Edward Burns CEO of Advocate Art gives some folio tips to illustrators wanting to win more children’s book commissions.
Look To The Movies For Guidance!
It’s a fundamental fact that stories contain characters – just like a movie contains stars, supporting cast and extras. If you think of the story like a movie and the characters in your folio like a casting director would their roster of actors, it will help you develop them for… well, that next blockbuster!
So no big film is devoid of characters. There are no films with just scenes and narrative – that would be pretty boring. The same goes for children’s books. Ok, there may be a religious title with inspirational scenes and verse, but that is pretty much it. If you don’t have characters in your folio, there is nothing for an editor to pick –simple! Now be honest, can you imagine your characters working as stars in storybooks? Or are they really only going to make it as an extra? Unlike a casting director, you have power to create this cast, rather than rely on the acting skills of your clientele – lets do that!
In short you have to create a selection of characters that can be chosen for a variety of stories. Main actors, sidekicks, the mum & dad and animals (both anthropomorphic and stylized). The more genres you cover, the bigger your rostra of potential actors, the more films (stories) your folio will work for. You may have seen that classic 80′s film called the Goonies? For me, that sets the benchmark for characters covered in most children stories. You have the computer geek; the hero; the overweight funny guy; the older sister; her friend; the sensible older boy plus good guys and bad guys mixed as all ethnicities. You see all the same stereotypes in kids films and cartoons from Madagascar to Power Rangers and repeated in animations of cats, dogs, zoo animals – you name it! The same goes for children’s books, let’s see that bad guy lion or the geeky koala for example or hey, draw them as people!
Cover the bases
Remember, you have to supply the whole cast. A publisher won’t just pick you for the lead character. Your cast needs to encompass all the main characters. A quick trick is to do sheets of doodles, some finished, some just pencil outlines – say a page of monkeys. Another tip is to do a character line up – like a police identity parade.
If you want to do a book about “xyz” have it in your folio
Your cast can be stereotypes for sure, just like actors end up playing the same rolls or get typecast. So if your dream is to do a fairy story, have some fairies on your cast, play to your drawing strengths. Build a cast for roles you want to illustrate or are good at.
We have illustrators who get work because they are simply good at illustrating Hispanic-looking kids, for example. Don’t forget though that each actor needs to be right on the money, there is a lot of competition! And please don’t kid yourself that having a princess in your folio will mean you get a fairy book, it has to be spot on. As an agent, I wait for the Art Director to say, “that’s the girl in my book” as he/she points at maybe the smallest doodle in the corner of a page of your folio.
I recently had an artist comment that it was odd that she was always being selected for period work like fables. I said “Your joking right? Every person in your folio is wearing pantaloons!” I had a similar situation with an artist saying she was fed up with illustrating bible stories, we had to remove all biblical work from her folio and replace them with characters she wanted to do next.
Understand the other side
By understanding what an Art Director is going through to get an artist selected, you will understand why maybe your folio is not working for them. The typical selection process goes like this:-
The Art Director has a publishing meeting where sales marketing and the author are present; they want to see the suggestions for their new cute bear book, for example.
The editor will go in with maybe 6 illustrator suggestions. Examples of their bears (not giraffes or pigs or fairies) – BEARS! And the right bear for the story. It may sound a bit narrow minded creatively that they have to show a bear, perhaps sales don’t have the creative vision to imagine what your bear will look like from looking at a giraffe?! Maybe there are too many bear samples out there for the Art Editor not to need to compromise. Most likely, they really want to nail it at the meeting. The point of the meeting will be to definitively select the artist, that won’t be possible until the author says “That’s my bear in the story!”
“I’m very versatile, just ask me to do what you need”
It’s a classic line I hear from illustrators who don’t have the goods in their folio. Ok it’s not their fault, often they don’t know what the “goods” are. When an Art Director is browsing your work on the web a) you are not there to say the line and b) why should they go to the effort and ask you? C) If you were perfect for the story, or liked bears, you would have drawn one by now!
Please don’t kid yourself that they will call you and ask you for a sample before the meeting of your bear, based on the strength of your giraffe. They won’t have the budget for this so it will be a free sample and they don’t want you to terrorize them for weeks phoning them asking how you got on. Only if they have prior experience with you will they ask you to sample. Folios have become a bit like menus in a restaurant, that’s your choice – the chief won’t do specials.
Characterization. Oscar winners
Ok, the characters have to be good at their craft, good actors, expressive facially and physically animated. They carry narrative from page to page even with dots for eyes and a half moon mouth, for example. It’s all the about the subtleties e.g. the tilt of the head, the turning in of a foot. I’ve seen the best illustrators work with films on in the background, even in the corner of their mac to guide them- Nicholas Cage transferred to a bubbly-headed boy. Show you can do it in your folio by setting yourself a narrative. For example, draw:
-girl is happy walking her puppy,
-girl looses puppy,
-girl thinks she knows where it is
-girl is happy she finds it.
Candid – natural well observed poses
Great illustrators are great actors; they understand human movement and poses. You may have a great eye for colour, a great technique and be quick but if your characters are all wooden, like they have been jig-sawed from thick plywood and the arms are moved using pins, they won’t be able to carry the narrative. It’s like the difference between wedding photos when all the relatives are lined up and the candid shots taken by an 8 year old on her iPod.
A tip is to click away on your phone at your family and friends maybe one Sunday. Draw a giraffe as your grandmother looking surprised or laughing; or your young sister as she concentrates on a magazine, or your mum when she is thoughtful
This is a huge subject so I will bullet point the basics that are relevant for children’s publishing:-
- Production printing processes wash out colours. Softness and subtleties are often lost. Bright colours are best, especially when pitching younger.
- Spend some time understanding colour theory. Warm colours to cold colours evoke moods that will help bring out the narrative.
- Co-ordinate and complement colours. Again use the colour wheel to make sure they are in the same pallet. Keep continuity between colours throughout a page to demonstrate that, but don’t have your whole folio using the same green – vary it.
- Limit your pallet on a folio page of samples to show you have a supreme grasp of colours. Muted colours can add a mood, especially in limited light, or if a scene is set with limited colour choices, like a green frog in a green pond in a green jungle, or a brown rabbit in a dessert etc. Besides, it can be very trendy to limit colours!
- Use fashion magazines to understand what colours are in. Check out popular online fashion/shopping websites and even drop the pallet into your own pallet. Art directors and then the Mums who buy the books for their kids, understand fashion and will make purchases based on what looks right or modern.
- Mix it up. Why can’t a night sky be purple or grass be yellow? By introducing different lighting into your work – vary the obvious.
My favorite website at the moment is https://kuler.adobe.com check it out, it will help you through this theoretical science!
Continuity of Character
It basically means- can the same characters be re-drawn? You have to prove you can do it with samples in your folio. It’s one of the most basic and yet often the toughest skills of an illustrator, especially if you have a very naive style. If this is the case, then often there are only subtle differences between the characters. You don’t want the same character pulling the same expression but you also don’t want all the characters to either start looking the same or start drifting into each other.
My best advice is doodle with your character and then set in stone how your character performs, use this as the benchmark before you even start. Sometimes a publisher will want to do this with you – it’s called character development. And don’t be tempted to make changes as you work through the project – you are asking for a re-do!
Are your characters suitable for kids? There is a big difference between Disney or CBBC characters and actors in 18 plus movies. The same goes for Children’s books, don’t have them dressed in sexy clothes, or well developed physically, or too violent, or too scary. In short, no guns, thongs, big breasts, cigarettes or spurting blood. It sounds obvious but it’s so common for illustrators to have in-appropriate characters in a children’s folio. Sure, have them for other markets but not in this folio.
Some illustrators have a different site all together for adult illustration or think of a sure fire way of separating them on your site. There is nothing wrong with having young characters with attitude, hey kids hate “lame” stuff e.g. how the Brats are to Barbie. Having it in your main folio demonstrates that you are not right for this role, it is a big home goal.
How old should your characters be?
There is a rule that generally pretty much everyone is interested in themes that are aspirational to them, but not too aspirational – just the next step. This means you can put yourself into the main role ‘with a little bit of imagination.’ You could be the hero in Die Hard or James Bond or the girls in Sex in the City. Now consider the target age for these stories, they are always just below the age of the characters.
When you are growing up, ‘aspiration’ can be simplified to just a few years older than the target reader, their big sister or brother (because they get to do more). So a 3 year old likes to read about 5 year olds, 5 year olds to 7, 7 year olds to early teens and so on. Don’t go too far, being much older is scary and often un-cool. There are exceptions of course but on the whole it works, so bear in mind this when designing your characters, even animal ones.
The Children’s Book market is broken into board books (think pages that little fingers can turn), picture books for mums to read to children at bedtime, early reading, reluctant reading and chapter books with simple illustrations, plus graphic novels and reference books. In general, illustrated books occupy the much younger market. So as a rule, keep your characters young, say 3-8 and you will be in the range.
Cute. Are they are appealing?
Thinking like a casting agent again, your characters need to be attractive on the whole. Let’s see your Brad Pitt’s and Julia Roberts. The supporting characters can have more interesting faces and the bad guys…well, need to look bad! Stupid guys stupid, clever guys clever and so on. But the most important thing is that the lead guys are attractive/appealing, even if they’re not human characters. Sorry, I don’t make the rules!
If you are not an ‘A-lister’ you at least need to know who is and why. Stories are being re-illustrated all the time, just like films are re-made, so you have to have a style which was illustrated this year or why would you be chosen to refresh a book? It is a trend led-world and no one is more on top of trends than the target buyer of kid’s stories – young Mums!
You need to know what type of eyes are in, what type of outline (key line) textures, of register colours etc. Check out the new releases in your local bookshop – absorb but don’t copy.
Your style is what makes you, you. But it can be adapted and nudged to a degree, can’t it? It has to have empathy with the reader’s age. But also be on trend and decorative – maybe even have some sophistication for the Mum! You need to get down to the child’s level at least and create work that they will enjoy. Too trendy or arty and you can patronize the buyer and the kids won’t get it. (Sure some art directors will love it but I doubt it will sell so there won’t be a second!). Naive characters work best when they are artistically aspirational to kids i.e. you could imagine that the most artistic child in the school could draw this way – i.e. within their reach aspirationally.
Compositions. Set the scene
It’s the location or the scene that will literally form the backdrop for your characters. Don’t have them all on white and avoid too many cliff-edge compositions (i.e. a foreground but no background to the scene, like they are on a cliff-edge.) Include scenes that can help carry a narrative, as in the girl in the park example above. Do take on popular themes e.g. fairies, trucks even classic tales. This is your chance to be the director of the film so adopt their techniques-
Interesting camera angles can really help set the scene. Say the story asks for 3 rabbits cowering from a tractor; have the angle perhaps as if you are in the ditch looking up at the rabbits, with the huge tractor filling the page behind them. It will help the reader empathize with the rabbits, as if they are going to be crushed under the wheels. A bird’s-eye view can also emphasize when characters are all together in a circle or one character is on its own.
Silhouettes. Use these for supporting characters when you want to emphasize a conversation in a busy scene. The main conversation does not need to be in the centre – just sketching the other characters can work as well.
Split scene. Use these if you have over-lapping narrative. It may be too complicated for young children, but really exciting if the text (and Art Director) calls for it.
Look in bookshops regularly, don’t rely on just looking at other artists or agents web sites. They can throw you a curve ball because you may be looking at a folio of an unsuccessful artist! Check out what is out there on the High Street, especially really classic evergreen work. But hey, it’s all in the movies as well – go for the Oscar!
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