Picture books involve a great deal of collaboration between multiple people who give ideas, critique, and feedback to make the beautifully illustrated stories that end up on bookshelves. We’ve described what goes into the author-editor relationship, but we also wanted to provide a glimpse of the relationship and collaboration between a publishing team and an illustrator. We sat down with VickyHolifield, a Senior Editor here at Peachtree, and Nicki Carmack, our Creative Director.
Between the two of them, you’re looking at decades of experience working with artists in the publishing industry. We spoke with Vicky and Nicki (going to have fun with that rhyming scheme for the rest of the post) in order to get a perspective on illustration from both the editorial, as well as the creative and production side of things. We tried to hit what Vicky and Nicki considered the most important parts of the process and the most important things for an illustrator to know or do. We began at the beginning.
Initiating the search for an illustrator is primarily the work of an editor, so Vicky weighed in for our initial questions. She explained that it is the editor’s responsibility to get to know a manuscript well enough to look for an illustrator that would best suit the story. Although it varies from company to company, Vicky emphasized that Peachtree likes to be very collaborative in establishing the tone and style of art that works best with the story; this involves having a discussion with the author to make sure they agree on art style before she begins her search.
Vicky said that she herself sometimes begins looking for illustrators by simply browsing the library and looking at books with similar topics or categories to see how various artists have dealt with the subject matter, but she’ll keep in mind the specific tone she is considering. Since a library will only show published illustrators, she also spends time looking at portfolios. If the book is going to be about animals, for example, she looks for artists who specialize in illustrating animals.
Of course, it’s not all that simple. Vicky expounded that “there are a lot of artists who can reproduce reality,” but often what she’s looking for is someone providing a different slant who can “give a fresh look at the commonplace.” This is where the importance of tone comes into play. Nicki and Vicky agreed that a story can be illustrated with so many different approaches—whether it’s humorous, didactic, or lighthearted. Sometimes the right illustrator is simply someone who reads the story and “gets it,” and sees the story in the same tone that the author, editor, and production team see it.
At Peachtree, although the editor typically gets the search for an illustrator underway, the author and production team often propose other illustrators for consideration; after much discussion, the team chooses two or three top candidates, who might be someone whose specialty lines up with the story, someone with experience of the book’s subject matter, or someone who has just the right sense of humor. Then the real work starts.
Both Nicki and Vicky agreed that although it often depends on the project, most of the communication and collaboration for a picture book is at the beginning, during the sketch stage. This stage involves one or several storyboard meetings, where thumbnail sketches for every page of the future picture book are laid out, so the team can visualize the big picture and get an idea of what the finished book will look like. Then, the art director gives insturctions and feedback. Sometimes we might want a small sketch expanded to a two-page spread, sometimes the main character’s facial expression needs more variety of movement, sometimes more space is needed for text. This is the most directive part of the process from the publisher end, although the illustrator does have to approve the final layout.
Nicki and Vicky also both emphasized that it is very important at the sketch stage to give prompt feedback to the illustrator. An illustrator’s work can change and evolve if there is a lapse of time between initial sketches and turning in final art. Although that is often natural, the editor doesn’t want to receive final art that doesn’t look anything like the sketches! So, as much as illustrators need to be communicative and responsive, both editorial and production recognize the need to be quick about feedback and direction themselves.
Although the sketch stage can be nitty-gritty and incredibly detail-oriented, it’s also the most important stage in creating a story that flows from one page to the next with pictures that bring a story to life. Nicki and Vicky both mentioned that sometimes an illustrator brings art that is so perfectly expressive, they might recommend changing the text to accommodate the illustration! They agreed that the best illustrators bring something “more” to a text; they enrich the story, and can even add a secondary tale that runs in the background throughout.
What It Takes
In the end, Nicky and Vicky both emphasized that simple habits like effective time management and clear communication are important qualities in a great illustrator. Although it’s true that an editor is looking for the right kind of art that will enhance a text, a successful illustrator can also establish deadlines and stick to them, communicate if something is going to be late, and receive feedback and follow given corrections.
On the production and creative side of things, Nicki outlined some of the most important things needed from an illustrator in order for the whole process to go smoothly. The first was very practical: communicating the format of the deliverable, final art. The production timeline changes when a publisher is receiving original paintings versus digital files. The format of the illustrator’s art should be decided in a very early conversation so that a realistic schedule can be set. On a more artistic level, Nicki pressed the fact that illustrators should not be micromanaged closely at the beginning of the process, because that leaves no room for his or her creative imagination to come up with the vision of what a story’s illustrations could become.
As an editor, Vicky named three things that she considers to be very important for all illustrators to remember. The first was, again, forming professional habits, such as doing thorough research and meeting deadlines. The second was to know who you are as an artist, work on your style, and learn to be consistent. Third, she would remind illustrators to learn how to tell a story. Fine artists can show a moment, but an illustrator must create a visual narrative that flows from one page to the next.
There is so much more that could be said about this process (much more in fact was said than we could fit here!). So consider everything that goes into every picture book the next time you pick one up. For illustrators or aspiring illustrators, we hope Nicki and Vicky’s perspectives were helpful. Ask questions in the comments below if you want to hear more from them!