Breaking Into Contemporary Children’s Illustration

Childrens Illustration, Illustration Camp Post, Resources, Tutorials

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.

Hi Judy,

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.

Best wishes,

Max

———————

Hi Max,

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. 

Best wishes,

Judy

———————–

Hi Judy,

No problem at all.

Best wishes, 

Max

————————

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)

Illustration Camp – Avoiding ‘Clip Art’ Style

Childrens Illustration, General, Illustration Camp Post, Resources, Techniques

Have you ever compared two things and wondered why one looks amazing and worth every penny while the other looks, well, average? I have. I do it all the time. For example:

Two coats in a shop (because you know how much I love my analogies).

Coat A is £10.56. It has minimal styling and is made of a non-textured synthetic fibre. It’s a bog standard sludgy brown colour and has average looking buttons and slit pockets with no visible tailoring.

Coat B is £50.56. It has modern styling and it’s made from soft wool. It’s an unusual bright cerise-red colour with big shiny over-sized buttons and the pockets have flaps and zips. The tailoring is immaculate.

Coat B has had a lot more time, research and imagination spent on it. Better materials have been used. Essentially, it’s a different kind of coat.

An illustration of two coats

Coat A took about 20 seconds to draw…

 

Now, imagine Coat A is clip art and Coat B is bespoke illustration. It’s that simple. Add bells and whistles or your output will look like it belongs on a CD called 10,000 Royalty Free Images For Your Web and Online Projects for Personal Use Only that comes free with a computer magazine. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you were aiming for but if you were aiming somewhere else, it’s more than just mildly disappointing. So, are you ready for my super important advice… *insert trumpetty music here*

You have to invest time into what you’re doing because when you don’t, it shows. It really shows.

That’s it. For a large scale illustration, put the hours in. There will still be occasions where an art director will ask for 15 re-draws and you’ll want to re-evaluate your career choices but it happens. I personally don’t know of anyone who gets it right first time, every time. I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that you don’t need to worry about them because you probably won’t meet one unless you pay for the privilege.

You cannot build a portfolio in a day. If you asked some of my students from the Portfolio Crash course I ran last Autumn, they’ll tell you how difficult it was to get 12 pieces together in 3 months. Very hard work. And you may be just developing your folio with personal work but I’m making the assumption that you want to bag a paid commission at some point. The people who commission you will never think ‘Aww, she must have been pushed for time on this piece of development work. I bet she’d draw proper hands if she’d been getting paid to do it…’ Instead, they make the logical assumption that you can’t draw hands.

But what about those small scale illustrations, you know, the little vignettes and warm up sketches that you see on illustrators pages, walls and timelines every now and again – how are they done in 20 minutes or so, I hear you all ask.

Self moderation, common sense, a strong critical eye and a little bit fairy dust. There are things I still can’t put my finger on and those are the bits where you need good instincts and fantastic powers of research. If you draw a character with dead-eye, you have to be prepared to figure out why and how to fix it. If you can’t draw hands, find a solution.

You can tell the difference between something drawn in a paint program and a graphics program. Or, if you’re one of those lesser-spotted traditional artists, something drawn with a blunt crayon or with a dip-pen and ink – you have to consider every choice you make carefully to build a professional portfolio.

Seven Ways to Make Your Illustration More Exciting

  1. Don’t skimp on detail Textiles, foliage, furnishings all have detail – draw that detail. Use marks, textures and/or shadow.
  2. Don’t use a mono-line Vary your line widths or your work could look flat and a bit vanilla.
  3. Avoid dead-eye Focus your characters gaze and use eyebrows/facial expressions to your advantage or forever use dot eyes. Easy.
  4. Vary poses No one wants to see a dead-eye clown, from the front and with his hands by his side. Be imaginative.
  5. Consider colour Relationships should be well thought out – consider fashion choices, interior design, setting etc.
  6. Anatomical detail Thumb on wrong side of hand, anyone? Three joints in one arm? One huge foot? Make sure your basic anatomy is right.
  7. Good subject knowledge Research – you have the world at your fingertips in the form of many web browsers. Use them and never just guess. Guessing is bad.

Some illustrators do use a mono-line, some might use flat colour too but usually it’s part of a very distinctive style that has been researched and built upon. If this is the way you want to go, find those illustrators and examine their work in detail until you understand why it works for them. Don’t copy, just pick it apart until you instinctively understand it.

We all make mistakes, sometimes big, sometimes small and sometimes because an AD has a different idea for a project than what you initially hand over. Personally, I’ve had work published where I’d love to request it back and tidy bits up or change colours or re-design characters but I have a feeling that it will always be that way. That’s my own progression taking place, never being 100% happy is what keeps you pushing on and striving to improve.

Whatever stage you’re at, keep going and keep learning.

(This post is not aimed at clip art makers, it’s aimed at beginner/self taught children’s illustrators. I have to point that out because I’m not looking to offend anyone. I could go into detail about clip art but I really don’t want to get that kind of discussion going. To put it in context, a clip art creator needs to yield a high output of work to make money. Bespoke illustration needs time and therefore needs to be well paid for anyone to sustain it as a career.)

[authors category=”Maxine Lee-Mackie”]

Online Illustration Portfolio CRASH! New workshop/course starting September 2015

Childrens Illustration, Illustration Camp Post, Resources, Tutorials

Whether you’re just starting out or in a bit of a rut, if your children’s illustration portfolio needs a complete overhaul or creating from scratch, this twelve week workshop is a creative crash course. By the end you will have a new portfolio of work.No excuses or missing deadlines – this is not for wimps.

Before booking your place, you will need to be in possession of:

  • A scanner (if working with pencils/paper/off-screen)
  • Drawing/painting software
  • An internet connection
  • Basic computer knowledge (or someone to lend a hand when saving/uploading work)
 
Weekly briefs, crits and amendments as well as support and guidance to help you build a knockout portfolio full of relevant and vibrant work.
 
Maxine Lee-Mackie is a UK based author/illustrator with children’s books published internationally. Clients include Simon & Schuster, Little Tiger Press (Caterpillar Books), Pow! Kids Books, Orion (Hachette), Childsplay Books. Her debut children’s book ‘Pi-Rat!’ was highly commended by The Cambridgeshire Children’s Book Award.

Any questions, just drop me an email or inbox me on Facebook/Twitter.

Here’s the link to the event over on Eventbrite:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/childrens-illustration-portfolio-crash-the-space-monkeys-12-week-course-19-sept-12-dec-2015-tickets-17729166414

SO LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS!