How to Work With Picture Book Illustrators

Not all illustrators are created equal. This means that while the advice I give you here might be applicable to some illustrators, others might tell you to get lost and let them do their thing. This is fine, too, and my recommendations here are only that – suggestions and tips on what has worked for me in the past, specifically with self-publishing, and general things to keep an eye on during the process. Every project needs to start with a conversation about expectations, however, which will ensure that both you (the author, art director, or publisher), and the illustrator understand what you expect from each other and how the process will go.

With that understanding, here are some tips that have helped me immensely streamline the illustration process and ensure that the end result is something everyone can be proud of.

Illustration Notes

Before you send your story to the illustrator, you need to include notes on what you envision for each page. While you can rely on the illustrator to come up with this to a certain extent, your book will be much better if you are more specific. The illustrator will use your ideas as a jumping-off point, but sometimes they won’t do much beyond what you tell them. Sometimes artists have huge wells of creativity they access to create your images, and sometimes… they don’t.

As an example, rather than say, “Show boy and girl sitting at the table eating ice cream,” it would be better for the illustrator if you say, “Show boy and girl running down a path away from their house towards a big cloud of dirt ahead that looks like an approaching horse. Show abandoned chairs at the table with their melting ice creams sitting on it.” See the difference? More action, more things to look at, more interest, more going on. 

An illustrator recently pointed out to me that she hates when authors do this. So I’ll add a postscript to this piece of advice and say that much will depend on the illustrator. Illustrators with many years of experience will be much better at putting their own spine and vision on your text and will need much less input than someone with less experience or knowledge. What I like to do for my own books or books that I art-direct is to only give them minimal direction at first and see what they come up with. If I see that it lacks imagination, is too literal, is inconsistent or any other problem I spot, I’ll be more specific in my second round of feedback.

If you are using a publisher though, don’t feel bad being in touch with the publisher as often as you need to with any concerns or questions. The publisher may or may not pass your feedback along if they feel it is warranted, but your speaking up might give the publisher something to think about as well.

Storyboards and Early Sketches

The key to working well with your illustrator is feedback, early and often. Ask them if you can see their storyboard. The storyboard is a series of thumbnail sketches that the illustrator will use to get a bird’s eye view of the whole book. It helps to establish continuity among the illustrations, make sure that the perspectives vary enough, that the page turns are interesting and help the story progress, and that the layouts are working. They won’t usually share this with you unless you ask, since it tends to be not much more than scribbles. But I have found it very helpful to look at. You may not be able to see how each character will look, but that is not as important at this point as deciding the basic organization of the page, the flow of the story, and making sure that things are in place. If the text refers to a conversation between two characters, are they both shown? If not, is that intentional or an oversight? If you have several pages of dialogue, maybe it would be more interesting to change the perspective a little bit on a few of the pages. Bird’s eye view, view from below, closeups – all these are things you can see and decide on based on the storyboard rough sketches. And because the illustrations are so rough at this point, the illustrator will thank you for pointing it out now. It is much easier to change things now than it is later when the drawings are detailed and ready for color.

A helpful tip I received from someone is to create a Google Slides presentation with the number of spreads you will have in your book. Share this with your illustrator and have them put their sketches into the Slides doc. This allows you to check their progress at any time, and make comments as they go. Illustrators find this helpful because early changes are easier to make. Also, trust your instincts. It is your book and you want it to look the way you envisioned it, or as close to that as you can get. Yes, they are the artist, but you are the author, and it’s your world.

You can also use the Google Slides doc to roughly lay the text out onto the drawings. It won’t be anything magical, but it will give you a sense if they left enough room for text and if the book flows nicely.

Once the storyboard is agreed on, the illustrator will move on to black and white sketches. Again, ask them if they can post their progress, even with the unrefined sketches. These will usually be the right size (as opposed to thumbnail size, like the storyboard), have the characters sketched out roughly but slightly more recognizable, and rough shapes sketched in to show placement. If you can get the idea of what they are trying to show, make comments for your illustrator. It is much, much easier to fix it now. Also, if the illustrator offers to do each image completely before moving on – meaning, they will show you a sketch, then colorize it, then move on to the next one, SAY NO. You need to get a feel for how the whole book will look as a unit before you can start finalizing each individual image.

The illustrator will usually ask you to confirm and approve the final black and white sketches before they move on to color. Be sure to look the drawings over carefully when they send them to you because you will not see any more major changes. If you need to add elements, change an outfit, adjust the layout, or add some details, do it before they start to color. 

Some things to keep in mind while looking at the images are: 

  1. Do the layouts vary? Does the whole book take place in one room? If so, does each layout come from a different perspective? Even if the whole book takes place in the kitchen, you can have a wide view of the kitchen from the front, a view from the back, a view from above, closeups to different characters… you get the idea.
  2. Is there space for text? I have found it helpful to type up the text in Arial or Helvetica 18 or 21-point font (depending on the amount of text and the age group – younger kids will need bigger fonts) to get an idea of how much space to leave for text. Go into your Google or Word document that you are sharing with your illustrator and put in the text at this size, and make sure there is a place for it. The text can be split up – you don’t need every paragraph of text in one place – but there should be obvious space for it.
  3. Are the drawings consistent? Do the characters look the same from page to page? Is it obvious who is who? Do the settings look the same? It throws kids off when they have to guess who the main character is, or figure out why all of the sudden the story is taking place in a different place.
  4. Does the text on the page match the image? Make sure they visually connect to maintain continuity. You want the images to enhance the story, not confuse it. 
  5. Do the images hold the reader’s interest? Small details can go a long way to keeping the reader invested in the story. Is there a pet that can be doing something funny in the background? A bird on the windowsill, a mouse in the corner, or background characters that may not be mentioned in the text are all great ways to keep your illustrations fun and exciting.

TL;DR: Give feedback early, and often. Once the sketches are refined and the color starts coming out, changes are much more difficult and time-consuming to make, which could lead to production delays, added costs, and a lot of frustration. When giving the feedback, make sure to check things like story flow, character consistency, engaging page turns, and adequate space for text.

Color Images

It can be daunting to receive color illustrations and be expected to give feedback when you are not an artist. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you receive them that will help you know what to look for:

  1. Consistency. Skin color, clothing color, wallpaper, carpets, accessories, sky color, etc, etc – it should all look the same from page to page. Keep in mind things like lighting changes (for example, scene 1 takes place in the morning and scene 10 takes place at sunset – even in the same room the colors will look different), clothing changes (if the scenes take place on different days, the clothing will change) and other factors that can influence color changes on the page.
  2. Are the colors setting the right mood for the story? If the book is a sad book, the colors shouldn’t be bright and cheerful unless you are deliberately trying to send a certain message. Colors can really influence the mood of a story, so look through the images carefully and make sure that they flow well together.
  3. Are they pretty? Are the illustrations fun to look at? When it comes down to it, this is the most important thing to consider.

Once you receive the final images from the illustrator, it is very hard to make changes. Most changes the illustrator will do without charging extra will involve changing the colors or making tiny changes to the layout that won’t affect the overall composition. When the illustrator sends you the final files, make sure to send them to your designer to confirm that all the specifications are correct.

Do you have any other tips on working with illustrators? Illustrators, do you have anything to add? Let us know in the comments, below!

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