Visually guiding her readers through fictional journeys, Ruth Sanderson reveals along the way story details that might otherwise be overlooked. Through her fanciful illustrations, she introduces a new way of seeing, creating for the viewer a truly sensorial experience rich in color, mood and vivid detail. Full of whimsy and wonder, her art engages the readers to think more imaginatively, prompting them to consider the inconceivable, to believe in the impossible, and to visualize that which has never been seen. By retaining some aspects of realism, however, Sanderson's fantasy illustrations also have the power to shape our understanding of the world in which we live.
Genuinely believing in the authenticity of the magical creatures she depicts, Sanderson chooses not to differentiate between reality and
fiction. Instead, she recognizes the ongoing narratives around her and appreciates the beauty and magic found in everyday things. This creative
practice of hers began at an early age and has greatly influenced her artwork.
Ever since Ruth was a small child, her grandmother, a librarian for more than 40 years, read to her stirring her interest in storytelling.
She spent much of her childhood at the local library often scouring the shelves in search of her next great adventure or grappling against her best friend Judy McDonald for the latest addition to the Black Stallion
series. Even though she was a quiet and shy child, Ruth could live
vicariously through the fictional characters in the stories she read
experiencing, for once, their bravery and excitement.
When she was not buried in a book, she could be found playing
in the nearby woods reenacting her favorite fairytales or dreaming
up storylines of her own. Fortunately for her, the McDonalds lived
near an abandoned theme park, complete with a castle, miniature
buildings, a fieldstone cottage and a frontier land. The girls had it all
to themselves, this whimsical playground where their fantasies came
alive. Filled with creative inspiration, Ruth’s imagination ran wild, and
it was her penchant for the extraordinary that has brought her much
Like many young girls, Ruth was enthralled by stories of horses
and she soon began to draw the objects of her dreams. Wanting to
share her passion for depicting these animals, she led a Saturday
morning art class for her closest friends. Her parents took note of her
growing interest and finally agreed to get Ruth a horse. Keeping it on
the McDonald’s farm, she spent most of her teenage years trail riding
and showing with Judy and her fellow 4‑H friends.
On one tragic day, however, Ruth’s horse Duke was accidentally
killed by a drunken hunter. Nearly crippled with grief, she later
recognized this event as the end of her childhood. Although devastated,
Ruth found solace in creating art, for by drawing and painting could
she revisit the beauty and innocence of her imaginary world.
While taking art lessons from a local teacher, Ruth began
to experiment with oil paints. She was told she had natural talent
which gave her confidence in her work. After years of honing her
skills, Sanderson enrolled in the Paier College of Art in Hamden,
Connecticut. Attempting to select her focus, she took a variety of
courses in traditional drawing and painting as well as commercial art.
With a love for both art and the written word, she ultimately decided
to pursue a career in illustration.
Soon after graduation, Ruth found work on her own illustrating
for magazines and a variety of advertisements. It did not take long
for the artist to catch the attention of an agent who helped to propel
her career. She spent the next five years creating children’s textbook
illustrations, which eventually led to full-color cover assignments. A
considerable achievement, Sanderson was asked to create 18 covers
for both the Black Stallion and Nancy Drew paperback series. She had
never imagined being able to work on the horse series she cherished as
a child, and she was even more surprised when she was given the rare
opportunity to meet the author Walter Farley. This was undoubtedly
a memorable and incredibly inspirational experience for her.
Forever changing her art practice, Ruth’s big break came when
she was asked to illustrate an edition of Heidi with 100 full-color
paintings. While she had been using mostly fast-drying mediums such
as watercolors, colored pencils, airbrush and acrylics for previous
assignments, she was given a full year to complete this project allowing her to work in oil paint, her favorite medium. Able to give
more time and attention to her work, Ruth’s illustrations really
began to develop.
Sanderson describes her artistic style as “magical realism,” for the
worlds she creates in her illustrations are believable yet imaginary.
Her work has been greatly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite
painters. Their subject matter similarly drew inspiration from myths,
literature and popular folklore, and was distinctive for its romantic
and spiritual qualities. Valuing abundant detail, brilliant color and
complex compositions, the Pre-Raphaelite ainters also embraced
originality through artistic technique.
Sanderson continued to illustrate a number of fairytales and
children’s books including The Secret Garden, The Sleeping Beauty, The
Night Before Christmas, The Nativity, Mother Goose, and Goldilocks and
the Three Bears.
In 1990, she was asked by the publisher Little, Brown to retell
The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Ruth felt a personal connection to this
rite-of-passage story in which the characters had to be independent
and courageous, finding their way through three woods symbolic
of their transition into adulthood. Her depictions of the settings
conveyed her love of nature and the woods she perceives as mystical
Throughout her career, Sanderson has been able to incorporate
her love for equines into her work. She included magical horses in The Crystal Mountain as well as The Golden are, The Firebird and the
Magic Ring for which she won the Texas Bluebonnet Award in 2003.
Most recently, Ruth has been depicting the lives of different equines
each telling their own tales in the Horse Diaries series. Adding to her
enjoyment of the project, Ruth was proud to work with her daughter
Whitney who wrote the fifth book in the series, Golden Sun, the story
of an Appaloosa pony who finally discovers his calling.
Over the past 30 years, Ruth Sanderson has illustrated more
than 72 children’s books, 12 of which she has both written and
illustrated. She has retold many popular fairytales including Papa
Gatto, Cinderella, Rose Red and Snow White, and The Snow Princess, and
has written an original story The Enchanted Wood.
Sanderson has received the Irma S. Black award for Best Picture
Book (1992) and the Young Hoosier Award (1995) for The Enchanted
Wood. Her work has been shown at The Norman Rockwell Museum;
The Society of Illustrators; The Delaware Museum of Art; the Art
Museum of Western Virginia; and The Words and Pictures Museum.
Ruth belongs to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
and the Western Massachusetts Illustrator’s Guild. She occasionally
teaches a summer graduate course at Hollins University in Roanoke,
Virginia. Recently acknowledged as the Artist Guest of Honor at the
World Fantasy Convention, Sanderson gave a presentation about
her career titled “My Fairytale Life” and spoke on a panel discussing
magical horses and other animals in fantasy stories.