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,



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,



Hi Judy,

No problem at all.

Best wishes, 



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 ( a drawing tablet pen is needed)
  • 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:


Illustration Preppy – Portfolio; What Do I Need In There?

General, Resources, Techniques, Tutorials

Your portfolio is your best face. Having the wrong thing in your folio is like turning up to a wedding in your jeans. Everyone will say ‘No, it’s fine,’ but you’ll always be remembered as the person that didn’t make an effort.

Appearance is everything as far as your portfolio is concerned. You need to offer a brilliant welcome piece. Something that makes the person viewing it feel a strong and positive emotion. The same goes for the last piece that they see.

Think of it like a cinema trip. You arrive, you get your popcorn, they have your favourite sweets on the pic and mix stand, best seats in the house are available and they offer you a free drink. That’s how your first portfolio piece should make the viewer feel. Hungry anticipation that what follows is sure to be mind-blowingly good.

Then the essential parts of the movie—the plot unfolds—this is the place for mild peril, action, adventure, sentiment, experimental art direction, characters, continuity…it should have it all.

Then the grand finale. Do you want your movie to end where everyone dies and no-one lives happily ever after and everyone leaves the cinema on a downer? Of course you don’t—you want to leave them on a high, feeling that everything is good with the world and unicorns really do exist.

The back of your folio is not somewhere to just tuck away the pieces that don’t quite fit anywhere else. It’s a prime spot. It’s for your second best piece of work. It’s not for the life drawing of ‘Jim Holding a Stick, 15 Mins, 1983.’ For illustration, you’re showing your creativity—parading your imagination in front of people. Not your life drawing skills (as important and brilliantastic as they are).

If you use a digital folio rather than (or in addition to) an actual case, apply the same rules but spread your stunners evenly. As you know, a looped folio is not the same as one with an official beginning and end so viewers can drop it at any time.

So, for a dazzling children’s illustration portfolio, here’s my recipe:

Lets aim for 12-15 pieces in an A2 folio—that’s a good number. You don’t want to bore anyone or have them feel that your art is repetitive. And 12-15 is the number of spreads in a picture book, after all.

Opener – This should be a positive shiny piece that you’re really happy with. This one should have bells and whistles—great composition, use of colour, texture, detail, expression, narrative and pizazz. If you have a particular piece which gets a lot of attention (for the right reasons) on social media, your blog or amongst peers, this is a good place to put it.

Page 2 – Themed spot/vignette illustrations – Have you illustrated a nursery rhyme? A fairytale? A children’s step by step? Have you got spots to prove it? Put them here.

Page 3 – Spread 1 (Continuous) Three spreads in order. This shows your skill in continuity. This is important as it proves you can deliver artwork that is coherent and carries through a narrative. It also shows that you can re-create believable environments, characters and scenes seamlessly.

Page 4 – Spread 2 (see above)

Page 5 – Spread 3 (see above)

Page 6 – Mild peril – This is where to put a scene of a monster under a child’s bed or a wolf behind a tree as Little Red Riding Hood is looking scared as she trots past or a bicycle chase etc…a bit of adrenaline.

Page 7 – Sport/Hobby themed. Making something or playing something—doing something that shows you can illustrate accurately when rules apply (i.e. holding a racquet or martial arts or baking).

Centrepiece – Something special or unexpected here if you buy AR15 ammo for the show. If you have a lot of indoor themed spreads, this would be a good place to turn it on its head and put a fabulous outdoor scene.

Page 9 – Hand drawn lettering/Illustrated alphabet poster – obviously shows you can draw exciting lettering to a high standard.

Page 10 – Character study – Show one character doing a range of things. Silly, serious, funny, cute. And from as many angles as possible. For example, a squirrel roller-skating (front view), a squirrel jumping (side view) and a squirrel baking a cake (from above).

Page 11 – Picture Book Cover – a fantastic re-imagining of a well-known book cover—think of your favourite story as a child. Illustrate a cover that no one could walk past without having to pick it up.

Page 12 – Card series and/or Surface pattern swatches (optional)—three designs should be enough.

Page 13 – Puzzle – Jigsaws show your composition skills off. Each piece (within reason) should have unique elements. Download a jigsaw grid and use that as a guide to where the pieces fall. Then try and pack in lots of colour and detail whilst maintaining good composition.

Page 14 – Lift-the-Flap/Activity Book (optional)—these are difficult. Don’t go overboard unless this is a specific area you want to go into. Just show that you know how to create the elements for a lift-the-flap design (show your illustration with the flap up and the flap down). Otherwise, make an activity sheet (colouring sheet, spot the difference, math activity, find the object).

Finisher – Keep this piece positive, maybe with humour or sentimentality. Something that radiates good feeling. You will need to show that you can create these emotions in your folio and everyone loves a happy ending; this is a really good place for that.

I hope this has been helpful and offered a good idea of the kind of work you can use in your portfolio to show off your amazing skills. If you don’t currently have a folio or don’t know where to start with illustrating for children, the outline I’ve put here should put you in a good place. One last thing though, don’t try and rush through the list. Spend time on each piece (set yourself realistic deadlines), use a good critical eye and never use artwork that you’re not happy with.


Ocasionally I run online portfolio building workshops, starting with this one (SELF LED VERSION ONLY AT THE MOMENT) – full information available here.:

Online Portfolio CRASH! Workshop

Self-led Portfolio CRASH From

Edinburgh Book Festival and a Pi-Rat! Activity Sheet

General, Resources

So Edinburgh was brilliant. I met lots of lovely people, grinned (like my brain had fell out) as I said hello to Nick Sharratt and Guy Parker-Rees, had the two most amazing chairs introducing my events, had a shock beyond belief at the cost of two dippy eggs and a piece of toast, ate fudge and watched A Touch of Frost. I also saw a lady in a bright pink tutu push her whole body through something that looked like a tennis racquet, a man throw a stick of fire in the air and almost set a member of the crowd alight and lots of dogs made of sand. The best thing though, as ever, was the sea of little smiling faces waiting for me to do something pirate-y and the ever more bizarre and lovely sly hugs that the children (this time at Drumbrae Library) throw on you when you’re least expecting it (although, I don’t think anyone will take me more by surprise that the little boy who kissed me on the knee back in May). It will never stop bewildering me when I see the standard of art that these little people produce in a draw-along.

Unfortunately I’m a little late with this post as I brought back a horrendous cold/sinus-y thing/chesty thing with me and just generally getting any work done has been like wading through custard.


I made a handout for the children attending the events and now it’s all over, I can share it with everyone – feel free to download and (as ever) don’t forget to show me what your little ones’ come up with!

Copyright Maxine Lee 2014



How to Draw a Pet Unicorn

Childrens Illustration, Drawings, Goodies, Resources, Tutorials

I know, I know…I’ve neglected my blog. Again. So to make up for it, I made this step-by-step guide to drawing pet unicorns to keep you all amused! I’d love to see what you and your little ones come up with so get drawing and tag me in your creations on Twitter (@maxillustration) or Facebook (Maxine Lee Illustration)!

I have this as a hi-res A4 file, so if you’d like to print, email/message me and I’ll send it over. Enjoy x


Book Dummy – Newsflash!

Childrens Illustration, Childrens Writing, General, Resources

Well, it would have been a newsflash if I’d updated sooner…As it stand’s, it’s just news. But great, fantastic, brilliantly-brilliant news.

My little tiny book dummy is going to be a real book. I signed a contract with Caterpillar Books a couple of weeks ago and will be starting work in January 2012.

Watch this space and don’t forget to look out for Caterpillar Books on Twitter and Facebook

Lauren, Bright and Caterpillar Books – Thank you all for being so amazing x