Working with an illustrator – part 1

rough1This is part one of a two part blog – as I wrote it I realised that I was going on a bit, so part two will be published next week!

The first of my charity books was released last week. Jan the Dragon was commissioned in April and written for a German boy (called Jan, as you might expect) who has started learning English. His aunt thought it would amuse him to have a book to read in English. A nice idea and, by a stroke if good fortune (and the miracle that is twitter), I had the choice of a couple if artists to choose from to illustrate it for me.

It was my first experience of working with an illustrator (I use photo artwork for the Bremmand Chronicles) so I thought I’d pass on a few tips on the experience for those who are also considering commissioning artwork for their book for the first time.

Before I do, however, it is worth pointing out that no money is changing hands for my books. They are for charity and all if the illustrators give their time for free. So, when it comes to pricing, commercial agreements and contracts, I’ve no experience to draw from and won’t attempt to advise

1. Outline your story

That might seem like I’m stating the obvious, but don’t go looking for illustrations until you’ve at least planned what you will write. An illustrator needs to know what to illustrate and samples don’t help you if they are of landscapes and you want rabbits

2. Ask for some samples and sketches

Do this for several artists, where you like the style of past work. You want to get a good idea of how they are imagining your words, how they use colour and how it fits with your overall vision for your book. You can also ask for a few colour tests for your main character, to help you decide. It also tells you how quickly they work (and, if the sketches don’t turn up, whether they are reliable).

colour1 colour3 colour2








If those sketches are an ‘almost but not quite’ fit, by all means go back and say so but be reasonable. These are sketches, so focus on stylistic thoughts rather than detail and composition (“I had stronger colours in mind, could you give me an idea of how that might look” is reasonable. “I think the rabbit needs to be on the left not the right” is not).

[Note: After I posted this, I got a comment from an artist concerned about this advice. To be clear, the purpose of asking for samples is to get an impression of how your work might be interpreted, NOT to get illustrations for free.  You CANNOT use any sketches you get here with the artists permission (that’s a breach of copyright as well as being unethical). Please see the comment below and my reply for more on this.]

3. Choose you artist

Decision time. From the sketches you’ve got, decide who you’d like to use, and confirm that they will work with you and can meet your deadlines. Then (and only then – because if your first choice says no, it might lead to an awkward conversation when you need to go back to your second choice) thank the others politely, giving constructive and helpful feedback as to why you have decided not to use them.

4. Specify what you need

The more details you provide here, the easier it is for your artist to give you something you need. So tell them:

  • How many illustrations
  • When you need them by
  • Page size
  • Front cover size (it may be slightly different to inside pages)
  • Any thoughts on colours (e.g. Jan the Dragon is green)
  • Size of any page borders you want to have and how many (I had two – which were then flipped in various ways to work well on any page)
  • The fonts you are planning to use for the layout (helps them from a design perspective)
  • How you are planning to produce the book (Marianna knew far more about how my printer would process the book than I did, so knew to provide the artwork in CMYK rather than RGB[1])

Be as specific as you can – if you are asking for anything that they don’t understand or can’t be done, they will come back to you to discuss it further.

At this point, the thing you will need more than anything else is patience. You need to wait for illustrations before you can do anything else. So that seems like a very suitable place to say:

End of part one!

Cate Caruth is the author of the Bremmand Chronicles. To buy her books or learn more about them, go to

You can follow Cate on Twitter at

[1] Don’t ask me what the difference is – I wasn’t even aware of it until Marianna asked. I had to Google it just to know how to answer!! Trust your artist on this one.

2 comments to Working with an illustrator – part 1

  • Just want to point out that for 2. “Ask for samples and sketches” — doing this without paying the artist is exploitative and unethical. This is a huge problem among the art community where artists undervalue their work and do things for free for the possibility of being paid. An artists’ portfolio should give you enough information to decide whether you want to hire them. If you want to hire them for a smaller project to see how their style works with their vision, that makes total sense! Just wanted to comment this so others inexperienced with hiring illustrators don’t try to exploit artists for free work. (Not trying to accuse you of doing this. Your post was just unclear and I could see somebody misunderstanding the advice.)

    • admin

      Stacey, thanks so much for posting this. I absolutely wasn’t suggesting that a writer should ask an artist to start providing free illustrations. The kind of thing I had in mind (and which I did for my recent book) would be to get some ideas of how my writing might be illustrated by a particular artist.
      So Marianna first sent me work from her portfolio and then did a few sketches of how she would illustrate a dragon as did a couple of other artists.
      It gave me an idea of which interpretation would work best with the story.
      I hope that clarifies my meaning. I’ll add a comment to the blog now accordingly.
      Since this was the first time I’ve used an illustrator, I’m still learning too and your comment here is really helpful for me as well as other authors, so thank you again.

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