Twinkling dales and magical hills, talking lions and gregarious snails – welcome to the world of illustrating for children, where your imagination can run wilder than an eight-year-old on asugar rush.
When you studied for an illustration degree, becoming a child book illustrator might have already been in the back of your mind. After all, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (illustrated with all the simplistic wonderment of a child’s worldview) sold in its millions last year, and it’s one of many.
Designing a children’s book, however, takes more than a super-intelligent degree – it takes a drawing style that kids can latch onto, something that projects (and might even mould) their creative imaginations.
It’s easy to dismiss children as burbling idiots who don’t know the first thing about proper entertainment, but they’re actually fairly discerning in their tastes. They can tell when a drawing has been made cynically or honestly.
Let’s take famed illustrator Quentin Blake as an example.
The Rise of Blake
Drawing every major cover for Roald Dahl’s books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George’s Marvellous Medicine and The Twits, to name just a few), Blake has forged a path for himself as a British institution.
These gangling, strange and messily illustrated characters have become almost as famous as the books themselves, projecting the wild imagination of a child with a grownup eye for technique and nuance – he’s the Ralph Steadman of children’s illustration.
His career was one of endless scribbling (his first pieces were published in Punch! Magazine when he was 16) and toil in other fields to sustain his career. He was the head of the Illustration department at the Royal College of art for eight years, honing his craft for decades before finally moving into children’s books.
This playfully anarchic drawing style, then, hasn’t been created through a lack of discipline. He’s spent his life carefully measuring those mad lines and colours.
Hard Work: the Keys to Design
His work and life (he’s still going strong, age 81) should be the ideal blueprint for any aspiring illustrator. Getting fully educated in how to ply your trade should be your first port of call. Blake, only after years of university life, made his craft his own.
Finding your identity in drawing is as big a challenge as any form of degree, but it’s vital for a career. It’s the equivalent of a writer putting pen to paper and having nothing to say.
Looking out at a literary landscape where children’s books are outselling their adult counterparts, there’s an understandable temptation to jump into the market two feet first.
Yet it’s too crowded for a young buck with a scattershot pen and too few ideas. The real designers, the Blakes of this world, know that training and graft are the keys to real design success.