Eileen McKenna Art & Design

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Developing a Children’s Book Illustration Style (Part I)

A few years ago I wrote a children’s book and wanted to illustrate it. I was pretty good at drawing things realistically. But how do you draw in a children’s book style? How do you develop your own style? I searched for books on the topic and found “Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication” by Martin Salisbury. This book gives a great overview of all aspects of children’s book design, including: a brief history, different media and techniques, character development, design and typography, and getting published, as well as several case studies. I enjoyed this book. It examines all the techniques needed to illustrate for children, but in the words of Salisbury it is not a “how to” book and doesn’t contain “easy steps to stylistic tricks or wizardry.” I now had a greater understanding of the field of children’s book illustration, but still felt lost as to where to start illustrating my own book. The only instructional books I found on drawing in a style were specific to Manga and comics. It seemed I would have to figure this out on my own.

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I spent time reading about other illustrators’ processes and looked through tons of children’s books to see what I liked, what the illustrations had in common and what might be “in line” with my current drawing style. I even emailed a few illustrators, and Illustrator Scott Magoon offered this advice,

“Thanks very much for your kind works about my illustrations in Mostly Monsterly. I’m flattered that you’re using it as a sample animation style! As for how I developed it, well, I’ve been drawing for many years and I guess it’s sort of just grown out of lots and lots and lots of drawings – and borrowing elements from illustrators I admire.

If you find that your drawings are too realistic for children’s books, it sounds like you may need to try to abstract your drawings more. Perhaps trying to keep your drawings very loose may help – don’t close all of your circles for instance – perhaps the perspective could be slightly skewed – or, if you use color, color outside the lines so to speak. Look at some books on cartooning or at cartoonists you admire and see how they simplify gestures, movement, facial expressions to very, very simple shapes, lines and compositions.”

I realized there was no quick answer. Developing a style was going to be a process. I needed to get to work. I picked a few children’s book illustrations that I loved and drew them. (These included Joe Berger, the illustrator of “Hattie the Bad” and Vicky A. Fieldhouse.) I thought of it as a way to study each illustrator’s technique and as a way to determine the common elements in children’s book illustration.

  • Exaggerate features – like big eyes or wacky teeth
  • Color palette – stick to 3 colors
  • Kids – small bodies, big heads
  • Use marker
  • Outline

I took a photo of my son and tried to draw it as a children’s book illustration. It still wasn’t cute enough. Then I tried to draw it again using the first drawing as reference, NOT the photo. Each time I drew it, it got more watered down, more loose and less realistic. It was a great exercise.

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I’m happy to be on the path to developing my children’s book style. The steps I recommend to anyone else wanting to start are:

  1. Research. Get a synopsis of the industry in “Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication.” Then look for children’s book illustrations that you like. Search online for information about the illustrator’s process.
  2. Practice. Start drawing! Draw multiple versions. Each time try it a slightly different way. When you’ve filled the page – see which ones you like and ask yourself why.

 

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