In 2016, I was busy working for Tillamook Dairy Company. I had a few other small jobs scattered here and there, but my work has been very sparse since then.

There was an exception, though. I had a steady stream of illustrations over the next four years for 1800 Margarita Mixes. Each label illustration had to be consistent and fit in with the bottle design and flavor banner. My client requested that all of the elements be rendered to completion so they could be placed on separate layers. I would scan my painting and reassemble everything with shadows for the final illustration.

Because of a non-disclosure agreement, I am only sharing flavors that are currently in stores. I have illustrated other ones that aren’t yet available.

A closer look.

On this blog, I have discussed how I combine traditional and digital techniques with this post: #47 LAYERS IN MY LIFE – PART 1

My technique continues to evolve. I would describe it as a three-step process:

1. The first step is where I digitally manipulate my reference into a desired composition. This involves a combination of photographs and sometimes even former illustrations of mine. When working with an art director, I often send many layout choices and subsequent revisions. Once a final layout is chosen/approved, I create two important prints: The first has high detail for reference. Glossy paper usually works best for this. The second print is on Arches watercolor paper. The design is lightened so that it’s very pale in order for me to paint over it. This usually requires a fair amount of digital tweaking. Gone are the days when I used to trace everything and transfer it to my watercolor paper.

2. I stretch the watercolor paper and staple it to a drafting board. Once the paper is taut, I apply frisket over the entire area to maintain clean edges. I deftly cut out every element. I begin painting the darkest areas first. My medium is watercolor dyes. Detail is added with colored pencil afterwards.

3. When my painting is finished, I scan and improve it digitally. The background becomes totally white and all the edges are cleaned up. I adjust the contrast and saturation of different areas. If the objects are painted separately, they are reassembled with shadows added on separate layers.

My materials are as follows:

Epson Stylus Photo R800 Printer

Arches Watercolor Paper 140 lb. hot press (cut into 8 ½ x 11 sheets)

Dr. Ph. Martin’s Concentrated Watercolors

Dr. Ph. Martin’s Pen-white

Prismacolor pencils

Grafix Extra Tack Frisket Film, Matte

Winsor & Newton series 7 100% Kolinsky Sable BrushIllustrating fruit has been a favorite subject of mine. For over two decades, I didn’t paint any new paintings for my own purposes. But 2020 became the year where that changed.

During the pandemic isolation, I slowly began to realize that I missed painting. After having an elective surgery, I felt a burst of creative energy for illustrating again. I began by designing compositions based on older photos of job reference. On my next post, I will show how I progressed to actually photographing fruits and vegetables on my dining room table.

After avoiding venturing into stores for many months, I eventually decided to go to my neighborhood art supply store. It was such a nostalgic experience.

I used to buy art materials from this store when I was a young girl. My mother and father would take me and I would be enchanted by all the assortments of paints, pencils and markers.

When I was studying art in college, I enrolled in a beginning watercolor class. One time I was sick and I asked my father to pick up supplies for me. He inadvertently bought the wrong watercolor paper.

I was expecting textured cold-press paper and he had purchased smooth hot-press, which I’d never worked with before. That error was the beginning of harnessing my technique. Working on hot-press paper allowed me to discover control and detail. Without that experimentation, I might never have fallen in love with watercolors!

On the day that I recently went shopping – I was transported to my childhood. It was an especially touching moment when I chatted with the guy who decades earlier used to repair my airbrushes – he was now the store owner! His name was Chris Hauser. He was incredibly helpful as I went down my list. I paid a large sum for a new sable brush and looked forward to painting with it as soon as I came home.

That store is named Carter Sexton and it has been in its current location for over 70 years. I am grateful they are still in business. I pray Carter Sexton will survive the pandemic and continue to inspire artists like me.


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Link to Part 1 about my Beech-Nut illustrations:


Over twenty years ago, I painted almost 100 illustrations that adorned Beech-Nut Baby Food labels. Since then, the company has redesigned their jars and my illustrations aren’t there anymore.

My client paid extra to own the original art and there wasn’t any time for me to get copies (transparencies) of my artwork. I was an assembly line artist, painting quickly while simultaneously creating layouts for subsequent labels.

When I wrote my Beech-Nut story for this blog in 2011, I lamented the lack of images to share. I only had color copies and a few slides an art director had given me. (I have since updated that post with better images!)A month ago, I was joyfully jarred when I received an email with this heading:

BEECH NUT ARTWORK MASTERS: Judy, I have over 80 of your Beech-Nut Artwork masters. Please contact me! No joke.

It seems that a lovely art director, whom I’ll call “K,” rescued my original art from a dumpster.

I am going to tell this blog story by sharing our correspondence:

Hi Judy, I was the Art Director for the Beech-Nut Prepress house.

After we lost the Beech-Nut account in 2001 (I think) they told us they only wanted their ‘electronic assets’ sent to the new Prepress Vendor. As an artist I was sickened when I saw the pile of 3” binders in the trash. I could not walk away and leave them. I have hoarded them and kept them safe for 18 years.

I have spent a lot of time poring over the detail and craftsmanship of your illustrations and have always admired your work.

I retired last February and yesterday I was looking for something and I ran across the binders. They are not “mine” to sell, but they must be treasured. They are too incredible to not be shared with the world. They had a sticker with an address for “Judy Unger.” I wondered, “Does she even live there anymore or will she think I am insane?”

Today while sitting at my computer, I was suddenly randomly curious over what the “latest” Beech-Nut label looks like (because it could never be as wonderful as it was with Judy’s illustrations [and yes, I called you by your first name in my head]). 

I ended up running down a rabbit trail on the Internet for about an hour, when I found a website that had a familiar feel and a blog from February 6th 2011 (9 years to the day between me running into your illustrations and you posting your blog). My head exploded.

I have your Beech-Nut Artwork Masters. If you want them I will ship them to you.

Let’s get them back where they belong! K

Hi K,

What an amazing message for me to receive. I am blown away!

I always lamented that I sold my originals and didn’t have any copies. Now I’m very excited that I will get to see all of those images I painted years ago.

All thanks to YOU! I can’t believe they were going to be thrown away. YOU SAVED THEM FOR ME! How can I thank you? 

I plan to scan them all and this will definitely become a beautiful story for my blog.

I would like to gift you with a signed original painting once I’ve scanned everything. It could be one of the Beech-Nut paintings or something else. I will send you some ideas. Please use my Fed Ex account, which is xxxxxx. 

I still can’t believe you found me! Thank you! Judy

Hi Judy,

Yahoo!!! I thumb my nose at every person that rolled their eyes when I tried to explain that some things have “value,” not everyone can see. I am thrilled to have brightened your day. It has certainly brightened mine.

I wandered through your sites. You inspire me.

The reason I “retired” last year was due to breast cancer. I needed to focus on myself full-time. In 10 days I have a 1-year follow up mammogram and I am more nervous about it than I would like to admit. Your writings of your ankle injury and recovery sound very familiar.

This is exciting and rejuvenating. Giving you back something you lost is such a great feeling. I will get them packed up and to FedEx this week.

I would LOVE a signed piece! We will discuss.

Glad to have made your acquaintance, your new friend, K

I was just thinking of you today – it has been over 10 days and I was praying you received good news from your mammogram.

I was out of town and came back yesterday and wanted to reach out. Hoping you are well. 

You are so sweet. My news is all good news! One year CLEAR! 

Monday’s news came as a relief. So much about cancer is just WAITING. Waiting for the next test, or waiting for the results of the last one, waiting for a surgery date/appointment, waiting to heal before starting the treatments, and then you have to wait a YEAR for a formal test to see if everything is progressing as expected. It seems like I have been holding my breath for a year.

Whew. As you can imagine, I slept very, very well on Monday night. Now that the waiting is over, I can get back to LIVING.

Thank you so much for your note. I am very pleased that our paths have crossed in this universe. K

This note was attached to my package with the artwork that came back to me.

Hi K, I’m so excited to let you know that I’ve written a story about this and it’s on my blog. Thank you so much again! The kiwi and berry art will be coming to you soon. 🙂

HAHAHAHAHA!!!! Look at all of those Unger Art boards!! No longer hidden in a tote bin in a closet! I hope they bring you some income as ‘recycled’ art!

What no one understands is that your art work was just about 1:1 size for the LARGE jars. You painted those so tiny and they were still too big for the small jars. The art final size was about the size of a penny or smaller! Make sure your blog readers understand the size ratio of your hand-done (back in the day) artwork. The tiniest of paint brushes created that artwork. NO ONE does that anymore. The HAIRS on the kiwi were always amazing to me. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent through the years admiring the detail of the art boards under a printer’s loupe. (More hours than I would like my old employer to know!) I am still in awe.

I love the down scatter shot of the art board with your hands. It’s the closing the chapter on the “tale of the Unger Art boards.” A shot of the artwork with the hands that created them. Now they can happily age and hopefully provide you with some passive income.

It is even fun that your creative child (all grown up) is an active participant in the telling of the Unger Art board tale. So it continues.

Hugs and Friendship, K


I’m so glad I could share such a heartwarming story on this blog. I have a new friend with K, and will be sending her two signed original paintings soon.

Currently, I continue to advertise my illustration work at Workbook.com and sell my stock illustrations exclusively on Getty. Commissioned work is very sparse, although I never give up hope that things might pick up once again.

On the topic of making friends, I contacted Thomas Bond who was the art director I worked with on many of the Beech-Nut illustrations. We have been connected on Facebook for six years. When I shared this story with him, he wrote:

Hey Judy! What a really cool, wonderful thing to happen for you! This makes me so happy. I follow your adventures on FB, as I’m sure you also see what’s going on in my life. I moved to Waikiki a year ago and spend most days just relaxing. Thank you for letting me know, and wishing you all the best! Hugs, Thomas

Scanning my old artwork was such a pleasure. For my first Beech-Nut story, I created two large medleys of my illustrations. They were tiny, but fun to see as a large group.

But I’ve decided for this post, to share larger versions of my images. I’ll let a portion of those illustrations tell the rest of this story.

Life is certainly filled with surprises!

Beechnut 27         

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It was very exciting for me to be a featured food artist in a quarterly issue for dpi magazine.

Being a commercial illustrator has been a perfect career for me. I have gotten used to crazy deadlines and slow stretches. When I am not working on an assignment, I love creating music. I feel blessed to have the freedom to do what I love.

I enjoyed illustrating many new Tillamook yogurt labels this year. It was interesting to do two different coffee labels for their Stumptown Yogurt flavor. Initially, the client wanted a hot coffee illustration. Later on, I did a second illustration with an iced Stumptown coffee version.

I have gotten satisfaction from experiences in my career where there wasn’t any monetary compensation. This post is an example of that.

I receive a lot of emails regarding participating in publications and contests. There’s usually a hefty printing fee involved. When I was contacted to participate in dpi Magazine’s quarterly journal, I almost deleted the message. But I hesitated and decided to consider it. I’m glad I did! 

Dear Judy Unger,

Hi, this is Pip, editor of dpi Magazine from Taiwan. Nice to contact you.

dpi magazine is preparing a quarterly about illustrative recipe and food illustration, we’re so impressed with your artwork. I’m writing to invite you to do an email-based interview with us. The interview is mainly about your food illustration artwork and your aesthetic concept.

Here is the published quarterly: art quarter

Kindly let me know if you accept the invitation. If you do, I’ll send you the interview questions and instructions for uploading the images.

Our readers will be very excited for your participation! Thank you very much for your time. I’m looking forward to your reply.

Regards, Pip

I wrote back to Pip and asked him to explain what the interview involved and whether there was any monetary compensation if I agreed to it.

Pip explained that I would receive a layout preview before publication. My only compensation would be receiving a single copy of the quarterly once it was published.

I was a little apprehensive because I had to upload 15 high res images. What if this were a scam?

Sometimes, I just go with my gut. I decided this was something I’d go with. I received the interview questions and actually had fun answering them.

This is the publication I was featured in.

I share below my interview.

Q1: Would you share something about yourself with us? Like your educational background, your homeland, your career, or anything you want to say.

I received my Bachelor’s degree in art in 1981 and have been a professional artist ever since. In 2010, I discovered my love for music and currently my passion is to record my original songs. I like to write inspirational stories, too. I have gone through some tragedy in my life, but now I am a happier person because I have followed my dreams. My art career sustains me and I am blessed to have many wonderful clients I enjoy working with.

Q2: What make(s) a great food illustration, depending on you? Is it the color, the composition, or anything else? What are your secrets to cook food illustrations?

I always make sure I have good photographic reference to work from. I shoot my own photos and make the food look as good as possible. With my paintings, I enhance the colors and contrast.

I aim to please my clients by showing them many options before I do final artwork. Sometimes that adds up to dozens of layouts. Designing the composition is much easier since I switched from line drawings to color layouts done on my computer.

Q3: What material, technique, or tools do you use when creating? Name their brands or specify their qualities if you have preferences.

I create my layouts on my computer using Photoshop. I lightly print my layout onto Arches Hot Press 140 lb. watercolor paper. I paint with Dr. Martin’s Dyes and add details with colored pencils, and occasionally acrylics.

My earlier paintings did not have a printed layout to follow. I sketched my line drawing with tracing paper and transferred the sketch to my watercolor paper.

I used a plastic film called Frisket to mask areas I am painting. Frisket helps keep everything sharp and clean.

Q4: What is the food illustration artwork you’ve ever done that makes you most proud? Could you tell us more about it?

My favorite painting is of a Snicker’s candy bar. It won an award at the Illustration West Exhibition through the Society of Illustrators, Los Angeles in 1992. Being presented with that award was very exciting for me.

Q5: Who are your clients, to name some?

I have worked with a lot of food companies in the United States and my work also is sold by several stock agencies worldwide. For the last five years, I’ve done close to 100 illustrations for Tillamook Dairy Company. My illustrations are also on Wallaby Yogurt. Those labels won an award for the 2016 Graphis Design Annual Competition. ( http://www.graphis.com/entry/fda1782c-8bef-421b-a74c-8fabdf3ce823/)

Q6: What are your tastes for foods? Do you have a favorite dish, or follow some special diet for any reason? Are you adventurous or conservative when ordering from a menu? Do you like exotic foods and which are?

I love to eat and recently lost a lot of weight by cutting back on carbs. I eat a lot of protein, fruits, salads and vegetables. Nothing really exotic and I don’t eat bread anymore. I used to love cheese, chocolate and coffee. But I feel so wonderful and healthy now, so I’m not missing them as much.

Q7: What’s the impression you want to give your audience by your food illustration?

I am a passionate musician – I give my heart to my audience because I can share my feelings that way. But in the art realm, it’s different. My focus is to please only the art director and client. Hopefully, people will like my work – but it’s my job and not the same thing for me as composing and recording music.

Q8: Do you taste the foods before illustrating them? Does their taste influence your works? How?

I never taste my foods because I use all kinds of strange ways to make them look better. I will use glue instead of milk and recently used “fake ice cubes” for an iced coffee illustration. I do pick the best looking fruits I can, but always am grateful as an artist that I can fix things up to look as perfect as possible. I do like adding water droplets to make fruit more interesting and appealing. Corn syrup is a good tool to use for that!

Q9: Do you enjoy cooking? Do you think there are some relation between being a good cook and a good food illustrator?

I don’t think they are related – I do think it’s important to be a good food stylist. That’s different than being a good cook. It’s important to know how to compose what is being photographed.

As an illustrator, I am designing the painting to fit on a certain part of the label. Good reference is important, so sometimes I have to look in magazines or on the Internet for inspiration if my photos aren’t good enough. Recently, I bought a raspberry plant just so I could have good leaves to look at.

I cook occasionally. I have two sons that live with me and they love it when I cook for them!

Part 2 Eat with illustrator
Please answer the following questions:
Q1: Where is your hometown? What’s the representative food there?
A1: I grew up in Los Angeles. There are many kinds of foods here – I can’t say what this city represents.
Q2: Where do you live now? Could you recommend your favorite restaurant there for us?
A2: I love Japanese Food. There’s a restaurant named Musashi that is in Northridge, CA. They have wonderful Teppan style cooking.
Q3: What’s your signature dish? Could you introduce it for us?
A3: My signature dish might be an omelet with sautéed mushrooms, onions and cheese.
Q4: What’s the most wonderful food you’ve ever tasted in your memory?
A4: I remember enjoying a wonderful chocolate walnut pie.

This is just one of my favorite illustrations!

When I received the quarterly a few months later, I was so glad I had participated. The printing was phenomenal and I was given a 8-page spread. I remember paying thousands of dollars for printed promotion.

This definitely was a fantastic opportunity to share my artwork.

Even though the interview wasn’t in English, I appreciated the lovely design layout incorporating my images. I share the pages below.

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When I began working as a food illustrator in 1981, my biggest concern was how to prevent major changes to my watercolor illustrations. It was very stressful to meet tight deadlines and having to changes something afterwards was incredibly frustrating (if not almost impossible).

Other than cutting up my paintings, prevention became the key. I learned to create tight marker layouts that would give clients a close example of how the final art might look. I hoped without any surprises that my illustrations would be accepted. Even with a tight layout there were sometimes changes, but with anything major I was paid an additional fee.

I have to admit though, that honing swift marker technique skills was handy because it ended up working as a final technique in some instances.

The digital age has definitely made things easier for me. It is much faster and I’m able to create photo-comp layouts that clearly indicate how the final art will look. I still chuckle remembering when one of my clients said my layout looked like a hostage note! It was because I cut up photos with an exacto knife and glued everything together.

I save about 50% of the hours I used to spend painting my illustrations. Instead of tracing my photo reference and transferring the drawing to my watercolor paper, I print a very light rendition of my photo-comp layout onto Arch’s 140 lb. hot-press watercolor paper.

That becomes my under-painting. I work over my print as much as possible to reduce the chance of seeing any pixilation. Adding colored pencil and acrylic for texture and highlights helps with that, too.

If I don’t like one area on my painting, it’s very easy to begin again. I can also simply paint that area on another print and bring it into my final digital scan later on.

With a lot of experimentation, I’ve learned that the print values are very important. There has to be just enough detail without too much ink. The transparent dye washes look great as an overlay if the print is done correctly.

I own an Epson inkjet printer and printing on watercolor paper can be tricky. Many times, I’ve had my printer serviced because the paper wouldn’t feed into it.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, am I less of an artist because I am relying on the computer? I’ve decided to go back to my motto of “Whatever Works.” In the end, the fact that my clients are happy is my answer. I also appreciate the speed of this digital process. Finishing a project quickly allows me to have time for other things in my life!

Last year I worked on a project that clearly demonstrates this evolved technique of mine. So I’m going to share it here.

A close-up of my final painting.

When I received a seasonal packaging project for Diamond Nuts I had to promise I could meet a ridiculous 5-day deadline. After struggling to agree to that, the creative director congratulated me for being the artist chosen. Ironically, I was then left waiting and wondering when the project would begin. A week later, I checked in with the art director and was told, “The client isn’t sure your work is realistic enough.”

My illustrations for Azar Nuts were done in 2005. They were my first illustrations utilizing my digital print painting technique.

I sent off samples of nut illustrations I had done for Azar Nuts. A few days later, the project began and thankfully, the deadline was no longer five days!

This was my layout to follow.

The client told me to carefully follow the approved a layout above. I would be painting two illustrations: Walnut and Mixed Nuts. The nuts were in a wooden bowl on a table with a window background. The leaves in the bowl looked awkward to me, but the art director said the client wanted them for additional color.

As always, gathering reference was my first step. It seemed simple to go buy the nuts, which were different from the assortment on my approved layout. After I went shopping, I had some questions.

Which pecan?

I discovered that the pecans I purchased in separate bags of raw mixed nuts came in different colors. I sent the photo above to find out which pecan I was supposed to use. The art director responded by sending me an example of another type of pecan with striations. I was able to create them by digitally by altering the color and adding streaks to the pecans I had.

These were the ones the client wanted.

Finding a nutcracker and bowls was my next step. I went shopping and sent photo choices to the art director.

This shows how the nuts in the smaller wooden bowl became fewer and larger than my layout.

I found several wooden bowls, but they were significantly bigger or smaller than the one in my layout. After much searching, I decided I’d have to photograph the nuts in a different bowl of the correct size. I’d digitally insert my photo-reference into a wooden bowl later on.

This plastic bowl was just the right size for the nuts.

I purchased several nutcrackers but it turned out that the one I owned, (which was old and tarnished) was the winner. I thought it was an improvement over the one in the layout, which was also for cracking open seafood.

These were the nutcracker choices.

This is one of my layouts showing a shinier nutcracker. It came a week later because I ordered it from an online catalog. The client still preferred my older one.

There were five rounds of layouts and I also showed many different background choices. The layouts were cropped using a template overlay, but I made sure there was a lot of bleed for the final artwork.

Even though I worked with photo reference, I didn’t follow any one photo and added nuts where they might work better. I also inserted or removed leaves as necessary.

Lighting for my illustration was crucial. On the layout, the nut bowl was strongly lit from the background window on the left. When I shot my photo reference, I used a spotlight to create that same look.

Because the illustrations were to be used on seasonal holiday packaging, the client wasn’t sure what background landscape they wanted. After sending images with snow, pine trees and fall colors – an autumn background was chosen.

These are examples of background choices.

While I was waiting for the window background to be decided upon, I actually began working on the final paintings for the nuts since they were already approved.

Once I had the best print to worth with, I lightly moistened the back and stapled it to a board. I kept a fully saturated reference photo next to me while I worked, as well as the real nuts.

In this example, the bowl had not been painted yet.

For my illustration, I used friskit (removable plastic film) and meticulously cut around each nut. The process of cutting the friskit with an exacto knife scored the paper. When paint reached those cuts, it created a delicate outline that I felt enhanced my illustration.

This example shows me painting one of the last nuts on my illustration.

Below are the final illustrations without the window background.

For the autumn background, my style was far less realistic. I painted and scanned the window frame separately so I could have more flexibility to shift the background in different ways. Below are the final illustrations with the background inserted.

I haven’t posted much for over a year to share technical information. Some of this is because my last two clients required me to sign non-disclosure agreements.

I’m glad I could describe my illustration process with my two Diamond Nut label illustrations. I’m even going to share a copy of my signed estimate (minus the agency information).

It’s been over a year since this job was completed and I never did see it on store shelves. I tried to contact the art director and she was no longer with the agency. Another designer told me it might never be reproduced.

That actually happens quite often in this business!

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