Illustrating a Children’s Book

Are you self-publishing your children’s book? Here’s what to expect when working with an illustrator.

Since I started writing and illustrating a couple of years ago, I have met so many people who are interested, curious and have considered writing their own children’s picture book. Lots of teachers want to write books they wished were available to them in the classroom. Many parents are inspired by adventures or struggles with their children. Grandparents want to write about memories and share their experiences. Even industry experts have talked to me about making educational nonfiction children’s books. Does any of this sound like you?

Are you self-publishing your children's book? Here's what to expect when working with an illustrator.
Are you self-publishing your children’s book? Here’s what to expect when working with an illustrator.

While anyone may write a story or manuscript, illustrating a picture book takes technical skill and training. Not everyone can do it. While I am just in the beginnings of my illustrating career and working on building my freelance portfolio, I do want to share my illustrating process and demystify it for any authors out there considering children’s bookmaking.

Also, please consider that at this moment I am working with self-published authors. This means that I, as the illustrator, get to work directly with the author – which I love doing. I love getting to share the vision and hear author intention because they are enthusiastic and excited about their projects! This is different than traditional publishing, where the author and illustrator most often do not communicate and work with the art director, editor, or even agents. So if you’re considering self-publishing your children’s book, this post may be of particular interest to you.

Let’s dive in! Here is what the book illustrating process looks like for self-published authors and freelance illustrators.

Finding An Illustrator

How do I find my author clients? In the past, it has been through personal relationships, so a friend or family member, through Instagram or social media referral, and through the SCBWI. I have spoken with other self-published authors who have found their illustrators through freelance sites such as Fiverr or Upwork. Either way, always ask for a portfolio of work.

I do my best to be upfront about pricing and timeline with the author. Sometimes authors have expectations that I as an illustrator just cannot meet. Also, how are we going to handle delays in the project? These are all terms we discuss before working together. Once we agree on the terms and sign a Work-Made-For-Hire Agreement, and possibly a Non-Disclosure Agreement, we can move forward with the real work – illustrating! I do not start any illustrating, not even sketching until the author has completed their manuscripts and edits. This saves everybody time and prevents going back and forth.

Pagination and Imagination

Art Process for Illustrating a Children’s Book: I take notes on the margin after reading through manuscripts, and then go on the computer to type up changes.
I take notes on the margin after reading through manuscripts, and then go on the computer to type up changes.

Once the author has completed their manuscript, they hand it off to me. I read through it cold just to get a sense for the book, overall themes, how the book makes me feel. Then I think about how I can communicate all that with illustrations. I will take notes in the margin on things I imagine.

The first thing I look for is pagination. Pagination is simply separating the text by the page it should be on. This is essential for picture books because the words will be paired with the illustrations. Sometimes the author gives me the text already paginated. Other times, I make suggestions of pagination for the sake of story flow with the illustrations. Though, I find it best to keep communication open with the author and not jump ahead without the author input.

Thumbnails and Dummy Books

Using good ol’ paper and pencil, I sketch out small thumbnail sizes of some of the visions I have for the book spreads. It’s easy to erase and redraw using a pencil. This is internal, only for me and does not get shared with the author (though I may share it on social media for a behind the scenes look).

Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book. Picture Book Dummy and Thumbnails
These are several pages of thumbnail sketches for picture books.

Then I sketch out the final thumbnails on my iPad. I illustrate all my picture books with my iPad and the app Procreate. It is so easy, intuitive, and transportable! Ha! I am usually illustrating in cafes, bookstores, or anywhere I can get away from my kids and focus. These final sketches do get shared with the author for feedback.

Color Roughs

The next phase is color roughs. This is just color blocking the illustrations and not adding too much detail. To be honest, this is probably the hardest part for me. I am a very detailed person and have a hard time leaving things undone like this. I want to spend extra time making it look nice, with small details in the shadows and light, every blade of grass, etc. But it is good to leave it color blocked so that the author can get a sense of color scheme, placement, where the words will go on the page, and so on.

The author gives feedback such as the skin tone colors, hair textures, dimensions, and more. It’s important not to get to far ahead of the work, and just allow it to “be in the process” and invite the author to participate in that process by providing feedback. When working with a traditional publisher, it is the art director that will be providing this regular feedback to the artist. The author normally does not have involvement.


This is the final round that is open for author feedback. All the details have been added, and there has been so much communication with the author at this point that there is usually very little to do. The feedback is about a shadow, a word placement, or something minimal.

Art Process for Illustrating a Children’s Book. A finished spread from my picture book Fear and a Friend.
A finished spread from my picture book Fear and a Friend.

I use Adobe InDesign to add the text to the illustrations and to turn the document into a PDF which is compatible with most publishing sites and softwares such as Amazon KDPS, IngramSpark, or Blurb.

When I first started illustrating picture books, I greatly underestimated the amount of time that goes into the project. Now, I can reasonably predict a project life cycle. Usually about 6 months for a standard 32-page picture book, book cover or jacket.

So What Does The Process Actually Look Like?

You’re wondering what will the process look like for you? Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Find an illustrator. Whether that is through social media, word of mouth, referral, freelance websites, SCBWI, or any other way. Look through their illustrator portfolio, see what work the illustrator has done.
  2. Be upfront about payments, timelines and contracts. The relationship between author and illustrator is very important and requires trust. After all, the author is entrusting their manuscript and their money to the illustrator! Ask the illustrator about their pricing, and what payment arrangements they accept. Talk about the timeline you can expect, and how you will handle delays in the process. Have it all down in writing, and sign a Work-Made-For-Hire Agreement.
  3. Go through the process. Illustrators have their own unique way of working through their art and communicating it to the client, whether that is with a self-published author or through a traditional publishing house. The process should be agreed upon before payments are made, and listed out in the contract. Again, setting up expectations from the beginning. Trust your illustrator, and don’t be afraid to ask for updates.
  4. Publish your book! Your children’s book is illustrated! Celebrate good times, come on! The work isn’t over yet. Now it’s time to publish your book, whether that is using online platforms such as Amazon or going with a hybrid print publisher.

Writing a book is a large undertaking. Don’t be discouraged, it is absolutely an achievable goal! Whether you are writing a novel or a 32-page picture book, they are all projects and labors of love. I want to see you get through your project, turn it from a dream into a reality, and produce a work you are proud of! Hopefully, this article takes away some of the uncertainty behind getting an illustrator for your children’s book.

Did this article answer your questions? Still unclear about agreements, disclosures, payments, publishing platforms, or more? Leave a comment below with your questions. It is very important to me that I keep making content that is helpful to you!

To receive more helpful articles like this, or to learn more about self-publishing your book, sign up for my author newsletter! If you want to follow along on my freelance and illustrating misadventures, follow me on Instagram.

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