How to become a children’s book illustrator

For book lovers with a keen imagination and artistic skill, the world of children’s book illustration has a natural appeal. Bringing unique characters to life and portraying tales of adventure, friendship, and fantasy seems like a dream career. However, breaking into a new creative field means you’ll be competing with other more established and experienced professionals. So, what does it take to measure up?

Check out our expert tips and step-by-step guide for self-publishing an illustrated children’s book.

Master your artistic medium

Chances are, you already have one or more favorite methods of illustration. Ink, pencil, watercolor, charcoal—each allows you to bring a unique level of detail, texture, shadow, color, intensity, and nuance to images. Illustrators who choose to work digitally, or combine hand drawings with digital elements, also have their preferences for tools and techniques that give them the most control or flexibility.

Before you begin a book-length illustration project, make sure that you select the artistic medium and drawing tools that you are most comfortable with. Then practice, practice, practice until you reach a level of mastery that allows you to produce consistent drawings, page after page. You don’t want to experiment with new techniques or change the quality of illustrations halfway through illustrating a book!

Master your artistic medium

Develop your own style

To succeed in becoming a children’s book illustrator, you need to create captivating images that are recognizable and reflect your unique point of view. Are there certain characters, animals, objects, or scenery that you love drawing? Follow that impulse. Your readers can tell when you let your creativity and imagination run wild, and they will appreciate illustrations that have a distinct perspective.

Many adults still remember favorite children’s book illustrations from their youth, which is a good indicator of a memorable drawing style! Think about the books and illustrations you were drawn to as a kid and the ones that inspire you now. What makes each of these works stand out in terms of character, action, color, and composition? The more you understand what makes you connect with a book, the better you will be able to develop a personal style of your own.

Make the pictures and story work together

Whether you love fantasy or fairy tales, realistic drawings, or quirky cartoons, the strength of your book relies on a combination of text and visual elements. The drawings and story support one another and add details, but neither overshadows the other. As you depict certain action scenes or settings, remember that some information may be revealed in the illustrations that is not present in the text, and not all details in the text need to be repeated visually. Finding the right balance is what keeps readers interested!

Choose a fitting color palette and style

Choose a fitting color palette and style

Make sure the drawing techniques and color palette you’ve chosen work together to convey the overall mood and energy of the story. For example, soft, wispy, pastel watercolors pair well with a quiet tone of voice and a calm or ethereal story setting, whereas sharp lines and bright, bold ink colors lend a more playful, active quality to the story. Getting just the right mix of color, style, action, and emotion can take time and experimentation.

Prepare for revisions

One universal hallmark of being a creative professional also applies here: Expect to revise your artwork (and expectations) along the way. No matter how brilliant your idea seems at the outset, even the best projects involve multiple drafts before emerging as a full-fledged book. Your first (or second or third) illustrated children’s book is likely to undergo several rounds of editing. Try not to get frustrated or panic, and instead think of each revision as an opportunity to make your work even better!

Seek out publishing tips and business advice

As a self-publisher, you forego publishing contracts and agents in exchange for complete creative and financial control over your projects. However, that means you take on the responsibility of producing and promoting your own book. Make time to research industry tips, read articles by successful illustrators and editors, or consult a local group of aspiring artists like you. It’s helpful to gain insights from and bounce ideas off other people as you navigate the world of self-publishing. Once you find a community of people that are familiar with the artistic side and the business side of things, you can find ways to balance your passion with your profit potential. Believe it or not, you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other!

Seek out publishing tips and business advice

Be persistent and stay positive

The process of writing, illustrating, designing, self-publishing, and marketing a children’s book is not an easy road—but it does provide a great opportunity for creative expression and professional growth. As you encounter new challenges or delays, try to be patient, and remind yourself how much you are learning along the way. Developing your idea into a cohesive story and finalizing the illustrations may take much longer than expected, especially if this is your first time creating a book. Brace yourself for long hours—some illustrators estimate as many as 800 to 1,000 total hours of work per book! At the end of a demanding workday, try to look on the bright side, and you’ll find that a realistic and positive attitude can go a long way in this creative endeavor.

Use social media to boost your visibility and inspiration

One of the fastest ways to establish a following in the digital era is by creating a footprint on social media. Share your illustrations in progress on Instagram, tease creative techniques or conversation topics on Twitter, and befriend fellow artists and authors on Facebook. When you engage with the public, you can cultivate a potential audience and create opportunities to connect with like-minded creatives. After all, you never know who might stumble across your posts and decide to follow or retweet you.

Don’t be afraid to collaborate

You may have a knack for all things illustrated, but that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in storytelling, book layout, or advertising. Consider hiring a team of professionals who support your book project and can put their specific expertise to work for you.

If someone else is authoring the text of your book, try to remain open to their feedback as you draft your illustrations. Collaboration can be successful if you establish strong lines of communication, recognize each other’s creative strengths, and direct your energy toward achieving a common goal: a successful children’s book that works as a whole.

Map out a plan to create your book

As with any creative project, it helps to visualize the steps of illustrating a children’s book before you begin.

  1. Start with sketches and a mood board: Look for influences and inspiration everywhere (lighting, movement, color, and composition), as you explore different ways of drawing your characters and backgrounds. Practice a range of facial expressions, postures, and moods for each character.
  2. Outline the story: Make sure you have a clear idea of the book setting, character motivation, main action, and story resolution. No matter how expressive the illustrations may be, a weak storyline will affect the entire book.
  3. Write the story text: Creating a memorable story will involve trial and error. Pay attention to the tone of voice and vocabulary you use, the pace at which the story unfolds, and how you divide up the text on each page. Try writing each sentence on a notecard, so you can play around with text placement and flow.
  4. Create a storyboard with thumbnails: Figure out how the book will progress visually by creating a series of small sketches (or thumbnails) in pencil, representing each page of the book. Seeing the entire layout at a glance can help you decide how fast the action occurs, where to use close-up or panoramic illustrations, and when to include a two-page spread. Be prepared to go through several versions of your storyboard, so you get the storyline and thumbnails right before adding color. Remember to leave room for text on each page!
  5. Add color to your thumbnails: Apply your color palette to the thumbnails, along with elements of lighting and shadow to see how the illustrations progress page by page. Make sure the color conveys the overall mood and emotion of your story from start to finish.
  6. Sketch your drawings: Time to create full-size illustrations! Using your thumbnails for reference, sketch each page of your book in pencil, including the foreground, background, and characters.
  7. Finalize your drawings: Fill in the colors, textures, and details, ensuring that the characters and elements appear consistent from page to page.
  8. Create a cover image: First impressions count, so think about which character or scene will capture the reader’s imagination and draw them into your story. Be sure to select a composition that leaves room for the title and author name!

The path to becoming a children’s book illustrator will have its ups and downs, so expect to learn as you go (like any hero on an important quest). We look forward to seeing your book in print!

Are you ready to bring your illustrations to life? Start making a children’s book today.

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