two graphic novels are full of vibrant illustrations from a dear Latinoamerican colleague, plus the story feels very close.

What’s next for Vanessa Morales?

I’m not really sure… I always try to take every opportunity, and I always consider what I want to do next so I can be open to new ones.

I already have some projects for the next few months, from children’s books to board games and even something for animation. I hope I can work more on my personal projects later this year. I still want to try to release a mini artbook or something like that.


If you enjoy Vanessa’s work, consider visiting her website or following her on Twitter.


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