Jo Gershman Creator Spotlight

animal hanukkah jo gershman creator spotlight

I’m excited to interview one of my long-time favorite illustrators, Jo Gershman.  I first discovered her art when she was creating artistic calligraphy and wedding contracts.  I  love her charming children’s illustrations and books!  Her characters are memorable and so engaging!

She has exhibited both fine art and illustrations in one-woman shows and juried group shows in various galleries and museums. She has illustrated over 40 books for children and adults!

I was curious about her early years of creating art.

north pole animals jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

Early Years

VeryCreate: How did you get started creating art?

Jo Gershman: As a child in Philadelphia, I used to watch the Gene London Show.  As he told fairy tales, he would render flawless drawings on a huge blank sheet of white paper, bringing the stories to life.  I had no idea that he was tracing pre-drawn pictures- it was like magic.

Unfortunately, I thought for a very long time that all drawings should be perfect at first go!

seal seahorse pencil jo gershman creator spotlight

Pencil on paper Jo Gershman

When I was six, I had my mom trace the pictures in my all-time favorite edition of Black Beauty (Randhom House 1949) so that I could color them in, over and over.  This beloved book is now literally falling apart into sections.  It was truly inspiring to me.  I wanted to BE that illustrator, Phoebe Erickson, when I grew up!  Her animals were very real but also had distinctive personalities.

When I was 10 or 12, I used to redraw the illustrations in all of my Nancy Drew books.  And in high school, the main reason I passed chemistry was because my high school teacher loved my lab drawings.  So I guess the answer is really “since forever.”


Artistic Journey

VeryCreate: What do you wish you had known about creating art or having an illustration career before you embarked on your artistic journey?

Jo Gershman: While I wanted very much to illustrate children’s books, educational opportunities in commercial art and illustration were far more limited.  And of course, there was no online anything (boy, am I dating myself!).  On the other hand, publishing houses were far more independent and you could actually get in the door to meet the art directors.

I got a degree in English Literature and took some night classes in illustration, but mostly I taught myself watercolor.  I WISH I had taken far more drawing classes and worked more on learning anatomy because that would have really upped my work to the next level.

black cats jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

VeryCreate: How did you get started with illustration work?

Jo Gershman: After graduation, I ended up taking a somewhat meandering path to children’s book illustration, first spending about 20 years creating calligraphic manuscripts, learning a great deal about page design and the integration of illustration and text, as well as dealing with clients.

I created custom wedding contracts, called Ketubahs, for Jewish clients. It was always fascinating to brainstorm with a couple and then come up with a one-page composition that reflected them.

These contracts were like designing a book–the story of two lives–in a single page.

brown ketubah jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor and ink on paper Jo Gershman


blue ketubah jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor and ink on paper Jo Gershman


Then I segued into illustrating gift books and greeting cards and from there into picture books, and then chapter books.

VeryCreate: Wow! As a genealogy buff, I could only wish for such a beautiful family heirloom!  What a treasure for those families to own and pass down to future generations!  Each one is so unique and personal.  Thanks for sharing!


Favorite Medium

VeryCreate: What is your favorite medium and why?

Jo Gershman: It has been watercolor from the get-go for me.  I have always loved it, and I think it is far more forgiving than most people give it credit for.  I do play around with adding colored pencils, pastel pencils, and watercolor crayons occasionally, but I love to drybrush and scumble.

french chicken jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

I watercolor teacher in college descended into despair over my technique- we ‘battled out’ the semester, met halfway by the end, and I managed a C from that teacher.

VeryCreate: Good for you for sticking to your guns!  Artists have to paint the way they feel best, not the way any teacher forces them to paint!


Continuing Development

VeryCreate: What are you experimenting with lately?

Jo Gershman: While I love to paint, over the past few years I have been creating pencil illustrations on vellum for chapter book interiors, and I find myself really enjoying the freedom of expression in drawing – and the ability to erase so easily on vellum.

dogs pencil jo gershman creator spotlight

Pencil on paper Jo Gershman


VeryCreate: It takes a special person to be able to communicate with little kids so well.  Your animal characters are so alive with personality!  How in the world does someone learn how to create that?

Jo Gershman: I love animals – my mom was able to park me in a pet store while she went food shopping next door, totally confident that I would never budge from my spot.  I really care about the animal characters I illustrate.  I spend a LOT of time with them!  They are very real to me.

animal hanukkah jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

There was a wonderful movie, Miss Potter, that really caught this notion beautifully with animated sequences of Beatrix Potter’s characters. I think my grasp of expression and motion has gotten much better in the last ten years.  I always try to spend a few days to a week sketching real animals from life before I start working on my characters.  I want them to be real and anthropomorphic, but without crossing the line into being too cute.

Getting Work

VeryCreate: Where do you get most of your work assignments?

Jo Gershman: I am fortunate enough that I can afford to pick and choose my projects.  For the last eight years, I have been working mostly with self-published authors on picture books and chapter books, all of which are at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and I think the indie sites as well.
I have to feel that the project is right – I will be spending 6 to 9 months with it, and it is a collaborative process with the author.  I offer a soup to nuts service, starting with a typed manuscript and ending up with a printed book.  It is a long process artistically and technically.  It’s so amusing to me that I am happy to learn the complicated ins and outs of Photoshop and InDesign, but social media defeats me utterly.  (I very much have a love-hate relationship with my digital devices, alas)

figs jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

Current Project

VeryCreate: What are working on right now that we can look forward to seeing?

Jo Gershman: I just finished working pretty intensively on a middle-grade chapter book with about 50 illustrations. In fact, I asked Tara Larsen Chang to do the illustrations of people for the story – I traced and rendered them into my layouts of the animals and backgrounds. The author is still tweaking her manuscript but the book, The S.O.U.R.C.E, about ocean pollution, should be out this year.

I am currently considering a picture book manuscript for a small company, but trying to allow some recovery time in between projects.  And I always have a few projects of my own that I am working on or submitting to publishing houses.

moonlight ocean animals jo gershman creator spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

Philosophy and Outlook

VeryCreate: What are you most proud of in your career or life so far?

Jo Gershman: Such an interesting question.  I was willing to follow the very roundabout way, learning even from unpleasant project situations, to make it to book illustration.  I am proud that I really throw my all into every project and try to make it the absolute best book that I can, even when I drive myself (and my husband and my animals) totally crazy.

pumpkins Jo Gershman Creator Spotlight

Watercolor on paper Jo Gershman

But I have also realized the need for balance with things outside my work  –  so there might be less work time, but a fuller life that actually enhances my art.

It took me a long time to figure out my balance.

Find Her Online

You can find Jo’s work online at her website and on multiple platforms:



instagram: @jogershman

Anita HC

I hope you are enjoying this article! I love helping creators learn. My goal is to help you find the knowledge and inspiration you need. Check out our library of articles and visit often...I'm adding articles every week! Thank you again for reading!

More inspiring artists