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Children’s Book Illustrator Woes

Updated on August 1, 2019
PAINTDRIPS profile image

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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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      24 months ago from Fresno CA

      Heidi Thorne,

      Thank you so much for that affirmation. I appreciate your Author Network on FB. Thanks for commenting.



    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      24 months ago from Chicago Area

      Great information for authors who are thinking about hiring an illustrator! Yes, you deserve to be paid what you're worth. Thanks and have a great weekend!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      24 months ago from Fresno CA


      I love that your friend was able to do something about the client who wouldn't pay. If only all of us could do something like that. I have a friend who finally gets her clients to pay but often has to wait as long as 60 days after delivery of the product. Now that's just criminal. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      24 months ago from Fresno CA

      McKenna Meyers,

      I for one want to thank you for all those unpaid hours you took to devote to children. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      24 months ago from Fresno CA

      Mary Norton,

      I don't know about that Mary. I have dealt with some pretty big publishers who are just as stingy as the general public. I had to stop working with Highlights for Children. They refuse to pay a decent wage for artwork done for them. Other smaller children's magazines and publishers often pay better than the big ones. Isn't that sad? I think the big guys think they are a big name and you should be happy to work for them even for nothing. Thanks for commenting.



    • Besarien profile image


      24 months ago from South Florida

      I'm am so sorry you have been cheated by clients, by former friends even! Unfortunately I have heard similar stories from other artists. No wonder so many of the old gods and saints oversee the arts and protect artists and craftspeople. Not sure how much I believe of all that but I think cheating an artist is opening oneself up to very bad karma at the very least.

      I do recall a story I heard from a graphics artist/website designer whose client cheated her by using the website she'd set up for business while refusing to pay the other half of the money owed- which was strictly against their written agreement- not tech savvy enough to realize that the designer still had the administrative passwords and privileges.

      So, she recorded that the work had been done honoring her side of the agreement, recorded the person on video refusing to pay, and then wiped it all back to just an empty domain name.

      Maybe soon with unlimited cloud, the internet of things, and improved image recognition software there will be a better way to catalog, register, and protect the property rights of visual artists, not just on the web, but wherever images are unlawfully used.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 

      24 months ago

      Denise, thanks for sharing your astounding art with us and reminding us to value ourselves and our talents. That's an especially important message for us women. My husband and sons would never imagine working without getting compensated. As a long-time early childhood educator, though, I've put in countless unpaid hours and know my fellow teachers have done the same. I think women are finally waking up to this and don't want to accept it any longer.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      24 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      You never stop to amaze me. These are great illustrated books for kids. I know that many writers are also struggling but in general, it's also the general public who often are not willing to pay artists for their work.


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