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)

Three Wise Monkeys

Childrens Illustration, Drawings, Editorial Illustration, General, Goodies, Tutorials

While I’m formulating The Best Blog Post Ever, here are a few bits of what of been up to (so my blog doesn’t feel like the Marie Celeste).

Three Wise Monkeys


Martial Arts IllustrationHTD_Mermaid_1500pxw


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

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 – A Very Late Update About Pi-Rat!

Childrens Illustration, Childrens Writing, Drawings, Techniques, Tutorials

As I was sitting here, delicately nibbling a doughnut (stuffing my face) it hit me that I never actually came back and updated my book dummy adventures. For those of you that were following or just like to read a happy ending, I’ll do it now (as soon as I’ve finished this cake).

That was lovely.

As I mentioned in my last ‘dummy’ post, I digitally submitted it to four literary agents. I sat back and started to think about my next idea. Then I got an email from one of the four the same week -I was completely taken off guard…brilliant!

After speaking initially with Lauren I knew straight away that I was going to accept her offer of representation. The conversation was laid back, Lauren was lovely and I felt at ease to ask questions (even the stupid ones). As I’d done my research beforehand, I already knew that on a professional level, this was one of the four agencies I wanted the most. At this point I withdrew my submission from the other three (one of them sent me a lovely email about my dummy and wished me well for the future too, which was nice).

So, the update is, I was offered representation (literary and illustration) by Bright and I have to say, I’m over the moon about it.

As for the dummy itself, it needs some tweaking…but it’s looking better with each one. In between tweaks, I’ve written and started to develop another.

My portfolio at Bright is HERE where you can also see a couple of colour roughs from the dummy.

Thanks to everyone that followed my process, I hope its been helpful,


Updated to add the finished product -here it is on Amazon – Meet Pi-Rat!



Ooooh Shiny! – Pearlescent Tinting Medium

Childrens Illustration, Techniques, Tutorials

I don’t often use additives or mediums. Occasionally I’ll use a flow enhancer for larger pieces but only when I can get the lid off the bottle without breaking my hand (must remember to clean the bottle before putting the lid back on).

The flat colour of this Pearlescent Tinting Medium medium was perfect for my snow and having never used it before –I got it with a bundle of paint tubes– I thought I’d use it and see what happened (you know how much I love experimenting). You could go too wild with this and end up with something very tacky but in moderation it’s gorgeous.

Anyways, look what it does (if you haven’t seen or used it before).

This is the colour I wanted, and I expect, how it would reproduce in print. This is straight out of the tube:

And this is what happens when the light catches it:

Isn’t that lovely!

I’ll post the full illustration tomorrow when I can hopefully get some good light to photograph it properly.