cow drawing a picture of a cow

1. If you want to illustrate:

- The short version: Draw as much as you can, but also do other creative activities like: sketch, doodle, paint, sculpt, and craft. Look at art in books, magazines, museums, and advertisements. Also read books. Read the type of book you want to create and see how the art and text work together, or don't.

- The longer version: Draw, doodle, sketch, and paint. Look at art, in books, in magazines, in comics, in museums, etc. Take a sketchpad and pencil to a museum and draw, or draw people when you’re waiting for the bus, or sitting in a café. Look at how art is paired with text and whether the art reflects the text or tells a different story. Some artists start out imitating other artists (not copying, but trying to draw/paint/etc. like the other artist). If you try imitating another artist, or an art style, take the lessons you learned from imitating them and create your own style. You can also meld things you see in art from multiple artists, and art you see around you, and swirl it into your own unique visual language / art style. You'll need professional level work and a portfolio to compete in this field (and a polished manuscript if you're writing too). Practicing your craft will help you to get there.

- Creating an art style is not easy and takes time (how hard and how much time is different for every artist). If you need to change your style or have multiple styles, you will have to put in the time and work for each of them. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts, and how hard it is and how much time it takes to change styles is different for every artist. You can’t measure your success or failure based on others (well you can try, but it likely won’t be helpful).

- Note: There will be failures along the way. Failures = Art Not Looking Like You Want It To Look (but just know that it might look like an amazing success to someone else, even if you don't like it). Failures are learning experiences and usually mean you’re doing it right, because you are experimenting with trying to figure out how you make art and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Without art that doesn't turn out exactly how you expected, you won’t go on to make good art (just think of how different your art is now from when you were three or four years old).

- Super Important Note #1: What makes art successful is subjective. If you like what you created, it’s successful, even if it didn’t turn out the way you imagined.

- Super Important Note #2: You don’t have to show anyone else your failed art attempts, unless you want to (or you have to for a class you’re taking). The important part is to try and experiment and allow yourself to fail so that you can learn what works for you.

- Super Important Note #3: As long as you keep going, you’ll improve, and sometimes, art that doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to ends up being even better than you imagined!

cow typing on a computer, facing away from you, with a tiny cow avatar and scribbled text on the screen

2. If you want to write:

- The short version: Write, write, write, and write some more! Also read books, lots and lots of books.

- The longer version: Read the kind of books you want to write. Also read anything that interests you, even if they aren’t the type of books you want to write. Read books you don’t like and think about why you don’t like them. Then think about why you like the books that you do like. What makes them work (for you)? What makes the books you don’t like not work (for you, and why might it be a favorite book for someone else)? Look at how pictures integrate and/or enhance the text (I said this above for illustrators. It's important for writers too, especially if they're writing books that will be illustrated).

cow reading a stack of books

3. If you want to write AND illustrate:

- The short version: Draw, write, read, and revise based on changes to the story and art.

- The longer version: If you want to illustrate AND write, read books and look at the illustrations, do steps one and two repeatedly, and most of all, learn to revise. Both writers and illustrators need to revise their words and images to make characters, settings, and stories clear and inviting to the reader. When you're both the writer and the illustrator of the story, the revisions you make to either the writing or the illustrations will likely cause changes in the other one. First drafts are great for getting the idea out, but revision is what makes the story shine. Many writers and illustrators find it helpful to get critiques to help them improve their writing and art. Some people have critique partners, or critique groups, where they share their work and also give feedback to other writers and illustrators. There are also opportunities at conferences for professional critiques from agents, editors, or published authors and illustrators.

cow with lightbulb in a thought bubble above her head

4. If you want to write and/or illustrate:

- The short version: Research!

- The longer version: Everyone expects to do research for non-fiction, but research is necessary for writing and illustrating fiction too (even if your art is stylized, it helps to know what the thing you're drawing actually looks like).

- Another important area of research is the publishing industry. It will help you target your submissions to the editor, agent or art director that's the best fit for your work. It will also teach you how the industry works, so you know what to expect regarding wait times on submissions, acquisition process, whether you need/want an agent, contracts, publication, promotion, and everything else that might pop up in your journey to be published.

- Don't start submitting after you have one draft of a story or have drawn your first couple of illustrations. You'll need a polished manuscript and/or a professional portfolio and book dummy first. You want to make an editor, agent, or art director fall in love with your work so they'll offer to represent you, publish your book, or ask you to illustrate a book someone else wrote.

- Good Luck!

A few posts on writing and illustrating books from my blog that also might help:

1. the path illustrators take to get their work noticed and advance their careers

2. how to write a picture book in twelve easy steps

3. three ways to make a picture book dummy

4. five things for illustrators - a.k.a. five things that helped me and will hopefully help you too

5. ten tips for choosing what to draw for your portfolio, and ten ways to find inspiration

6. the importance of making art for fun

Some thoughts on creativity:

Teacher TJ asked, "Is creativity something you are born with or can it be cultivated over time?" This was my answer:

"I think the answer is both. Everyone is born with creativity and curiosity. Kids are much more free to express their creativity in art, writing, music, etc. The older they get, the more creativity has to be cultivated to keep going and to continue to be important. It's so easy to get discouraged if something you create doesn't turn out how you hoped, or even worse, a friend, teacher, family member, or classmate doesn't like it or makes fun of it. To continue being creative, you need to nurture your art, and keep growing / learning to get to the next level. To continue to be creative, you have to realize that you will get better if you keep at it. Your art may never turn out the way you imagine it will, but if you keep making art, it will get better, and might turn out even more amazing than what you hoped it would be."

(see TJ's blog post for answers to this quesiton from other authors and illustrators)

Reference Books For Children's Book Writers and Illustrators:

* Writing With Pictures by Uri Shulevitz

* Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul

* Picture This, How Pictures Work by Molly Bang

* Illustrating Children's Books by Martin Salisbury

* Dear Genius, The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard S. Marcus

* Take Joy by Jane Yolen

* It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World by Olga Litowinsky

* From Cover to Cover by Kathleen T. Horning

* Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (annual, published by Writer's Digest Books)

* Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz

Note: Choose any writing or illustrating book that helps or inspires you. Everyone has their favorite reference books. These are mine. FYI, I've found that writing books help me with illustration and illustration books help me with writing.

A few links to know for the children's book industry:

The SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators)
The BlueBoards hosted by the SCBWI
Editor Cheryl Klein's website and blog
Editor Harold Underdown's Purple Crayon site
The Children's Book Council
The Horn Book

Note: There are many other helpful sites and blogs, but this is a good place to start. All of these were tremendously helpful to me when I started out. I hope they'll help you too.