This is my story of how I came to be a children’s book illustrator, some practical advice for how to become an illustrator, and what to expect if you choose to go down this route.
What should I do in the future?
At some point we’ve all wondered what we should do in the future. For many people, like me, our direction has changed over time. We all have a story of how we got to where we are, and this is mine.
The life of a children’s book illustrator has not always been the life for me. Going into university I was convinced I wanted to be a healthcare provider. I had my eyes set on a career that looked “smart”, and I lined up my class schedule accordingly.
Unfortunately, or should I say fortunately, my grades weren’t lining up the way I thought they would and my stress level was higher than Wiz Khalifa on holiday. I knew something needed to change in order to save my sanity.
As a child I was always making, painting, or decorating something. The dreamer that I was wanted to be Picasso, but what seemed like every adult in my life at the time told me I would be wasting my brain if I used it to make art.
After all, making art as a career means you’re not smart right? WRONG. Sadly, it wasn’t until I went down the science road at university that I realised the importance of creativity in my life. I ended up changing my major to a Bachelor’s in fine art - and the rest is history.
At the time I switched my major, my family still wasn’t convinced I was making the wisest choice. To be fair, I wasn’t either. I mean, what can you do with an art degree? I just knew I’d never be happy if I couldn’t create daily.
However, I ended up adding a psychology degree to my education for good measure - I figured I could always fall back on science if the art career didn’t work out.
Shortly after deciding art was the incredibly uncertain way forward, I was approached by a local children’s book author with a proposition to illustrate a children’s book. When he asked to see my illustration portfolio, I gathered up a few paintings and drawings I had done in high school and hoped for the best. Mind you, the work I showed was some of the best (or what I thought was the best) work I had done at that point in time.
Did anyone else go through the phase where they believed the best art is the most realistic art? Yeah. I was in that phase. Not very promising if what’s hoped for is a job illustrating a book for children.
By what can only be described as a miracle from God, I got the illustration job. Someow it didn't matter that the last characters I had drawn were my attempts at recreating the Bratz in middle school.
I took the summer to illustrate my very first children’s book. I watched a lot of tutorials, I unlearned my obsession with detail, and I spent hours sketching what I believed children would like to see in a picture book.
You may be wondering how it turned out. Let’s just say it’s no longer features in my children’s book illustration portfolio or on my website. The moral of the story is that I started at the bottom, and now I’m here.
Even though my first illustrated children’s book couldn’t be described as impressive, it was the beginning of a passion I never knew I had inside me. A passion to use visual imagery to tell stories, to imagine and be creative, to bring life to ideas.
Since then I’ve discovered a whole new world: the world of children’s book illustration. What started out as a gig to make a few dollars on the side became a passion that fuelled my decision to take on illustrating as a full-time job.
It is so much more than simply being good at drawing or having great ideas that kids would love. I’ve gathered up some golden nuggets along the way, and I’m here to share them with you if you’re considering taking the leap from part-time art lover, to full-on Van Gogh in the sunflower fields.
How to become an illustrator
Everyone comes into illustration with a different background, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you look to make children's book illustration your full-time job. I've also called out a few things you can expect along the way:
Drawing every day. Practice is the key to keeping your skills fresh and improving over time. I promise, you will not get the creative breakthrough you’re looking for if you’re not pushing yourself to create (yes, even when you don’t feel like it). Some of my best ideas have come from doodling on my iPad when I felt like I would never make it as a children’s book illustrator.
Spending time alone. A lot of time. The sad truth is that unless you’re working in a co-working space or have housemates that hang around all day, you will be spending a lot of time alone. There is a surprising amount of freedom in being able to spend an entire day alone with your creativity, passion and skill.
Upskilling. As lovely as it would be to make art all day long, it’s unrealistic. Contrary to popular belief, illustration careers are very demanding and it’s essential that illustrators are constantly learning and effectively using on things like various forms of communication, digital media (Adobe and Microsoft programs), business strategy, and current events.
Networking. Reaching out to artists you admire, publishers you hope to work for, authors you’d like to collaborate with etc. is a staple of career illustrators. Ever heard the phrase “It’s not what you know, it's who you know”? Well, the system works kind of like that. The more connections you can build, the better your chances are of finding good work. This is a biggie.
Getting seen on social media. Get on that social and make sure your voice is being heard and your work is being seen. The more ways you can get your work out into the world, the more likely you are to attract admirers and potential clients. This is kind of a biggie too.
Building resilience. There is not a single artist, illustrator, or musician who has not be rejected at some point in their life. The goal in children’s book illustration is to take the feedback, whether its negative or positive, and use it to improve. Remember, illustration is subjective. One person may not like your work, but someone else may see you as the next big thing.
Creating multiple streams of income. The goal is to be able to support yourself on illustrating alone, but it takes a lot of work. Finding a few ways to make money on the side is always a good idea, especially when you’re just starting out. Or you could marry someone rich - then this point is irrelevant.