5 ESSENTIAL TIPS TO REMEMBER WHEN ILLUSTRATING FOR PICTURE BOOKS

picture book illustration

There are thousands of picture books throughout the world. It’s a universal essential towards children development and entertainment and can be found in almost every country in stores and online. Because it’s so common, however, it’s easy to just forget some key characteristics to keep in mind when illustrating for them.

Format

Should you make the book portrait orientation? Square format is pretty standard, but so his landscape too. And then what about the interior? Should you fill it with only 2 page spreads? When do you throw in spot illustrations or 1 page illustrations?

Format and sizing is a big consideration that should be clearly defined before starting any sketching whatsoever. The answer for this typically lies in the story’s narrative and it’s setting.

Is the setting in a large downtown metropolis filled with skyscrapers or maybe it takes place in the abundant ocean with plenty of rocking waves. Skyscrapers would make more sense in a portrait format that can add to its sense of depth and height. The ocean on the other hand would suit a more horizontal and maybe a square format to showcase how vast it is. It’s much harder to change the format once you’ve drawn everything so it’s good to make an executive decision right at the start!

In addition to exterior formatting, there’s also interior formatting to take into consideration. A picture book often holds a mixture of multiple spot illustrations on a page along with one single page illustrations and full spreads throughout the entire book.

And last but not least is the text! Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in an illustration that we forget that the story also has an accompanying written story. It’s important to remember to leave a blank area where the text might go so that you can work your composition around it with plenty of consideration.

Jump at the Sun: The True Tale of Unstoppable Story Catcher Zora Neale Hurston | Alicia D. Williams & illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara
Jump at the Sun: The True Tale of Unstoppable Story Catcher Zora Neale Hurston | Alicia D. Williams & illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara
Jump at the Sun: The True Tale of Unstoppable Story Catcher Zora Neale Hurston | Alicia D. Williams & illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara

Characters

What’s the first thing you think of when thinking about any picture book? The characters! Characters are the face of any and every picture book which is why a large amount of focus and time should be spent flushing out and developing the main cast. 

From their design to their outfits, their expressions to match their personality, and key traits that will make them memorable and relatable. These are all important characteristics that go into character design and can add another level of enjoyment for the reader. Shapes, silhouettes, and body language are also aspects that add to a character.

Grumpy Monkey | Suzanne Lang & Illustrated by Max Lang
Olivia | Ian Falconer

Flow

Flow can be seen in the story itself and how it shifts from scene to scene, our job as illustrators is to make it seamless. By making the story seamless, it’ll keep the reader encaptures, excited to turn the page and keep reading.

Capturing the motion and energy of the story is essential to contributing to the overall flow. Utilizing all the space on a page is the best way to do so. Why must the road be straight when you can have it curving all around. Unique perspectives with slight distortions also add a strong sense of movement, 3-point never fails in that department!

In addition, books in western culture are read from left to right so by keeping directional lines constantly headed towards the right, it also serves as a guide that further encourages the reader to keep turning the page. 

Ambitious Girl | Meena Harris & Illustrated by Marissa Valdez
Ambitious Girl | Meena Harris & Illustrated by Marissa Valdez

Exaggeration

With you exaggerate proportions in the characters and/or environment, add in plenty of bright color, or just go crazy with different textures. Exaggeration is time for you to shine!

This is where you put in that extra flair that is part of your style or just certain aspects you want to emphasize. If there’s something important to show, then make it grand. Don’t forget that with picture books, the target readers are all around age 4-8 which means subtlety will get you nowhere! Make it loud, make it obvious, and show it off!

Bethany Christou

Have Fun!

Picture books take months to complete, from initial designs all the way to publication, it’s going to take awhile. So it’s important to have fun and enjoy it! You’re going to be drawing those same characters over and over again. They’re going to be on every page and it’s easy to get bored so play around with them.

This is where exaggeration comes into play with your characters and environment. Maybe you can push and pull a bit here, make the expressions a bit bigger, or add some exciting textures to their clothing. Make it worthwhile and enjoyable for you.

The more you enjoy it, the more that passion will be conveyed to those who read it.

Grow Up David! | David Shannon

For a further look into more picture book elements to also keep in mind, check out these other posts:

How to illustrate a children’s book goes through the entire process concisely with key points to keep in mind.

Picture Book Basics – Pace, Drama, Action! lists out these key elements for a great quick run-through.

Six Things Children’s Book Illustrations Need also makes some great points to always keep in mind.

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