How to illustrate children's books: 7 top tips

Children's book illustrator Doreen Marts offers her best advice on how to bring works of fiction to visual life.

Want to get into book illustration? Well you're not alone. There are thousands of talented illustrators out there who'd like nothing more than to visually interpret works of fiction for a living - so how do you beat off the competition?

Well, a good start is to get advice from someone who's already doing it. Here we get New Jersey illustrator Doreen Marts to give her best pieces of advice about how to illustrate children's book...

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01. Be persistent

When I began my journey into the book world, I was easily intimidated at how difficult it can be. But I kept at it, I kept drawing and creating new work, kept evolving my style (still a work in progress) kept contacting people, and soon it paid off.

I met my agency at a trade show, introduced myself and showed them my portfolio, they represent artists who have a similar style to mine, and a little while later they accepted me. Having an agent is a big help but not the only way to become a book illustrator!

02. Inspiration is all around

Whether it be a song, TV show, children's books or whatever, I take anything and everything that inspires me and try to make it my own. I see a cool shirt in the store with a picture of an ice cream cone, how can I make my own cool ice-cream cone illustration? I hear a song about love, how can I write my own love story?

Inspiration is everywhere you just have to open yourself up to it. Also I like to look at certain websites with my morning coffee to get the day going, and to see what opportunities are out there. Pinterest, Twitter, blogs, Tumblr, etc. Pinterest is my favorite, lots of amazing ideas, resources and people on there.

Pinterest is where I met my mobile publisher Storypanda. They started following me, I contacted them and we started working together on my very first storybook app for the iPad called Mompers! I'm thrilled that I got to join the creative community that Storypanda has sprouted in their effort to empower professional authors and illustrators.

03. Don't think, draw

I find that the blank page can be very intimidating. And an editor friend of mine once used that phrase which really had a light bulb go off over my head: "Don't think, draw".

Some of my best sketches are when I'm not thinking, when I'm on the phone and sketching or watching TV, I'm not nervous about whether it will be a good sketch, I'm sketching because I love to draw. But I still get nervous about starting a new project and if it will be good or not, that's when I say to myself "Don't think - DRAW", and I start to just work and I keep at it and revise until it is something I'm happy with.

04. The first draft won't be perfect

I used to get flustered right away when something I started didn't look or read like it is pictured in my head. And if it isn't a job I am getting paid for I often stopped and it became unfinished.

Another friend mentioned that the first draft almost always isn't going to be a home run. You need to write or draw that first mediocre draft or sketch to get to that great story or piece of art. It all starts with a small sketch and or idea, you work at it, revise, edit, and in the end it becomes what you had in your head, or better.

05. Find a work style that suits you

There are so many ways and mediums to do things now. Personally, I always start out drawing by hand. Sometimes I colour the hand drawing in Photoshop to keep the line work visible, as I did for the Frankly Frannie Book series. At other times I redraw the sketch in Illustrator, which offers me an easier way to make revisions and duplicate characters or backgrounds (this is what I did for my Storypanda app.

I like to change things up so that I'm not doing the same thing for every project, which also has me learning a lot along the way. I think that's what I like most about being a freelance illustrator: every day is different. One minute you are drawing monsters, the next ponies.

06. Another set of eyes always helps

Often when you are writing or drawing a book illustration you are so involved in it that you might not see or miss things others might see. Have a friend or coworker look at it, they might see if a colour isn't working, or a sentence etc.

Working from home I don't have the pleasure of having coworkers anymore but I have them virtually when I email back and forth with other writer and illustrator friends ideas and thoughts and pictures. It helps to surround yourself with creative support and positive feedback from friends.

Also, rejection is a great learning tool, I've had my ideas rejected many times over from publishers when pitching or showing my portfolio, but I take it all as a learning experience on what I need to work on and move forward with that newfound knowledge. Don't let rejection get you down!

07. Further reading

Want more advice? Next read: From brief to book: A guide to book illustration for beginners, in which we explain how the publishing cycle works for illustrators and some leading art directors give some top tips on how to get your work noticed.

Words: Doreen Marts

Doreen Marts is a freelance illustrator and designer living in New Jersey who's illustrated a number of books for clients including Penguin, Scholastic and Running Press. You can see more of her work on her website.

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