Ren Renwick is the CEO at The Association of Illustrators (AOI) – the organisation that supports illustrators in all aspects of their role. For illustrators just starting out – or even if you’ve been working as an illustrator for several years, there’s always lots to learn. Ren has put together these top tips for a successful career in children’s illustration:
Images created for children can have enormous resonance, remembered by adults with fond nostalgia and loved by kids in an unself-conscious way. So it follows that creating artwork for children’s books, apps, animation and packaging can be an highly rewarding career.
Like any creative freelance role much of the time is spent producing fantastic work, but the business side is equally important if you want to maintain longevity. Paying scant attention to self promotion, licensing, accurate fee-quoting and invoicing doesn’t help anyone thrive in what is a competitive business:
- Creating something unique
Finding your own visual voice is a long and fascinating journey, and once it’s established you are ready to get out there and impress publishers. But do you need to consider trends in the publishing world? The short answer is ‘not really’. By the time you see a book on the shelves it is two years from gestation, so trends that are current may not be being commissioned anymore, as publishers are constantly looking for content that is fresh and new. It’s great to be aware of what’s just being published, but you need to do more than just emulate what you find in book shops.
- Look beyond fiction
When you’re trying to create great new art that will wow publishers, do look beyond what you see in existing picture books – look at the world around you and think about how you can show it in your art. There’s a lot of work being commissioned for non-fiction and activity-related projects – and within your artwork consider the balance of gender and diversity of characters. The publishing industry is increasingly aware of a need to commission work which reflects the real world we live in in all its diversity.
- Being visible
Self promotion is absolutely essential. You can be the most talented artist around, but if art directors are not seeing your work then you aren’t going to receive commissions. It goes without saying that an online presence in the form of a website is essential, but, also, exploring the possibilities of social media can be very beneficial. Follow illustrators and art directors on Instagram to get a sense of how it’s being used – currently it’s the ‘hottest’ platform for visual works.
- Advances, royalties and fees
It can be a challenge to know what fees to expect or charge for books and other commissions, and it’s important that this is done accurately or you can lose out. Book advance sums and royalty rates can vary, and you want to be sure you are getting what is appropriate. Illustration fees for other children-related products are based on usage of the work, the territory it’s used in, and the length of time it is licensed for.
Your work has value, and although it can be tempting if you are starting out – avoid working for free as it undermines the industry, and therefore your own future career.
- Copyright and Licensing
From the moment an image is formed, the creator legally owns the rights in the work (the right to copy), and it is this right in characters and images that illustrators are licensing to their clients. It’s important to understand this, as copyright is the basis by which artwork generates income for the creator.
Contracts are there to define all the elements of a commission, and they need to be read, and understood. Book contracts can be large and initially not that easy to follow, but never just blithely sign an agreement without being aware of what it all means. You may be giving up rights without realising it.
Both you and the client who is commissioning work from you will want the best from every commission, and it’s essential that both parties know what has been agreed. Communication is key, and it’s surprising how often confusions arise when advances/fees, licensing and the brief haven’t been tied down before the job is started. Get that right and it should be smooth sailing.
Like any creative career there’s much to consider for illustrators, but these pointers will help you start navigating your way to a successful career in the children’s illustration industry.
There are also so many tricks of the trade to learn on our online picture book courses taught by popular children’s author-illustrators Sarah McIntyre and David O’Connell, all starting in the new year. You can enrol now on our 6-week Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book and Writing a Children’s Picture Book courses, or for those who want to do both enrolment is also open for our 10-week Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book course.