Commissioning illustrators for picture books – a guide. Part 1.

I am regularly asked by members of the public if I will illustrate books they have written for them. I thought it would be useful if I wrote about the standard professional process a commission entails and I’m using my latest finished project for Lion Hudson, Seasons of Wonder, as an example. Written by Julia Key, a first time author, it describes in gentle rhyme the wonders of the earth throughout the year. I jumped at the chance to take this project on especially as it gave me plenty of opportunities to draw plants, birds and animals.

Contracts and fees.

Prior to starting work, there is usually a back and forth negotiation of contracts: fees, deadlines, copyright, license, art ownership etc. It’s important to get it right so everyone is protected legally –  disputes do happen, especially between those with less experience.

As contracts are very complicated, I’ll leave them for another time (Part 2?) but I think it’s worth stating that hand illustrating a picture book with a standard number of pages (usually around 32) takes many months and professional fees reflect that.

Scripts and design layouts.

So. Right at the beginning, I am given either the script or a design layout showing where the publisher expects to place images and how they fit with the text. The illustrator can see the extent of the workload and what will be required of them. Some publishers are prescriptive in what they want the illustrations to contain. I prefer to be given free rein and compose the images myself, if I’m honest. It’s what I’ve been trained for.

This is what a designer sends to me before I start drawing.

This is what a designer sends to me before I start drawing. You can see that the text has been positioned already.

Thumbnails- tiny drawings of the proposed images.

Then a thumbnail plan is drawn out for the publishers and author to discuss and make changes if necessary. The plan shows how the illustrations work together with the text and how they flow together in the book as a whole. Some picture books have high points of drama and the flow of the book should reflect that with compositions stopping the reader in his tracks at important moments. Seasons of Wonder is a poetry book and initial ideas were fairly decorative with a more regular compositional flow.

My client, Lion Hudson, decided to give the images an international flavour shifting subtly away from the original intent that was firmly based in the English countryside. Lots of research time was needed and I collected a whole library of visual material to help me illustrate the dawn chorus in rural India, geese flying over a town in Greenland or a small Peruvian child planting seeds for example.

Roughs – full size pencil drawings of the proposed artwork.

Using the thumbnails as a guide, rough drawings are made taking into account the designer’s (and in this case, the author’s) wishes. Usually my drawings are fairly accurate and representative of the final artwork although some illustrators provide a literally rough outline without much detail. I use my drawings as the base of my paintings. What you see is what you get. Usually the process of drawing roughs for an entire book takes at least 6 weeks, if not longer, depending on the size of the project.

Pencil drawing rough of brambles and bees.

Pencil drawing rough of brambles and bees.

Any changes?

The roughs are scanned and emailed to the publisher who gives comments and makes reasonable changes where they feel necessary. If the publisher decides that the illustrator is not right for the project or the work is substandard, it’s possible for him to back out at this point, and usually there is a rejection fee involved for the work completed. If the publisher makes radical changes to illustrations that have been tightly briefed already and the illustrator is required to provide a completely new drawing that is unexpected, the fee should be renegotiated for the extra work.

Going to colour.

Once any adjustments have been made, the illustrator can hit the paints. Many illustrators use digital tools to add colour but I choose to work by hand. It gives me much more pleasure than sitting in front of a screen although it does take much longer and is a less flexible medium. Again, depending on the size of the book, this process for me is very labour intensive and will usually take a couple of months to complete a standard 32 page full colour picture book. I use a variety of media from watercolour, to inks, to gouache, pencil and collage- whatever I think works best for the image.

Partially painted illustration.

Partially painted illustration.

Sending for approval.

When I’m done, usually I scan the images and send low resolution pictures to the publisher via email. At this point, small tweaks can be made to the originals – less easy with hand drawn work whereas digital images can be adjusted with the click of a button. There’s generally a clause somewhere in the contract that allows the publisher not to have to pay for artwork they deem substandard but hopefully by this point, it’s not going to happen unless the illustrator has had a total meltdown.

Approved by the publisher!

Once everyone is happy, I pack my illustrations up and send them off. Each image is fragile so I give it a paper cover simply taped to the back meaning that colour won’t rub off so easily or transfer to other pages. I try to remove as many pencil marks and smudges as possible to keep the general package clean.  Some publishers are happy for their illustrators to scan the work themselves and send digital files too.

Artwork with paper covers.

Artwork with paper covers.

Proofs.

Very often, the illustrator is sent a first copy of the book pages before it goes to print. This ensures that the illustrator is happy with how the images have been used (is it upside down for example?) and to check details like colour balance and correct cropping. Decent professional publishers won’t edit or change illustrations without the illustrator’s consent.

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Ta-dah!

Then it’s just a matter of waiting for a copy of the book to arrive on your doormat!  Seasons of Wonder will be published in September 2017 by Lion Hudson. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a Spring break!

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