Meet the Illustrator:
Debbie Ridpath Ohi

by the Brightly Editors

Photo credit: Annie T.

In this installment of Meet the Illustrator, we chat with Debbie Ridpath Ohi, the illustrator of Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective in What’s That Smell?, written by Lauren McLaughlin. Young Mitzi Tulane is on a fact-finding mission to figure out what’s going on in her house — she can smell her mom whipping up a new recipe, her dad appears to be clean-shaven on a Sunday (unheard of!), and friends and family have begun to congregate in the living room. Using bold lines and brightly colors, Debbie Ridpath Ohi captures the curiosity of little Mitzi as she employs each of her senses to collect clues. We chatted with Debbie about creating the ever-adorable Mitzi, why she’s glad she read scary books as a kid, and more.

What first made you excited about art?

I’ve been excited about art for as long as I can remember. My mom was a big influence on me — she was always drawing for us kids and for herself. One of my fondest childhood memories was just sitting at the kitchen table drawing with her.


Other things got me excited about art when I was a young child, like bedtime read-alouds and reading lots of picture books on my own. My father used to take us to the library every week and let us take home stacks of books. While we were at the library, I remember also browsing books in the picture book section. I loved poring over the illustrations and still have strong emotional memories of some of these. Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, for example — I remember being so deliciously scared of that big black tuna fish! And the loneliness of Swimmy in that big empty ocean after his siblings were eaten. Yes, these were negative emotions, but I felt safe exploring them through picture books. I read Swimmy a zillion times. Advice to parents: Don’t rush your children out of picture books! Picture books can be appreciated by all ages. Anyone who doubts the importance of picture books should check out

Comics also inspired me. Our family used to get Archie and similar comics during our summer car trips, and later on I collected comics (my faves included Dr. Strange, Swamp Thing, Power Pack, and Elektra) and read graphic novels. I started creating my own comic strips from an early age. My first was about a baby named Boppy, I remember. Sadly, I didn’t keep any of them.

What illustrated book from childhood has stayed with you over the years? 

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. The story affected me deeply, and I remember rereading this book over and over. I found the idea of Sylvester turning into a rock fascinating and horrifying, but was reassured by the happy ending. I loved the illustrations, which were loose and colorful and full of emotion.

Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

I find inspiration in all kinds of places. For specific book projects like Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective, for instance, I’ll sometimes approach the author for photo reference. The main character of Mitzi was inspired by author Lauren McLaughlin’s adopted daughter and I also asked the author for photos of her daughter’s doll, Gigi Gaboo. I’ve created a guide for young readers about how the book was written and illustrated.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi's sketch process for Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective: What's That Smell?
Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s sketch process for Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective in What’s That Smell?

My found object doodles began when publishers started paying me to draw. Wow, I thought. I’m a professional illustrator now! I’d better be good! As a result, I got stressed about trying to make my art technically perfect and that was sucking some of the energy out of my drawings. I turned to doodling with found objects because that helped remind me to keep the joy in my drawing. I now use found object art as a way of helping young people experiment more, to not be so afraid of making mistakes.

Here are some examples of my found object doodles:

As you might guess, I found the inspiration for these illustrations in a wide variety of places including at the grocery store, in the garden, tool room, my office stationery drawer, at restaurants, and during meal prep. I’ve lost count of the number of times dinner has been late because I’ve gotten distracted by art.

In hopes of encouraging more young people to have fun with art, I hold a found object doodle challenge for young artists ages 6 – 12 every summer! You can find details about it here.

What does your workspace look like?

My home office is in the basement of our house and is packed full of stuff. Not only is it where I store physical art materials like paper and paints, but it’s also where I keep my book project sketches, school visit materials, musical instruments (I’m a hobby songwriter and musician), craft supplies, sewing machine, books, stationery, mini photography studio, and more. Here are just a few pics:


What materials do you most like to use?

This is a tough question, because it varies from day to day and even from project to project. Up to now, I’ve mainly worked digitally for book projects, but I have recently started to experiment with some mixed media. There are pros and cons to each.

Digital work gives me the most flexibility, plus makes it possible for me do changes more quickly as well as experiment. If I’m not quite happy with the skin color of a main character, for instance, I’m unlikely to change it if I work with real-life watercolor since it would mean re-doing everything from scratch. Digitally, however, it’s usually just a matter of changing one layer and leaving the rest of the image intact.

I’m also starting to play around with non-digital materials. There’s no “Undo” key when I’m working with real-life media like watercolor, and it can be scary working without a safety net. BUT it can also be exciting and fun!

What design resources would you recommend to young artists?

Hmm, I don’t really have a good answer to this question. I never had any formal art training and am self-taught. I do like browsing Bored Panda’s art posts and has some great design-focused videos and training courses.

My advice to young artists: Draw every day and draw for FUN. Don’t obsess with trying to get everything perfect. You don’t need expensive art materials … just a piece of paper and a pencil or crayons will do. I still love drawing with crayons! Draw all kinds of things, not just your favorite subject. The more you draw, the better you’ll get.

What’s the best name for a color that you’ve ever heard?

“Smaragdine.” It sounds like it would be a good dragon name, doesn’t it? Maybe Smaug’s cousin. It means emerald green and was the 2013 Pantone Color of the Year.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of Where Are My Books? Her illustrations also appear in books by Michael Ian Black, Judy Blume, Rob Sanders, and Lauren McLaughlin. For more info about Debbie and upcoming projects, see Twitter: @inkyelbows.