I have always wanted to illustrate a children’s picture book for as long as I can remember. There is definitely something magical about creating your own visual world that you can share with others. Just over a year ago I had no idea how to go about illustrating a children’s picture book, and the thought of ever getting a book contract seemed improbable. Today I am writing this post as a published illustrator — my debut picture book “Make a Face” came out in 2017 with an incredible independent children’s publisher Pow!Kids, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Last year I also illustrated a lovely title for Scholastic Asia “Pete the Penguin gets lost”.
In this blog post I wanted to share the background story of illustrating my first picture book. Hopefully other illustrators who have the same dream of seeing their stories and ideas come to live in a children’s book will find this post useful. Without much more rambling, here are my seven revelations from illustrating a picture book, based on the lessons that I have learnt while working on “Make a Face”.
1. Show your work — get published!
Your first picture book commission can come to you in a number of ways. I received an email with an offer from my publisher while laying in bed recovering from a bike accident — true story. My editor discovered my work through SCBWI portfolio — and that was how I got my book contract! The easiest way to show your work to potential clients is to join a professional organisation such as SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators). Once you join, make sure that you upload a selection of your drawings into a “Portfolio” section. There are also other online directories for illustrators out there, but I found SCBWI to be the most useful and rewarding in terms of community engagement and work prospects. They also have lectures, workshops and meet ups globally, so it is a fantastic resource for illustrators-to-be. I find their regional Facebook Groups particularly useful, as it’s a great chance to connect to other published authors and illustrators. Other ways of getting published are to submit your work to publishers directly. You can find the full list of publishers and their contact details in this useful book. Also, go to trade shows, such as Bologna Children’s Book Fair. (I wrote a detailed article about the fair here). It also helps massively to get signed with an agency. I am now represented by the Bright agency and couldn’t be happier. If you are thinking of writing and illustrating books then it may be worth seeking a literary agent rather than an illustration agency.
2. Start by looking at the bigger picture.
Once my contract was all sorted and good to go, the actual work of illustrating the book could begin. Words for my picture books were written by the author Ricardo Alegria Jr, who has a really great sense of rhythm and pace. Personally, I enjoy working with text written by somebody else. My background is in graphic design, so I start the book project with a general page organisation, deciding which words go onto which spreads. You only get 32 pages in a typical children’s picture book, and that includes endpapers and a title page. So there are only about 12 spreads left for the actual narrative. To be honest, it was quite tricky to fit all the text into the limited amount of spreads. My editor did a great job breaking down the text and creating a page plan. I always ask for editor’s help with this step. Some text had to be sacrificed, even though it was funny, so you have to be ruthless sometimes in order to make sure that the final layout is coherent and easy to understand. Once you know which sentence falls on which page, you can start with the fun job of visualising that narrative.
3. Keep calm and do your roughs
Once you have an idea of the layout, it is time to do the most exciting part — sketch out the drawings! I have to admit that I was absolutely terrified when it came to doing this! All those fears and negative thoughts came to my mind: what if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough? That’s when procrastination kicked in and I found myself looking for hundreds of ways to distract myself rather than tackling the project head on. This is due to my own psychological background of fearing to make a mistake and creating something “not good enough”. But after a while I had to find a way to get out of this mindset in order to move forward. So, when I sat down to do the sketches, I decided not to think about the pressure of producing a final product, but instead to just have fun while doing something I enjoy the most — just dreaming, creating fun characters and imagining how they would look like. I listened to music, and let my mind wonder. Eventually, I sketched the whole layout while on a long train journey to Scotland — and it was great. No distractions, nice views from the window, and my sketchbook. Here is a word of advice. If you ever get stuck, just hop onto the long distance train!
4. Find a way of working that works for YOU
When it comes to creativity and self expression, I am a firm believer that there is no one recipe that fits all in terms of the creative process. I have been through years of art education being continuously encouraged to use sketchbooks, plan colour schemes and prepare in advance — and hell did I try! I tried to work in a ‘professional’ way, and spent weeks trying to sketch some layouts out. The results were simply dull and I slowly felt the excitement for illustrating was going down the drain. I knew that it wasn’t the right way to work for me. That was when I made a conscious decision to forget all that advise and find an easier way to create, that suited my personality. I found that I liked to concentrate on the spontaneous individual drawings first, so I just spend hours and hours drawing various characters and plants — most of which found a way into my book eventually. I really enjoyed myself and found a way to move forward.
Some approaches you can use if “traditional sketching” isn’t right for you:
1. Cut out individual sketches and move them around on paper.
2. Sketch the layout on an iPad if you have got one. It’s much easier to manipulate the drawings digitally if you use apps like Adobe Fresco or Procreate.
3. Try thumbnail sketches. These are really tiny sketches about an inch wide. Concentrate on the overall sense of balance on the page.
5. Flexibility is key
Once I had hundreds and hundreds of individual drawings, I scanned them all in and started laying the pages out digitally. Because I only had a rough plan in advance, I made sure that I have as much flexibility in my work as possible. For instance, I scanned my drawings at 600 dpi just so I could enlarge them if I needed to. I also made sure that each design element was on a separate Photoshop layer, so I could move it around and edit it easily. This process has really paid off as I was able to deal with correction requests from my editor quickly. There were changes going into the layout and even some of the character up until the final stages of the book and I was able to address them without much sweat on my part. God bless computers!
In terms of materials, I used these incredible Tombow dualbrush markers to draw art for the whole book. I also used their colour pencils, which come in a variety of pastel colours, which are hard to find in other brands. Both products I totally recommend.
6. Learn by doing
It was terrifying and exciting to work this book out. It was great to have encouragement and support form the publishing team all along the way. Some days it was a mess and some days were full with little design victories and revelations. Did I feel ready when I got my first book contract? Was I 100% confident about my style and skills? No way! I knew how much I wanted it, but I didn’t feel that my portfolio was 100% (50%?….) perfect. I’m saying this because I think that you should start doing things you like even if you don’t feel ready for it. The perfect day when you are complete and ready might never arrive. Get your work out there — now! Learn to be okay with where you are at. After completing this project I felt myself light years ahead in terms of skills and confidence from the moment when I started the project.
7. Know when it is time to let go
One thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for was a time scale of illustrating a children’s picture book. All the design from start to finish took almost a year to complete! I never worked on such a long project before. By the time I submitted the final artwork I felt that I was a new person all together. A part of me wanted to just sit down and re-draw the whole thing! The inner perfectionist was kicking in, begging me to make more changes and do it better. At the same time, another part of me knew that I should honour the work that went into it and feel happy with it. The trouble with perfectionism is that it prevents you from enjoying the results of your work, which are actually really good! So I’m glad that eventually I found a place when I had to let go, and be happy with my first book!
8. After the book is published
One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the criticism. Once my book was out in the world, I started receiving reviews. There were good and bad reviews, of course. It was hard not to take negative reviews personally. I had to remind myself that it was just someone’s subjective comment about my work.
I also learnt that I needed to promote the book by doing a book launch and public readings. However, this is more common in case of writing AND illustrating a book by yourself.
My first picture book was a very big task for me emotionally and creatively. It took a lot of effort, but it taught me many important lessons. My most recent picture book took me just 2 months to illustrate and I had a much better idea of how to approach it thanks to my previous experience.
Please share your experience about making your picture books here too.