Shawn Finley

Shawn Finley

Shawn Finley Interview

Shawn Finley

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

The drive to create artwork and illustrations came early on in life! As a kid I was inspired by the bright visuals in my favorite books, cartoons and toys, which made me want to create my own characters and stories. Some early influences were picture books by Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry, Disney comics and movies, and Saturday morning cartoons.

Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

Yes, I studied fine arts and graphic art at Juson University, in the suburbs of Chicago. I was in a great location for publishing and it quickly led to illustration and design opportunities. In fact my senior show led to my first childrens' book commission, The Boo Baby Girl Meets the Ghost of Mable's Gable.

What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?

Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop and my Wacom Intuos tablet are tools I use daily. Since my illustrations are mainly digital, the final stages of every project are drawn directly onscreen.

Do you offer more than one style, if so – talk us through the different approaches and the audience you are targeting for each.

Yes- I often use a bolder, more graphic "vector" look for younger audiences, for instance, on activity/games or board books. Vector is also great for signage and infographics, and can look very sophisticated with more detailed compostions. My other approach is a more "painterly" digital style with textured brushes and deeper color palettes that resemble a more traditional picture book style. For personal work I enjoy drawing highly detailed pencil renderings, especially for portraits of people and pets.

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Vector art puzzle for younger audiences. For Baxter/Shire

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More complex vector illustration for general audiences. © Marriott International

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Digital painting with Photoshop brushes for IKEA LATTJO. © IKEA

What do you hope children take away from your drawings?

I want my drawings to enhance and give depth to the stories they accompany, and to make a positive and lasting impression on youngsters who are learning to read and experience the world through pictures and books.

What is your favourite children’s book and why?

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is a timeless classic and has been my favorite picture book ever since it was first released. I love the soft painterly style and the nostalgia embedded in the story.

What would you say is a distinguishing feature of your artwork?

Bright color palettes, playful characters, a strong underlying design and a sense of fun are often features of my work.

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Search and Find Dinosaur Fun! © Kidsbooks LLC

Which 4 words would you use to describe your illustration portfolio?

Colorful, Graphic, Energetic and Appealing.

Which area of children’s publishing excites you the most?

Picture books are definitely my favorite. I especially love the beginning stages of designing characters and penciling the layout. It's exciting to turn the manuscript into visuals and watch a new story start to come to life.

Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?

I currently live in Chicago, Illinois, but grew up in the American Midwest in rural Ohio. So I'm part city boy, part country boy.

Was creativity part of your childhood?

Most definitely! My earliest memories are of me and my brother drawing at our desk and chalkboard. I would make up stories about dogs and animals or family adventures, and illustrate them in book form with stapled paper. Eventually I had an entire series of books complete with the "about the author" bio on the back. We also loved building toys like LEGOs and sculpting with clay.

Describe your working technique and how you came to perfect it.

1) For vector illustrations, I do loose thumbnail sketches followed by firmer cleanup sketches in blue pencil on tracing paper. Then I scan the sketches and use them as a template layer in Illustrator to build more solid shapes over the scribbly lines. The final touch is adding more detail, gradients and shading with Illustrator tools. The final look can vary from simple to elaborate depending on how complex I want the finished piece to be.

2) If I'm going for a softer look or maybe painting a background scene based on drawings from a licensed property, I will again scan the original drawing and build a tight vector scene, keeping it flat with no gradients. I then use the the vector workup as a base layer in Photoshop, and continue to paint over it in layers with Photoshop brushes until a soft effect is achieved.

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Pencil sketch to final vector art. Scene from Bad Like Me, © Shawn Finley

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Digital painted scene of Baby Po and Papa, © DreamWorks Press. Pencil sketch by Denise Shimabukuro, Color/paint by Shawn Finley.

What things affect your creativity?

New life experiences and traveling definitely add layers to my creativity. Also, digging in deeper and studying the life and works of artists and illustrators whom I admire helps me to mature as an artist as well.

Who or what have been some of your major artistic influences?

One major influence was the book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, written by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I bought that very hefty book as a kid with money earned from mowing lawns and shoveling snow. I studied it carefully and learned a lot about Disney's visual storytelling and artistic techniques. It pushed me to the next level and laid the foundation for an eventual career in illustration. Studying the artwork of Walt Kelly, Maurice Sendak, Mary Blair and many others has also been a huge influence.

Who or what has been your greatest mentor?

That would be my college art professor, Del Rey Loven. His advice guided me in making the leap from "art student" to "professional artist".

Have you taken part in any speaker events?

Yes, I have spoken in public about my career as an illustrator several times. I've also done some live drawing events where I illustrate keywords and infographics across a large board while a speaker delivers a presentation!

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Speaking at my alma mater after receiving the "Distinguished Alumni Award", 2017

Have you visited any schools to speak or hold workshops?

Early in my career I served as adjunct faculty teaching college level illustration and graphic design courses. It was very rewarding. I would definitely like to do more speaking or workshop events in the future, because I think that might help inspire kids to pursue art or a creative career of their own.

Are you an author/illustrator?

Yes, I have written and illustrated a picture book entitled Inker Stinker and Wiggly for which I am seeking a publisher. I've also published an online graphic novel for older audiences called Bad Like Me (read it at

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Two very different projects authored by Shawn Finley... Inker Stinker & Wiggly (© Shawn Finley) and Bad Like Me  (© Shawn Finley)

Which project are you most proud of?

I'd say working on the book version of How to Train Your Dragon made me most proud. Illustrating for DreamWorks was an honor, and since Little Golden Books picked up that title I'm sure it will stay in print for a very long time. The amazing artist Denise Shimabukuro did the pencils and I did the digital paint/color. It was the first time I collaborated on a book project in that way, and we went on to illustrate more titles for DreamWorks after that.

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If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?

Probably movie directing, architectural design, toy design or painting. It would be nice to have a few lifetimes in order to do them all well!

Take us behind the scenes and describe your studio / workspace.

My drawing studio is well lit with natural light and equipped with Apple computers, Wacom tablets and other office hardware. I also keep a decent library of art books, reference magazines and my published work close at hand. Extra paper and supplies are in the supply closet, and I have a few of my paintings on the walls (not shown here). There are quite a few designer toys scattered around on desks and shelves, making it a fun place to work. In addition, I have a painting studio set up downstairs where it's ok to let the paint fly and make a mess!

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What is your favourite medium to work with and why?

It's hard choosing a favorite! I really enjoy digital illustration, traditional pencil drawing, and painting with acrylics. I'd have to say acrylic painting is the most satisfying since it is more hands on and messy. I like how the work can be loose and painterly, or tight and controlled all within the same painting.

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Shawn in the painting studio, preparing new work for "Villains" exhibit at Rotofugi Gallery, Chicago (2018)

Talk us through the process of creating one of your latest illustrations or books.

Recently I worked on a series of illustrations for which the artwork needed to be 100% vector, and the illustrations needed to look shiny and slightly transparent, as though they were sculpted from colored ice. The end result was a pretty complex vector file built with lots of gradient meshes, soft fades, semi-transparent highlights and other Illustrator techniques. I'm very happy with how it turned out.

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ICE!® featuring The Polar Express for Marriott International. © Warner Bros.

What are some of your favourite subjects to draw?

For books and comics, I totally love drawing monsters. But when drawing for drawing's sake, I love to draw dogs! I like the challenge of capturing their personalities with the right expresssion, and also the challenge of making the fur, nose and eyes super realistic. It's especially rewarding when a client calls to tell me how much they love their dog's new portrait :) Knowing how much it makes them happy makes me happy too.

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Francie and Max, © Shawn Finley

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