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Breaking Into Children’s Book Illustration

There is a world of possibility within the children’s book illustration industry. Picture books and chapter books for children are a form of artwork in and of themselves. Authors as well as publishers are always in search of refined artists who know how to illustrate children’s books in a way that brings the words to life for young readers.

Becoming a children’s book illustrator is simple when you know what path to take. By beginning with an illustration degree and embarking on an intentional path forward, you will find that it’s easier than you thought to break into the children’s book publishing industry.

Understanding the Industry

With more parents recognizing the critical role that reading plays in their child’s emotional, social and academic development, the children’s book design and children’s book publishing industries are growing. However, the formats that young children and their parents are interested in are changing. According to Publisher’s Weekly, print sales of children’s books fell by about six percent between 2022 and 2023, but there is heightened demand for e-books, which rely on dynamic illustrations to captivate their young audience.

The Role of an Illustrator

An illustrator is an artist responsible for creating images that align with the story of the book and bring the words to life for young readers. All children’s books, from board books designed for infants to young adult novels for growing readers, need engaging, interesting and relevant illustrations to capture the interest of their readers.

Market Trends

Publisher’s Weekly notes that these market trends are shaping the children’s book publishing industry, as well as the children’s book illustration techniques used to bring those stories to life:

  • Increased demand for graphic novels among readers who have a shorter attention span than ever before.
  • Heightened interest in fantasy stories, particularly those involving animals.
  • Additional interest in books that explore mental health challenges and experiences.

Developing Your Art Style

Before you can tap into the industry and begin submitting illustrations to publishers, you will need to develop your artistic style. Honing a distinctive art style can help you set yourself apart from the competition in a crowded market and allow you to discover your niche within the world of children’s book design.

Finding Your Unique Voice

Finding your unique voice is essential to breaking into the children’s book publishing industry, particularly if you want to work as an illustrator. You can begin exploring your own style by first relying on your imagination, and then exploring the genres and age ranges that interest you most within children’s literature.

Techniques and Tools

On the surface, children’s book illustrations may seem simple, but there’s a surprising amount of technique and technical skill required. You are going to want to perfect your technique by working with digital illustration tools as well as traditional tools, such as pencil and watercolor.

Building a Portfolio

While you are working toward earning your BFA in Illustration, you will also need to begin building your portfolio. Your portfolio should include a wide range of samples of your work, including picture book illustration ideas, sketches that would work well for graphic novels, watercolor paintings for board books and more.

What to Include

As you build and grow your children’s book illustration portfolio, you will want to be sure to include pieces that:

  • Reflect your personal style and interests within children’s book design.
  • Appeal to the current market trends.
  • Showcase a wide range of technical skills.
  • Highlight the various mediums that you work with regularly.

Digital vs. Physical Portfolios

The great debate within the world of publishing is whether to create digital or physical portfolios. In the world of children’s book publishing, you may actually want to consider creating both. An online portfolio can highlight your digital work as well as your traditional work, and it’s easy to use when submitting illustrations to publishers. However, a physical portfolio is an excellent supplement to any in-person interview, allowing you to highlight the depth and beauty of your traditional work.

Networking and Industry Engagement

Once you have created a dynamic collection of illustration portfolio examples, you can begin networking within the children’s book publishing industry to make pivotal contacts that will help you secure that first coveted role as an illustrator.

Connecting With Other Illustrators

One of the best ways to begin networking is to start connecting with other illustrators. Those currently working in the world of children’s book illustration can provide you with first-hand advice and guidance as you begin to navigate this dynamic and growing industry. You may even be able to develop a mentor relationship, which can be incredibly beneficial throughout the entire course of your illustration career.

Attending Workshops and Conferences

Industry workshops and conferences will provide you with an opportunity to build upon your skill set and develop critical connections within the children’s book design industry. At these children’s illustration workshops and conferences, you also will have the opportunity to learn new children’s book illustration techniques and discover the latest trends shaping the industry.

Working With Writers and Publishers

Becoming a children’s book illustrator means that you will be working closely with both writers and publishers to create a final product that young readers will enjoy for years to come.

Collaborating With Authors

Collaborating with children’s authors is an essential part of the job, and when done right, authors and illustrators can form partnerships that last for many years. You can create a lasting and effective relationship with the writers you work with by:

  • Having an open and honest conversation about the author’s expectations for the illustrations in advance.
  • Being accepting of constructive feedback and offering insight into your creative decisions.
  • Giving the writer the space they need to write, while also requesting the same freedom for yourself.

Approaching Publishers

In some cases, the first step in the process is approaching publishers and showcasing your work. This allows them to match you with a writer and a pending project that aligns with your skills. You will want to submit your best work, describe your goals for illustration and outline what types of books you would like to work on.

Freelancing vs. Employment

You may find that the job market is slightly different within the illustration world than it is in the traditional business world. As you begin to build your portfolio, you will want to learn more about the freelancing opportunities available as well as the full-time positions that may arise.

Pros and Cons of Freelancing

Publishers often hire illustrators on a contract basis, and many illustrators appreciate the freedom and flexibility of freelancing. While freelancing allows you to set your own schedule and work at your own pace, the work itself can be erratic and difficult to count on. Freelancing does not always lend itself to a stable and reliable income.

Seeking Full-time Positions

Full-time positions in children’s book design are typically more difficult to come by. If you do secure a full-time position, you may find that you are limited in terms of your creative freedom and overall design flexibility.

Legal and Business Considerations

Of course, as you begin to launch your freelance illustration career, you will want to keep in mind these important legal and business considerations.

Understanding Copyrights and Contracts

If you are working as a freelance illustrator, you will enter a contract with the publisher which will outline the legal expectations and guidelines for the project. In most cases, the author owns the copyright to the entire book, but as the illustrator, you own the copyright to the actual images that exist within the book.

Setting Rates and Invoicing

As a freelance illustrator, you have the power to set your own rates and invoice your clients accordingly. You will want to set rates that allow you to remain competitive, yet also highlight the value that you offer through your work. Your rates may vary as your career grows, and it’s important to keep in mind that rates may even fluctuate from one project to the next.

Promoting Your Work

Promoting children’s book illustrations has never been easier. In the digital age, you can create an online portfolio that is easy to share, as well as a variety of social media accounts that allow you to establish your brand and grow your visibility in the industry.

Utilizing Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool for aspiring artists, particularly those learning how to illustrate children’s books. You can utilize social media to grow your brand and voice by:

  • Creating several professional accounts on the leading social media platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
  • Sharing your art on social media and explaining the process behind it.
  • Creating tutorial videos to help increase your followers.
  • Networking with other illustrator accounts to increase your online visibility.

Creating an Online Presence

Your online presence can and should extend beyond social media. Most artists on their way to becoming a children’s book illustrator create a website that hosts their online portfolio. Through your website, you can build your online presence and showcase the work that you have published as well as the up-and-coming projects that you are currently working on.

Learn the Best Children’s Book Illustration Techniques at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design

At Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, we provide students with the skills-based training they need to succeed in the world of art, as well as the theoretical practice required to become a refined and adept artist. Both our online Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration degree as well as our on-campus Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration degree explore a variety of children’s book art styles while also giving you the opportunity to begin building an illustration portfolio.

Request more information about our online and on-campus degree programs today.


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