4 Tips On How To Be a Successful Children’s Book Illustrator

Written By Derrick Washington

Have you ever asked yourself, “What does it take to be a successful children’s book illustrator?” or “What areas do I need to improve to enhance my craft as an illustrator?” I must admit, it can be disheartening when you are working on a particular illustration, and once you finish, the results are nowhere close to what you expected.

Sucks, right? This can be very irritating. Plus we all know that irritation breeds frustration. When frustration gets out of control, it’ll make you want to scream from your living room to England, or get up and try to punch a hole in the wall. And I’m sure many of you know what I mean.

 Luckily, in this article I’ll be sharing some helpful tips on how to improve your drawing skills, so that you will have a clear understanding of what it takes to be a successful children’s book illustrator. So are you ready? Buckle your seat belts and let’s get started.

PERSISTENCE & PLACEMENTS

We’ve all heard the statement “Practice makes Perfect.” Well, if you don’t mind, I want to introduce you to a new phrase: “Practice makes Better.” The reason I say this is because I want to shift your thinking, and it’ll be extremely helpful as you progress towards your goal to be a children’s book illustrator. Take my advice: Do not adapt the “Practice makes Perfect” mindset when trying to improve your drawing skills. This mindset can make things really difficult.

Trying to be perfect at anything is associated with a lot of stress. Moreover, stress has been known to make people give up on their dreams and walk away for a while before they decide to give it another try, or even cause them to simply quite.

 Someone might be thinking that’s not always the case. I would disagree. It all depends on how you analyze the situation. Everyone deals with stress in different ways. Some can adjust, some can’t. Statistics show that less than 10% of the people living on earth actually make their dreams a reality. Having the wrong mindset is a big contributor to these results.

So many people spend to much time on trying to be perfect and they never give themselves a chance to get better. To be a successful illustrator you must change how you approach the game (your craft). It all starts with your mind. You must change how you think.

Over many years, I have learnt that if you change the way that you think about drawing, you won’t resist the process you must go through to get better. For example, you’ve all had those moments when you should’ve been sketching in your sketchbooks , but you didn’t because you really didn’t feel like it at the time. Your heart said “yes,” but your mind said “no.” Why were your thoughts going in two different directions? The simple answer is you were trying to be perfect, and because you weren’t producing the quality drawings that you wanted, you unknowingly built up a wall of resistance that kept you from staying dedicated to your craft.

In other words, you started procrastinating. This is what happens when you try to be perfect. Having the wrong mindset will definitely stunt the process you need to go through in order to improve your drawing skills. Once again, approach the game with the “Practice makes Better” mindset. This mindset will allow you to have fun when you are drawing illustrations, and at the same time, you will free yourself from a boatload of stress.

Surprisingly, there is no limit to your drawing capabilities. When someone mentions topic of drawing, I always explain to him or her that drawing has many levels. You go from one level, to another; then you go up to another level. Each level has it’s own challenges, but if you give yourself room to grow and maximize each level that you are on, the creative genius inside you will take your drawing capabilities to places you never would’ve imagined.

One day you’ll be drawing regular looking characters, and the next thing you know you’ll be drawing your own superheroes, or animals dress like humans, or giants walking down the middle of a highway eating ice cream cones. The opportunities are endless for a creative imagination. Not only will you get better at drawing, you will also shorten your learning curve, and enjoy the process as you go. I call it a win-win situation.

Finally, dedicate at least two to three hours out of the day to free- styling in a sketchbook. Just draw whatever comes to mind. I repeat, don’t try to be perfect. At this point, I want you to focus only on placements. What I mean by placements, is having an idea of where to put things. For example, things like a couch, table, TV, a picture on the wall, a dog, car, tree, or refrigerator, etc. You want to be confident about your placement decisions (many people struggle big time in this area).

If you diligently continue this practice pattern, within in a matter of weeks, you will increase your ability to put objects and people exactly where you want them to be. This process is extremely important because it will build your confidence. Without any confidence in yourself, you want grow. When you build your confidence, it creates the hunger for more success. The hunger will continue to grow as you start to achieve the exact results you have in mind for any illustration that you draw.

DECONSTRUCTION: THE HUMAN BODY

Yes, I know that we typically use the word deconstruct when it pertains to books, or other forms or writing. However, that’s not the point I want to make here. In this particular example, I want to focus on the human body. The way to get better at drawing the human body is to deconstruct the body, and study the measurements of each body part. It would also benefit you to study three-dimensional shapes, as well. Once you garner a basic understanding of the human body parts, and a thorough understanding of three dimensional shapes, it’ll be a lot easier to draw the human body from any angle that you choose.

The first body part we typically want to get better at drawing is the head and face. The oval is the best shape to use for this process. For beginners, It’s always helpful to have a human body parts reference page. A reference page will help increase the chances of you getting the exact results you want. Also, It’s always a good idea to get better at drawing the head in the straight position before moving on to other angles.

To get started, lightly sketch the outline shape of a head on a sheet of paper so that you can easily erase your mistakes. Next, measure exactly where you want to draw the eyes. You can use the tip of your pinky finger or pencil as a measurement guide. Once you are satisfied with your measurements, draw in the eyes. Repeat the process with the nose, mouth, ears, eyebrows, and hair.

 Of course, as you get better overtime, practice manipulating the facial features. You can draw one eye larger than the other, a crooked nose, big or tiny ears, thin or fat lips. You can even reshape the head by making it square, skinny, or triangular. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. It’s all up to you on what image you decide to create.

It works the same way with the rest of the body parts. Study the upper body and get an idea of how the chest rest above the stomach. Then practice sketching the upper body. Once you get better at drawing the upper body, move on to the arms, hands, legs, and feet. It’s really just that simple. Lastly, start combining the body parts into one figure.

In short, it’s important to go through these necessary steps in order to improve your drawing skills, so that you can create wonderful children’s book illustrations in the future. Another cool thing I want to mention is that you will develop your own unique style of drawing in due time, if you stick with the process  and don’t give up. Patience is a virtue. Be strategic and take it one step at a time.

BACKGROUND

Another key element that plays a big part in creating awesome children’s book illustrations is the background. The background is important because it gives the viewers a complete visual of what is actually happening in real time. Children pay just as much attention to the background as they would to the characters. Don’t believe me? Try illustrating a picture book without any backgrounds. The children will scream “Boooo!” the same way you shout “Boooo!” at your favorite quarterback when he throws an interception in a football game. Worst of all, not only will the children “Boo!” you, but their parents will too. It’s not a good feeling. So please believe me when I say, both characters and backgrounds work hand in hand. It’s equally important to get better at drawing backgrounds as it is to get better at drawing characters.

A background is a good way to keep children fully engaged in your work. You want children to be excited and anxious to turn the page and see what’s next. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Draw what you would want to see if you were a child. Having this kind of vision gives you a huge advantage over your competition. Children see every little thing that you think they don’t see. So take advantage of every opportunity where you can add value to a background.

Focus on the basics. Always keep things simple when drawing backgrounds. Every object that you draw should start from a three-dimensional shape. In your sketchbook, draw different variations of clouds, trees, landscapes, rivers, rocks, buildings, houses, cars, and animals. Once you get better at drawing these things individually, combine them into one background.

 Some of you may be thinking this is easy, but trust me, if you’re new at this it’s not. Many people struggle with drawing backgrounds. Just give yourself room to make mistakes and you’ll get better. Remember: The key is persistency. Now that we’ve covered this section, it’s time to dive into the fun part.

DETAIL

Last, but not least, I want to share another important tip that will help increase your chances at being a successful children’s book illustrator. Some people overlook this step but it’s not a good idea to do so. To stay ahead of the competition, be creative when adding detail to your illustrations. I can’t stress it enough. Detail will add volume and depth to your illustrations. Without any detail, your illustrations will appear flat.

To avoid having issues with your illustrations appearing flat, add some shading. Shading is an art and just like with anything else it requires practice. Shading has to be consistent with the light source, so it’s important to know where to put light and dark shades. For example, if the light source is coming from the left, shade the right side of your characters and objects. If the light source is coming from the right, shade the left side of your characters and objects.

 To do this effectively, you have to pay close attention to your illustrations. Find the areas where the highlights, midtones, and core shadows suppose to be. I’ll give you a simple solution to help you get better at this process: Pay close attention to the people and objects around you, the people and objects on TV, and the people and objects on photos. Study how the light source and shaded areas fade into each other. This will give you an idea on how to add shading to your own illustrations. Shading is what I like to call the “Magic Touch,” so get familiar with the process. In the future, you will be extremely grateful that you did.

Now, let us move on to face expressions. Draw different face expressions on your characters because it’s an excellent way to show their personality. Personality also brings your characters to life. Give your characters open- and close-mouth smiles, smirks and grins. You can even have your characters wink, look angry, stick out their tongue, scream, or squint their eyes to show that they’re suspicious about something.

At this point, keep the creativity flowing. Breathe more life into your characters by giving them different hairstyles. You can also give your characters different hair textures. It may take you some time to do this satisfyingly, but I assure you, your audience will really appreciate it. 

Another cool idea I want to discuss is adding detail to your characters’ clothes. A good way to make your characters’ clothes look more attractive is to add designs, folds, and wrinkles. If the clothing material is thick, draw only a few folds and wrinkles; if the clothing material is thin, draw in more folds and wrinkles. Only put folds and wrinkles where the clothing material bunches together or stretches. Use a reference picture if needed to help you as you go.

Don’t stop there with the details, though. Allow yourself more freedom for creativity. Draw different fabric material on your characters’ clothes. You can even draw some fur on your animals, wood grain on cabinets, marble on countertops, brand names on products, and so on. Adding detail is the fun part of the process, so don’t rush through it. I repeat, only take advantage of the opportunities that will add value to your illustrations. The small details will make your illustrations stand out. This is what every illustrator strive to achieve. So until next time, I’ll leave you with three important things to remember: make mistakes, have fun, and be persistent. Good luck.

Derrick Washington is an author and entrepreneur. Creating books and motivating humanity to perfect their gifts and talents is his passion. He uses his platform to positively influence, and teach people the importance of pursuing their dreams. He lives in Dallas, Texas.