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Illustrating for A Publisher: The Creative Process Part I

Updated: Jan 16

One of the things I've noticed about having worked in publishing is this: everyone in publishing knows the processes behind a book, and for everyone else not permitted to that inner sanctum, it's shrouded in mystery. Quite often the work that goes into making a book, (and the sheer amount of times the book gets read and edited by so many different people!) goes completely overlooked. And, while I started out as an editor, so I can give you some idea of those processes should you care to know, this blog is not about editing words, it's about the creative process behind the pictures, and I hope will be useful for any aspiring illustrators (as I still am, don't get me wrong, I'm no expert!).

The first thing I have to tell you is that digital artwork is your best friend here. I bought myself an iPad last year and it is hands down the best thing I have ever done for my business. It has saved me so much time. Prior to owning an iPad I had to draw/paint everything out, scan it all in, edit it in Photoshop and create a useable/printable file out of that. And woe betide me if there were any changes to be made. Now, you can happily create a file in Procreate, edit it as many times as you wish without it being too much of a hardship and upload it to iCloud or transfer to your computer ready-to-print.

This is helpful if you're working on a book, because there will be changes.

I now do pretty much all of my book illustration in Procreate.

The first thing you usually start out with when you're working for a publisher is a set of roughs. This helps you determine poses and placement primarily, but also the feel of the illustrations. This is particularly important in children's books, because you have to work out the layout of the text too. In books like The Bird Book, it's not so much of an issue, because when you're identifying an animal, they usually get a page of their own. However, it does help the designer produce some mockups. Below is a rough layout for The Bird Book, using work that I'd already produced for a previous client.

Rough interior of The Bird Book with painting of nuthatch bird
A mockup of The Bird Book interior, using a rough image

From this, the publishers were able to tell me that they wanted the illustrations to look a little more modern and graphic, rather than traditional (which suited me working in Procreate, as the painting above was done entirely by hand with gouache paints and took me a long time). The layout changed considerably as the concept grew (which you might want to read about in last week's blog from designer Rob Ward). But this kind of thing helps others (such as the sales and marketing teams) get on board with the concept, and brings the whole thing together.

At the beginning of the project, Rob provided me with guidelines for printing, such as size of the illustrations and the bleed* size, as well as guidance on poses and style, in a single document. And I read it very, very carefully twice through before beginning, because it is very annoying to have to re-do work because you've made a stupid mistake (like made all the images in RGB rather than CMYK** - yes, that's happened to me before).

I set up a file on Procreate and started drawing. Now, I must confess here, I'm very impatient and usually have a tendency to skip the roughs stage, knowing that later I might have a number of edits to make. (Another reason why I work almost entirely in Procreate when working on a book.) It's also why I am very, very careful with the details. In the case of The Bird Book, for example, I looked at a number of pictures of all 50 birds, I read about them in my Collins British Bird identification guide, and I made sure to pick out all the appropriate identifying markers before drawing. I was trying to make sure I'd get it right the first time. It also helped in this case because there was an extremely tight deadline on it, so the publishers were on board. Of course, if roughs are required, then don't skip that step - they're required for a reason, as explained above.

This work all paid off when I sent the illustrations to the publisher and authors, which was the next step: The first round . . . which I'll tell you about next Tuesday! Check back next week for Part II of the creative process when illustrating for publishers, where I chat about editing your illustrations and getting to the final piece.

As always, thanks for reading!


*Bleed is the area around the edge of the drawing which may be cut off when it's printed. As an illustrator/designer, you will have to create a bleed area around the outside of your work, which is normally a border of around 3mm (on top of the actual size you need the work to be at), and your artwork normally continues into the bleed area so that any slight misprints won't result in one side of your artwork being entirely cut off.

**RGB and CMYK are two different colour modes. RGB is usually for web display. CMYK is usually used for print. RGB can get brighter colours, but if you accidentally make a file in RGB and then have to convert it, your colours normally become much duller, and you have to do a lot of tweaking to bring them back to the right saturation again.

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