It is a long lingering myth that children’s books don’t sell well in an ebook form. Who would know this better than Darcy Pattison? She writes and markets her own books and has agreed to write us a guest post about finding the best illustrators to work with. Darcy identified 10 things she looks for when selecting the illustrators she wants to work with; and also created an infographic with her results. (You can find it on the bottom of this page.)
About the author
Writing teacher and picture book author Darcy Pattison founded Mims House in 2008. She teaches about writing picture books annually at the Highlights Foundation and online at MimsHouse.Teachable.com. Her new book, Clang! is getting released in March 2018.
The Best Illustrators for Your Children’s Picture Book: How To Find Them?
You’ve heard it ad nauseum: get a professional cover. The cover sells the book.
Likewise, for children’s picture books, the art sells the book.
I’ve been traditionally published (Penguin, Harpercollins, Harcourt, Arbordale), and now I have my own indie publishing company, Mims House. The biggest thing I took away from my experience in the trad-world was a commitment and passion for good art.
What Makes for Good Art for a Children’s Picture Book?
Quality. Of course, your aesthetic values will be different from everyone else’s. That is, show ten people a piece of art, and they won’t be able to agree if they like it or not. However, even when I don’t like a drawing, I can still recognize quality. The artist has taken great care to create the piece, and it reflects a distinctive world view. I ask myself, “Could this art hang in a gallery?”
I hear you scoff. Children’s books don’t need museum quality art. Oh, yes they do! Children’s librarians are fond of quoting Walter de la Mare, British poet and children’s book author, who said, “Only the rarest kind of best is good enough for children.” I firmly agree that you should get the best art you possibly can for your picture book.
You invest in great art for your novel covers. You must also invest in great art for your picture books!
Great art, though, isn’t enough. The art must tell a story. The best artists for picture books don’t merely draw what you put in the words. Instead, they interpret the story and add elements that enhance the story. If you erased the words, you should have a sense of the plot line anyway.
If I find an artist who can illustrate a story with consistent quality, I’ve found gold.
10 Ways to Identify a Great Portfolio
Always remember: you are the art director of your children’s picture book. It’s your responsibility to find great art. When you’re looking through portfolios, how do you recognize potential for a great picture book artist? Here are ten things I look for.
1. Interesting art. Every piece in the portfolio captures your attention for some reason.
2. Variety, yet unity. In great picture books, the art varies. Overhead shot, close up, panorama, vignette, edge to edge, and so on. Look for a versatile artist who has mastered composition (placing the objects within the frame of the book’s pages). The biggest problem is when images are centered in the middle of the page, a big waste of negative space. I prefer art that is composed to break the plane of the page, that is, the objects spill off the sides, tops or bottoms of the page. And yet, within all this variety, the art should be cohesive. I look for variety of composition, and yet unity across the art.
3. Consistent characters. Look for characters that are drawn in multiple positions: front, back, side, from below, with a variety of actions, with different emotions, and with distinctive body language. Every time the character occurs, the reader should recognize the character.
4. Consistent quality. Flashes of brilliance aren’t enough to carry a book. The entire book must have the same devotion to excellence. Poorly curated portfolios include mediocre work beside great art and that’s not a good sign. Look for portfolios that amaze you with the quality of each piece.
5. Storytelling. I look for a series of art that shows an ability to carry a story across multiple illustrations. Is there a beginning, middle and end?
6. Distinctive style. I’m looking for an artist who clearly has a unique style because that will make the book stand out in “today’s crowded market.”
7. Special skills or the ability to draw what the story demands. I often do nonfiction picture books that require anatomically correct depictions of animals. In these cases, I will prioritize the ability to accurately draw an animal over other things. Unless the anatomy is correct, nothing else matter. Your story may demand great characterization, amazing settings, or an ethereal quality. Always keep in mind what your story needs.
8. Timeless art. When a child falls in love with a picture book, they’ll demand that mom or dad read it over and over and over and over. And over. Are the illustrations interesting enough that I can look at them repeatedly and not get tired or bored? I’m not chasing fads, although I appreciate an artist who takes risks. Instead, I want a timeless quality that will carry my book forward across a couple decades.
9. Communication or the ability to take direction. You won’t know this until you’ve actually worked with an artist, but their working style is crucial. When I’m looking at art, I have a vision for my book and the artist must be able to work with me. I appreciate artists who will try a different composition, try different colors, or just listen. I’m not trying to dictate, and I love artists who are comfortable with their own work and will push back at my suggestions. In other words, I love artists who aren’t afraid to communicate. Communication is crucial to the successful completion of a book.
10. Reasonably priced. Unfortunately, my bank account isn’t limitless. I decide on a budget for the art, and I stick with it. I know that this artist or that one could do a great book. But it’s foolish to leave aside the matter of making money. The only way to profitably publish is to control how much you spend. Negotiate. Offer ridiculously low payments because that’s improves your profit which is good business; however, be willing to negotiate up to your budgetary limit. If the artist is priced too high, walk away.
Where do I look for artists?
I’m looking for great art, and right or wrong, I doubt I’ll find it on Fiverr. Price is #10 on my list, not #1. Instead, my favorite source is Behance.net, which is Adobe’s social media site for illustrators worldwide. Adobe sells the professional software that artists use, so it makes sense that they have a great platform for artists. Personally, I can waste hours scrolling through the app to look at art.
Be careful on Behance, because the artists who post portfolios there aren’t all children’s book artists. They are working in many different fields. If you hire someone with no experience in children’s books, be ready to give heavy art direction. In fact, to stay within my budget, I’ve worked with many debut artists. I know that my budget is modest and I’m willing to invest time, rather than money, at this point in my publishing journey.
Sometimes, I’ll search for a certain art technique: watercolor, oils, pen and ink, and so on. Other times, I’ll search for a topic: frogs, Halloween, orphan children, or scientists. Either way, I’m scrolling until something makes me stop. Remember that phrase, “in today’s crowded market.” I need art that makes a busy person (me!) stop and pay attention. It might be color, composition, or details. But I love that I’m looking at thumbnails when the art stops me. Online, our book covers are usually thumbnails, so they are great tests of how well an artist’s work will function for my books.
When I find interesting art, I will often follow that artist on Behance, so their art will recur in my feed and emails. Usually, they’ll have a website listed, too. Clicking through to their website will usually result in a more extensive portfolio, details about the artist, and sometimes a hint at pricing.
You should be aware that Behance’s artist are found worldwide. I’m very comfortable working with an international artist as long as they have good English communication skills and great art. I’ve worked with artists from Columbia, Brazil, Great Britain, and Poland. PayPal and Western Union take care of payments, and everything else can be done over the internet. If you’re looking for someone from a certain geographical area, you can narrow your searches that way, as well. Personally, I love that it’s an international marketplace because the range of art is so deep and wide.
I love great art. I love great picture books. It starts with a great story, but it demands great art. I urge you to think quality because that single commitment will lead to a successful children’s picture book.