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Tips for Illustrating a Children's Picture Book

Are you interested in, or wanting to illustrate a children's picture book?



If so, then you've come to the right spot! Grab a notebook, a pen, and you'll be set to discover something new! Heads up - this blog won't cover the writing portion, we'll save that for another time. Rather, I'll be taking you over some crucial and overall advice for illustrating a children's book yourself, as an artist. You'll be learning a bit from a northern illustrator and author from Yellowknife, NT. And as part of being an artist myself, my goal is to reawaken the wisdom that I've learned from my journey so far, and share that with you.



If I could go into a time machine to tell the 'me' from 3 years ago all that i've learned about illustrating children's books from Bear and Ivory (2023) to Superdog Jake (2024) then this blog post is exactly what i'd want them to know - avoiding the stress and confusion of starting at the beginning. So if you or anyone you know is a budding artist, wanting to grow or expand their creative 'know how' on picture books, then please share this with them. And if that's you, then you're in the right place!


So, where do we start? Well, to kick things off....


  1. Start with something you're passionate about.


There is something out there that calls to you. And if you've been drawing, or creating, from either a long time, or if you've just gotten into it, chances are that something has found its way onto your sketchpad, screen, or notebook with or without you noticing it. Or perhaps it lurks around on your mind. This something is there for a good reason: it's because you're passionate about it. Whether you enjoy drawing pets and animals, or admiring the wild landscapes of exotic and imaginative places, whatever it is, you can draw inspiration from this special something as the basis for your childrens book.


Bear and Ivory first idea sketches 2021

It's also great to bear in mind your target audience, and what subjects and ideas might they be interested in as well. But overall if you're going to be spending any time at all time working on illustrating a picture book, you might as well love whatever it is you are creating. Your passion and excitement for a certain subject, story, idea, will radiate off the pages and the readers will pick up on that.


Jake in his Superdog Costume

For my book, Superdog Jake (2024), I knew i wanted to create a childrens book with my dog who not only makes for a likeable character, but is someone, something that I love to draw and celebrate through art. He's the spark that made the whole book possible. Find your spark, and you will soon be on your way to having your first childrens picture book under your belt!



2. Sketches are the Seeds to Great Trees.




To give you some idea of what something during the 'sketching phase' - would look like, check out these these quick watercolor sketches made during the creation of Superdog Jake! Bear in mind though that not all of the sketches you make for scenes of your picture book will be turned into final illustrations- and that's okay! Rendering some sketches however, will provide you the chance to tweak your drawings, get to know your characters, and immerse you into the visual landscape of your story. So draw, draw, draw!

Watercolor sketch, 11'' x 7''


TIP

'But I cant draw!' you might find yourself saying. It can be tricky. But what can help in capturing believability in your illustrations - especially with animals or human drawings - is doing some pre-liminary observation sketches - I learnt this from Disney animator David Colman. Drawing a dog, a child, a butterfly, a gorilla, etc, either from online or in person, you can study and observe the shapes that make up it's body, and face. Noticing, understanding and simplyfing those shapes (square, circle, cylinder) will help you to draw your own character. These will make for vibrant and great illustrations based off some realism.


CASE STUDY - 'Cake Scene' from Superdog JAKE


Superdog Jake © 2024 Nikolai J. Deleff

Planning the scene with Sketches


The above final illustration was planned using over a thousand sketches! Haha no, not really, more like 10. But regardless, with more detailed and complicated scenes, the more sketches there are made for different parts of the scene; like figuring out the posing, the facial expressions, or the layout of the characters. They are all independent parts that, when combined, yield a rich tapestry, so to speak, that is filled with exciting, and playful illustrations, breathing with vitality.



On the other hand, some final illustrations, may only be preceded by a single sketch, to which you may just 'go with it or wing it' in the final illustration. This happened to me for 1 or 2 smaller scenes, and the only reason I then ended up keeping such a scene in the final picture book was because it's spontaenous nature yieled a rather beautiful result!


So keep in mind, there is no 'right way' to planning and making an illustration, just whatever works for you, and makes you feel proud and eager to share the final result with others! That is how your favourite illustration is made!


3. Illustration style & Creative Input





Wheter it's Digital, on paper, with oil pastels, acrylic, oil, or watercolor, It's completely up to you what medium you prefer to create your final illustrations with. Picking something that you feel confident and expressive in, but also something you are still learning with can help keep the game interesting, and help turn eyeballs onto your art. All of these options give off their own unique looks, assosicated feelings and qualities. You might find something you enjoy and stick with also.


Expirementation


Most of my Illustrations for instance, are made with watercolor, on Arches cotton paper, and daniel smith paints. However it wasnt until i was inspired by Quintin Blake's artwork, that i started incoporporating the use of a pen with dipping ink!


Difference of style - no pen vs. pen


Consider the difference between an illustration from the Bear and Ivory Picture book above and then one from Superdog Jake. Notice how the use of defined lines can change the look? Also switching up the type of watercolor paper i used from cold pressed to hot pressed, revealed to me a new look and texture of illustrations!


So, make sure to continually experiment with your tools, and art supplies, so that you can find a medium that you flourish with!


TIP


My best tip for learning any given medium is by asking an artist you know for a mini lesson of his or her prefered medium, watching others paint online, or doing tutorials. You'll gain valuable insights into the creation process!



______________________Be Apart of the Fun___________________


(Speaking of tutorials, if you know of a young kid, (or yourself) who enjoys doing creative arts, and learning new things, you can help nuture a budding artist with the following free resources available online only for a limited time at my website. They are:


  1. Behind The Scene videos of my Superdog Jake picturebook

  2. Character Drawing Tutorials and...

  3. Coloring sheets! Simply click the button below!)

 




Creative Input


Another thing is to go out to a local library or book store and search for childrens picture books, featuring artwork that appeal to your interests. The content that is already out there may just be the thing that inspires you to reflect on the various ways people illustrate for books, and in addition you'll gain valuable understanding of how you might want to lay out the pages, pace your story, and design the book. Wow- all from one or two look-throughs?


Yup! Give it a shot, start by just picking three short picture books that grab your attention. Soon enough all these inspirations might just begin to mingle together, and out comes a new illustration look, unqiue to you!



4. Bonus Tip: Clarfiy with a Mock-up book





For those who are going the traditional path with hand drawn sketches, etc, here's where things get really awesome. You can have all the ideas in your head for a great picture book, or even better, piles of various scenes scattered across your desk, but that chaos is never going to organize itself better than by creating a Mock-up Book.


Simply put, a Mock up book is pretty much something you can make to simulate the actual pyshical picture book you are trying to create in the end. You can actually use a real picture book to do this, taping on your scenes over their pages, hehehe. I strongly urge you to try this! The clarity it provides becomes extremely convienent and helpful when you want to see the book from start to finish!



Conclusion


Overall, I hope that when the going gets tough, these tips will help you clarify the next step, and most importantly help you to believe in yourself. Take it from me, despite the commitment such a project incurs, being able to bring your or another persons story to life through numerous whimisical illstrations is a magical expierence.



Not only is it extremely satisyfing, but your effort helps to make an impact on the childhood of young readers with whom you are sharing it with. And when they glow at the sight of your work, you'll know that between the doubt, the ups and downs, from the first sketch to the last, that it'll have been totaly worth it.


Best of luck with your next adventure! Until next time,


Nikolai




VISIT the Superdog Jake page for behind the scenes!



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