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Confessions from a Children’s Book Illustrator

Updated on June 2, 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.


I've written a children's book...

Wherever I go I am asked what I do and I usually say I’m an artist or a children’s book illustrator. However, I have gotten to where I like to say artist instead of children’s book illustrator because invariably the person I’m talking to has written a book and could use an illustrator. That’s not bad. 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.

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First, publishers usually have their own in-house artists and illustrators, and if they are going to buy your book they will have their own artists illustrate it for you. Most authors do not get to pick the illustrator or even meet them. If by some chance they would be willing to buy your book with the illustrations it would only be because you WROTE and ILLUSTRATED the book and so they are getting a 2-for-1 deal on you and your book. That is pretty much how it is done today. Very, very few exceptions.

Some years ago, I was approached to illustrate a beautifully written children’s story in poem form. The author wanted to submit it to a publisher with illustrations to help sell it. I worked on the agreement that when it was published I would receive a percentage. I was happy to do this for my friend because I really believed her book was lovely and well written, certainly publishable. So I spent 6 months working on about 48 watercolor illustrations. When she got a publisher to agree to publish her book, they didn’t want the illustrations I had done. Not because they weren’t good but because they had hired some in-house illustrators that needed the work. So for me, that meant 6 months work that was basically thrown out. Although I was happy for my friend, I realized that the illustrator should not work for no compensation or that’s exactly what she will end up with.


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Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.

— Andy Warhol


Second, if you plan on self-publishing, you may or may not realize that it means that you will get all the proceeds of the book and chances are it won’t be much. It will be just too tempting to “forget” to pay the artist. Even if it does sell well and you, the writer, remember to pay the artist, it really is much considering the months of work that went into the illustrations.

Also, I have to say, if you haven’t written a children’s book you probably have several ideas for one. I mean in our lives we probably have dozens of stories that would make great children’s books full of morals and characters and great endings. So I say, who hasn’t written a children’s book? The problem is getting it published.



Third, if you want your self-published book to do well, you must do all the advertising yourself, and this will cost money, time and effort. What little you make back from sales you may feel justified to keep. As an artist and someone who has self-published, I would be inclined to agree that what you put into it in the way of advertising and book store visitations, you should get back.

Before a child talks they sing. Before they write they draw. As soon as they stand they dance. Art is fundamental to human expression.

— Phylicia Rashad
Artists need to eat too.
Artists need to eat too. | Source


Fourth, do people really think an artist doesn’t need to eat and pay rent like everyone else? It seems like that. Art is so devalued that it is expected for nothing upfront, yet I have bills like everyone else. I want to work but I do also want to pay my bills on time and live in something other than a cardboard box. This isn’t really an exaggeration. I have literally been homeless for a while because I couldn’t get work, so don’t laugh.

I used to teach watercolor classes to senior citizens in my community for many years. During each class, I would create a demo piece to show step-by-step, how to do the technique I was teaching. So at the end of each class, I had finished painting. More than once one of the seniors who were sitting nearby watching the demo would ask how much for my finished piece. Because it was watercolor and a demo piece was done in about 1 hour, I would say $10. I personally think this is a dirt-cheap price for a professional artist, but the seniors would always balk at that price and look at me like I was stealing from the elderly to even ask such a price. One man told me he was on a fixed income and I should give the picture to him for $1. What he doesn’t know or care to know is that the paper cost me $1, so basically, I would be giving my work away for that price. Not going to happen. I don’t care how much he thinks I’m stealing from the elderly to charge more, I have to eat and pay for supplies too. Whatever man.

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

— Walt Disney

Illustrator's Diatribe

I hope this diatribe has been of some help in dealing with artists in the future. I know it feels like a rant but I honestly think people don’t know what an artist has to go through to survive to work at his/her craft.

Most people have a job where they clock in day after day, week after week, and get paid regularly per month like clockwork. An artist gets a “job” and only gets paid when the job is done, whether that takes weeks or months. Sometimes if the project is long, the artist can put into the contract to get a portion upfront and the rest on completion. Sometimes, the work is completed, submitted, accepted and still the artist waits for pay; 30 days and even 60 days, while chewing fingernails and eating beans. I’m not sure why people don’t feel compelled to pay the artist earlier but they don’t. After the job is complete, the artist is again “looking for work” and must sometimes wait months till another job comes through. The looking for work part is so constant and scary, you literally feel one job away from homelessness, again. It is the reason many artists have to wait tables or take tickets at the theater when they would rather be home drawing. It is the cold harsh reality, and believe me, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it more than eating.

For the artist, there is no such thing as “free time” or “vacation” or “retirement”. Most of us feel we retire when they pry the paintbrush from our cold dead fingers. We will vacation then too.


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