How to Illustrate a Children’s Book

By heather at 10:23 pm on Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Having a few kids books under my belt, I’ve fine-tuned a process which allows me to enjoy the experience of illustrating children’s books, rather than stressing out over missed details. I thought I’d share for any newbie illustrators out their on their first children’s book who are a bit daunted with churning out 30 illustrations…

1) Gather Tech Specs :

I like to iron out all sorts of details before I accept a project :

  • • What is the fee? Royalties?
  • • How many pages / spreads is the story?
  • What size should I illustrate this children’s book?
  • • Where will the type be placed?
  • • Deadline for first linears / sketches?
  • • Deadline to see finals?
  • • Deadline for delivery?
  • • How many samples will I be provided?
  • • What is the target age group of the kiddies?
  • • Which of my styles do they want me to lean towards?

2) Planning Phase :

Doing a little planning ahead of time makes it easier for you to keep all your details in order.

  • • Print out a calendar up to just a few weeks past your deadline. If you are like me and have a part time job as well, mark off the days you have to work in black. In a contrasting color, circle / mark the days / times you are free to work on the illustrations. And most importantly, mark down your deadline for the project.
  • • Tally up how many hours you have available
  • • Estimate the time you will need for research, sketches, revisions, painting, more revisions, and delivering the illustrations. I generally pad my time with a few extra days in case something comes up, in case the car breaks down, or you catch a cold, etc.
  • • Set up a time sheet / production sheet to track all the time spent on the project. This is a great tool as when you are done, you have a very good idea of where you spent your time, and it will help you estimate next time how much time you will need to illustrate another book.
  • • Keep track of your cost of materials.
  • • Keep handy the contact information of all the people you are working with on the project.
  • • Buy a pack of bright white printer paper. Sounds cheap, but I prefer to use printer paper (8.5 x 11) for my sketches over a sketchbook. Sounds cheap, but I find I love sketching on the smooth bright surface, they are already scanning bed size, they fit easily into folders when taking to meet with clients, and when you’re done they are easily slipped into plastic sleeves and thrown into a binder for the entire project.

3) Research Phase :

I love this phase being a book worm, I find it inspiring flipping through nature books, family photo albums, magazines, taking digital photos around the neighborhood, drawing on site….and then I sketch what I’ve found. It’s almost like absorbing information by sketching from reference, so when I create a character I take that information and apply it.

4) Conceptual & Cobweb Removal Phase :

I generally don’t jump into sketching from the written text until I’ve let the thrill of having landed the project settle in, and a couple days after reading the story. I just scribble whatever comes to mind first….even if it is the most obvious thing around, I just sketch it, get it out of my system, and do the same for every page of the book. Generally with kids books you’re working with 15-30 illustrations, so that’s a fair bit of conceptualizing for one go…so I just like to get the cobwebs out of the system first off, before setting down some proper sketches.

Take some time practicing how to draw every day and you’ll improve quickly.

5) First Sketches :

I then leave those scribbles again for a couple days, and then come back and draw to scale a more finished sketch of what I’d like. This generally gives me a fresh look at what I’ve done, I chuck what I don’t like, and rework what I do.

  • • Print out a couple dozen templates to scale of the size you are working with. I set up the templates in Illustrator CS2, just drawing a light grey outline for the paper edges so it’s not distracting. It saves time from measuring out dozens of pages.
  • • Tighten up details like facial expressions, hands, proportions…super important, as this is what you’re submitting to your client, look sharp!

6) Submitting to Publishers :

Especially if it’s your first time illustrating for a publisher, it’s super courteous if you can provide them with your sketches in good form. With all my children’s books, I’ve used email as my submission vehicle.

  • • Scan each sketch at hi-resolution (300DPI JPG) You can then easily resize it down if you need to, or if somethign needs to be scaled up / moved around in the edit phase, it is easier to do so in Photoshop sometimes than redrawing the entire sketch.
  • • Drop it into the actual PDF layout to make sure the text runs around everything and it all fits.
  • • If the text layout hasn’t been provided by the publisher and they are waiting on me, I like to put in the text myself with InDesign / Quark.
  • • I prefer to email my publishers a PDF of the entire layout…while being careful to not send them a huge file, it’s generally 2-4MB depending on how huge the book is!
  • Some publishers prefer to have JPGs sent of the entire book. Just chat with your publisher about how they would like to work.
  • • I know that I’ll pretty much always have something to change, so when I send the first batch of sketches, I openly invite feedback because I want them to be excited about what I’m creating from their story

7) Waiting phase :

This is the bit I agonize over the most…the waiting game!

8) First Revisions :

Ok, so I’ve received feedback by email or phone…and I have to change everything! Not often does that happen, but sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

  • • Get onto revisions the same day or within a couple days if I can, as the sooner the sketches are approved, the sooner I can start painting.
  • • Sometimes revisions are huge and entire reworks of concepts.
  • • If it’s something super tiny to change, I generally put a new slice of paper on top of the original sketch, and ONLY draw the bit I’m modifying. Then, I’ll scan it and cut and paste it into the first sketch scan using Photoshop, carefully feathering the edges and blending as needed.
  • • Then same drill as before, email the layout back to the client in PDF / JPG format.

9) Waiting phase :

Watch “The Princess Bride”

10) Second Revisions :

Same drill as First Revisions.

11) Waiting phase :

Go camping for the weekend.

12) Third Revisions :

Same drill.

13) Fourth Revisions :

Same drill. Not kidding, I’ve gone up to six or seven revisions before per spread before, that’s a lot of sketching! But by the time it was approved, I was much happier myself with the outcome. All part of the journey!

14) Color Proofs :

Most publishers like to see a color proof before you go all gung-ho on the full-sized finals.

  • • If I’m painting the same character throughout I’ll do either a smaller version of one of the sketches until it’s done, or occasionally it is requested that I paint one entire spread. I prefer to do a small mock up of several pages.
  • • I scan & email a low-resolution JPG to the publisher (if it’s full sized illustration, I scan it in pieces and put it back together with Photoshop).
  • • Never send a digital photo of the color version, as unless you are also a photographer and have all the nifty light equipment, the color won’t come out true.

15) Finals :

Finally finals! Exciting and scary, I love this stage! I like to work on ALL my paintings at once!!! For one it keeps me busy and not waiting for paint to dry on each painting, and second it maintains consistency of colors and characters throughout. Once I’ve figured out how I want to handle an area, I work on all those similar areas at once. Keeps my colors cleaner.

  • • Have about 20 masonite boards which allow to work on all the spreads at once
  • • Mask my Arches watercolor paper down onto the boards
  • • Gently transfer sketches to the paper using projection tool, such as an artograph (or use light table to trace on before masking paper down to board) This can take a few hours!
  • • Set down washes on the first board, set it down somewhere to dry and picking up the next board to set down washes…and do the same thing to all the remaining spreads

It does take up a lot of floor space, but it’s very gratifying knowing they’re all underway, no white paper to be seen! It allows you to keep consistency throughout all your work. It’s also pretty gratifying to accomplish so much at once!

16) Submitting Finals :

I like to submit my finals for review at least a week before I need to ship it to them. And surprise, surprise, I’ve always submitted my finals for approval via email.

  • • I carefully scan each and every illustration. This stage can take a while as my paintings are often big (around 25 inches in length / width) and need to be scanned in pieces, and then pieced together in Photoshop…but I’ve got a lot of experience with that, so don’t mind.
  • • Drop it in the layout
  • • Send a PDF to my client.

17) Waiting for approval :

Waiting again, agony agony, not knowing how they’re going! Sometimes this can take some time, your work often has to be reviewed by a lot of people….You can’t rush a good thing!

  • • Keep in mind that shipping takes a few days if their deadline is firm, so I need to know what needs to be revised in advance of that shipping date with enough time to carry out revisions and resubmit them. A friendly note to your publisher reminding them of this, while also letting them know you’re not in a rush if they aren’t is helpful if you’re worried about submitting late.

Most publishers I’ve worked with generally expect their artists to be LATE with their work, so being early and on-the-ball about the deadline makes the process stress free for them as they don’t have to worry about you.

18) Revisions :

Very rarely have I had to change anything at this stage, simply because most edits have been sussed out in the sketch phase. Generally if there are revisions at this stage, it’s tinting a color, adjusting an eyeball or something like that.

19) Packaging & Shipping :

So, once I’ve received approval, I say yippee and give my husband a big hug, and we both skip around the living room singing songs.

  • • Carefully peel back the tape from the paper and off the board, very careful not to rip the illustrations.
  • • Write in pen my name and date outside of the illustration area on each painting.
  • • Flap each spread with bond paper to protect it from rubbing and smudging.
  • • Once they are all flapped, I wrap around them a nicer textured paper to keep the paintings from shuffling around as well as to present them nicely.
  • • My business card is stuck on with double-sided tape as a little label, too.
  • • Prepared an invoice, print it and include it in the package as well
  • • Write a little care / note to the art director I’ve been working with
  • • I generally buy a small portfolio to the size of the artwork to ensure it’s extra protected
  • • Label the portfolio clearly with the art director’s name and address
  • • Tape up the portfolio
  • • Pass it into the trustworthy hands of whichever courier my publisher prefers
  • • Drop an email to say the work’s on it’s way, because they’re my babies, I want them to get there safely!

And that’s it! All done! Now you just have to wait to see your books published! Often this can take several months, so be patient.

20) Promote your new book & keep in touch :

I love hearing what’s going on with my publishers, what books are coming out, how the author of my books are doing… remember to keep in touch!

  • • Have some fun promoting your book
  • • Post a jpg of the book to your website
  • • Do regular online searches for your book to find reviews
  • • Invite colleagues to review your book and post their comments at online bookshops

So that’s it! Pretty easy, lots of fun. For me the systematic process frees me up to enjoy the terrifyingly exciting parts of just sketching & painting the illustrations.

Filed under: childrens books, business of illustration


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Comment by K. Jordan

May 11, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

I really like this information. Some things I don’t understand as far as the software goes needed for finished products. Can you E-mail me the basics? I am a beginner so nothing to high end. Appreciate It

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Comment by Whatever-ishere

November 22, 2007 @ 7:46 am

thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful…

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Comment by Lynne (Karaus) Wirthlin

December 15, 2007 @ 8:30 am

Stumbled upon your blog while doing some trend research. What a great find!!

Doing what you do is what I want in life. I’ve reached the height of my profession as a Creative Director. Now I want to be my own boss and use my creative stuff for my enjoyment instead of someone elses back pocket.

You are an inspiration. Thanks you for all the tips and instruction needed to move forward towards the illustrator’s ultimate dream!!

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Comment by S.Thomas

July 27, 2008 @ 10:51 am

Thank you so much for helping me have a better understanding of what a new illustrater like myself need to know to start my product. Can you email me more information about the software needed for the finished produt and also the paper if any needed for the finished product.

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Comment by Kelly

September 18, 2008 @ 5:58 am

what is gst? (from #1. second bullet) Thanks! - KB

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Comment by Rhonda

April 1, 2009 @ 11:50 am

you have been very helpful with this information.. thank you very much. Can you tell me how large would you do your final artwork for a picture book.. perhaps 8-1/2 x 11″.. and do you actually give your client the originals?

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Comment by Debbie

June 15, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

Hi Heather,
came across your site and it was really clear and helpful. I am an artist, not an illustrator, and have just been asked to illustrate a children’s book and I really want to do a good job!Thanks again, Debbie.

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Pingback by » FAQS | What size should I illustrate for children’s books?

November 3, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

[…] You can find more tips on how to illustrate a children’s book here. And if you have any questions about children’s book illustration or publishing, feel free to post your questions in the comment section. Filed under: childrens books, business of illustration — […]

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Comment by Jessica

December 10, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

Very helpful! Thank you.

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Comment by Christy Croll

December 11, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

Wow..thanks for the info. I am starting my first book and I can see I will be heading to the 6th or 7th revision per sketch route. LOL It is good to see you take it all in stride like that and I will try to emulate that calm and acceptance. LOL This was very enlightening and exactly my experience so far. :) Thanks again for sharing.

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Comment by JP Roberts

December 11, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

This is wonderful! I’m trying to land my first “break” as a children’s book illustrator and this information is a great resource! Thanks for posting!

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Comment by jo swartz

December 12, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

Thank you so much for this really useful information. I will refer to it often! It will make all my work going forward so much smoother. You are wonderful to share it all.

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Comment by Margaret Ann Abrahams

December 12, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

Thank you - I will keep this tutorial - what a great reference. It’s so interesting to have an inside look at your unique process.

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Comment by Helena

December 13, 2009 @ 4:24 am

That is a wonderful article! Thank you!!!
SInce I have not illustrate children’s book (yet), I would love to know a little bit more about:
- how to find a publisher
- concepts to write the story - age appropriate, etc
- up front contract - do you use a non-disclosure agrrement (so they won’t use your work without pay you…I have heard horror stories fro other artists…)
- Do get get some pay up front?
- Usually low long it takes for all your part of the work to be done?
- How long it takes to get the book published?
- How long it gets to get “finally” paid?
- and last…but not least…Photoshop. It would be great if you get an e-book with all the details (how-tos) and sell them…to people like us..
I would love to see step-by step samples of work - drawing, color and photoshop in your e-book.
Let me know when you have one, I want to be your first buyer!

Once again, thank you so much!
Many more blessings in your career. You totally deserve it!

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Pingback by How to Illustrate a Children’s Book « TheDoodleDiner

October 27, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

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Pingback by How to Illustrate a Children’s Book | Dennis Beck

November 21, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

[…] to Tutorial Tweet this! This entry was posted in TUTORIALS: Illustrator. Bookmark the permalink. ← 40+ Excellent Adobe Illustrator Cartoon Tutorials Sparkling Text Effect in Photoshop→ […]

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Pingback by How to Illustrate a Children’s Book | Dennis Beck

November 23, 2010 @ 4:28 am

[…] to Tutorial Tweet This entry was posted in TUTORIALS: Illustrator. Bookmark the permalink. ← 40+ Excellent Adobe Illustrator Cartoon Tutorials Sparkling Text Effect in Photoshop→ […]

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Comment by Bertie Trafford

December 21, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

Thanks for an informative post. Pleasant reading, and I look forward to some more from you. Best Regards…

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Comment by Jeanette

May 13, 2011 @ 3:40 am

Thank you for sharing!

I’ve been wondering about the painting part, it seems most are going digital, but I guess original artwork on paper is still acceptable?

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Comment by Olivia Apodace

May 28, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it is truly informative. I am going to watch out for brussels. I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future. Many people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

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Comment by Brittany

December 15, 2011 @ 10:06 am

So happy that I found your blog! I just wanted to say thank you so much for the great advice. I will be graduating next year with my associate’s degree in illustration, and I want to illustrate children’s books. This so helpful, I greatly appreciate it!

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Comment by Rebecca

March 31, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

Thank you for this info… I’m new at this and have been searching the net for hours trying to find something to help me out… only problem is, I’m not that good at drawing. I’ve written two books that I need pictures for, I can see them in my head… but that’s not how it comes out on the paper. lol Does anyone out there have any resources they can share with me? Any help is welcome.
Thank you so much,

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Comment by Heather

April 7, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

Hi Rebecca,
Thanks for your comment on my blog a while back, sorry for my late reply, I have a bun in the oven and two kids that keep me very busy!

To quickly answer your inquiry, it’s very normal for authors to NOT illustrate their own stories… In fact publishers prefer to find the illustrators themselves as they can more objectively match an illustrator to your story, as well as provide creative direction to the illustrator that will enhance your story. If you are planning to use a self publisher, they have illustrators they can refer you to who you can work with to illustrate your book for you with you being more personally involved in the illustration process.

Hope this helps!


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Comment by Hazel

April 28, 2012 @ 3:34 am

Thank you for this very very informative post! Very very helpful!

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Comment by Ruth

June 5, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

Thank you for laying out your system so clearly. I’m a graphic designer now stay at home mom and I’m trying my hand at illustrating a children’s book and I wasn’t sure how to begin — I can picture it now in my mind. Thank you for being so articulate and organized, I think my efforts will be so much more cohesive professional now.

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