How to break in to book illustration

06. Get out there and network

deacons order book

The Order of Deacons: Karla Ortiz's cover for Philippa Ballantine's The Order of Deacons was her first commission for a major publisher (c) The Science Fiction Book Club

"My main tool for finding new talent is artists I already work with," says Sarah Robinson, managing art director at Paizo. "On their blogs, websites and social pages you can see who they like or follow. It's a great resource for me.

"Sometimes I spend days on art websites like ArtStation. Also I attend many conventions, such as Spectrum Live and the Society of Illustrators. I also go to the World Fantasy and World Science Fiction cons. The Illustration Master Class is one of the most useful and enjoyable weeks of my year."

07. Hit your deadline

hit your deadline books karla

Viserys: Karla Ortiz rendered this image of King Viserys Targaryen on the Iron Throne, for Tor's The World of Ice and Fire (c) Tor Books

Missing a deadline has repercussions for people up and down the publishing food chain. Publishing houses work in seasons and art directors pull together entire catalogues of new titles for sales and marketing meetings.

The more they can show off your cover, the more the sales team can utilise it to get the book in front of buyers, who in turn get it in front of readers. If the book does well, readers want more of the same, which means more commissions. However, miss your deadline, that prep doesn't happen, and the book may flop. "Meet the deadline," says Irene Gallo, "and it'll go a long way to ensuring a second one."

08. Want it! Love it!

karla ortiz

The Walking-Stick Forest: Karla Ortiz first impressed Irene Gallo at Spectrum Live when she presented the cover for The Walking Stick Forest, a novel by Anna Tambour (c) Tor books

"You really have to want to do this," says veteran illustrator Dave Seeley. "It's not an easy life for the person with the skills, persistence and creativity required. There are far more remunerative professions for people with those strengths.

"However, there can be great satisfaction, the ability to make your own schedule, have some fun, gain some modest notoriety, and lots of wallowing in image junkie heaven."

Young illustrator Karla Ortiz agrees. "Love it," she says. "All art is a labour of love. If you have a passion for your work, it shows."

09. Start now


Karla Ortiz's Homecoming captures an entire story in just one illustration and focuses the reader on the protagonist, making for an effective cover image (c) Tor Books

Don't wait to get hired. "Pick up a book, read it, and illustrate it. Build a strong portfolio and start approaching agents and publishers," says fantasy illustrator Rohan Eason. "Create your own books to illustrate, or choose random books from the library and bring them to life with illustrations.

"Offer your services for free to new authors, do anything you can to practise. There are no quick tips for book illustration. But developing your own working practice will help."

Dave Seeley agrees, "submit to illustration annuals, web media, competitions, and so on. Seek exposure for your art."

10. Get very, very good

lucas book illustrator

A Paiso cover by Chesley Award-nominated fantasy illustrator, Lucas Graciano, who's also worked for Blizzard and Wizards of the Coast (c) Paizo Publishing

Once you're on the radar of art directors and producing covers, carry on honing your style, take ownership of it, put your soul into it. "Get very, very good," says Irene Gallo.

"The better the work is, the easier marketing it becomes and suddenly it's being accepted into annuals, being linked to on social media, art directors are telling art-director friends about it. A big part of that is having a distinctive voice. I often want artists who can bring themselves into the painting, show us the world in a way no one else can."

The extended version of this article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 120.

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