I studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas, but I didn’t study art; so when I wrote my first picture book, I assumed someone else would illustrate it. That changed when I learned that if a publisher matched me with one of their illustrators, I would have no input with respect to the art. In fact, I would not see the art until the book was finished, and if I didn’t like the art, too bad. So I decided to illustrate my books myself. After all, I had a vision of what the book should look like, so why not try to do it myself? Was I a professional illustrator? No, but over the years I’ve learned a few tricks that help me create art that looks polished and professional. All it takes is research, practice, and maybe a little innovation.
Step One: Research
I research everything I want to draw. If you count each type of coral in Sea Horse, run! as a separate animal, I researched about 40 different animals for that book including sea horses. For Sea Horse, run! I also went to aquariums and used my flip video camera to capture live action footage in the various exhibits. I studied the videos at home, and when I found a helpful angle or ‘shot’, I took still images from the videos and printed them as examples of what I wanted to draw.
Step Two: Practice
I study photos of the real animals and practice drawing my sketches. Sometimes I draw and redraw my characters as many as forty or fifty times. I struggled so much drawing the pictures for my third picture book (Polliwog, 2004) that I decided to take some art lessons before I tackled Sea Horse, run!. I wanted to use more watercolor in my sea horse book, so I found an artist that specialized in watercolor and took private lessons. I believe those art lessons made a big difference when it came time to illustrate Sea Horse, run!.
Step Three: Innovation
Even after much research and practice, you may find that your paintings or drawings are simply not meeting your expectations. Don’t despair! Be innovative. There is more than one way to illustrate a children’s picture book.
If you want to illustrate your books yourself, I strongly recommend that you study the art in published children’s books. Find a style of art that you are drawn to or a style you could easily replicate. Experiment with other media like photography, three-dimensional art, or collage.
Photographic Art (Books by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick) You don’t even need to draw or paint your pictures if you are a photographer or know someone that is. The art in Stranger in the Woods– A Photographic Fantasy published in 2000 by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick was so innovative that it won several awards including the Benjamen Franklin Award for best children’s picture book. By the way, this book was independently published.
Three-Dimensional Art Another great example would be the art in Lauren Child’s version of The Princess and the Pea. Lauren built a miniature, three-dimensional world out of cornflake boxes, dollhouse furniture, and paper dolls dressed in many layers of paper. Lauren used a professional photographer (Polly Borland) to take pictures of her miniature ‘sets.’
Books by Steve Jenkins including Down, Down, Down; Actual Size, and What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?
Secret Seahorse by Stella Blackstone and Clare Beaton
Your collage can also be digital. Tim Hopgood is a great example. I draw or paint my pictures by hand and like Tim Hopgood, I assemble the final art in the computer as a digital collage.
I use Photoshop to create my digital collages, but it took me several years of trial and error to learn the basics. If you want to use Photoshop, find someone that is already an expert to help you get started. Also, you can find step-by-step videos on the web that will teach you Photoshop basics. It is an expensive computer program, so another alternative is to find free applications on-line that work like Photoshop. I googled “free applications like photoshop” and came up with these recommendations:
If you want to draw the pictures for your children’s story, but you are not a “professional” artist, don’t despair! If I can do it, anyone can. Just be mindful that it may take a lot of effort to establish your style as an artist.
STUDY art in other children’s books. Make a list of your favorite artists. Research how they create their pictures.
RESEARCH what you want to draw. If you need to draw a picture of a yeti (abominable snowman) in the Himalayas, check out books from the library about the Himalayas. Study the landscapes. Research the yeti. Find pictures other artists have made of a yeti. Remember that you can’t copy exactly what someone else has drawn because their art is copyrighted, but by studying other versions of the picture you are working on, you will find inspiration for your own, original art.
PRACTICE. Don’t be afraid to draw and redraw your art. After all, the story is rewritten over and over again. When you’re writing, you may change the plot, add or remove characters, or revise the setting. The same is true for your art. You may start out drawing one thing then decide to draw something completely different. You can change the characters or backgrounds. You might even decide to change your style from watercolor to mixed-media collage. There is no right or wrong. The more you practice and work on your pictures, the closer you will come to your final draft. Creating art is not so different from writing stories. The first draft is inevitably sloppy. Keep at it!
Innovate. Experiment with other media.
The biggest hurdle to transforming yourself into a ‘professional’ artist is finding the time and the passion to stick with it. It won’t happen overnight. You have to be patient and persevere, but the same can be said for writing your story, too.
In the late nineties early ought’s, it was hard to find a publisher if you were both writer and illustrator. That is not necessarily the case anymore. In the past few years I have heard several agents and editors comment that they are actively seeking people that can do both writing and illustration.
Your next obstacle will be publishing. Visit my Publishing 101 page for tips.