The Green House on the Prairie: An In-Depth Interview with Children’s Book Illustrator Cathy Morrison

Morrison1408-011 copyI recently reviewed The Prairie That Nature Built (Dawn Publications), written by Marybeth Lorbiecki and illustrated by Cathy Morrison. Cathy’s digital illustrations are so incredibly detailed and her beautiful depictions of the prairie are so authentic, I asked her if she’d share some insights into her enviable artistic talents. After reading what Cathy has to say about her work and her idyllic studio in the mountains of Colorado, you’re sure to be inspired.

© Copyright – Image of Children’s Book Illustrator Cathy Morrison

Can you tell us a bit about where you live in Colorado? You must find the scenery incredibly inspiring.

I live in an area called Glacier View Meadows in the foothills northwest of Fort Collins  – elevation is about 7,600 ft. My husband, Andy Brown and I both work from home so we are able to live almost any place as long as we have access to the Internet. When our kids were young we’d come camping and hiking in this area and always enjoyed it. And being close to Ft. Collins, a college town was attractive as well.

view of sunset at cabin

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – A view of the Colorado sunset, one of Cathy’s many inspirations

I understand you built a green home too.

When we decided to buy land and build we knew sustainability and energy efficiency were important to us. We wanted to leave a small footprint and keep the land as natural as possible because the building process can really decimate the land. Our home is built from SIPs (Structurally Insulated Panels) and is passive solar with radiant heating. Living here is very comfortable and fits our lifestyle. Here are some photos of the building of our home on our contractor’s website. And since I spend so much of my time working I really wanted a well functioning and comfy studio with an amazing view.

Studio with my view (and mess on my desk)

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – The mountain view from Cathy’s studio near Fort Collins, CO.

Do you ever draw or paint outside your amazing studio?

I love to travel and have a small drawing tablet I bring with me on trips. A couple of years ago I went to the Lake District in England for a Kindling Words writing/illustrator retreat. After that I went to Bangkok where my husband was freelancing for a start-up television company. While I was there I was illustrating Nature Recycles and got to see and touch Asian elephants. Most of my research was done online but there’s nothing like being up close and personal and seeing the real thing. My daughter who was a recent film graduate from CU in Boulder went along as well and actually got a full time job with the company.

“I got a great art education, developed a strong work ethic and tough skin as well. All that comes in handy as a freelance artist because you can get a lot of rejections before landing a contract.”

That was certainly a bonus for your daughter! How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

I really can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. My family and teachers always encouraged me and nobody tried to tell me I couldn’t or shouldn’t be an artist. I went to East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas (now Texas A&M) and earned a double major in fine arts and education along with a teaching certificate for K-12. We had an amazing staff of teachers, Lee Baxter Davis, Jack Unruh, Gerard Huber, Charles McGough, others as well. They pushed hard and demanded a lot from their students. I got a great art education, developed a strong work ethic and tough skin as well. All that comes in handy as a freelance artist because you can get a lot of rejections before landing a contract.

TLIYL spread 8LR

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – Inside spread from This Land is Your Land by Catherine Ciocchi (Arbordale Publishing)  

Do you think a person has to have natural talent to become an artist?

I have a lot of friends who are artists and I see them enjoying the process of creating, being very hard working and focused. It’s like anything else, the more you do something, the better you get over time. Nobody starts out being great, but you do develop, grow and find your niche. So I think that it’s really important to expose kids when they’re young to a lot of different experiences. Encourage them when they find that creative spark or whatever that “thing” is they like to do, whether it’s art, music, science, math or sports for that matter.

I like your philosophy, because many people are under the impression that you can’t develop into a good artist if you don’t have the natural ability. You started your career in animation, so what happened to change your focus on illustrating children’s books?

Right out of college I got a job with K&H Productions, an animation studio in Dallas, Texas, as an in-betweener. I interviewed with Tom Young, the head of the art department and showed him my big fine arts portfolio. I knew absolutely nothing about animation. He said as long as I could draw he could teach me everything I needed to know. I was there for five years and still stay in touch with many friends from those days. The animation field is a pretty tight knit community.

 DT spread 13 LR(flopped)© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – Inside spread from Dino Tracks written by Rhonda Lucas Donald (Sylvan Dell Publishing)

While working at K&H I took a trip to Colorado Springs and fell in love with the state. That was around Thanksgiving and by the end of that year I had quit my job and moved to Colorado and started freelancing as an editorial/advertising illustrator. Looking back, I must have been very naïve but that leap of faith worked out for me. I met my husband there and eventually we moved from Colorado Springs to Denver and I started Big Chief Graphics, a small graphics design and illustration studio working with cable companies, hospitals, restaurants, advertising agencies, etc. I kept that business until I had my two children, downsized and began working from home, and became interested in illustrating children’s books.

What traditional media did you use before switching to digital illustrations?

I worked with black and white pencil and colored pencil for a lot of my early work. While living in Pennsylvania I took a watercolor class in botanical illustrations from Anna B. Francis at Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square. I mainly switched to watercolor at that point.

How long have you been creating digital illustrations?

I’ve been working digitally for about 8 years now.

Can you briefly explain how your digital illustrations are made?

I illustrate on a Wacom Cintiq, which is a graphic monitor that I draw directly on with a pressure-sensitive pen. It’s actually the same process as drawing on paper, but I use a couple of software programs, Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop which allow me to work in oils, pastel, watercolor, any art medium. It’s great because I can work in layers (actually it’s a similar process to how we worked in the animation studio with a main character isolated on an acetate cell and that would be positioned on top of a background painting. Most publishers need certain characters pulled out of the background and used for game apps, teaching guides, or marketing materials, things like that. Plus it’s much easier for revisions.

Crowley on ARCs & publishing promos copy

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – Cathy’s dog, Crowly, at home in her studio

What did you use for perspective to create your illustrations? Did you go out into the prairie, use photos, etc?Prairie spread 26&27LR

I use the Internet a lot for research, plus go to the library as well. For Prairie, I needed to give my art director and editor at Dawn Publishing the names of all of the plants and animals that are in the illustrations to make sure that I was accurately showing life on the prairie. They have researchers who fact check things if there are questions. Also, I walk my dog, Crowley, twice a day and as I worked on the book I noticed things that I usually wouldn’t pay attention to during our walks; These were things like little details about the birds, wildlife, rocks, flowers, drifts of grasses and rolling hills, vistas. I just became more aware of my environment in general. So both my local surroundings and my dog, Crowley are in the book.

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison- Cathy used her own dog for inspiration for this inside spread, from The Prairie That Nature Built (Dawn Publications)

Prairie spread 20-21LRI was extremely impressed with your depictions of fire, rain and lightning in The Prairie That Nature Built. How did you achieve that level of depth?

Showing fire and lightning is difficult for me. I basically just kept working at it until I liked how it looked. I looked at a lot of reference and realized there wasn’t a right or wrong way to show fire and lightning; it’s always a different experience. I wanted to portray the feeling you get more than concern myself with realism.

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison-  Inside spread, from The Prairie That Nature Built (Dawn Publications)

“I knew absolutely nothing about prairies before seeing the manuscript. I didn’t even realize I lived on a short grass prairie before researching this book.”

The imagery is really amazing! Did you learn anything you didn’t know about prairies while illustrating the book?

I knew absolutely nothing about prairies before seeing the manuscript. I didn’t even realize I lived on a short grass prairie before researching this book. There’s a Prairie Primer in the back section of the book that goes into a lot of detail. It says that prairies are crucial habitats for the health of the planet. I hate to admit it but this was a new concept for me and a real light bulb moment.

I felt the same way when reading the book. There’s a wealth of information there not often discussed.

Think of all the attention that we’ve given to disappearing rainforests and I am seeing signs of our prairies getting that same recognition now. Only 4% of North America’s original grasslands still exist, which is shocking but I realize how easily this happens. The beauty of the prairie and the mountain views are mainly why I chose to live here, so I realize I’m also part of the problem. At least I’m aware now and can hopefully do something to help.

What was the process like making the app for the book?PRAIR_COVER

Malachi Bazan with Dawn Publications creates the app. In the artwork I tried keeping certain elements on separate layers to make his life a little easier when he needed to make an animal move. But Malachi is the one who brings the art to life, integrating animation and interactivity. This will be the first time one of my books has included a game app so I’m excited about it.

Apps are certainly becoming an important part of publishing. What advice do you have for another artist who is thinking about illustrating digitally?

So many illustrators work digitally now and personally I love it, and even in the beginning it was pretty intuitive for me. If you want to work in publishing I think that working digitally is a huge benefit; it saves time, money and potential frustrations for the illustrator and publisher.


DL spread 13 LR

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison – Inside spread from Daisylocks, written  by Marianne Berkes (Arbordale Publishing)

When you’re not illustrating what do you most like to do?

I have many hobbies. I love to garden and walk with my dog. Gardening is really cathartic and lots of artists are gardeners. I’ve always grown flowers – mostly drought-tolerant perennials and native wildflowers. And this summer I had my first vegetable garden as well.

I’m in a book group, “Text in the City” that is made up of all women artists. We meet approximately every six weeks and our book selections vary but should be related to art in one form or another. The group has been going strong for almost twelve years now. There are photographers, teachers, sculptors, painters, graphic artists, writers, etc. It’s a very fun group and we’re very supportive of each other.

P&P spread 14 & 15LR

© Copyright by Cathy Morrison- Inside spread from Pitter and Patter, written  by Martha Sullivan (to be published by Dawn Publishing)

Your lifestyle seems very conducive to the creative process.

There are hectic times too, but volunteering helps keep me sane. I volunteer at the Science and Discovery Museum in Ft Collins. Mostly I work with the education department, with school groups on field trips. Sometimes I’ll create a poster or some illustrations or activity sheets for kids. Last year I helped out coordinating with the museum and Read Aloud Colorado to develop an event for Children’s Book Week. This year I also started volunteering for Tavelli Elementary school in Ft Collins where my grandson attends kindergarten. They are a STEAM school, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). Being around these kids is very energizing.

Cathy all those children whose lives have been touched by  your awe-inspiring talents are so fortunate. Thank you so much for taking us inside your artistic mind and sharing with us your passions for art and nature. Your work is sure to move many who see it and inspire children to learn to draw and want to read more. I can’t wait to see your next book!

Thank you so much Debbie for reviewing The Prairie That Nature Built and doing this interview. I love your blog, Smart Books for Smart Kids and appreciate all you’re doing to bring attention to the world of children’s books.

Readers, I highly recommend you follow Cathy’s Studio With A View blog. Whether you are an artist yourself, wish to be one or just appreciate outstanding work, you’ll be inspired there. Buy a copy of The Prairie That Nature Built.

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The Prairie That Nature Built: Extraordinary Artwork and a Pop-Up App


Cover image courtesy of Dawn Publications

The Prairie That Nature Built

•    Targeted Audience: Preschool, Lower & Upper Elementary (Ages 4-10)
•    Genre: Non-Fiction
•    Author: Marybeth Lorbiecki
•    Illustrator: Cathy Morrison
•    Publisher:Dawn Publications
•    Publication Date: September 1, 2014
•    Binding: Paperback
•    Dimensions: 9″ x  11″
•    Printing: Full Color
•    Length: 32 Pages
•    Retail: $8.95
•    ISBN:978-1584694915

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Life on the Prairie in Cumulative Rhyme

A prairie may look like a desolate flatland from a distance, but with The Prairie That Nature Built readers discover all the life that is teaming in the trees, grasses and below the surface. The book is written with rhyming verse so kids can enjoy reading out loud as they marvel at the illustrations. They uncover animals that burrow, some that fly, others that squirm,  pollinate, graze or hunt. The impact weather patterns and fires have on the prairie and all its inhabitants are wonderfully demonstrated. The rhyme all comes together at the end with a cumulative verse.


© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Dawn Publications

A Well-Rounded Educational Experience

As with all Dawn books, in the back of this book is an Explore More section filled with fascinating facts. Here readers learn more details about prairies, where they can be found, how they thrive and how they are being threatened due to use for farming and building. Following that there’s a list of the different types of animals one would find on a prairie, some suggested activities, organizations that support prairie conservation and other books to read on the subject.


© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Dawn Publications

Vibrant Digital Illustrations with Incredible Detail and a Pop-Up App

I must confess that I used to be unimpressed with digital artwork, but Dawn books changed my mind in recent months; the detail and depth of the digital illustrations of their books is remarkable.  The Prairie That Nature Built is no exception. Illustrator Cathy Morrison captures extraordinary accuracy of the animals and plants of the prairie with her illustrations, and I’d love to know how she managed to do it! You can even see the maze of plant roots beneath the surface, intricate tunnels dug by the animals and incredibly beautiful depictions of lightning and fire. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by these vibrant, realistic depictions! To make the learning experience extra special, there’s a free pop-up app for this title that will make the already spectacular images come to life.


© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Dawn Publications

What This Book Teaches

With illustrations as intricate as these, children can see life in a prairie they would not be able to see in person, such as animals lurking in the tall grass and thriving below the surface. Add to that the pop-up experience they can have with the free app. Children often hear about conservation, but the prairie is such a disappearing habitat in North America, that they may not learn about this important landscape without books like this. Readers will sharpen their read aloud skills and learn the rhythm of reading rhyming verse. After reading the story and studying the images, they will be eager to learn more about the significance of prairies and discover the history of this habitat upon which our country was built. Let’s educate our children about our precious earth so they can be informed about how to preserve it.


© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Dawn Publications

Children’s Books that Shape the Future

As a parent of a grad student at The University of Colorado at Boulder, working toward a PhD in geomorphology (the study of landforms, like rivers and glaciers, and the processes that shape them), I know how vital books like these can be to get kids interested in science. The Prairie That Nature Built is a great way to inspire many a reader to pursue an interest in the earth and even perhaps a future in a scientific field. There’s a shortage of earth scientists, and we must do all we can to change that.

About the Author

Lorbiecki-MarybethMarybeth Lorbiecki grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, near a prairie, before she knew it was called a prairie. Instead it was simply her favorite place for exploring and hiding amid the tall grasses. She would always be spotted by meadowlarks, who saluted her with song. That prairie was built over with homes, and she no longer found her friends the larks there any more. When Marybeth moved to Hudson, Wisconsin, she became part of a group that taught the community about the amazing prairie that nature built. She brought her daughters and son to wander through the prairie grasses. Together they helped preserve prairies nearby so the meadowlarks would have a place to nest and sing. She’s written more than twenty-five books for kids, many of them about the places, plants, and animals she loves, including the prairie dog!

About the Illustrator

Cathy Morrison is an award-winning illustrator who lives on a shortgrass prairie in Colorado, at the western edge of Morrison-Cathythe Great Plains in view of the Rocky Mountain National Forest. She watches the grasses, the animals and their burrows, as well as floods and fire—all close up and personal. She began her career in animation and graphic design, but discovered her passion for children’s book illustration while raising her two children. After several years illustrating with traditional media, she now works digitally, which helps the publisher adapt the art into interactive book apps.

Further Learning

  1. Download the activities that come with this book.
  2. Visit the Dawn Pub App Page to get your free pop-up app for this title.
  3. Learn more about prairies from the State of Minnesota.
  4. Visit Dawn Publications to discover many more excellent educational titles for young readers.

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