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Where’s your Waldo? Seriously, it all  about location – location – location.

I read somewhere, I don’t remember, that your background should be interesting with your main characters removed.

Location - location - locationWhat makes an illustration appropriate for a children’s book as opposed to an advertisement or package art is the story telling ingredients. This butterfly is an illustration I did as a demo for my students during my Techniques of Watercolor Pencil class. It’s pretty, it has a focal point and a background. But it is completely lacking in story telling and the background could be anywhere. As an illustration for a children’s book it is a failure.

What would change that? In connection to this post, having this blue beauty in a specific type of tree, perhaps with a frog or other butterfly eating creature lying in wait for a yummy meal. That gives the image, the main character – in this case, the butterfly, a story and something to draw the viewer into the image.

I hope you’re not filling your portfolio with lots of pretty pictures of kids or kittens calmly staring at the viewer on a white or plain background.

Being a good artist isn’t enough to be a children’s book illustrator. Being a great artist isn’t either. Your job, mission, journey as a book illustrator is to tell that story in 1,000 words with no words at all.

Let’s say you have a little boy holding a ball.

Location – location – location.

Where is this boy? What is he wearing? Where did the ball come from? These are only the beginnings of the questions you need to ask yourself when sketching out an image appropriate for a picture book. Interview that character. Ask him why he has the ball, what he plans to do with it, and where he plans to do it.

If you decide he’s going to the park to play catch with his dad, that’s great. But don’t stop there. Where is this park, what is the weather like, is it crowded? Does the dad live with the boy or is he a weekend visitor, maybe he’s on leave from the Armed Forces. Will there be other little boys at the park for him to play with? Depending on the time of day, such as after lunch or during dinner time, will create two very different environments, even in the same park.

Take a look at the images in your portfolio. If you take your main character out of the picture, literally, is there still a story going on without him or her? If the answer is no, you have your work cut out for you.

Once you have your storyline in mind, you’re halfway there. Yes, only half way.

Having a place in mind is only part of what needs to be portrayed. The other half, the important half is making this place, this environment specifically yours. A generic park just wouldn’t have the same impact as the one where your grandma took you to. What made that park special, what makes it stand out from any number of other parks you’ve been to in your life?

Location – location – location.

A list of 10 places a story might take place:

  1. Kitchen
  2. Basement
  3. Rooftop
  4. Abandoned building
  5. Swimming pool
  6. National monument
  7. State fair
  8. Seashore
  9. Zoo
  10. Shoe store

The list can go on from there. A generic location can become a powerful visual story telling tool. It’s up to you as the illustrator to take it to the next level and make it individually and interestingly yours and yours alone. Happy painting!


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Recently, on Facebook, generous kid lit aficionado, Harold Underdown, began a page entitled A Webinar: Researching the Right Agent, Editor, and/or Publishing House. I asked him about it and researching the right home for your kid lit.

Researching the right home for your kid lit with Harold UnderdownWM: It’s exciting to hear you’re hosting a webinar about researching the right agent, editor, and/or publishing house. This is your first webinar. What prompted you to hold this class on-line?

HU: I was contacted by Carrie Pearson, who was organizing a series of webinars on the overall theme of “From Manuscript to Submission” for the Michigan SCBWI—you can see more about it here: http://michigan.scbwi.org/2013/10/20/announcing-the-scbwi-mi-webinar-series/. My webinar is actually the third in the series.

I was reluctant at first, as the webinars I’ve experienced have either been Skype sessions, with possibly pixellated video, or glorified Powerpoints. But I was impressed by their format, which allows for the presenter to be seen in a video window while the presentation is displayed AND the audience chats via text. They use the text chat to gather question, which the presenter answers at the end. So it’s a good format, and they provide support and training to the presenters.

Both the support and being part of a series made this look like a good opportunity to try this out.

WM: Why is researching agents, editors, or publishing houses before sending out a manuscript a good idea?

HU: If you don’t, you’ll just be submitting at random, and may waste a lot of your time. You also may not know about all of the possible places to send your manuscript, or about changes that have happened since .

Almost everyone has to do some research before submitting. My aim in this presentation is to explain the kinds of research that are likely to be the most useful, and how to go about them, and also to show some kinds of research that people may not know, such as how to analyze a catalog to learn about a publisher.

WM: Do you feel researching is an under-utilized skill among authors and illustrators?

HU: That’s a bit of a loaded question! No, I don’t, not at all. In fact, I think that it’s possible to do too much research, which is one of the issues that I will be addressing. But I know that authors and illustrators are always looking for more information about editors and agents and publishers, and my intention is to show them, from an insider’s point of view, the best ways to go about acquiring that.

I’ve talked about most of this before, of course, at conferences, and much of what I’m covering is also covered in my The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (http://www.underdown.org/cig.htm), though in different form, and I’ll be talking about using social media to do research, which wasn’t really on option the last time I updated the book.

WM: You will be touching on submission etiquette in this class. In your opinion, what are the top 5 red flags in a submission packet that turn off agents or editors?

Researching the right home for your kid lit with Harold UnderdownHU: That’s tough, but here are five things to avoid:
• Carelessness—bad spelling, poor punctuation, getting the editor’s name wrong.
• Comparing your writing or illustrating favorably to such greats as Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, or Judy Blume.
• Telling us how much your children/students/grandchildren loved the story.
• Making statements that reveal how little you know about the agent or publisher (better to say nothing at all).
• Not following the guidelines. Professionals always follow the guidelines.

WM: The webinar filled up almost immediately. That’s wonderful for you, but sad for the people who missed out. Will you hold another session?

HU: It’s not strictly true to say that it filled up almost immediately. It was announced at the beginning of January as part of the MI-SCBWI webinar series, and they publicized it through the usual SCBWI channels. I also announced it on The Purple Crayon. At the end of February, I think they had 75-80 “seats” of the 100 they can handle filled. That’s when I set up a Facebook “Event” (https://www.facebook.com/events/402818103189026/), and the response to that led to the remaining seats being filled.

However, people can still sign up for the archived presentation, and watch it as many times as they want over the three months after the webinar happens.

Will we hold it again? That’s not entirely up to me. As I said earlier, I think there’s a good possibility I’ll be doing other webinars in the future. Whether that will include an encore performance of this one or not, I don’t know.

WM: Is there any additional information you’d like to add, either about the webinar or the submission process in general?

HU: In addition to my book, people can find a lot of information about the submissions process on my website. I particularly recommend “Getting Out of the Slush Pile” (http://www.underdown.org/slush.htm)

Thanks for asking good questions!

WM: Thanks for visiting and for sharing your knowledge on researching the right home for your kid lit with us, Harold!

About Harold and the work he does: He’s a children’s book editor, working as a consulting or independent editor and writing teacher. Previously, he was Vice President and Editorial Director at ipicturebooks. Before that, he was editorial director of the Charlesbridge trade program, and have also worked at Orchard Books and Macmillan.

He is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, now in its third edition. He gives workshops through Kid’s Book Revisions. He speaks at conferences, provides editorial services to publishers and authors, and maintains the Purple Crayon website.

If you want to know more about him, please explore his website, or you can see a (very out-of-date) list of books he’s edited.


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Placing a watermark on your illustrationsAre you placing a watermark on your illustrations?

You should be.

I’m not talking about a large central ugly one across the middle of a painting. Nor am I suggesting what I’ve seen some artists do by covering their imagery with their name a web site repeated ad nauseum on the artwork. I talking about something that identifies your art as yours, lets people know where to find you and is tasteful without detracting from the art.

Because the art is what you are selling. Isn’t it? You can’t sell it if no one can see, nor can you sell it if no one can find you.

It’s a fine balancing act for the artist. Because you need to have your work on the web. Professional artists without a web presence are shooting themselves in the foot. Nearly all art director I am aware of want to see an artist’s work on a web site. You can utilize one of those group web site if you’d rather not host your own. Some artist also manage fine with just a blogger account. But you are still placing your art on-line.

I’ve heard some art directors advise against placing a watermark on your illustrations, but even they want to be able to download and share your art if it strikes them. What happens if the art accidentally ends up in another artist’s folder on the A.D.’s hard-drive when they are reviewing your portfolio? What about when that Ad sends it to another AD or an author? Will the receiver know who created it? Will they know where to see more of your art?

Some artist suggest putting your name in the file name. File names can be changed. When any image is uploaded to a social media site like Facebook or Flicker, it happens automatically. Some software will let you put information into the file. But how many people actually know how to access such information? Or will actually go to the effort?

I’d like to believe that most people looking at my art are honorable and have no intention of stealing it. But as more and more people get online and share art they like, the distance between you, the creator, and the viewer gets more and more diluted.

You worked hard on that image. Do you want to take the chance it will become lost far from home.

You may say, it’s just a doodle. Not a big deal. What’s the worst that could happen?

If you place your art online and don’t identify yourself as the creator, what happened to friend and fellow artist, Kelly Light, could happen to you. One of her doodles, a piece she created of, and for her daughter, was shared by a well-know public figure in a meme. Without crediting Kelly. The image went viral. All without credit to Kelly. None at all. It was devastating and hurtful to her. And there was nothing she could do to minimize the damage. Her special art was shared over 40,000 times. And hardly any of those shares led back to her. The public figure did credit her after Kelly contacted her, but by then the damage had been done. She blogged about it here.

Most of my artist friends, myself included, put our heart and soul into the images we create. These bits of art, from small doodles to a months-long, full-blown illustration are born out of our souls. They are a part of us. Akin to being our children. When one of our images is taken, even for as innocent a use as sharing with a friend, a part of the creator is taken along for the ride. We want to know where our art travels, we want to know you like it. But most of all WE WANT TO BE CREDITED for its creation.

If you care about your art, if you want to be credited with its creation, but most of all, if you want people to be able to find you if they like your art and want more of it, you should be placing a watermark on your illustrations. A small and tasteful one will do. Your name, your website, and maybe an email or phone number. Don’t let your art get lost.

The art I created for my February 2014 promotional postcard mailer made entirely in Adobe Illustrator.

I’ve been using AI since it first came out. Sometime in the early to mid 90s, I believe. That first version of the program was installed via a couple of 3×3 floppy disks. Remember those? Not very floppy, and incredibly tiny amount of storage space. I currently use CS5, the CD for the program stores more data than my first Apple computer.

Not only has AI become a much bigger program, it now has so many more capabilities to create painterly art. Here is my illustration process in Adobe Illustrator.

I start out with paper and pencil. I may use a sketchbook, but in most cases, I just grab a piece of blank copy paper and scribble till something comes of it. Once I have a messy thumbnail down (I won’t bother sharing it, since it is unintelligible to anyone but myself) I work on character development. Characters are sketched separately, scanned in and layered into Photoshop. Adjustments and revisions are made and background options explored.

illustration process in Adobe Illustrator - rough pencil illustration process in Adobe Illustrator - frankenstiening a background illustration process in Adobe Illustrator - initial inking

Once I have my rough layout designed in Photoshop, I bring the file into Illustrator as a template layer. I begin inking over the pencil rough. As you can see above, the inking has some major changes, especially to the right half of the image. I decided the image of the three boys and a dog playing with a couple of basketballs was too ordinary. I added more story telling to the illustration by changing the middle boy’s basketball to a swirl of light. Where the boys crossed over the division delineated by the swirl, they and their environment became a fantasy world. The dog was out-of-place, so it transformed into a fox.

I create my characters on separate layers in AI, that way I can revise them in placement, size etc, easily. The only drawback, if you can call it that, of this technique is I have to draw each character in its entirety. It’s a little more work initially, but makes the fine adjustments throughout the image creation much less of a hassle.

illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator

When the majority of the character inking is done, I begin adding flat color. With this piece, I had several false starts with getting the swirling light and the portal to reflect the vision in my head. Glowing orbs of light are a lot easier to accomplish in Photoshop, apparently, because I couldn’t find any reference or samples created utilizing AI. Since I didn’t want the background to compete with all that was going on with the main characters, I hadn’t inked it. I wanted to simulate a bright sunny day, but differentiate the left side from the right. I also wanted to avoid flat colors in the hills, fields and court surface, so I messed around with a variety of textures until I got the effect I was looking for. The glowing orb and separation are progressing to closer to the image in my mind. I added a larger, darker version of the background flowers to the foreground.

illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator

I worked the details into the left side of the background, adding leaves to the tree with flowers and grass at its roots. I decided the costuming on the boys was too similar in color and values to those of the background. I changed them so the boys appeared to jump forward in the space. The glowing orb and its trailing light has finally come close to what I was aiming for. I began laying in the fur on the fox to make it more dimensional. Then I moved to the boy on the left and concentrated on the highlights and shadows on him, his clothing and the basketball he’s dribbling.

illustration process in Adobe Illustratorillustration process in Adobe Illustratorillustration process in Adobe Illustrator

I worked on the boy and then moved over to the fox bring dimensionality and a painterly feel to both of these characters. Then I completed the background on the right side, adding the trees, leaves, flowers and grasses along with their shadows. The color and shading were also added to the basketball hoop. Shading and highlighting of the middle boy was also attacked, paying special attention to the cross-over details on his clothing to differentiate the mundane from the magical worlds he was straddling. The lighting on this was tricky since he is split by the trailing light of the glowing orb.

illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator illustration process in Adobe Illustrator

More details were added to the fox before I moved on to the last boy. As I was working, I noticed all the boys’ legs were in the same position. I didn’t like the way the elf shoes were hitting the fox, so I revised the boy’s lower half to add more variety to the children and remove the confusion between the elf shoes and fox. Once the revisions were made, I continued adding details to the woodland elf costume. It’s hard to tell here, but the elf-child has leaves scattered in his hair as well. I also decided the style of middle boy’s hand didn’t match the rest of the image, so I made it more realistic and changed its position.

While I was adding final details, I decided the two boys on the left needed to have their faces revised. Although the adjustments are minor, they gave the boys more definition and made their faces more in keeping with the semi-realistic style of the image. Almost done but for a few more minor revisions.


Here is the printed piece back from the printer and ready to mail out.

PortalPostcardShowoffTo see the completed image or order prints visit my portfolio.

As you know, I’ve taken a break from new coloring pages. All the old ones are still available for download. Here’s one I did a couple of years ago for Valentine Day. Happy coloring!

Valentine Day Coloring Pages2012 Valentine Day Coloring Pages