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Getting Out of the Art File:
Tips for Aspiring Children's Book Illustrators

by Harold Underdown

Originally published in Feb./March 1994 SCBW-I Bulletin
Placed online in 1996, revised in 1999, 2004, and 2011

How does one make the leap from aspiring to published illustrator? After compiling lists of the publishers who seem likely to be interested in one's work, and sending off a mailing, the job isn't over. Getting a letter from a publisher that says "we are keeping your work on file" is a hopeful sign--but the job isn't over.

When an illustrator receives such a letter, it means something, but not as much as you might think. We keep samples on file from anyone we might conceivably use, for the most part returning only those that are stylistically unsuitable or not competent. But the chances of a particular illustrator being pulled from the file are small, for a series of reasons. Most of our books are illustrated by artists we have worked with before. When no illustrator is already slotted for a particular ms., an editor or art director still may have someone that they want for the project in mind, perhaps someone whose work they admire or whose portfolio they saw recently. When we do turn to the file, we are likely to turn first to the portfolios of artist representatives who we like to work with, and only then to leafing through possibly hundreds of samples in a bulging file drawer.

The odds sound steep, and they are, but not necessarily at all publishers. Publishers who have recently added staff or who for other reasons do not have a large enough "stable" of illustrators may turn to the files more, and pay closer attention to the mail. Educational publishers in particular may make more use of their files. Illustrating textbooks may not be as high in status as doing picture books, but it gives you valuable experience, builds your portfolio, pays well, and creates contacts in the industry.

There also are some things an illustrator can do to get out of the file and into a book.

Also, a designer I know, Rosanne Kakos-Main, provided the following tips to help in building an eye-catching portfolio. She reminds illustrators to think about:

Composition: interesting points of view, above, below, foreshortening, distortions, what is in the foreground and background. Consider what you do when you have your camera in hand, how you choose the contents, edges, and positioning of what enters the frame, how different lenses affect how much is included.
Lighting: Where is your light source? Dramatic lighting can often catch the eye... a candle lighting a dark room, the late afternoon sun casting huge shadows.
Color/Tone/Contrast: Are your colors (including black and white) muddy or clean and bright? Do you want crisp or soft edges? Would four colors or a monochromatic approach be most effective?
Subject Matter: What is (are) your subject(s) doing? Who are they? Do they have unusual expressions or clothing? Are they in an unusual predicament? Do they evoke an emotion? Are they up close or far away?
Continuity of Style: Do you sustain a consistent style in your samples/portfolio? Variety is the spice of life, but you need to demonstrate consistency within a style, and show 2 or 3 styles at most.
Continuity of Subject: Can you illustrate the same subject from different points of view, in different situations, showing different feelings?
Medium: When reviewing the work of a publisher, ask yourself, "Has this medium been used before?" The answer could be revealing -- perhaps they are open to unusual media, perhaps they are not. Experiment with using or combining different media.

Keep at it. It's not easy getting started. Perseverance doesn't guarantee success, of course, but it's almost impossible to get anywhere without it.

Copyright © Harold D. Underdown. May not be reproduced in any form without prior permission. Terms of use

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