I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there is 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 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, attractive, whimsical and sequential manner. Imagine having to take your favorite two-hour movie and could only choose 20 still-shots from the movie that best depict 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 school and to learn to draw for children’s books successfully.
When I first started out, I did hours and hours of research. Nothing will arm you better for success in this industry than knowledge. In my opinion, it’s even more essential than how well you can draw. 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 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 if anything is lacking 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 150% happy with a piece, it should never ever make its way into your portfolio.
-Join the one-style bandwagon. 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 certain about it. Again, your portfolio is only as good as your weakest style.
-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 Instagram, Facebook or Twitter for weekly or monthly assignments. My personal favorite is the Colour Collective prompt using the #colour_collective hashtag over on Twitter. These popular art prompt hashtags are a great way to be discovered too!
-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. Just like any visual art industry (i.e. fashion, interior design, graphic design, illustration) trends come and go, typically in three year cycles. If you’ve seen a trend for the past three years and finally brave enough to try it, just remember that pros and publishers are already looking for or working on the next big thing. Follow industry trends continually. Three 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 existing and new artists are, and 3.) Keep an eye on the best selling books. I also keep my eye on the stationery, interior design, and fashion industries, since all of these visual art industries will follow similar trends. If you keep your eye on things long enough, you’ll eventually be able to pick up on what is popular, how long trends have been around, and if you have a good eye, you might even be able to identify the up-and-coming trends before they happen.
-Get your portfolio professionally critiqued. One resource I have used for this is The Illustration Department.
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 portfolio. It will not help your portfolio if you have eight different illustrations of animals playing in broad daylight on a farm. 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, etc.
Dramatic Lighting: Open door, flashlight, candle, window, moon, sun, etc.)