The magic of a children’s book just can’t be matched. If you think back to your own childhood, you can probably picture a book (or two) that whisked you off to a far-away land, got you talking about fairies or animals, or took you on a thrilling adventure you never wanted to end. 

Picture books, and those with illustrations, are a great way to keep young minds inquisitive and excited by literature.

Whether you’re on the way to self-publishing or thinking of pitching to agents, we’re here to teach you how to illustrate a children’s book and keep the magic of literature alive for generations to come. 

Find The Right References

A good first step is to find plenty of references. What do you want your characters to look like, and how should their surroundings appear to your readers? Your inspiration could come from anywhere.

Whether it’s a documentary on TV, another children’s book, a picture you saw online, or a walk in the park, keep note of anything that’s inspired you. 

Pull pictures from the internet, take pictures of your own, or cut images from a magazine. Gather your references and keep them in their own folder (physical or virtual).

You can refer back to these images to keep you inspired and on the right track, and they’ll help you create the image you’re striving for. 

Sketch Your Character Ideas

Once you have some inspiration or a collection of references, you can start sketching your character ideas. Sometimes, it’s easier to imagine your character in a situation and sketch them (and their impressions) from that setting.

So, if you already have your story mapped out, pick a favorite scene and place your character in it. Imagine their facial expressions, clothing, and surroundings, and start piecing them together. 

Today, a huge portion of illustrations are done digitally. If you’re not confident with this technology, it’s fine to stick to analog creations, or even blend both together.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – sketching is instinctive, and you’ll know if it’s right or not. Your character’s personality will start to come through, and you can use this to keep developing your story and to create other characters. 

We’d also recommend illustrating your character in different poses, and performing different actions. As an illustrator, you need to capture the spark and energy that little minds will create from the page, so get to know your character, and sketch them in all sorts of different settings. 

Create Thumbnails

If you’re struggling to create complete sketches, it might be wise to start by creating small thumbnail images. These can help you work your sketches into the layout of the book.

Ideally, your sketches will be half the size of your finished artwork – this gives you enough room to include all of your fine detail, without taking up too much time.

Once you’re happy with your thumbnails, you can go ahead and draw them up onto A4, or whatever full-size you need. 

If you’re using digital tools, you can even drop some of your favorites into software like InDesign when you’re done. From here, you can place your artwork with the text, and gain a more accurate view of what the completed work will look like.

Thumbnails are often considered the backbone of a book’s structure, and if there are any issues at this stage, your thumbnails will help you locate them. 

Match The Characters And The Scene

Once you’ve sketched your character (or characters), you’ll need to set the scene. What does their world look like? Remember, their surroundings will need to complement their appearance, too.

There’s no use sketching a character with large eyes and a distinctively digital appearance and then placing them in a hand-drawn background. Your background will need to match the character, and the style and tone of the story. 

If this sort of juxtaposition matches your story, then it may work. In most cases, though, it can look out of place, and be confusing for young minds. 

As with any story, you’ll also need to pay close attention to the geographical location and period your story is set in. This may require additional research to determine what clothes your character would wear, and what their immediate environment will look like. You want it to be as authentic as possible. 

Understand The Brief

If you’re illustrating for a publisher, they’ll probably provide you with a written brief. This brief will give you a low down on what they think the author is expecting from each spread. Some stories are pretty easy to follow, but others may require some additional explanation.

After all, it can be hard to follow certain stories when there are no illustrations to match! So, pay close attention to the brief, and don’t be afraid to bounce ideas around with the publisher if you need to. 

At this point, the publisher will usually provide you with full-size guides with the text in position. This will help you visualize how much space you have on the page, and what you can do with it.

Remember, at this stage, the brief is just guidance, and it’s usually open to change. Text can be repositioned to suit your illustrations, but you should always try and follow the brief as closely as possible. 

Other Useful Tips

Here are a few more things you can do to make the process as simple as possible: 

  • Storyboards: Use your thumbnails to create a storyboard. This will help you to imagine the completed story.
  • The Cover: Consider the colors and lettering you’re going to use on the cover. The cover is the first impression of your story, so you’ll need it to pop. Pay close attention to the lettering; hand lettering is particularly common, but don’t use it if it doesn’t suit your illustrations.
  • Give Yourself Time: Producing the final artwork can be stressful and time-consuming. If you can, email your client (if you have one) the sketches as you go along for approval, and if you’re feeling unsure about anything, send it over for critique earlier rather than later. 

Final Thoughts

Illustration is a magical experience, and with practice, the right tools, and the right technique, you can bring your story to life. We hope these tips have helped you prepare for illustrating your own book!



Subscriber Type


You have Successfully Subscribed!