Creative Writing Fiction 2020-02-24 00:00

9 Top Tips for Working with an Illustrator


If you are traditionally publishing your picture book, there’s a good chance you won’t have any contact with the illustrator. Your publisher will handle that for you. But if you’re self-publishing then finding, hiring, and working with an illustrator is up to you.

This article is aimed at those of you who are self-publishing. Once you’ve drafted and edited your picture book, and you’re ready for an illustrator, consider the following tips. They’ll take you through the whole process from before you start your search, to finding the right illustrator, through to establishing hire conditions and managing workflow.

  1. 1. Determine Your Budget
  2. 2. Consider How You Will Pay Your Illustrator
  3. 3. Determine Your Time-Frame
  4. 4. Know Your Style
  5. 5. View Portfolios
  6. 6. Be Prepared for Negotiations
  7. 7. Draft a Contract
  8. 8. Ask for Sketches
  9. 9. Establish Checkpoints

1. Determine Your Budget

Costs for illustrations vary as widely as illustrations styles. In her article “Finding and Working with an Illustrator for Your Children’s Picture Book,” Darcy Pattison suggests these costs can range from $1,000 to $20,000. To negotiate with an illustrator during the offer phase, you need to know beforehand how much you are willing to spend.

2. Consider How You Will Pay Your Illustrator

If paying a lump sum for your illustrations is out of the question, consider a royalty share agreement. This is where you pay your illustrator based on the sales of your book. In this case, you may also want to pay an advance to your illustrator to sweeten the deal.

It’s common for illustrators to receive a portion of the agreed amount on signing a contract, a predetermined percentage partway through the project, and the rest when the work is complete.

Darcy Pattison has worked with several illustrators in her career. She pays 25% on signing the contract, 25% on approval of sketches, and 50% at the end the project.

3. Determine Your Time-Frame

Another thing to consider before you start your search for an illustrator is when you’d like to publish your book. Because you are self-publishing, you are the one in control of the publishing schedule, so it’s important you know when you want your book published so you can find an illustrator who can stick to your schedule.

Figure out the turnaround times in advance, and remember to build in time for sample stages.

4. Know Your Style

When I was illustrating my first picture book, I created a Pinterest board of illustrations I admired. This allowed me to collect favorite images in one place and I could easily see the style I preferred.

Consider your story and what illustration style will work best. Understanding the types of illustration styles will also help you limit your search when viewing artists’ portfolios. This article by Graphic Mama provides explanations for several different styles of illustrations with examples of each.

5. View Portfolios

Now that you have a good idea of the style of illustrations you are looking for, you can view portfolios. Many illustrators have portfolios on their websites, but you can also find illustrators through places like Behance, Adobe’s portfolio platform for artists, and The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When viewing portfolios, you’ll want to look for things like variety in postures. You want to make sure the artist can draw your character from several points of view such as front, back, side, and three-quarter view. Look for action shots and images that show the kinds of things you want to include in your picture book.

Illustrations from only one or two points of view can make a book feel boring. Likewise if the book is full of only full-page illustrations. A picture book is much more interesting if the illustrations include variety.


6. Be Prepared for Negotiations

Now that you’ve found an illustrator, you’re ready to make an offer. You will go back and forth a few times before you agree on a price and time-frame. This is where knowing your budget and project timeline before negotiating will help.

If the illustrator isn’t able to do the work within your budget and by your deadline, then keep looking. There are many talented illustrators out there.

7. Draft a Contract

Once you and your illustrator have agreed on an amount and a timeline for your project, it’s time to draft a contract. Having a contract in place for the work protects you and the illustrator should anything come up during the process. It’s best to be as specific as possible, and you might have a lawyer review your contract or draft it for you.

This article from Business of Illustration includes several important things to consider when creating an illustration contract. Your contract should be as specific as possible and include exactly what you want the illustrator to do for you. At a bare minimum, you’ll want to include the length of your book, how many illustrations you want (and in what style), the price, and the project timeline.

8. Ask for Sketches

Now that you’ve hired your illustrator, it’s time to see how they will bring your book to life. This is first done through rough sketches. The point of the sketch phase is to make sure you and your illustrator are envisioning the same concept for your book.

If you are doing your own formatting, consider providing your illustrator with an InDesign file template. Depending on their workflow, the illustrator might create a book dummy for you. This is a compilation of sketches assembled like a book.

Another way to see a rough draft of the sketches is by using thumbnails and storyboards. Thumbnails are small squares (about one or two inches) that represent a page in your book. When thumbnails are laid out on a page so you can see your whole book at once, they are called storyboards. A storyboard gives a good feel for the variety of image styles (full page, half page, vignette). It’s also easy to make changes. Thumbnails and storyboards are my favorite tools for roughing out sketches for a book.

Inky Girl provides free thumbnail templates on her website and shows how she uses them in this post.

9. Establish Checkpoints

Once you’ve approved the sketches, it’s a good idea to establish times when further work is due or at least when you will touch base with the illustrator to see how things are going. Discuss this with your illustrator to see what works best for both of you. You don’t want to check in so often it’s annoying, but you also don't want to assume that everything is going fine just because you have heard nothing from the illustrator.

Set dates when certain illustrations are to be completed. If you are formatting your own book or working with a formatter, this will help you plan for this portion of the publishing process as well. Keep communication lines open and be professional and courteous.


Working with an illustrator can feel daunting if you’ve never done it before. As a self-published author, project manager is just another hat you need to wear. Do your research, follow these steps, allow extra time (especially if this is your first time working with an illustrator), and your project will be a success.

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