Illustrating Your Picture Book

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.’

Collage  Art that is simply cut and paste using various media (art, cloth, photos) can be very effective and fun. Here are some great examples:

Books by Steve Jenkins including Down, Down, Down; Actual Size, and What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?

Falling for Rapunzel and Waking Beauty by Leah Wilcox, Illustrated by Lydia Monks

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:

http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/11-free-alternatives-softwares-to-adobe-photoshop/

http://sixrevisions.com/graphics-design/10-excellent-open-source-and-free-alternatives-to-photoshop/

http://www.lifeclever.com/10-free-web-based-alternatives-to-photoshop/

In Summary:

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.

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2011 Fall Retreat

If you want to write for children, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a great organization to join. Although it is an international organization with annual meetings in New York City (January) and Los Angeles (August), your membership entitles you to participate in conferences and/or retreats happening in any state or region around the world. Attending a conference or retreat will give you the opportunity to fine tune your manuscript by getting feedback from an editor or literary agent. You will also learn what types of manuscripts editors or literary agents want to publish.

St. Scholastica Monastery

The Arkansas SCBWI writer’s retreat occurs every fall, and in recent years writers from across the state have converged on the Saint Scholastica Retreat Center in Fort Smith for three days of intensive work on their writing. The retreat center, sponsored by the Benedictine Sisters, shares a 66 acre wooded area with Saint Scholastica Monastery, and the secluded setting is the perfect spot for contemplation and inspiration. I attended in 2009 and 2010, and during both retreats I made great progress with the revisions for my novel.

Sadly, I will be out of the state during the conference this year, but you may be able to attend! If you submit pages from your manuscript by October 1st, you will receive feedback from the editor at the retreat. The 15th annual Arkansas SCBWI Fall Retreat for Writers of Children’s Literature (November 4th-6th, 2011) will feature hands-on workshops led by Stacy Cantor Abrams, editor at Walker Books for Young Readers, and guidance on craft issues by Anna Myers, an Oklahoma author of nineteen novels for middle-grade and young adults.

You must be an SCBWI member to attend. Registration is usually by invitation only, and reservations are on a first come, first served basis. Email the Retreat Director (retreat @ arkansasscbwi.org) if you are interested in joining SCBWI and attending the retreat.

Cost:

SCBWI Membership: First year is $85. Annual renewal fee is $70. Join SCBWI

Arkansas Fall Retreat: $280 (Includes meals, snacks, all sessions, and private rooms with a shared bath.)

For more information, visit these websites:

Arkansas SCBWI

Arkansas SCBWI Retreat Page

Join SCBWI

Anna Myers Main Website

Books Published by Bloomsbury Kids

2011 DallasKidsRead!

Dallas Kids Read Festival Bookmark

DallasKidsRead! Festival Bookmark


I was deeply honored to speak at the DallasKidsRead! children’s book festival at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library (1515 Young Street) in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, July 28th. Big Thought and the Dallas Public Library partnered with the City of Dallas and the Dallas Independent School District to provide an educational enrichment event for all 2nd through 5th grade students as part of the Thriving Minds Summer Camp program. Students from four elementary schools came to the central library to hear nine authors and illustrators discuss their children’s books. In addition to me, the authors and illustrators included:

Crystal Allen Author of How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.

Joe Cepeda Award-winning illustrator of more than 35 books including What a Cool World and The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (written by my fellow Arkansas author, Darcy Pattison).

Lydia Gil Author of Mimi’s Parranda.

Darlington Johnson Fourteen-year-old author of Layla the Ladybug.

Jennifer Kindert Illustrator of The Christmas Puppy and Llamas in Pajamas.

Toni Simmons Award-winning author of The Cheese Chase: Why Dogs Chase Cats.

Don Tate Award-winning author and illustrator of more than 40 children’s books including Black All Around!

Willy Welch Children’s entertainer, recording artist and author of Playing Right Field.

Multiple workshops took place in the morning and afternoon. During a brief midday break the branch manager, Sharon Martin, gave us a walking tour of the central library. I saw two amazing and unexpected treasures on the 7th floor: the “Lost Copy” of the Declaration of Independence and a Shakespeare First Folio compiled in 1623.

The event was open to the public from 4 to 7 PM. Each author and illustrator shared their books/art with children and their families while Jokae’s African-American Bookstore sold books for the presenters. It was a fabulous opportunity for children and their families to meet several authors and illustrators from across the country. If you live in the Dallas area, plan to attend the 2012 summer event. It will be a rewarding experience!

Dallas Public Library

J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, 1515 Young St., Dallas, TX.

DallasKidsRead! Authors & Illustrators

Dallas Public Library

Dallas Public Library on Facebook

Jokae’s African-American Bookstore: Follow them on Twitter @Jokaesbooks