Meet Dino Tracks Illustrator Cathy Morrison

Cathy-Morrison-originalIt is an incredible talent to take an author’s words and bring them to life in a picture book. Cathy Morrison has this incredible talent, and has illustrated Animalogy, Three Little Beavers, Nature Recycles: How About You?, and most recently Dino Tracks. Cathy talked with us about the challenge and process of bringing dinos to life!

Working with dinosaurs seems like it would allow an illustrator a lot of creative freedom. Did you find these prehistoric creatures fun or challenging to create? Do you have a favorite dinosaur you worked on in Dino Tracks?

Illustrating Dino Tracks proved to be both fun and challenging.  On one hand there is a lot of creative freedom, or what I like to call “artistic license” in drawing dinosaurs since nobody’s ever seen one. But the science is evolving so quickly that by the time I’d finished my last spread of artwork, I found things I wanted to go back and change in the first spread of artwork because of additional research that I uncovered. I had so many questions: which dinosaurs had feathers and what about colors? We’re used to seeing them portrayed in earth tones but now that we envision them as more like birds (and lizards too) I wanted to go more colorful. Just think about the colors of birds, it’s pretty much endless. So I went out on a limb (yes, that’s a pun in case you were wondering) and made them more colorful. Here’s an article from “Live Science” that explains how much we’ve discovered about dinosaurs in the last twenty years. This article came out after I completed the illustrations but sums up a lot about the research.

I think my favorite dinosaurs were the ones that lived in polar climates. They looked like ostriches and I think they’re called timimus, which are small theropods. I still get confused with all the names. I learned a lot when I worked on this book but still feel like I barely scratched the surface compared to true paleo-artists.


What type of programs or medium did you use for Dino Traks? And, how were you able to create these semi-transparent dinosaurs on some of the pages?

I illustrate digitally on a Wacom Cintiq tablet, drawing directly on the monitor. The software I used for Dino Tracks is Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop.  I create the artwork in layers, so the background is on a layer, the mid and foreground might be on their own layers, and the dinosaurs are isolated on their on layers.  This helps the Sylvan Dell editor to be able to pull out a dinosaur and use it for their Creative Minds section or marketing materials. Also now a lot of publishers are turning their books into apps and the layers can help with animating these apps. I used to work in an animation studio years ago and it’s the same concept that we used to shoot animation cells.

finalBut back to your question about the semi-transparent dinosaurs; I wish I could say I’m just that good but there’s a pretty simple way that I made that happen. I didn’t want to show people with dinosaurs, just thought it might be confusing to the reader. So I thought it would be cool to ghost back the illustration of the dinosaur in the spreads that included people. Since the dinosaur was isolated on a separate layer from the background I worked with Donna German, my editor and art director and we were able to play around with different percentages to give it that semi-transparent effect. I think we ended up screening them back 25%. You still see the dinosaur but it gives the feeling that the image is from another time, sort of like a ghost. Hopefully it gives the look we’re trying to achieve.


There are a lot of repeated background elements throughout the book such as water, mountain ranges, and sparse vegetation. Was this the plan all a long or something that just occurred once you started working? And could you shed some light on your creative process? Do you have a signature artistic style or element for fans and readers to watch out for? 

I had absolutely no plan when I started illustrating Dino Tracks, just a lot of questions. This is the first dinosaur book for Sylvan Dell and for me too. Sylvan Dell has all their books vetted by professionals in their field. Even though they are picture books, they need to be accurate. So initially I did my research and sent my rough story board layouts to them and they turned them over to Jeffrey A. Wilson, Associate Professor at the department of Earth & Environmental Sciences and Associate Curator of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. He didn’t make a ton of suggestions but his comments really helped to clarify what was important to show about dinosaur tracks. It focused the direction of the illustrations and I was able to get a clear vision and go on from there.

Every artist has a signature style, their own voice that they develop over the years. I like adding a lot of interesting little details that I hope will enhance the author’s words.


What advice would you give readers who are interested in illustration or art? What was your favorite art project as a kid? What inspired you to become an illustrator?

I think you should do what you love but don’t expect an easy road ahead. For every job I’ve been contracted for, I have probably gotten over twenty rejections before that one job came through. So you need to listen to construction criticism and grow with each project. Art styles may be popular one year then passé the next and you have to stay true to yourself but at the same time evolve and keep up with technology and what publishers are looking for. It’s not for everybody and it’s not easy.

When I was young (not a kid but early twenties) I liked sewing and fashion design a lot. My mom used to sew all our clothes growing up and she taught me to sew as well. I was never as skilled as her but became fascinated by what went into making clothes and how fashion evolved through history. It’s pretty amazing what lengths people go through to be fashionable and the role that clothing has played through history; from the bound feet of the Chinese women, to quilters sewing quilt codes to guide slaves in the Underground Railroad, to the revolutionary mini skirt, to tattoos and body piercing today. Fashion makes cultural and political statements around the world and I’ve always been interested in that. I considered being a fashion illustrator and did a summer abroad program in Paris, France with Parson School of Design which was a life changing experience. But I have to say when my kids were little and I started reading children’s books I knew that was it for me. And I feel very lucky to still be illustrating children’s books today.


Readers don’t have to wait long for new books by Cathy.  Coming to stores in February is Daisylocks, an adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Marianne Berkes,  and more dinosaurs will be hitting bookshelves this fall with Dino Treasures set for release in August 2014. Stay connected with Sylvan Dell Publishing to find out more!



4 thoughts on “Meet Dino Tracks Illustrator Cathy Morrison

    • Hi Rhonda, I loved working on Dino Tracks and am really happy to be illustrating Dino Treasures now. Dinosaurs are amazing and I feel like the more I learn the less I know, (not what our publisher likes hearing, I’m sure). But there’s so much being discovered currently that the science is constantly evolving. And I’m always impressed by how knowledgeable kids are about dinosaurs.

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