Tips for Beginning Illustrators
By Sarah Brannen
Yellapalooza.com was originally founded to be a resource for those who both write and illustrate. This article is a summary of basic advice for artists who want to illustrate children’s books, but are still learning the basics of the business. The links and books listed on our site contain a wealth of information; for convenience, we offer some introductory advice.
First, we suggest doing a group of samples of work suited for children’s books. Art directors have no interest in seeing still lives or nudes, but illustrators fresh out of school often include pieces that are totally inappropriate to the market. Begin by looking at hundreds of picture books. See what works, what doesn’t, what you like and don’t like. Be sure to look at recent books, as styles change over the years. And check out the winners of the Caldecott medal, awarded to outstanding picture books every year.
Choose your favorite style and use it for all your samples. It’s hard enough to break into children’s publishing without confusing the art director! They may see the work of 25 or 100 artists or more every week. If they like your work, they need to be able to remember you. The easiest way to make a strong impression that will last for years is to show a consistent portfolio. It’s ok to show more than one medium (no more than two or three), as long as all your work screams YOU to anyone who sees it. Eventually, after you have published some books, you may be able to expand to more than one medium and style; Eric Rohmann and Chris Van Allsburg have both published books with very different looks.
Your portfolio should include illustrations of children and animals, city and country scenes, and people of different ethnic appearance. Editors and art directors like to see that you can portray a character consistently, so show three or four scenes from the same story. You can illustrate a well-known fairy tale or re-illustrate scenes from a famous book. Try to tell a story with every illustration. Include interesting details and make the viewer wonder about the story behind the picture.
Only show your very best work in your portfolio. If you feel that one or two pieces are weaker than the others, don’t use them. Show a lot of the kind of work you really enjoy doing. Once you have a good group of strong samples, you will need a web site so people can see your work easily. You can set this up in any way you like, there are no rules! Look at lots of illustrator sites to get some ideas and you’ll see that there are many different kinds.
Also put together a paper portfolio. If you can attend a conference (more on this later) you can look at lots of portfolios and see how other illustrators do them. In general, book illustration portfolios are smallish, no more than 14” x 17” closed, and often just 9” x 12”. If you’ll be dropping your portfolio off or sending it to publishers, make more than one portfolio. They do lose them sometimes and if you have extras it won’t be a disaster for you.
Never, ever put original art in your portfolio. It’s too easy for it to be lost or damaged. Besides, art directors need to see how your work looks when it’s reproduced. Make color copies or print them out yourself.
Once you have your work online and you’ve put together a portfolio, the next step is to let editors and art directors know about your work! You’ll need to do some sample mailings. Have postcards or tearsheets printed up. There are many different companies to use, from a local printer to companies that specialize in postcards for artists. (If you print your own cards, remember to use archival ink.)
You can do a targeted mailing to publishing houses you think will be particularly interested in your work, or send more broadly. You can either mail samples to art directors or to all the editors and art directors at a publisher. They keep files of artists they like, so don’t ask for the samples to be returned.
You’ll see the same advice all over this site: join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators! Members can get the SCBWI market survey, which lists the staff at many different children’s publishers. You can also find names and addresses in the Children’s
Writers and Illustrators Market, and on the Children’s Book Council web site. In any case, send your samples far and wide. I usually mail to over 300 people. Take your mailers to conferences and hand them out to everyone you meet; in fact, hand them out to people everywhere. You never know who will turn out to be a children’s editor!
I’ve mentioned conferences twice, now. Make every effort to attend a children’s writing and illustrating conference. The SCBWI runs regional conferences all across the United States and in other countries, as well as the yearly conference in LA and the mid-year in New York. All the information is on their web site. Put your portfolio in any display available and sign up for a portfolio critique. You probably won’t get work from it but you’ll get valuable advice for sure.
When you feel ready, show your portfolio to art directors in person if you can. You’ll need to call the publisher and ask either to set up an appointment, if possible, or leave your portfolio on one of their drop-off days. Most publishers are in New York, so a trip to the city may be a good idea. It’s not really necessary though; these days, your web site will do a lot of the work for you.
Consider submitting to children’s magazines as well as book publishers. Magazine illustration is a great way to break into the business. The pay is around $25 to $100 per illustration for many magazines, so you won’t get rich, but it will get your work in front of people and it’s good experience.
If you start frequenting children’s writing message boards, you’ll probably get requests from authors who are self-publishing and looking for an illustrator. Use your own judgment about whether to get involved with self-publishing. The writers are rarely prepared to pay much, and it’s a huge amount of work. On the other hand, it can be good experience for a beginner, without any pressure. Be cautious and get your agreement with the author in writing. It’s best to have a contract with specific details of every aspect of the work. These arrangements can be tricky and self-publishing authors sometimes get very involved with the artwork, so make sure you’ll be compensated fairly for your time.
There are a number of different kinds of book publishers who may hire illustrators. Small and mainstream publishers usually pay an advance on royalties to both the author and the artist. The details vary; royalties are usually between 10% and 15% of the retail price, split between the author and artist. The artist is usually paid a larger percentage of the advance and royalty. If you are both the writer and the illustrator of course you get to keep the whole advance. They usually pay half of the advance when you sign the contract and half upon completion of the work. Advances range from a few thousand dollars by a small publisher to $12,000 – 15,000 by a major publisher for a first book by an author/artist.
Book packagers hire authors and artists and put books together for publishers, often educational publishers. This is usually work-for-hire; in other words, the illustrator gets paid a flat fee, with no advance. Educational work usually involves tight deadlines but it can be steady work.
If you have an idea for your own book, and you are willing to take the time to learn to write for children, you can write your own story and submit a dummy book. For more information, look at Dummies for Smarties on this site.
It’s not necessary to have a literary agent or artists’ representative to be published in the children’s field, although they can be very helpful. Literary agents usually take 15% of the advance and royalties, and artist’s representatives usually take between 25 and 30%. Some agents represent illustrators as well as writer/illustrators, but they will usually only look for trade book illustration work for you. A rep will help you find magazine, editorial and educational work as well. There are no set rules of course, these are just general guidelines. If you are approached by an agent, check them out first at the Preditors and Editors web site.
Illustrating children’s books is hard. It takes a lot of time and you’re probably never going to get rich doing it. It can be delightful, rewarding work, though, and if you’re willing to persist and learn the ropes, you may make a satisfying career for yourself.