Children's book illustration

While J.K. Rowling may be the current darling of the children's book world, every generation has its favourite author - be it Roald Dahl or C.S. Lewis. Chances are, though, your fond memories of that Dahl book are inextricably entwined with Quentin Blake's distinctive illustrations.

A good children's book illustrator can put their mark onto a story forever, bringing it to life in a way that the text alone might not achieve. For educational and non-fiction books, images can play an even greater role in hammering the message home.

One of the attractions of book illustration is that it gives you much more scope for creativity than, say, a magazine article. Deciding which parts of the story to depict, in what style, is obviously a crucial element of any commission, and one of the most fun.

For younger children's books, which may consist almost entirely of images with a few words on each page, the publisher and author usually decide on the general layout and tone. But for books with a substantial amount of text, most illustrators agree it's simply a case of using your own discretion.

Readers will spontaneously form their own images of particular characters or situations in a well-written book, and the same approach is used by the artist. The publisher and art team may also provide suggested style ideas and page layouts, depending on the book's format and subject matter.

Keeping it fresh
Jackie Snider is a US-based illustrator who has worked both with watercolours and digital media. "This is a visual business, so when I read a manuscript, hopefully I have lots of images dancing in my head before I put pencil to paper," she says. "Lately I've been looking at photo reference of objects or subjects to give myself a fresh outlook on a story, rather than relying on the same old things that pop out of my head. After almost 20 years of illustrating, one has to keep ideas flowing, so looking at photos helps to refresh my perspective on the world. There is limited room in my head for endless new versions of dogs, cats and kids!"

Asa Andersson, who mainly illustrates children's educational books, also relies on inspiration. "I would always have a picture in my head before I start the actual illustration," she says. "I'll read the text and different pictures will spring to my mind as a certain part of the story inspires me."

Perhaps most surprising to someone not in the field is the amount of contact between author and illustrator - or rather the lack of it. Except in a few exceptional cases, where an author may have worked extensively with the illustrator in the past, there's generally very little collaboration between the two.

Following a brief
Effectively, the book or story itself serves as the commission, and the specifics of character design and setting are a natural part of the creative process. However, an illustrator will often collaborate with the publisher's own art editor or team, particularly if they're new to the field.

"I rarely communicate with authors," says Jackie. "Never in educational or magazine work, and seldom in trade [commercial] books. Mostly I am left to my own devices, since I have a large portfolio showing a consistent style and my clients are familiar with my work. Sometimes I'm provided with rough layout sketches or written outlines of illustration content, but primarily I'm given manuscripts and page layouts and allowed to interpret the content myself."

Of course, processes vary from publisher to publisher. Nicola Slater illustrated the covers of the British editions of The Princess Diaries, and her distinctive style appears in many other children's books.

"More often than not, the brief for a project contains items which have specifically been picked out by the author or art editor from the book, which will be important to help support the story," she says. "Discussions about the book will typically involve how to make it work and flow visually, how the text will fit around the illustrations or visa versa, the kind of palette to suit, and so on."

Digital techniques
Many book illustrators have turned to digital production for the obvious convenience and freedom it provides, but some feel more comfortable beginning with traditional techniques. "I still do my rough sketches in pencil on tracing paper," says Jackie Snider. "I think better that way. I scan the pencils and send JPEGs for approval. Then I use these as templates for the finals. If the client produces PDFs with my sketches placed in position with the text, I'll use these as templates to make sure my spacing is accurate."

Jackie switched from watercolours to using Illustrator on a G4 three years ago, and says she still has a lot to learn. "I'm starting to enjoy using transparent layers and have done some work with gradients, but since my painting style was fairly flat colour I have tended to stay true to that look for now as I make the transition to the new medium.

"I use a Wacom tablet because it enables me to have a line that mimics the pen-and-ink style of my watercolour illustrations," continues Jackie. "When I made the transition to digital art, the hardest thing was choosing a palette. After playing around with too many colours at first I managed to narrow my swatches down to about 20 colours."

Nicola Slater also sketches roughs, either on paper or in Painter: "I then place the sketch in Adobe Illustrator and make it into a template. From that I can work up the entire illustration. I mostly use Painter, Illustrator and Photoshop, though the latter is mainly used for scanning and cleaning up a sketch."

Asa Andersson takes a different approach, drawing directly in Photoshop. She says this is mainly because she creates animations as well as print illos: "In animation it would take forever to do pencil sketches first. Even for print I think it's a lot faster and easier to touch up a digital image.

Asa continues: "I work directly in Flash, Illustrator or Photoshop depending on the look and feel I want. If I want a sketchy style, I would draw it in Flash or Photoshop; but if I'm after a more 'worked at' effect then I would draw it in Illustrator."

Children's book illustrations, with their bright colour and often spontaneous, flowing style, may seem more suited to natural media. Indeed, many illustrators still work with traditional materials, such as Axel Scheffler (of The Gruffalo fame).

But a switch to digital tools usually means a change to working practices rather than style. "Both methods produce pretty much the same effect," explains Nicola. "But I certainly have to be much more disciplined and methodical when it comes to digital artwork. Working in Illustrator, you have to plan the picture carefully beforehand, leaving little or no room for experimentation once you start the artwork."

"There is a softness to watercolour that I cannot recreate in Illustrator," admits Jackie. "Possibly, if I worked in Photoshop I might be able to come closer to that look, but I have adapted to the differences and started to use the cut-and-paste feel of Illustrator to enhance my work."

Digital media has become as much a part of book illustration as in any other field. What hasn't changed is the creativity and mindset required to be an effective illustrator. Kids don't care if you used a pencil or Photoshop - but if you can capture their imagination, the chances are you'll have a fan for life.

INFO: Nicola Slater and Philip Nicolson can be contacted via Thorogood Illustration, Asa Andersson is available through NB Illustration, See more of Jackie Snider's work at

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