Children’s Book Illustration: The Process from Sketch to Story

Have you ever wondered how the beautiful illustrations in children’s books come to life? Children’s book illustration is a special combination of imagination and technique, and there is a lot to know about it!

Self-publishing authors get to collaborate with their illustrator. So if you’re self-publishing, this article is definitely for you. For traditional publishing, the publisher hires and works with an illustrator without the author being involved. (This is how big publishers like HarperCollins and Scholastic have done it for years.) Even if you’ll work with a traditional publisher, it is helpful to understand the creative process behind children’s book illustration, so you understand book creation better.

In this article, we will talk about children’s book illustrations, explain the process step-by-step, as well as cover other important considerations.

  • Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:
  • The importance of illustrations in children’s books
  • The steps of children’s book illustration
  • Storytelling with illustrations
  • The role of feedback and revisions in the illustration process
  • Technical and printing consideration
  • Examples of successful children’s book illustrations

Children’s books are important for teaching kids about the world around them. Illustrations play a vital role in this, as they visually show the story and help young readers connect with the text on a deeper level. Illustrations do more than entertain or grab attention. Children are visual learners, and illustrations help them understand, remember better, and make the story more relatable.

Understanding: Illustrated books help children connect the written words and images. This helps them to better understand the characters, setting and plot and to improve their reading skills. Illustrations can also introduce new cultures, ideas and places in an easy-to-understand way.

Engagement: Illustrations have the power to transport children into magical worlds, making kids imagine and become curious about new things. Illustrations can convey emotions and expressions that words alone may not capture, so kids can connect with the characters in the story. In short, illustrations add heart and make children’s books more fun to read.

I also firmly believe that AI cannot replace human illustrators to create beautiful, authentic illustrations, for numerous reasons. If you’d like to learn more about AI and its impact on children’s books, read this article.

The Steps of Children’s Book Illustration

The steps of children’s book illustration include:

  • Gathering inspiration and brainstorming ideas
  • Character design
  • Storyboarding
  • Sketching and refining initial concepts
  • Bringing children’s book illustrations to Life through colour
  • Using collaboration and feedback to refine the illustrations

Creating children’s book illustrations is a thorough process that involves several stages and tools. It is important to start with a well-thought-out concept, so brainstorming is the first step. The illustrator comes up with ideas, researches the topic, and gathers references and inspiration. The illustrator will immerse themself in the world they are about to create and explore various sources, such as nature, other artworks, or even childhood memories, to ignite their creativity. These inspirations serve as a foundation for the initial sketches.

After that, as the first step a self-publishing author will usually see, the illustrator will do character design to capture the main character and important supporting characters of the book. From here, they lay out the scenes in a storyboard, which then gets refined into sketches, and last, these come to life in full colour!

The illustrator starts with rough outlines and basic shapes, gradually refining them to bring the characters and settings to life. This allows the illustrator to experiment with different compositions, poses, and perspectives, finding the best ways to illustrate the story. It’s also important to choose the right materials and techniques to make the final illustrations. This depends on the desired style and texture the illustrator and author want. Some illustrators use watercolours, pencils, or acrylics. Others like using digital tools and software because they make revisions easier. No matter which medium, the goal is to make pictures that catch kids‘ attention and complement the story.

Feedback (from the author or art director) also helps to make any necessary revisions. These steps are important to create successful children’s book illustrations.

Gathering Inspiration and Brainstorming Ideas

It is important to take time to research and plan before beginning any children’s book illustration project. It is useful to look at other children’s book illustrations for inspiration, and it is also helpful to look for inspiration in everyday life and nature, art and music.

Once your illustrator has gathered some inspiration, they may create a mood board of colours, images and textures. This will help them visualise the style and atmosphere of your book. They may also make a list of ideas. This will help them arrange their ideas into a cohesive story.

Give the illustrator time for reflection. Creativity is a process and it can take time to come up with ideas. A lot of thought goes into illustrations, to create a perfect marriage between the story and visuals. A good illustrator will think carefully about the characters, how they fit into their environment, which kinds of backgrounds will enhance the story, and countless other details. Allow them time to take a step back to reflect on how they want your illustrations to look. That can help them create a beautiful book with personality.

Keep this in mind throughout the illustrations process too. Have patience, so enough time and care can be dedicated to creating a beautiful, authentic book that readers feel connected to.

Character Design

Character sketches and colour character design for Bibi Saves the Honey Bees by Judith Ewa. Illustrations by GetYourBookIllustrations.

Character design is an essential part of any children’s book illustration. It helps the reader to identify and connect with the characters in the story and is a key factor in making the story enjoyable and memorable. It is important to keep in mind that children’s characters should be age-appropriate and relatable. Designers should consider the character’s personality and use visual cues to convey their personality in the illustrations. This could be anything from facial expressions to body language and clothing choices. The aim is to create characters that are memorable and will stay with the reader long after the book is finished. The illustrator should also consider how the character will fit into and interact with the environment we’ll see in the pages of the book.

A good illustration will bring the characters to life and help the reader connect emotionally with the story. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that the character design is well thought out and in line with the story before moving on.

Storyboard

Children’s book illustration requires both creativity and careful planning. One great tool for helping illustrators create the perfect illustrations is a storyboard. Storyboards are a visual way to map out the entire children’s book, allowing illustrators to adjust the order of the scenes or add and delete illustrations as they progress. This is a great way to ensure that the illustrations in the book are consistent and flow well from page to page or spread to spread. Because one can see the entire storyboard at once, it makes it easier to see where a scene may need to be changed to make things more interesting. This is especially true for children’s picture books or other fully illustrated books.

Storyboards usually contain rough thumbnail sketches, since the focus is on layout and flow, not on details, at this point. Some illustrators will add almost no details, while others will add quite a bit of detail, though.

By making sure that the illustrations flow and are interesting and varied, illustrators can tell the story most effectively. The author can also give feedback on the storyboard so any changes can be made before moving on to more detailed sketches and colouring. In other words, the storyboarding process should be kept open-ended, to allow for changes to be made based on feedback, as this can help to make the sketches as strong as possible.

In short, storyboards are a valuable tool for children’s book illustrators. Not only do they help ensure accuracy and consistency, but they are also a great way to get feedback from authors and editors. Using storyboards can help illustrators create the perfect illustrations for a children’s book.

Sketching and Refining Initial Concepts

To ensure that the illustrations are engaging and aesthetically pleasing, it is important to refine the initial concept. This involves taking the initial rough sketches from the storyboard and making them more detailed. Other details can also be added here, for instance, background elements that weren’t in the storyboard, accessories or details in the characters’ outfits, and so on. While the amount of detail in sketches can vary, the sketch should be detailed and expressive enough to see the environment, characters, and mood, so the author can give feedback before the illustrator adds colour. Colour is a time-consuming process, so catching any needed changes during the sketch phase is important.

Sketch by GetYourBookIllustrations for Winnie Acts Up by Pat J. Wheeler. Sketch by GetYourBookIllustrations Coral the Diver and Her Trusty Crew by Tami S. Schaller.

Bringing Children’s Book Illustrations to Life through Colour

In children’s book illustrations, especially for younger kids, colour is a key element in bringing the story to life. But this isn’t just fun for the kids reading it. For the author and illustrator, arguably one of the most exciting aspects of children’s book illustration is the step of bringing characters and scenes to life through colour and shading. 

Colour can evoke certain emotions and feelings, and help the illustrations to become more engaging for the reader. In movies, they use music to influence how the viewer feels. In books, we use colour. For instance, warm colours like reds, oranges, and yellows can evoke feelings of happiness and excitement, while cool colours like blues and greens can create a sense of calmness or mystery. Red can also evoke a feeling of danger, while blue and grey can evoke sadness. By using bright and bold colours, the illustrations can stand out and draw the reader’s attention. Furthermore, a good colour palette can help to bring out the finer details of the illustrations and make them feel more alive. In addition to this, colour can also create an atmosphere and set the tone for the story.

Shading is another technique that illustrators use to add depth and dimension to their illustrations. By manipulating light and shadow, artists create a three-dimensional effect that makes the characters and settings feel more realistic. and immersive. Shading can also be used to emphasize certain elements or direct the viewer’s attention to specific details. Through the careful use of colour and shading, illustrators breathe life into their characters, making them relatable and enchanting to young readers.

Texture is also important in illustrations. For example, a soft, fuzzy texture for a character’s fur can make them look cuddly and inviting, while a hard, metallic texture can make a vehicle look strong. Textures can also be used to create a sense of depth, making the illustration look more realistic.

It’s important to note that colour, shading and texture should work together to create visual harmony, so it’s important to choose and combine them carefully. The right colours, shading and texture in children’s book illustrations create an immersive and engaging experience for the reader. By paying attention to the finer details, illustrators can ensure that their illustrations are impactful and memorable.

Illustration by GetYourBookIllustrations for Winnie Acts Up by Pat J. Wheeler. Illustration by GetYourBookIllustrations Coral the Diver and Her Trusty Crew by Tami S. Schaller.

Some illustrators will start the colour step by adding colour to the storyboard. This enables them to see all the colour of the book at once, make sure it looks harmonious and enhances the story. While this isn’t an essential step, it can help improve the final outcome.

Storytelling with Illustrations

Illustrations help explain or clarify the plot and help young readers explore the story more interactively, as well as introduce characters and settings. But great illustrations should also tell the story and add an emotional component to the story, helping young readers to connect and empathise with the characters. Illustrations shouldn’t be a “photocopy” of the words, but should extend and amplify them.

Illustrations in children’s books, especially picture books, are so much more than just static pictures; they are powerful tools for telling the story, working together with the text to give the reader a complete and cohesive story. Illustrators incorporate various storytelling elements into their illustrations to enhance the reading experience. These elements can include facial expressions that convey emotions, body language that communicates characters’ personalities, and visual cues that foreshadow or highlight key story moments. Background details can also play a significant role in storytelling, providing additional context or clues for young readers to discover. The composition of the illustrations, including the placement of characters and objects, can help guide the reader’s eye and create a sense of movement. By thoughtfully incorporating storytelling elements into their illustrations, artists ensure that the visuals not only complement the text but also enrich the overall reading experience.

Even without text, the illustrations should tell a story. This is one of the factors that separate okay illustrators from great illustrators—a great illustrator doesn’t just draw pictures to go with the words, they tell a story.

As a note: Picture book illustrations tend to have more freedom and room for creativity, as picture books are read by an adult to a child. Thus, the illustrations don’t need to represent the text as closely. The illustrations in early readers interpret the text more literally, as these books are meant to be read by children who are just starting to read, and thus the illustrations need to correlate strongly with the text to help kids to understand.

The Role of Feedback and Revisions in the Illustration Process

Great children’s book illustrations must capture the story, characters and plot. Feedback and revisions can be an integral part of achieving this. Especially in the self-publishing world, because everyone’s budget is different, some authors will hire an illustrator who needs feedback to successfully capture the story. Feedback and revisions provide illustrators with the opportunity to refine their work to ensure it is the best it can be. A good illustrator will use feedback to make positive changes to the illustrations, from small tweaks to big changes. By taking the time to incorporate revisions into the illustration process, illustrators can create illustrations that are visually appealing and accurately convey the message of the book.

Taking the time to give and listen to feedback and make revisions can make a huge difference to the final illustrations and can help to make the book a success. Even so, it’s best not to micromanage an illustrator and allow them as much creative freedom as possible. As long as the illustrations tell the story, minor details often are less important than authors think. Ask yourself, “Does this change the story?” or “Will this change really make the book better for the readers out there?” If the answer is no, there’s no reason to edit the illustration.

Technical and printing consideration

As we’ve gone over, children’s book illustrations must tell a story and be a perfect marriage between the words and the pictures. Another part of what makes children’s book illustrations unique is that there are technical and printing considerations. Someone may be an artist, but that doesn’t mean they can illustrate a children’s book. I often see authors hiring inexperienced illustrators and running into all kinds of trouble with technical requirements once the illustrations are done. Unfortunately, these can be difficult and time-consuming to fix, so let’s cover them, so you can avoid them.

Bleed and trim

When it comes to printing children’s books, bleed and trim are crucial to keep in mind. Bleed is the process of printing an image on a bigger page than the final book size. The actual printed illustration is thus bigger than the final book will be. Trim is the process of cutting the printed page down to the desired size. This method of printing bigger than needed, and then trimming, ensures there are never white edges on pages. This improves the aesthetics of the book. Both bleed and trim should be taken into account when creating illustrations for children’s books from the start, as it’s much harder to add bleed after the illustrations are done.

Bleed is 0.125 along each edge of a spread (not along each edge of each page). Picture books are printed in spreads, not single pages, that’s why. In other words, no bleed is added in the gutter (the middle of an open book). So if your book will be 8″ x 8″, a spread is 16″ wide by 8″ high. With bleed added, the spread will be 16.25″ x 8.25″.

The illustrator should also understand not to put anything crucial along the edges of illustrations, as it will be cut off.

Gutter

The gutter is the space in the middle of an open book, between the pages. It is important to make sure that any crucial illustration elements are not placed in the middle of a spread because when the book is opened, the gutter can often cause the crucial elements to be cut off.

Neutral space for text

The other common mistake I see is illustrators not leaving room for the text. If the illustration is too busy, there is no neutral space, and the text becomes illegible or difficult to read. This can be very frustrating for the reader. To ensure the text is legible, it is important to leave enough space in the illustrations so that the text is not overcrowded.

Examples of Successful Children’s Book Illustrations

Here are just a few wonderful examples of illustrations that are not only visually appealing but also bring the story to life:

  • Eric Carle’s use of collage to illustrate the classic “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has been a source of inspiration for many children’s book illustrators. His signature style of bright and bold collage has been replicated in many books since its publication.
  • Quentin Blake’s quirky and humorous illustrations in Roald Dahl’s books have become iconic and have been loved by generations of children.
  • Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” is known for its detailed and colourful illustrations that capture the mischievous nature of the characters.
  • Chris Haughton’s bold and bright illustrations in “Oh No, George!” add a modern twist to classic children’s stories.
  • Emily Gravett’s “Wolf Won’t Bite!” features gorgeous watercolour illustrations that bring the characters to life.
  • Jon Klassen’s minimalist illustrations in “I Want My Hat Back” create a unique storytelling experience.
  • Oliver Jeffers’ “Lost and Found” features charming pen and ink illustrations that capture the emotion of the characters.
  • Peter Brown’s “The Wild Robot” features playful illustrations that capture the imagination of children.
  • Lane Smith’s “John, Paul, George & Ben” features expressive and captivating illustrations that make the story come alive.

Each of these illustrators has left an indelible mark on the world of children’s book illustration and has inspired generations of illustrators.

But it’s not only big publishers who publish beautiful books. Countless lesser-known illustrators have created beautiful and successful children’s book illustrations. Click here to see more:

23 stunning examples of book illustration (these are some famous and not-so-famous examples)

GetYourBookIllustrations: Books We’ve Worked On (mostly with self-publishing authors)

Conclusion

Children’s book illustrations play an essential role in a child’s development, as it encourages imagination, creativity, and an appreciation for reading. For many children, books are their first introduction to storytelling, and the illustrations help to bring the story to life. It is important to recognise the significant impact that illustrations have on children’s literature, as they aid understanding and support the development of language skills.

The illustrations in children’s books also provide an emotional connection and help to create an atmosphere a child can relate to. This is invaluable for developing a love of reading, which has both short and long-term benefits. As well as being a source of delight, children’s books can provide an escape from reality, and illustrations are key in helping to create these imaginative worlds.

3 Comments

  1. Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept talking about this. I’ll send this article to him.

    Fairly certain he’s going to have a good
    read. I appreciate you for sharing!

  2. I do love the manner in which you have framed this specific challenge plus it really does offer me personally a lot of fodder for thought. Thank you for this fantastic piece and whilst I can not necessarily concur with the idea in totality, I respect your point of view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *