Illustrator Spotlight: Melissa Iwai

A Day in the Life of a Children's Book IllustratorThe staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors and illustrators. Click here to see more author spotlights, and we hope you enjoy learning about these writers and artists who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following spotlight was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News. Click here to subscribe.

Melissa Iwai received her BFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has illustrated many picture books. She illustrated We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am for Free Spirit.


I’ve been a freelance illustrator since 1998 doing mostly children’s book illustration. I’ve illustrated 29 books and numerous pieces in educational textbooks and children’s magazines throughout the years. I’ve written and illustrated one book (Soup Day) and collaborated with my husband, Denis Markell, on two books (The Great Stroller Adventure and Hush Little Monster).

These are some of the books I’ve illustrated:

Melissa Iwai's Books

Since my husband and I both work at home, it can be a bit difficult in the summer when our son is not in school or camp. During the school year, our lives are much more structured.

A typical day in my life during the school year goes something like this:

I wake up early in the morning (around 5:30 a.m.) and drink three cups of lemon water while checking my email. If I have an inspiration or idea for an illustration upon waking, I will sketch instead. Then I go to the gym to work out and come back around 7:00 to make breakfast for my son and myself.

I take my son to school, and if I am in the sketching/research phase of a project, then I go to a café to work until lunch. I like to get out of the house during this time, because when I am painting and doing finals, I am stuck at home all day! If I am painting elements or inking rather than sketching, I will do this all morning in my studio.

Here are some early rough concept sketches:

Melissa Iwai's Early Concept Sketches

When illustrating We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am, I worked closely with Steven Hauge, the wonderful art director at Free Spirit. The plan was to create a brightly colored textured background and use white line drawings and decorative borders with the text on the left page. On the right page would be a full-color illustration in an interesting shape.

A pile of final sketches:

Final Sketches

After sketching, I like to go to the local markets to buy groceries and decide what to make for dinner. We don’t own a car, and we live in a great area in Brooklyn, so we tend to only buy foods that we eat daily. Cooking is another creative outlet of mine, and I love making up recipes and experimenting in the kitchen. I have a cooking blog at The Hungry Artist.

I eat lunch with my husband, and we do the crossword puzzle together. We sound like an old married couple, don’t we?

Then, it’s back to work. I usually start work on the computer in the afternoon. This includes my final illustration work, as well as blogging, doing email, and posting to social media.

For the illustrations in We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am, I created most of the elements by hand. I painted swatches in watercolor and shapes in ink. I wanted the books to have a consistent color palette, so I decided on the colors beforehand.

Here are some of my painted watercolor swatches, which I organized into a layered Photoshop file:

Painted watercolor swatches

These are shapes of a tent and kids painted in ink:

Ink Drawings

I also lettered and did line drawings with Micron pens. I usually don’t include line drawing in my illustration work, so this was fun.

Line drawings with Micron pens

Then, I scanned everything to my computer and assembled the illustrations digitally. It is a fun way to work because a lot of unexpected things evolve during the process.

Tent Illustration

By 5:30 or so, it’s time to make dinner, so I take a break to do that. We eat together at about 6:00 and chat about our days. If the weather is nice, we like to walk to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is a couple blocks away. I love people watching, and the area is gorgeous and so great for that.

Sometimes I take photos, which I will refer to later when drawing and painting. I do a daily sketch/painting and post it to my Instagram feed. During the past fall and winter, I was doing a lot of them in acrylic, but in the summer, I switched to watercolor and ink. I started doing these dailies because I wanted to improve my drawing and painting skills, and I know that consistency is key. I post them to keep me accountable, but it’s something that I truly enjoy doing. In the past, if I got too busy, I would stop doing “extra” work, so this is a way for me to remember to do it! I only spend about 30 to 45 minutes, sometimes less, per daily painting.

Winter (Acrylic):

Winter (Acrylic)

Summer (Watercolor and ink):

Summer (Watercolor and ink)

I’ve found that I have improved since I’ve been doing this. It also helped me in drawing all the children in the Free Spirit books.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my life! Please visit my site if you’d like to see more of my work.

Free Spirit books illustrated by Melissa Iwai:

Just Because I AmWe Can Get Along


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6 Responses to Illustrator Spotlight: Melissa Iwai

  1. My goodness, what a wonderful interview. Melissa your work is outstanding!

  2. Jill Bergman says:

    Wonderful interview and they look like great books!

  3. tphumiruk says:

    Melissa, you are so talented and accomplished! I enjoyed reading about your work day. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Lena Umezawa says:

    Melissa, thank you for sharing your typical day and illuminating your process for Free Spirit books. I especially appreciate the peek of your painty swatches and tent + child body part pieces prior to digital manipulation. This makes me love picture books even more, with the care that goes into each illustration!

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