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Visiting David Wiesner's Class at PAFA

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I'm excited to visit David Wiesner's illustration class at PAFA this week. In trying to figure out what I could offer the students of this Caldecott winning author/illustrator of over twenty books, I've decided to go with practical advice for beginners. I'd like to help students prepare for life after art school.

I'm currently illustrating my fourth book, and each experience has been different. I've been a professional painter for nearly thirty years and am fairly new to illustrating books. 

My first book, Aviary Wonders Inc., was published in 2014. The book began as a printmaking project. I wanted to create a catalog of bird parts and planned to make a few hand-bound copies as a series of lithographs. I showed the project to an instructor who saw its potential as a children's book and suggested I find an editor. I was fortunate to find one who loved the concept and helped me polish it for submission to an agent.

A few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts or portfolios, but most require that submissions come through an agent. Finding one can be daunting, but it is worth the effort, as the agents will be able to get your work seen by several publishers and will also help get you a better contract.

My bird catalog was originally intended to appeal to artists, birdwatchers, and environmentalists, but it is very difficult to find a publisher for a picture book for adults. They are expensive to print and harder to sell. The editor helped me shape it into a kid-friendly book while maintaining the darker implications that were a necessary part of the catalog.

I was fortunate to find an editor who appreciated the humor and absurdity of the project. Editing and revising are part of the process of getting published and I struggled with the very idea of allowing my vision to be influenced by someone else. Over time I was able to see which of the editor’s suggestions made the tone more consistent and which I felt compromised the integrity of the project.

If you are interested in illustrating the work of others, you will want to submit a small portfolio of consistent work and have more work readily available if the agent is interested. It is extremely important to submit high quality photos of your work. Most submissions will be done digitally and poorly reproduced work will make you look unprofessional and unprepared, no matter how great the work is. 

Finding the right agent is important. You want someone who loves your work, because agents represent many illustrators, so its important to find one who loves your work enough to convince others of its value. Illustrators need to have a strong and consistent portfolio ready, but a completely illustrated book is not necessary. Publishers will want to choose the illustrator for the manuscripts that they have accepted. There are many marketing concerns in the publishing world and they will choose the art that they feel best suits the story AND that will sell the book. They rarely, if ever, accept collaborations between authors and illustrators.

Check local listings for author or illustrator talks at libraries and bookstores. You'll learn a lot from hearing about their experiences and process, though it's bad form to try to get them to introduce you to their agent or publisher.

There are local opportunities if you look for them. Shops, restaurants, cafes, bands, or schools are often looking for someone to make posters or labels, etc., so this is a great way to start building up your portfolio. 

If you're hoping to illustrate books or graphic novels, consider joining a group of writers/illustrators, so that you can get feedback on your work. 


Opportunities: listings of art competitions

Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, updated every couple of years, this book is full of information outlining submission guidelines, what various publishers and magazines are looking for, contact info for magazines and agents, and plenty of other practical advice. short-term illustration job listings

Tips on finding an agent:

Tips on finding an editor:

Kirkus Review

The Write Life

Publishers Weekly

Further inspiration:

You'll find great interviews on this top-notch children's book blog, written by Julie Danielson, who has a Master's degree in children's librarianship.

Listening (advice from professionals):

Thriving Artist podcast

Red Dot podcast

Reviews of multiple podcasts on the art business can be found here.

Recommended Reading on the profession:

How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist by Caroll Michels. There are countless books on the topic and I've read a handful of them. I've found this one to be the most helpful.

 New Tax Guide for Writers, Artists, Performers, and Other Creative People by PJ Riley. Buy his book for $25 and write it off. Definitely worthwhile if you are doing your own taxes. Written by a gallery owner and covering many aspects of the business of art

Great examples of balancing text and image in a picture book:

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassens

Dillweed's Revenge by Florence Heide, illustrated by Carson Ellis

On the craft of illustrating picture books:

Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz

A smattering of my favorite picture books in no particular order:

(Picture books include much more than alphabets and kittens, so don't dismiss them before you've explored the field. There are tons of surprises out there by great artists with a quirky voice. Enjoy the discovery.)

Mellops Strike Oil by Tomi Ungerer

People by Blexbolex

Zeke Pippin or anything by William Steig

The Moomin Books by Tove Jansson

Flotsam by David Wiesner

If Apples Had Teeth by Shirley Glaser, illust. by Milton Glaser

Ounce Dice Trice by Alistair Reid, illust. by Ben Shahn

Drummer Hoff by Barbara Emberly, illust. by Ed Emberly

Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis

The Bear Who Wasn't There by Oren Lavie, illust. by Wolf Erlbruch

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg




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