I have so many people ask me how to break into children’s illustration.
There’s a simple answer. Hard work.
There’s also a not-so-simple answer. Taste.
Hard work + taste pays off
Before you take the time to email a bunch of illustrators, or post your work in a public forum asking for advice, do your homework.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a friendly debate about good and bad illustration. My stance on it is that pretty much anything goes style-wise, but it’s the technical stuff that makes an illustration bad. Things like drawing a hand with the thumb on the wrong side (we’ve all done it). Then someone piped up about how Dr. Seuss often drew characters with overly-jointed legs, and thumbs on the wrong side. I said that was irrelevant (to their progress) because Dr. Seuss isn’t a contemporary illustrator.
Turns out quite a few people don’t know the difference between, or significance of, contemporary, modern, and classic illustration. That’s not great. I said a silent thank you for the Art History module that I hated at the time, explained as best I could, and then moved on.
And with that, here are a few things that may improve your chances of getting taken seriously if things just aren’t happening for you.
1. Research contemporary illustrators as well as classics. Both are important and should be researched, but you kind of need to be looking at your contemporaries if you’re trying to break into today’s market. Although I’m inspired by illustrators from bygone eras, I favour looking at what’s current because I’m completely commercial. I want publishers to want my work, not just to appreciate it in a nostalgic kind of way. If you’re from a fine art background, that probably feels weird because it’s the other end of the scale.
Get yourself into the mindset of illustrating for other people. A very specific set of people that you should have been given demographics for. You’re given these for a reason. When you’re doing portfolio pieces, set your own target market for each piece. If you’re working with a self publishing author and they don’t seem to know their bottom from their elbow, ask for their target market. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, walk away. It’s not going to be your big break.
(DISCLAIMER: I have had queries from self publishing authors who were exactly like this, not all are. I’ve self published myself, here Birds: Birdwatcher’s Diary (things that I know about birds that I’ve seen): Volume 1 and here Dreams: Dreamer’s Diary (the strange little dreams I have): Volume 1. I have no beef with the SP brigade).
2. Don’t ask for advice on your work and then try and justify it when you get it because it makes you seem awkward. You can’t do that with books. You are not going to be sat behind every reader to explain the back-story that little Billy’s hand looks like a jellyfish because just before he sat down in this scene, he stuck his finger in a plug socket. It doesn’t work that way. Get over yourself and stop being lazy. Here’s a typical email exchange between illustrator and client.
Hope you’re good. Here are the roughs for Little Billy’s Adventures. Please let me know if you have any amends and I’ll get on that straight away.
These are looking good but Billy’s hand looks a bit weird in spread 5 – could you take another look that that please. I can’t quite tell that it’s a hand at the moment, it look’s like a jellyfish with the thumb on the wrong side.
No problem at all.
Note the lack of excuses. Unless there’s a seriously valid reason, or you passionately disagree, and your peers/agent (not friends and family) are agreed, bite your lip. Otherwise, be tactful and make sure there’s no chip on your shoulder.
3. If you’re going to reach out to working illustrators, and then they find time to reply, remember to be gracious. We’re all a bit time poor and a simple thank you is all it takes. And you also may want more help in future.
4. Don’t undercharge or work for free because it devalues illustration in general. It’s a vicious circle that you really don’t want to get into. If you do free work for Client A, Client B won’t want to pay either. Client B won’t think ‘What wonderful work, I’m going to give this young go-getter a break’, Client B will think ‘Hmmm…anyone could have these illustrations because the illustrator sometimes works for free. Why can’t I have them for free.’ Publishing is a highly commercial business. You meet the most lovely people in the world, but it’s still a business.
5. You never stop learning, you always make mistakes, it’s just the way it is, you will never be totally happy with what you’ve done. Phew. If you ever feel like you’ve reached the top of your game, go on Twitter and look at the new talent coming up, still at school and uni. It’s very humbling and should also bring you right back down to earth, next to them, not above.
Further development to help you break in
I hope this post has been helpful. If you need an extra shove into sorting your portfolio out and taking a shot at your big break, I’ve made the Portfolio Crash available as a self led course because I don’t have a lot of time to to run the other version right now. Develop your knowledge and get your portfolio ready to submit to potential clients and agencies. You can find out more about the course content HERE
Self led course costs £25.00 (for the bargain hunters, that’s almost £100 discount)