How to illustrate a children's book

The cover of The Squirrels Who Squabbled

I fell into illustrating children’s books. I was working as an animation director and a freelance illustrator for seven years, but it became so competitive in the animation industry to win a pitch, and work was drying up. 

Then an opportunity came up: I was asked to illustrate a children’s book by Peter Bently, a book called Cats Ahoy! published by Macmillan books in 2011. This book ended up winning the The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, and changed my career path as a result. 

Here's how I start each new children's book illustration project.

Look at reference

I look at lots of reference when I’m working on a book. Inspiration might spring from a trip to a national park, a wildlife documentary, a film, or other illustrators’ and artists’ work.

Rough concept sketches of Cyril the squirrel

 Sketches of Cyril, the main character in The Squirrels Who Squabbled. Jim Field wanted him to have appeal as the comical underdog

These things all help inspire my work. Sometimes I’ll find a reference photo of a landscape that inspires a composition, or it might be the dramatic lighting from a movie I’ve seen that helps me develop lighting in a composition.

I gather lots of reference images from Pinterest that help me create a mood board for each book I’m working on. I refer back to these frequently throughout the process, so my head stays in the same place.

Mix analogue and digital

I have a 2017 MacBook Pro 15-inch connected to an LG 27UD88 monitor. I also use a Wacom Intuos5 Pro tablet. I use Photoshop for all of my final digital artwork and use a lot of Kyle T Webster’s brilliant Photoshop brushes – varying the opacity and flow to create different textures.

Sketch of Cyril running holding a pinecone

After trying out lots of different sketches, Field settled on this design for the character of Cyril

I hop between digital artworking at my standing desk and a lightbox for the hand-drawn elements. For the final artwork, the main characters and overall background layout are hand-drawn in pencil. I’ve tried to draw directly on the computer but it never has the same feel as by hand, it loses the energy and spontaneity.

My goal when artworking is to make my illustrations look as hand-painted as possible. I want to avoid them looking digital, so I avoid filters and limit my use of gradients and obvious blending mode effects where possible.

Map the story

When I read a story for the first time, it plays like a movie in my head. Coming from an animation background, I ‘stage’ the story, following the same process as I would for an animated film.

Digital colour image of Cyril running holding a pinecone

Field added colour over the pencil sketch in Photoshop to bring the character to life and provide a taste of how the book will look

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright is about two squirrel characters, who are intent on having the last pine cone of the season; each will do anything to get it. Cyril, our ‘hero’ character has partied his way through the season and has no food left. Bruce the ‘anti hero’ has planned ahead and has a mountain of bounty for the winter, but still feels he must have the last pine cone.

Create thumbnails

I always start with a sketchbook and pencil. While reading the story over and over to myself, I make lots of character doodles and sketch out thumbnail ideas. Some compositions come to me straight away; I know exactly how I feel they should be, and they rarely evolve much in terms of composition. Some, however, are very tricky and can take a long time to get right.

Black and white thumbnails of the pages in The Squirrels Who Squabbled

Once the key character designs were resolved, Field created thumbnails and then a very rough storyboard of the whole book

Once I’ve built up a collection of thumbnails, I’ll then drop the best ones into InDesign with the text, so I can get more of an idea of how the book is flowing. Once I’m happy, I’ll share this document with the team for feedback.

Getting the thumbnails right at this point is essential. They are the backbone structure of the book. If there are flaws in the visual storytelling here, then making it pretty in colour at the final stage will be a waste of time.

Make roughs

Once we’re all happy with the thumbnails, I work them up to roughs, again working in pencil and paper. I then start introducing colour in photoshop. it’s at this stage that I start to get more of a feel of the finished book.

Colour proofs of the pages in The Squirrels Who Squabbled

Roughs were used to refine line work and finalise colour references. Colour proofs were then made for a final check of the artwork before it became a book

Choosing the right colour palette for a book is something I always find quite a challenge. The Squirrels Who Squabbled is set in the last days of autumn, so I wanted lots of lovely oranges, reds and browns soaked in sunshine.

At this point, I also start to think about the lighting in each spread, sketching in the shadows, so I can be consistent with the direction of the sun from scene to scene when it comes to the final art stage. These elements give the illustration a greater sense of realism.

New challenges

This spread in the book (see the gallery below) is a turning point in the story. My art director Grahame Lyus suggested we make it a vertical spread, to make it work better with the action and better suggest the turn of events to come for the characters.

Image 1 of 3

Field used a palette knife to smear acrylic white paint on black paper to create a background texture for this energetic waterfall scene

Field used a palette knife to smear acrylic white paint on black paper to create a background texture for this energetic waterfall scene
Image 2 of 3

He coloured tight to the lines and retained the pencil work on faces and details. Here, he added splashes and bubbles using Kyle T Webster’s splatter brush

He coloured tight to the lines and retained the pencil work on faces and details. Here, he added splashes and bubbles using Kyle T Webster’s splatter brush
Image 3 of 3

the final artwork with Field’s type and Rachel Bright’s rhyming verse

the final artwork with Field’s type and Rachel Bright’s rhyming verse

I think this stems from my animation background, but I see a picture book as the best 24 images from a film. Each page must bring the text to life, communicate the story and I try to bring something else to the story visually. Each book is a new challenge to develop myself further as an artist.

This article was originally published in Computer Arts, the world's best-selling design magazine. Buy issue 279 or subscribe.

Related articles: