Thursday, 7 January 2016

How to become a full time children’s book illustrator - a guide to starting your career

How to become a full time children’s book illustrator.

If you had asked me in 2006, while I was studying illustration at University, what I wanted to become after graduation, I would have said a T-shirt designer or an artist for the music industry or even a cartoonist for television. I would never have guessed I would become a children’s book illustrator - but now I see that it is my perfect job and I am suited to it for many reasons. My art style fits it well and I find it enjoyable and challenging in equal measures. I enjoy enriching children’s lives and putting complex emotions into simple faces. Children’s books are fun, dynamic and full of colour and energy - just how I like to draw! 

I get a lot of people asking about how they go from leaving University to full time illustrating. This guide is to help you take those first steps into your freelance career, but be warned! It's not going to be easy... 

Before we begin; I'm going to assume you're already drawing and have enough skill to illustrate children's books. If you don't, you probably want to spend a few years practicing or getting an art degree.

Understand that you will start out small and that's OK.

My first few jobs were done completely free. Several jobs after that were done for such a low cost, I was probably working for around £1 an hour.

It will take a long time until you can charge anything near a living wage, but you should use this to your advantage. Explain to your potential clients that you are just starting out and will work for free or very little - a lot of employers will not mind that your work is below standard if you are working for free and a lot are willing to take the risk to help you propel your career whilst also saving themselves money. Working for royalties is also fine, but assume you will receive none as authors rarely make enough to pay any. Try not to get caught up in developing your style, that will come naturally with time, instead try to get as much work done as you can so you may learn, learn and learn some more about what is expected of you, talking to clients, the process and how long it takes you.

Even if you aren't being paid though, maintain your professionalism and always keep good records. 

Don’t quit your day job just yet - work in your spare time, evenings and breaks.

Do work with indie authors, self publishers and friends or family. They might not be able to afford an illustrator yet either, and so the transaction may benefit both of you.

Get the essential tools.

Once you’ve got a few jobs under your belt, invest in the proper tools for your services. 

Learning to use the 'proper' tools now will give you the chance to master them from the beginning. Having the latest technology and knowing how to use it will give you a hand over your competition. Are you working digitally? Upgrade your computer to the best you can afford and you’ll find you work much faster - making you more efficient and saving you time and money in the long run. If you’re working with traditional methods - don’t waste time with bad quality. What’s the point in being the most talented painter if your paints are dull and your brushes leave bristles in your pictures? Everyone's tools will be different, but my current workstation consists of;

MacBook Pro with Adobe CS6
Wacom Intros Pen & Touch graphics tablet
An external hard drive to back up my work
A day to day diary for pencilling in deadlines and client meetings
An Epson printer & A4 scanner

Don’t think that clients won’t know the difference. Most of them can tell when something is produced professionally or not. Plus if they start asking for .psd files and you've produced everything in paint... you might just be creating problems for yourself.

Do buy second hand, or ask for items for your birthday or Christmas gifts if you can’t afford them yourself.

Get a professional website.

I doesn’t matter if you are the next Quentin Blake - if you work from a gmail account and link to your portfolio on Deviant art, clients will not take you seriously.

Buying a domain is so cheap that you have no excuse not to. I bought my domain and hosting from HostPapa but there are lots of options. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, in fact I’d recommend keeping it as clean and simple as you can and let your work do the talking! Along with it you should get a professional webmail to use for the sole purpose of your illustrating business. If you are lacking the funds, there are options to build one yourself using a template such as Wix, Wordpress or Sandvox. You can always upgrade it as you make more money. First impressions count, and your website home page will likely be the first thing a customer sees - make sure it has a good landing page that shows an illustration! And of course, it has to be fast and reliable.

Don’t mix business and leisure. Have a separate website and email for your personal use.

Do showcase your best work, and display your contact information clearly on every page of your website.

Start using 'work for hire' websites.

Whether you win jobs or not, it’s another platform to advertise yourself and meet potential clients.

People on 'Work for hire' websites like Upwork, Freelancer, Guru and list jobs that you can bid on and if you're chosen, the work is carried out on the website with the site taking a percentage of your payment.

Even if you don’t get a job right away, use it to practice your interview skills and connect with your audience. You can find out what clients are asking for, how much they are willing to pay and what your competitors are quoting. Eventually someone will give a newbie a chance, and you should use the opportunity to prove to them you’re the real deal by doing it well. Once you complete a few jobs, use the work and the feedback from your clients to show off to the next customers!

Don’t bite off more than you can chew at this stage. While you might think you can illustrate a 30 page book with 3D illustrations for the accompanying iPad app - it's not as easy as it seems and you don’t want to kick start your career by failing. Start with small jobs and work your way up.

Do try out for a few that may not be your ideal job (as long as you can actually complete them, of course!) You might stumble across something you’re good at, and you really enjoy doing! 

Reach out an contact your target audience.

This is a tough one! Advertising, networking, shameless promotion and persistent emails - it's all part of the job.

Where can a children’s book illustrator meet authors looking for an illustrator? How do you advertise yourself without spending thousands of pounds you haven’t made yet? You’ll probably want to start by writing yourself a cover letter, CV and preparing a small portfolio of your best work so that you can send it to your potential client. I change mine regularly to add recent achievements and keep things fresh, but here is a little template to get you going in the right direction until you’re confident enough to create your own from scratch. Make sure every email or message you send is written to the actual person in charge and not just ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ If you don’t know their name, find out!

“Hello June,

My name is Izzy Bean and I am an illustrator who specialises in children’s books and cartoons.

Since leaving University I have refined my illustration skills to provide a fast, precise and successful result for both personal and corporate clients. I work closely with the project leaders to ensure they get the best results possible. I typically work in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, creating digital paintings or vector work and while I can provide a broad range of styles for every occasion, I also am comfortable with my own established style. I love a challenge and enjoy my work which is why I put 100% effort into every job, no matter how big or small.

I am currently looking for new projects and I would love to hear about any that you may have. My portfolio can be seen on my website, which is located at and I have attached a few recent samples for you to browse.

Please feel free to ask any questions you may have and I look forward to hearing your reply,
Izzy Bean”

You should always have a digital portfolio ready to send even if you work with traditional methods. Scan your work onto computer and create a PDF of no more than 20 images which is small enough to attach to emails and browse on any operating system. As a general rule, your portfolio should start with your best piece, followed by your second best - then end on your third best. 

Some of the methods I use to reach out to my clients are;

- The Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook - This book is almost a directory of useful contacts with some interviews and information included. Invest in a copy (even an older second hand copy) and contact the appropriate listings with your cover letter and portfolio.

- Sign up to children’s illustrator and author forums, websites and chatrooms - Yahoo groups and Facebook are both free platforms where indie authors hang out and ask questions. Some of them will need illustrators - this is your chance!

- Use the internet and directories to compile a list of local businesses who could use your talent. Contact them as a freelancer and even if they don't have work now, they may keep you on file for the future!

- Sign up as a business on LinkdIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google + . Use them not just to promote your work, but to follow other artists, connect with authors, publishing houses  and companies who handle children's books and learn from the discussions they have.

- Start a blog (like this one!) and interact with other blogs.

Don’t bulk out your portfolio with work that is less than your best. If you haven’t a lot of work to share yet - sit down and work on some imaginary projects until you have.

Do research your field of expertise. Assuming you already have a passion for illustrating for children (otherwise, why are you here?) you need to make sure you know your stuff. Read lots of children’s books. Read lots of blogs about childrens books. Talk to authors. Find out the common book sizes, page count, colours used, what format the files should be submitted in -  everything you learn will help you to be more efficient and professional!

Do good work.

Sounds obvious, but hear me out. Once you start to get jobs coming in, you need to be consistent and do them all to the best of your ability, in good time.

Being self-employed is harder than it looks. You have deadlines even when you’re in bed with the flu. Clients aren’t going to appreciate sub-standard or late work, no matter what your excuse is. Manage your time well, make sure your work is ALWAYS the best you could have done and ask yourself before you submit it - will the client be happy? Is it better than they expected? Will they say "Wow!"? 

Alongside ‘good work’ I would also encourage you to be good at communication. Be polite, clear and friendly in all of your emails and make sure you sign each email professionally without using emoticons or smiley faces and if you have to arrange Skype meetings it is important to be presentable as you would expect going into an office. Most importantly, talk to your client with respect and remain professional at all times, even if they get angry or lose their temper. It can be tough to hear negative things about your work when you try so hard but this is part of being self employed - you have to be good with people.

Don’t take too long to respond to emails. During the week I aim to reply within hours, at the weekend it may take longer or wait until the Monday morning.

Do back up your work every day. Imagine working on a project for hours only to lose it when your computer breaks! I use an external hard drive, but you can back up to another computer, DVD or the cloud - whatever works for you.

Get someone to find the clients for you.

Sign up to illustrator directories and find yourself an agency.

Agencies are companies who represent a number of illustrators. They help to get you work by acting as the middle man (or woman) and in return they will take a cut of the money you make. Getting signed to a (decent) agency is harder than you'd think as most agencies only represent well established illustrators that fit their clientele. A good agency is more likely to contact you first, but I would still recommend reaching out to them even if they turn you down - they might give you some tips on why they said no and what you could do to improve.

Until you’re good enough to be accepted, or if you’d rather do without an agent, you can sign up to any of the illustrator directories who are aimed at the children's illustrator market. These companies showcase your work for clients who can then contact you directly. You usually have to pay a subscription fee, but if it gets you work, then it may very well be worth it. I use and SCBWI

Don’t get disheartened when you get turned down. Think about what you can do to increase your chances of being accepted next time, and use it to improve your work.

Do contact agencies more than once. If some time has passed and you think your work has improved then they might change their mind.

Keep doing what you love.

It may take years until you can illustrate full time, but if you love what you do and do it well, the years will be fun and rewarding.

Once you do make it, all the hard work and effort will have been worth it! You’ll be a better illustrator and a better person for it. 

I hope that has helped you think about launching your career as a children’s illustrator. Of course there is so much more to the job that i couldn’t possibly cover in one blog post but you may find the tips useful throughout your journey.

Next time, I will be taking you through the process of an illustration from start to finish - including the client’s responses so you can see a real job in action! If you don't want to miss out, sign up by entering your email to the right.

If you have any feedback or have any questions, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Thanks for reading!

Izzy bean

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