How I Illustrated My First Children's Book

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Watercolor painting with title text over top

Late last year, a dear friend and colleague approached me about illustrating a children's book. My internal knee-jerk reaction was, oh heckin' no. However, the more I sat and thought about it, the more I felt capable of it, like it was something I at least wanted to try. Before I gave her a verbal agreement, however, I scoured the internet for children's illustrators' processes. I looked at my paid Canva account and purchased a subscription to Photoshop to make sure I had the required tools to create print-ready finals at the end of the process.

I agreed and, together, we selected an independent publisher and book size. She selected BookBaby because their process seemed easy and their prices were relatively reasonable.

She asked that I complete the project by February 1, 2021.

1. Creating a project timeline

The process of managing a large project can be the most difficult. Knowing that I had roughly 8 weeks to complete a large project the likes of which I had never attempted before, I also knew I needed to plan my booty off and stick like glue to the milestones I set.

I found a free project management tool called ClickUp.

Using the tool, I broke the project down into pieces.

  1. Project discussion

  2. Project concept sketches

  3. Page & cover drawing

  4. Page & cover painting

  5. Scanning 21+ files

  6. Cleaning up the image files in Photoshop

  7. Laying out each page

  8. Creating the cover file for print in Canva

  9. Proofing

  10. Packaging print files and sending them to their final destination

For each of these ten steps, I set a due date. I figured out that I could paint 2 spreads (4 pages a week) without getting sloppy and experiencing burnout and I planned accordingly.

2. Defining book specs:

This included determining what size the book was going to be, what file type each page needed to be, how to layout the files for submission, etc. She chose a 9"x7" softcover printed book.

I pulled specs from the website which included:

A 1/8" bleed on every page

Files must be submitted in CMYK color

Book file type upon submission - PDF format

300 DPI images

Knowing this, I worked out what size the watercolor paper needed to be and how I would need to scan each page in order to achieve the proper image resolution and size.

3. Project discussion

I met virtually with my friend to talk through what she was thinking and get some basic direction and start generating ideas for the illustration of the book.

I started by sketching out each page and it's general layout in my little commission planning sketchbook. (I have a sketchbook for everything. Haha.)

For her approval, I mocked up a page layout so she could see what the finished spread of each page would look like.

Children's book page spread mock up
Page spread mockup

3. Page Drawing

To work smarter, not harder, I leaned heavily on the approved rough sketch work for each page. I scanned each sketch and then printed the sketch at an 8"x10" size. I stole the parchment paper from the kitchen, and using graphite, created a transfer that I could use to easily place a rough outline on to the watercolor paper.

Image transfer with parchment paper and graphite
Image transfer

After I transferred each rough outline, I went back in with a 0.3 Mechanical pencil and a soft eraser to clean up each page and add as much detail as necessary.

Pencil drawing of a tree frog
Pencil drawn tree frog

4. Page Painting

After each page was drawn, I scanned each drawn page into my desktop computer at a high resolution. (Just in case. I wasn't taking any chances. Ha.) And then, I just started knocking out painting four pages a week. I discovered it took me about 3.5 - 4 hours to paint one spread (2 pages). And, I discovered that after painting 4 a week, I'd get a little impatient or burnt out.

Understanding what I needed to achieve to hit the deadline, but also do my best work, allowed me to pace myself.

Watercolor painting of a tree frog
Watercolor tree frog

5. Creating Print-Ready Files

Let me preface this by saying that I have not used Photoshop since 2009. It has been a very, very long time. I am, and will always be, a traditional watercolor painter first and foremost, not a graphic designer.

After scanning each page in at 600 dpi for ultimate image resolution. I opened each in Photoshop and used the stamp tool to clean up any shadows, dust, or dog hair that had just been hanging out on the scanner bed. Upon saving each file, I converted it to CMYK color.

I uploaded each file into my paid Canva account, created the 9"x7" template with a 1.8" bleed and started dragging and dropping the pages where they needed to go. I added text, page numbers, and I was good to go!

The cover file was a tad more difficult. I Googled A LOT (and phoned a friend who is professional graphic designer to make sure I was doing it correctly. Thanks, buddy!).

I completed the project 2 weeks ahead of schedule. AND, my client (friend and colleague) and I were both happy with the results.

This project was a prime example of stepping outside of my comfort zone. Growth doesn't happen when we're comfortable. It only happens when we take risks. I'm grateful that I was given such a cool opportunity to do so with someone I trust.