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Design

So You Want to Be a Children's Illustrator?

This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be a Comic Artist?
So You Want to Be a Packaging Designer?
Illustration by Lucy Fleming
Illustration by Lucy Fleming.

The power of a good children's illustrator can stay with us well into adulthood and is often something shared from parent to child. Children's illustrators work in a variety of media, from books to web content to product design.

In this article I'll break down the various roles and work of several illustrators who graciously took the time to answer my interview questions and give us a peek behind the curtain. Consider this your guide to a career in children's illustration.

flWhat Do Children's Illustrators Do?

  • Illustrate Books: From covers to the content within, a good deal of children's books are illustrated. Since they tend to be light on words, but heavy on pictures, this is one of the most well-known jobs for artists working in children's media.
  • Packaging and Product Illustration: Toys, clothing, and a variety of products aimed at children have illustrated packaging designs instead of photos. Often the packaging design mimics cartoons and book content aimed to grab a child's attention.
  • Web and Mobile Media: Illustrators and graphic designers work in various interactive media aimed at kids, from simple games to a variety of digital content with an elementary school set in mind.
  • Textile Illustration: From textile prints to a plethora of t-shirt designs, children's clothing and various apparel accessories tend to have illustrated work on them. Whether working freelance or for big companies like Disney or The Children's Place, artists are constantly creating artwork to be printed onto a variety of textile products.
  • And More...: Toys, games, animation-related projects, and more. Children's media is filled with illustrated goodness, since communicating with children who cannot yet read or are just learning is difficult without a lot of imagery. Illustrators are there to communicate ideas in a variety of ways to our little ones.
Illustration by Steph Fizer Coleman
"I've worked with Chronicle Books, Galison/Mudpuppy, Santoro London, Yo Yo Books, Up With Paper, Crocodile Creek, The Art Group, Design House Greetings, etc, just off the top of my head.
"Mudpuppy is a favorite client of mine. I've done several charming projects with them, including puzzles, sticker sets, and some fun magnetic playsets." — Stephanie Fizer Coleman, illustrator  

Do They Freelance or Work In-House?

Most of the artists I interviewed are freelancers, working with publishers and a variety of companies on a freelance or contract basis. In-house positions do exist, but they are most often a position that combines graphic design and other skill sets together to produce content for kids.

Freelancers have the ability to move from client to client, taking on new, unrelated projects. Many freelancers sign on with an artist's agent in order to bring in more client work for them in their industry. Some agencies represent a wide variety of artists, while others work only with a certain kind, like children's illustrators.

Agents are typically paid a fee that may or may not include a percentage of a client's payment. The trade-off is having someone to represent your work to a possibly larger paying client base, freeing up the artist to focus on creating content instead of marketing their work and trying to make connections themselves.

Illustration by Natalie Smillie
"I'm a freelancer with The Bright Group Agency. I signed with them just before I finished college and they've kept me in work since then - they're brilliant! In order to get signed, I took the Easter break and came up with some new work to add to my portfolio and round it out before I sent it out to agencies. I think the new work and personal emails I sent were what helped me to get signed." — Natalie Smillie, illustrator.

Who Do Children's Illustrators Work For?

Most often when working in children's books, illustrators work with the publishers and sometimes also with the authors themselves. Whether an artist has approached a publisher themselves, worked with an agent, or been scouted by the publisher, their work together is similar to that of other freelance illustrators. Project briefs are sent to artists, they work out budgets and deadlines, sketches, concepts, and art is sent back and forth until a project is completed.

For kids' media that isn't book related, such as toys, apparel, and more, artists often work with art directors or department directors of a company. As with other freelance jobs, the artist is sent a project brief or description, project details are worked out, and sketches, concepts, and artwork is sent back and forth until a project is completed. 

Clients creating content for children's media often look for colorful, fun artwork that appeals to children. Styles range from soft, realistic watercolors to vibrant vector artwork and beyond. 

Illustration by Lucy Fleming
"One which sticks out with me was working with ABDO publishing in the US. It was a dream, I had a lovely author, Nancy K. Wallace who reached out to me and it was lovely to get to know her even though we live on other sides of the globe!
"Often I don’t interact with the Authors much if at all due to how the industry process works, I work with the publisher’s book designer, who was also amazingly kind in this case. They even asked me if I wanted to add a personal message or dedication to the book, so thoughtful! The illustrator is not normally awarded this courtesy." — Lucy Fleming, illustrator

What Sort of Media Do Children's Illustrators Create With?

The artists I interviewed had artwork that varied greatly. Both traditional media and digital media have a long history in the creation of children's media. For books and other print materials, traditional media still has quite the home. Depending on what the process of printing is, even apparel can be created with painted illustrations.

Most apparel, however, and web or entertainment media is digitally created. Vector artwork tends to be the route for t-shirts and other screen-printed content. Digital paintings and other raster-based work may also be used for a lot of media. Let's listen to the artists themselves with the following quotes on what sort of media they use when creating content for kids.

Illustration by Sendor Pappot
"I guess it always starts with some rough sketches in my ‘blackbook’. From there I take it literally anywhere, I paint stuff with either acrylics or enamel paint, or it goes into the computer where I work with Photoshop or Manga Studio (I use a Cintiq). And last but not least I will ink it sometimes using a light table." — Sander Pappot, aka Zender, illustrator

What Is an Average Project Like?

The best way to understand the typical project is through the experiences of those that have worked on them:

Illustration by Helen Huang
"Take a book cover for example. I start by getting a creative brief from a client. I ask as many questions as I can think of before I start, trying to get a sense of what the client is looking for in the design. Then I start researching on related reference, history, culture, clothes, hairstyle and poses.
"Different clients have different approval processes. Some would like to see a few pencil sketches first before going full colors. Some want to see the first round as a completely colored piece. But basically after all the prep work, I do a pencil sketch, then scan to the computer for coloring and work in Illustrator for the rest. Next I send it out for the client’s feedback and revise till they are happy with the design, and finally I send over the file for print." — Helen Huang, illustrator
Illustration by Mary Kinsora
"I might take a few days to sketch out some concepts for a few sections of the book the author would like illustrated, or that we’ve discussed should be illustrated. I do my best to capture interesting scenes or expressive scenes.
"The sketches are always rough, and sloppy, but they give the general idea. I’ll send these off to the author, and we’ll discuss (typically via email) which are working and which are not. When the author has chosen the appropriate sketches, I’ll either move on to color studies or finished illustration depending on what’s required." — Mary Kinsora, illustrator

What Makes a Good Children's Illustration?

Silliness, colorful art, and an awareness of what children respond to all make for great children's illustrations. A lot of content for kids is based around learning, since educational work is one of the largest niches for children's illustration. From classroom content to a child's bookshelf or toy chest, products and media created for children tend to have quite the focus on their development and aid in supplementing whatever education they have been getting or will receive in the future.

Good illustrators for children are aware of the possible messages, positive or negative, they may send to children. At certain ages, children are unable to process abstract thought in the way adults do. So although a lot of kids' media seems rather out there and sometimes psychedelic, children are processing it as a stimulant rather than a narrative story or something that should "make sense". Therefore, when kids' media does aim to send messages, they need to be incredibly obvious and picked up by children and easily repeatable.

Illustration and cover design by Allison Sojka
"As far as what makes a good illustration for kids, the first thing that comes to my mind is the use of color. I am a true lover of black-and-white artwork (as well as color), but when it comes to kids—especially having spent time working in an elementary school, and as a mother of two—I would certainly put this at the top of the list…" — Allison Sojka,  Author and Illustrator.

Good illustrative work for children doesn't necessarily have to be the most beautiful or skillful either. Children often respond well to simplistic work or even primitive styles (consider a child's own drawings). What matters more is the impact that work can make on a kid because they like the story or because a parent or sibling has shared it with them.

There's a lot that can qualify illustrative work for children as being good for them. Knowing that something you create, whether it's a t-shirt design or the artwork to a storybook, may be something they repeatedly see or interact with on a daily basis and remember into adulthood can seem a bit daunting for artists. It can also be a rewarding idea and experience to have touched the everyday life of our future generations with your paintings, illustrations, or even doodles.

Illustration by Grace Sanford
"If you can imagine the world from a child’s perspective you will create work that is more likely to appeal to them. The most successful picture books deal with subjects such as new members of the family or learning certain behaviors as children are learning about the world around them." — Grace Sandford, illustrator

Advice for Artists

Illustration by Karl Newson
"In relation to what you should have in your portfolio, I’d say lots of children, animals, fairy tale characters, character studies, hot themes – dinosaurs, pirates, space, etc. Show diversity and really show off your style. Anything that doesn’t fit or you’re not sure of – remove." — Karl Newson, illustrator
Illustration by Grace Sandford
"Draw because you love to not because it makes you money. You learn very quickly that this job is not financially rewarding instantly (except for the lucky few). Like any business, it takes time to grow and to receive a steady stream of work. In-between projects, you should be working on your portfolio." — Grace Sandford
Illustration by Stephanie Fizer Coleman
"Don't be jealous. It's easy to be jealous of the success of other artists because we see it every day on social media. Jealousy is a wasted emotion, it does no good. When you see someone's success, if you want that same success, buckle down and work harder. Figure out how to get where they are and work for it." — Stephanie Fizer Coleman
Illustration by Natalie Smillie
"Don't be afraid to say no to projects that don't pay. Recently there seems to be a massive upswing in clients asking illustrators to produce work for free - as samples or as 'tasters'. This is totally, utterly wrong and needs to be addressed either by agents, or by illustrators working in the industry. If everyone says no, people will have to pay." — Natalie Smillie

Conclusion

Illustrating for children is different than doing so for older demographics. Artwork is often silly, colorful, educational, playful, or all of the above (and beyond). While many who create content for children freelance, some do work in-house with companies that specialize in children's media. It's a market that isn't going anywhere any time soon, though the field can be quite competitive.

If you want to illustrate for children's media, build up your portfolio with that in mind, and consider working with an agent or agency if possible. Networking with authors and publishers is also a must if you hope to see your artwork on bookstore shelves in the future.

As with other illustration jobs, you need to be well motivated, make deadlines well, and communicate with whomever you're working with in order to ensure a successful project. Keep in mind who your audience is, and above all, have fun!

The artists I interviewed had a lot to say about their careers, and while I couldn't include everything from each interview, I hope you've enjoyed learning about their careers, work, and experiences and find it interesting and inspirational.

Many thanks to the illustrators who took time from their busy schedules to answer my questions and share their working lives with us. You can check out more from each of them at the links below:

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