Break into chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion

Julia Sa­gar dives into the bur­geon­ing world of chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion to find out what it takes to make it as an artist

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Not only is it a dif­fi­cult and com­pet­i­tive mar­ket to break into, it’s also a dif­fi­cult lan­guage to learn

Mag­i­cal lands, swash­buck­ling ad­ven­tures, tall tales con­jured with won­der­ful breaches of logic… the lure of chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion is clear. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days craft­ing sto­ries of courage, loy­alty and brav­ery?

Chil­dren’s book pub­lish­ing is boom­ing. In the UK, the mar­ket grew more than seven per cent in the first quar­ter of 2016, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Books, fol­low­ing a 5.1 per cent growth in 2015. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it’s com­pet­i­tive, and for many artists a tough field to crack. Even Dr. Seuss cre­ator Theodor Seuss Geisel was re­jected by over 30 pub­lish­ers be­fore re­leas­ing his first book. So what does it take to make it in the wild world of chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion?

For au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor Jonny Dud­dle, the first key at­tribute is an ac­tive imag­i­na­tion. “Whether you’re writ­ing and il­lus­trat­ing your own books or il­lus­trat­ing an­other au­thor’s text, you need to cre­ate orig­i­nal, in­spired art­work to cap­ture a child’s imag­i­na­tion,” he ex­plains. “You need to be pas­sion­ate about your vi­sion, and make sure you have the style and tech­nique to pull it off.”

Fresh from cre­at­ing the cov­ers of two new JK Rowl­ing books, The Tales of Bee­dle the Bard and Quid­ditch Through the Ages, Jonny – who in 2014 also il­lus­trated the jack­ets of Bloomberg’s re­freshed Harry Pot­ter se­ries - has a unique in­sight into the highs and lows of the field. “Stamina is just as im­por­tant,” he adds. “Fin­ish­ing the art­work for a pic­ture book al­ways takes longer than you think. Sus­tain­ing your vi­sion, pas­sion and imag­i­na­tion over

If you still love to draw the kinds of things that ex­cited you as a child or teenager, then you’re half­way there

sev­eral months is prob­a­bly the great­est chal­lenge an artist can face.”

Dan­ish il­lus­tra­tor Kiri Øster­gaard Leonard agrees. “Many peo­ple go into chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion think­ing it’s re­ally easy to do, but it isn’t. Not only is it a dif­fi­cult and com­pet­i­tive mar­ket to break into, it’s also a dif­fi­cult lan­guage to learn – es­pe­cially be­cause it isn’t al­ways about draw­ing well. It’s more about re­ly­ing on story, emo­tion and strong colours than mak­ing some­thing pretty.”

Worth a thou­sand words

From both a tech­ni­cal and prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion can be de­cep­tively chal­leng­ing. There’s a dizzy­ing va­ri­ety of gen­res on of­fer – from folk­lore to fairy tales; for ba­bies to young adults – and of­ten the sim­pler a style, the harder it is to cre­ate. Don’t be fooled into think­ing fewer words means an eas­ier job, ei­ther. “Some pic­ture books have char­ac­ters and items evolv­ing from page to page that are never men­tioned in the text,” points out English il­lus­tra­tor Nick Har­ris. “You might show the mo­ment just be­fore or just after the scene de­scribed in the text, which can have an im­pli­ca­tion or pathos that adds weight to the words.”

There can be more re­stric­tions in­volved when cre­at­ing im­agery for chil­dren, too. “There’s a level of cen­sor­ship that isn’t present in art­work for adults,” says Kiri. “What’s great, though, is how vivid chil­dren’s imag­i­na­tions are. They won’t ask why the dog is green – be­cause of course the dog is green.”

“If you still love to draw the kinds of things that ex­cited you as a child or teenager, then you’re half­way there,” adds Nick. “I still laugh at fart jokes and prat­falls. Just never con­de­scend. Chil­dren are in­ex­pe­ri­enced, not stupid.”

Like many chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tors, Nick works col­lab­o­ra­tively with au­thors and pub­lish­ers to bring ex­ist­ing sto­ries to life, rather than il­lus­trat­ing his own. For him, cre­at­ing im­agery that per­fectly cap­tures and adds to the nar­ra­tive is one of the most ex­cit­ing parts of the job. “How you in­ter­pret the mood – us­ing eye-line, light­ing and body lan­guage for char­ac­ters – af­fords a ton of ways you can present a scene in your own par­tic­u­lar style,” he ex­plains.

Other artists, how­ever, pre­fer to il­lus­trate their own books. As Kiri ad­mits, try­ing to bring some­one else’s vi­sion to life can be a strug­gle. “Al­though then you have to worry about writ­ing, which is a whole dif­fer­ent chal­lenge.”

For Jonny, the key is to de­velop story and vi­su­als at the same time. “I don’t write the story first, or plot out all of the pic­tures,” he says. “Some­times a book be­gins with a ca­sual doo­dle in my sketch­book, or a rhyming cou­plet that I think is funny. But each book de­vel­ops over months or years as a back-and-forth be­tween words and pic­tures.”

No ex­pe­ri­ence re­quired

So what do you need to make it from a pro­fes­sional stand­point? Ac­cord­ing to He­len Wicks – cre­ative direc­tor at Kings Road Pub­lish­ing, part of Bon­nier Pub­lish­ing – no prior ex­pe­ri­ence is nec­es­sary. She fre­quently hires grad­u­ates fresh from col­lege, look­ing for tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment, a dis­tinct style and unique per­spec­tive. “Just as im­por­tant is the abil­ity to tell and sus­tain a story vis­ually, and to com­mu­ni­cate emo­tion­ally with the reader,” she ex­plains. “Our il­lus­tra­tors cre­ate pic­tures with a pur­pose: to tell a story, con­vey emo­tions or il­lu­mi­nate facts.”

She’s happy to work with il­lus­tra­tors who write, or to match writ­ers with part­ners. “If the tal­ent is there, we’ll find a way to make it work,” she says, adding that if you’re in­ter­ested in get­ting into chil­dren’s pub­lish­ing, don’t be afraid to mar­ket your­self. “Some pitch fully formed con­cepts; others send in sim­ple port­fo­lios of il­lus­tra­tion that man­age to catch our eye. Talk to as many other il­lus­tra­tors and pub­lish­ers as pos­si­ble,” she ad­vises.

What­ever you do, don’t be un­re­li­able. The car­di­nal sin of chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion is over-promis­ing and not de­liv­er­ing on time. “We can cope with al­most ev­ery­thing else,” He­len warns, “but the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of late­ness are pro­found and very stress­ful for all.”

Like any ca­reer, says Nick, chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion can be tough. But when the per­fect im­age brings life to the text, it’s in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing. “Aim for the magic,” he says. “It’s there. When the right words find the right il­lus­tra­tor, it re­ally ig­nites.”

The Pi­rate Cruncher was Jonny Dud­dle’s first pic­ture book: “I il­lus­trate with lots of colour and de­tail be­cause that’s what I loved when I was six.”

Mon­tague Mouse: The Dark­est Hour is a pro­mo­tional im­age by Kiri Øster­gaard Leonard for a chil­dren’s book she’s de­vel­op­ing.

Cover for Robert Mi­hok’s The Watch­ers of Enoch. “I en­joy il­lus­trat­ing for mid­dle grade and young adults, more than early read­ers,” says Kiri. Jonny vi­su­alised the Harry Pot­ter uni­verse as he read through the books.

Where’s the Knight il­lus­tra­tion, by Nick Har­ris. “My style has al­ways been suited to chil­dren’s pub­lish­ing, he says. This War­bot poster was given away with Jonny Dud­dle’s 2013 chil­dren’s book, The King of Space.

The Worst Fish­ing Com­pan­ion. “It’s so much eas­ier to il­lus­trate your own con­cept,” says Kiri. Nick’s cover art for The Shadow Dragon took a num­ber of it­er­a­tions be­fore ar­riv­ing at the bright, fi­nal ver­sion.

Art from Jonny’s The King of Space. “What’s key for me, with pic­ture books, is that the words and pic­tures must work to­gether, and nei­ther should tell the full story.”

One of a set of il­lus­tra­tions cre­ated by Nick in 2014 for a ver­sion of Peter Pan.

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