HomeBooks by SubjectActivity BooksIllustration Inspiration: Matt Rockefeller, Illustrator of Train: A Journey Through the Pages

Illustration Inspiration: Matt Rockefeller, Illustrator of Train: A Journey Through the Pages

The Children’s Book Review | October 6, 2016

Matt Rockefeller is a freelance illustrator and visual development artist.

I make art because …

I want to tell stories with my art.  I think it is such an important way of sharing our experiences with others we live with today and across time and generations. Stories are so powerful for amplifying under-heard voices, stirring new ideas, and connecting people who might not have otherwise. This is why I strive to be a storyteller with my artwork whether creating a single illustration or using them in a sequence for comics and picture books.

The world and the experiences I’ve had in it are the foundation for the stories I want to tell. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona has left a lasting impression on me. The vastness of everything was difficult to ignore there as it constantly surrounded me in all directions. I’ve taken that feeling with me wherever I’ve gone, and I look to it constantly when creating art. From the stars to a drop of water on a tiny leaf, the world we inhabit is mysterious and awe inspiring at every turn. It’s incredible how beautifully strange and surprising nature can be, and I hope to incorporate it into my stories and illustrations. If I can, I hope to capture and share even a fraction of that mystery and awe!

Latest published book …

I’ve previously worked on Brain Quest and several book covers, but TRAIN will be my first published book.

Inspired by …

Nature, astronomy,  light and shadow, mythology, folklore,  animation, comics, and video games are a few that come to mind. Oh and small quiet moments.

Another huge source of inspiration is my talented friends and colleagues who ceaselessly create new and incredible things. I am so fortunate to live in a time when seeing their work and discovering new artists is so easy. Sharing and discussing with them is one of my favorite ways to find inspiration.

Art medium used …

Right now, my two favorite mediums are graphite drawing and digital (and the combination of both). While digital illustration is incredibly versatile, I still find that the experience of drawing on paper really allows me to connect more closely with my process and allows for happy accidents and natural imperfections. Even when working digitally, I’ll use scanned textures from my work to add a bit of physicality or even make new brushes and tools to use in the future (TRAIN was created entirely digitally using these brushes).  By combining the two mediums I find I can have the best of both and create something new!

Train A Journey Through the Pages
Artistic process …

The process I use for my illustrations is very layered and structured. At the beginning of a project, I like to keep things playful and loose, exploring shapes, compositions, and ideas with messy sketches and thumbnails. They’re often REALLY messy- completely incomprehensible perhaps to an onlooker- but it helps me to avoid getting locked in too early.  It’s an iterative approach in which I try to explore as many possibilities as I can until I find something that clicks and captures the mood of what I had in mind. Sometimes this portion of my process only lasts minutes or hours, and sometimes it can extend for days or even a whole week. Finding a good solution can be really challenging sometimes, which is why I try to keep things open ended at this stage.

Once I find a thumbnail sketch that I’m happy with, I will blow it up and draw over it. This is when I’ll add details and definition to the piece. At this stage there is still opportunity for change and new ideas or additions, but I try my best to maintain the energy of the original concept. This is also a great time for me to gather photo reference, color reference, and do a bit of visual and/or historical research into whatever I’m trying to convey.

Once I’m happy with the sketch, I move on to creating the final artwork.

Favorite place to create & illustrate …

My favorite place to sketch and come up with ideas is somewhere away from my studio at home. Going to the nearby coffee shop or finding a quiet spot under a tree is perfect for brainstorming. Looking up from my sketchbook and seeing interesting people going about their lives or an inspiring landscape helps me find the clarity I need to think of new ideas. However, when I’m creating final artwork, my little studio is the best place for me to stay focused, drink lots of coffee, and listen to a multitude of podcasts.

Most used art supply or tool …

Definitely pencil and paper. My favorite pencil to use is a mechanical pencil with .5 3B graphite.

Illustrator idols …

In no particular order… John Bauer, Ivan Bilibin, Kawase Hasui, Mary Blair,  Moebius,  Hayao Miyazaki, Lorenzo Mattotti, Jon Klassen, Jillian Tamaki, Carson Ellis… and many, many more.

Kali Ciesemier and Sam Bosma are both alumni from my alma mater (Maryland Institute College of Art or ‘MICA’) who also taught there while I was a student. They have been both inspirations and mentors as I transitioned from school to illustrating professionally.

All-time favorite children’s book you didn’t illustrate…

I know many have cited this book as their favorite, but the way Maurice Sendak blended childhood fantasy with dark reality in “Where the Wild Things Are” will stay with me forever.

A literary character to create art with …

Wow, there are so many that would be really fun! I recently read the “His Dark Materials” series by Philip Pullman. It would be so fun to travel with  Lyra and Will and sketch the amazing places they travel to. I’ve always loved depicting new worlds, and having Will’s knife would be perfect for traveling to unimagined places to sketch undiscovered fauna and flora.

Currently working on …

I’m currently working on several book projects. One is an upcoming children’s book called “Pop!” written by Jason Eaton coming from Roaring Brook Press. Another is “5 Worlds” a new middle grade graphic novel series I’m creating with a small team for Random House Children’s Books. The first book of the series “The Sand Warrior” will be out May 2017.

Connect with Matt Rockefeller …

www.mattrockefeller.com | mrockefeller.tumblr.com | Twitter: @mcrockefeller

Instagram: @mcrockefeller | Facebook: Matt Rockefeller Illustration


train-a-journey-through-the-pagesTrain: A Journey Through the Pages

Written by Mike Vago

Illustrated by Matt Rockefeller

Publisher’s Synopsis: You’ve never seen a book like this before! It’s the story of a train moving across the American landscape—but with an actual three-dimensional miniature train that loops up and down and across each spread, traveling along an interior track from front to back without ever leaving the pages.

Move the red steam engine out of the depot and to the front of the book, where the sun is just coming up over a bay, and then take a journey across wide plains, up mountains and down hills, into a city at night with its beacons of light—and finally, back to the rail yard. The panoramic landscapes are filled with marvelous details that young children will delight in discovering, and the sweet, simple rhyming language pulls the story along and will be happily repeated when it’s time to start the journey all over again. All aboard!

Ages 4-8 | Publisher: Workman Publishing Company | 2016 | ISBN-13: 978-0761187165

Available Here: 


Discover more interactive book illustration inspiration and books like Train: A Journey Through the Pages, written by Mike Vago and illustrated by Matt Rockefeeler, on The Children’s Book Review by following along with our Illustration Inspiration series and articles tagged with  and .

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Bianca Schulze is the founder of The Children’s Book Review. She is a reader, reviewer, mother and children’s book lover. She also has a decade’s worth of experience working with children in the great outdoors. Combined with her love of books and experience as a children’s specialist bookseller, the goal is to share her passion for children’s literature to grow readers. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

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