Picture Book Illustration and Dancing Pandas with Vanessa Valentino

Hi, I’m Vanessa Valentino…

I was born in Frankfurt to a mother from Hong Kong and a father from America, grew up in Beijing, and now live in Malaysia. These days when I’m not illustrating, I’m dreaming of snow and pretending I’m hiking the Alps on a crisp winter morning when in fact I’m hiking through tropical jungles filled with mozzies! 

As I’m an economist, I also spend a lot of time using the other half of my brain. And finally, the rest of my days are spent spreading the word about my husband’s (James Gould-Bourn) debut novel, which came out this summer as Keeping Mum in the UK/Australia (Hachette) and Bear Necessity in the US (Simon & Schuster)!

Describe your illustration style

I’m clueless about how to describe my style, but wherever I can, I like to inject a bit of humor into my characters or scenes. After all, who couldn’t use a few more reasons to laugh these days?! 

Why did you sign up for the Picture Book Illustration e-Course? 

I’ve been eyeing Nina’s course for a few years. But it was never quite the right time —too much work, in the middle of a move across the world, my hand busted from nerve issues, etc. — until this year. As I’m hoping to collaborate with James on a picture book one day, I thought I’d better skill up and learn as much as I could in the meantime! 

When and where did you illustrate?

I dream of having a separate studio, but for now, I have taken over our dining table and pretty much every possible surface in our home. Our flat is cluttered with stacks of art books and picture books, random art supplies, and occasionally even a few clay models! I illustrate mornings and nights, weekdays and weekends… basically whenever I have any free time. For (the Picture Book Illustration e-Course) PBIC, I tried to dedicate at least 3 days a week to the course.

Did you have a plan going into the course?

I thought it would be best to do the class manuscript for this first time, and I came in with a grand plan of taking my time and giving myself at least 2 weeks for each assignment. That quickly went out the window. I was way too excited and ended up submitting assignments almost every week. 

What was the best thing about PBIC?

PBIC really broke down the whole process of illustrating a picture book, and I felt like I walked away with a strong foundation for approaching any children’s book story. I’ve taken some other courses in the past, but they often focused on creating a single portfolio piece and left me none the wiser as to how to tackle an entire story, in particular how to thumbnail and storyboard.

What was the worst thing about PBIC?

Nothing really comes to mind except that it’s so rich with information that sometimes it can feel a bit overwhelming. But I’d much rather feel that than come out of a course feeling bored or like there wasn’t much to learn! 

Character Design

How did PBIC help with your character design process? 

As I’ve already taken all of Nina’s character design courses on Skillshare, I was quite familiar with these processes. However, until recently, I only drew animal characters and had been avoiding humans like the plague (although I guess we’re all avoiding humans like the plague this year!). This summer was when I finally decided to overcome the dreaded human character. 

 The character design process really helped me discover who my Florence was both personality-wise and physically. My Florence was a bit on the wild side. I gave her black tips at the ends of her pigtails, just like fox ears.

And since a foxtail is called a brush, I wanted my Florence to have an actual hairbrush attached to her, one which she could use to clean the chalkboard or sandpit (both of which are scenes in the story). After discovering my Florence, the character mapping process was pretty key for keeping her consistent in my drawings!


Talk us through the process of thumbnail sketches

I had never done thumbnails or storyboards before and was very excited about this step. I started by analyzing a handful of picture books and noticed that not only was there variation in spread layouts (full page/half-page spreads, vignettes/spots, etc.) but also the perspective of compositions (birds eye, establishing shots, close-ups, etc.).

From there, I decided to see how I could vary up my compositions and come up with different layouts for my thumbnails. I loved working on the storyboard format as it gave me the chance to add more details and really think through some of the sketches. In some cases, my sketches evolved quite a lot and looked nothing like my original thumbnails! 

As for the dummy book, it was so much fun being able to flip through a physical (albeit tiny) version of the story and get a sense of how it flowed.

Final artwork

I went with Nina’s recommendation for my final illustration and did a classroom scene about the highs that Florence experienced on her first day at school. 

It was the biggest and most complex scene I’ve ever drawn and painted (and with way more humans than I would have ever imagined drawing). Since drawing humans was new for me, it probably goes without saying that drawing such a diverse range of children was totally uncharted territory for me. I also had no idea how to go about drawing interior scenes. I tried to make a cardboard model of the classroom, but that was a total disaster!

Also, I’ve always kept my paintings smaller than my scanner and used a more limited color palette. So all in all, there was a lot of going outside of my comfort zone, but I was thankful that PBIC created the space for me to take on that challenge. At times I was frustrated at how little I knew but also excited that I was learning so much in the process of tackling this scene and pushing my boundaries.

If I had the opportunity to do this course over, I’d try to pace myself better. By the time I finished the dummy book, I was feeling creatively burnt out. While I managed to get out of my rut by trying something totally new (collage!) and by starting to take weekends off, I could have also helped myself by taking more time to explore each stage of the PBIC process.

Who would you recommend PBIC to?

This course is brilliant for both illustrators and authors who are curious about the world of picture books. One of the most valuable lessons that came out of it for me is that the words and the images are absolutely complimentary. It’s not one or the other but rather the combination of the two that brings the story to life. 

What’s next for you? 

Before the course started, I was working on a series of dancing panda illustrations and posters to help spread the word about James’s novel. As you can imagine, it’s not easy getting published during a lockdown and especially for debut authors. 

I had no clue how to help, so I did the only thing that I knew how to do and that was to draw and draw and draw even more! His novel is a comedy-drama about a father and son learning to reconnect in the most unlikely of circumstances and…yes, you guessed it…it’s also about a dancing panda! 

So for now, I’m planning to draw a lot more dancing pandas and scenes inspired by Keeping Mum/Bear Necessity, and perhaps I’ll even do one for each of the 14 languages in which it will be coming out!

To find out more about Vanessa Valentino go to

Interested in learning more about the 'Picture Book Illustration e-Course'?

Then join me in a FREE, 3-hour Live workshop "How to Illustrate a Picture Book". To register for free, >>> click here <<< 

  • 9am - 12pm, Sun, January 23, 2022 (NZT)
  • 7am - 10am, Sun, January 23, 2022 (SYD)
  • 12pm - 3pm, Sat, January 22, 2022 (PST)
  • 3pm - 6pm, Sat, January 22, 2022 (EST)
  • 8pm - 11pm, Sat, Jan 22, 2022, (GMT)

In this highly interactive, fun, and informative LIVE workshop, I'll be walking you step-by-step through all the things that you need to consider BEFORE starting work on your picture book story.

The 8-week 'Picture Book Illustration e-Course' (PBIC LIVE) will be starting, Feb 3 – Mar 24, 2022. During the "How to Illustrate a Picture Book" Live workshop, I'll be offering 50% OFF PBIC LIVE, so please make sure to register, and if you think you know someone who might be interested, share this with them. To register for the free, 3-hour How to Illustrate a Picture Book Live workshop.


Join my free mini-course

As my gift to you, here is my character design mini-course. All I need to know is where to send it. Valued at $20, it is 100% free. No credit card is required. You will also receive Nina news – I love to share, but not too often, not too much, and always in support of your creative journey. And you can unsubscribe at any time.