There’s a big difference between children’s picture book illustration art and other forms of art or illustration. Not every artist can do it well, in the same way that not every illustrator is good at fine art portraiture. It’s just a different skill set. In children’s book illustration, you do not just depict beauty, express an idea or opinion, or try to sell or advertise something; you also have to tell a story in a kid-friendly, emotional, narrative and sequential manner. Imagine having to take your favorite two-hour movie and only choosing 20 still-shots from the movie that best narrate the story. Many artists, just like me, decide to expand or make the switch to children’s picture book illustration later in their artistic careers, but even for the best artist, it can take a lot of time, practice, additional education, and self-study to unlearn what we were taught in art or design school and learn to draw for children’s books successfully.
When I first started my children’s illustration journey, I did hours and hours of research and reading, and by research I do not mean asking an illustration group on facebook, I mean credible resources and books. Nothing will arm you better for success in this industry than knowledge. One of the things I did research on was building my portfolio…what makes it great, what makes it stand out, and the big question: WHAT TO PUT IN YOUR CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK ILLUSTRATION PORTFOLIO? What are art agents and publishers really looking for? I’ve condensed all my research into a checklist that I use for myself and wanted to share it with other new and aspiring illustrators. I keep this list taped above my computer, so that whenever I have time to tackle a new portfolio piece, I can quickly check to see what is missing in my current portfolio.
Before getting into the list, I would like to highlight a few key points when building your portfolio:
-Quality over quantity. Your portfolio should consist of approximately 12-18 pieces of your best work (8-10 pieces of each style, if you have more than one). Your portfolio is only as strong as the weakest piece, so if you are not 100% happy with a piece, it should never ever make its way into your portfolio.
-You do not need to show many different artistic styles. Again, quality over quantity. Concentrate on one style that you know with all certainty is your very best work and that you also enjoy doing the most, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it…like a lot. If you really truly love and excel at more than one style equally, it is okay to have a second, but be absolutely certain that the quality is equal to that of your primary style. Again, your portfolio is only as good as your weakest style. It’s better to be a specialist at one thing, than mediocre at many things. Having a signature style will set you apart and can make your work highly desired by your ideal client.
-Make sure some of your portfolio pieces look like actual projects or assignments. Even if you are not getting paid work at the moment you can create a personal project or give yourself assignments. Join art prompt groups on social media for weekly or monthly assignments. My personal favorites are Colour Collective over on Twitter and IlloStories over on facebook. Using their hashtags are a great way to be discovered too! Publishers also love republishing classics, so choose a story (i.e. Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, etc.) and do a series of sequential illustrations reinterpreting the story in a new way. Another misconception is with new artists is that you need paid or contracted client work to build your portfolio, so do not think that you need to do some projects for free or very low wages to build your portfolio. It will be a better investment of your valuable time creating personal pieces that fulfill a specific purpose for your portfolio.
-Add or replace pieces in your portfolio regularly to keep it up to date with your best work as well as to keep it looking current. Follow industry trends continually. A few ways I do this: 1.) Follow the big publishers and see what books are being released every month, and 2.) Follow major children’s illustration agencies and see who their top and new artists are, 3.) Keep an eye on the best selling books, and 4.) Follow successful illustrators on social media and keep up to date on their latest portfolio work. I also keep my eye on the stationery, interior design, and fashion industries, since all of these visual art industries will overlap. If you keep your eye on things long enough, you’ll eventually be able to pick up on what is popular, how long a trend has been around, and if you have a good eye, you might even be able to identify the up-and-coming trends before they become mainstream.
-Get your portfolio professionally critiqued. One resource I recommend for this is Giuseppe Castellano over at the The Illustration Department. Get in touch with agents and see if they’d be willing to give you 3 minutes of feedback.
Anyway, please find my checklist below. Whenever I want to create a new portfolio piece, I try to incorporate more than one of the following items into that one piece, especially items that may be missing from my portfolio. With that, I would also like to iterate that it’s also important to put things in your portfolio that represent the type of projects you would love to work on in the future. If you have a huge desire to illustrate fairytale and princess stories, put them in your portfolio. Just remember, if you don’t show you can do it, they’ll never know you can do it!
Children’s Illustration Portfolio Checklist:
Animals: Not just cats and dogs!
Kids: Children, toddlers, and babies
Gender: Boys and Girls
Interiors: Bedroom, living room, kitchen, classroom, cafe, etc.
Exteriors/Nature: Cityscapes, streets, buildings, mountains, beach, fields, forests, jungles, etc.
Seasons: Winter, spring, summer, autumn
Times of Day: Sunrise/sunset, day and night
Racial diversity: Caucasian, African, Hispanic, Asian, etc.
Objects and Still-life
Weather: Sunny, rainy, cloudy, stormy, snowstorm, etc.
Black and White (only if you are good at this)
Age: Older people that children would be familiar with like a sibling, parent, grandparent, teacher, nurse, mailman, etc.
Character-driven cover designs
Illustration types (spot, vignette, and full-bleed illustrations)
Hand-Lettering (only if you are good at this)
Emotions: Happy, sad, angry, shy, impatient, scared, shocked, shouting, crying, etc.
Actions: Jumping, running, sport in motion (i.e. casting a fishing pole, kayaking, etc.), hugging, falling, reaching, and so on. Just remember to keep your illustrations fluid. No static images of the characters facing forward, standing still and staring out at the reader!
Dramatic Lighting: Open door, flashlight, candle, window, moon, sun, etc.)
Color: Can you illustrate in unusual or very limited color palettes? Grass doesn’t have to be green and sky doesn’t have to be blue. Need ideas for a color palette to challenge yourself for you next piece? Check out Design Seeds on Pinterest or go to the Design Seeds website. Pick a palette and only use those colors (including slight variations and various tones) in your next piece.