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Children’s Book Illustrator Woes

Updated on June 22, 2022
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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The Frog KingSketch for The Frog King
The Frog King
The Frog King | Source
Sketch for The Frog King
Sketch for The Frog King | Source

Children's Book Illustrator

Wherever I say I’m an artist or a children’s book illustrator, invariably the person I’m talking to has written a book and could use an illustrator. That’s not a bad thing. What is worse is that they don’t intend to PAY the illustrator. They usually want the illustrator to do the pictures for a “percentage” of the book proceeds or “exposure” IF it ever sells.

There are several things wrong with this assumption and just to save time I’d like to address them.

E is for The Emperor's New Clothes
E is for The Emperor's New Clothes | Source


Some people think by saying that giving the art to them free would be good exposure for me, makes it all better. Please. That’s like going into a grocery store and saying “Give me this meat, it will be great exposure for your store.” Right. Like that’s going to happen. They would literally call the cops and take you away for shoplifting. So why would people think that it’s okay to say that to an artist? I have to ask ya. If an artist is going to GIVE you something, it’s because it is their idea and they want to do it. They would say so upfront. I have found projects I thought worthy and writer-friends I found so helpful that I just don’t mind giving away my time and sweat-filled effort. But I usually lay out the parameters to them upfront, letting them know I don’t expect anything back for my work.

You might not make it to the top, but if you are doing what you love, there is much more happiness there than being rich or famous.

— Tony Hawk
L is for The Lute Player, from the children's book, The FairyTale Alphabet Book
L is for The Lute Player, from the children's book, The FairyTale Alphabet Book | Source

Make An Offer

It would be better for artists and more ethical for the writers to just offer the illustrator a small pittance for the work, such at $300 to $500 for a body of work amounting to a book cover and 28 color interior illustrations. For a friend, we would be willing, most of us, to work for that. Then the art belongs to you, to do with, as you will.

You will never win if you never begin.

— Helen Rowland
H is for The Heart Of The Monkey, from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill
H is for The Heart Of The Monkey, from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill | Source


If you have reproduction in mind for the work and don’t tell the artist about it, it really is the same as fraud. Don’t go to an artist and say you want a couple of illustrations to use in a classroom project and pay them a few dollars when in truth you are going to reprint the final product and SELL it to the students, class after class. Being forthright is better than having an artist/friend with hard feelings about how you handled a transaction.

I have been paid a small price to do illustrations for people only to find they are printing and selling them in bulk and I will never make another penny from them. Once I created five original line art (black and white) illustrations for an economics instructor who had an ongoing class on cooking, meal planning, and budgeting. She used my illustrations for a meal-planning calendar for her class. She would print the calendars in bulk and sell them to the class at a profit. Every class she taught, she made a profit. But she paid me a flat fee of $20. My problem was that I didn’t realize she would be mass-producing them. If I had known I would have quoted her a much higher price, knowing I would receive no royalties from her sales. When I asked her about it, she informed me that she has already paid me and I agreed to work for that. Lesson learned.

All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.

— Walt Disney
R is for Little Red Riding Hood from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill
R is for Little Red Riding Hood from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill | Source


These experiences have taught me many things but mostly to honor my own time and craft. If I want to appear professional I need to charge like I am a professional. If I wanted to appear amateur I would not mind working for nothing, but then the consumer would get exactly what they pay for, less quality work, amateurish. I refuse to let my work go for nothing anymore. I am worth more and won’t part with it without more. If I die sitting on a house full of paintings that are suddenly worth a lot of money, I would much rather my family got the money!

The Magician's Apprentice from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill
The Magician's Apprentice from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill | Source

Worthy Of Respect

Artists unite! We are worthy of our wages and working for nothing is just not an option. It reminds me of a story about James McNeill Whistler (yes, the one who painted his mother), who sued John Ruskin, the art critic, for libel. Ruskin had published in the newspaper that the latest painting by Whistler was so bad that he should be ashamed for charging such a price to the English public for throwing paint at the canvas. (That of course, was before throwing paint on the canvas was popular). He said many more rude things in his published critique but that was enough. Whistler sued him; the first time ever an artist had the nerve to sue an art critic. The trial lasted weeks and was widely attended.

Y is for The Young Slave (a Sleeping Beauty Story) from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill
Y is for The Young Slave (a Sleeping Beauty Story) from The FairyTale Alphabet Book by Denise McGill | Source

Whistler’s Trial

Ruskin’s defense attorney asked Whistler on the stand, how much time it took him to paint the painting in question. He said two days. Then the attorney asked how much he was charging for the painting, to which Whistler answered, 200 pounds. “So,” the attorney thought he had him, “what you are saying is that you are charging the English public 200 pounds for just 2 days work.” But Whistler was no fool. “No,” he replied. “I am charging the English public 200 pounds for a lifetime of experience in art.” That is a good answer. We all need to remember, we are not charging the public for one piece but for the lifetime of struggle and study, patience and practice that brought you up to this one piece. Never forget that.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whistler Won… And Lost

By the way, Whistler won the case. The judge found Ruskin indeed, guilty of libel but he decided not to award the 1,000 pounds Whistler was asking for in the suit. The judge awarded Whistler one farthing! That’s like winning and loosing all at the same time. I would be so insulted… and so was Whistler.


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