ILLUSTRATION FEATURE The Commissioning Process (Part 1)

Submitting and developing artwork can be fraught with questions and uncertainty for illustators. In the first of two installments, designer/art directors, Ness Wood of Orange Beak/ David Fickling Books and Nghiem Ta of Walker Books, talk to Sally Rowe about the the do's and don'ts of the production process.

You are a fledgling illustrator. You’ve polished your style, characters, and visual story-telling and publishers are showing interest but... you are a little unsure how the process from commission to publication works. I asked Art Directors Nghiem Ta (Walker Books) and Ness Wood (David Fickling Books, Faber and Orange Beak Studio) to talk us through the stages.

1. Selecting a new illustrator - do you ask for pitch samples before commission?

Ness told us, "When looking for an illustrator for a publisher I am increasingly asked to get a sample from them. It may be that two illustrators are liked and so I would ask them both for a sample. Personally I think it is better to pay an illustrator for a sample, but in my experience samples are expected to be done for free nowadays. If the illustrator doesn't get the job then they will have the sample for their portfolio and so new work to show. I wouldn't expect more than a couple of samples for nothing though, as I appreciate illustrators need to make a living and eat!"

Ness Wood and Nghiem Ta

Speaking for Walker Books, Nghiem said, "On the few occasions we ask for samples, a small fee is given to the illustrators. The illustrators are carefully considered and a clear brief is given."

2. Commissioning - How do you brief the illustrator?

Ness shared, "When commissioning a sample then it would be done by email or over the phone."

Once the illustrator is selected, both our Art Directors agreed that, in addition to a written brief, a face-to-face meeting is always preferred, to talk through everyone’s thoughts for the book and get a real sense of the illustrator and their work. Acknowledging that this is not always possible, Nghiem added, "Recently, I’ve been using video calling as another useful tool to communicate."

Case Study: Bear Moves by Ben Bailey Smith and Sav Akyüz, publishing in the UK, February 2019 by Walker Entertainment. Initial rough by Sav Akyüz, the illustrator, to accompany the first draft of the text.

3. Roughs - what do you require in roughs? Can you take us through the back-and-forth process?

Nghiem explained that for commissioned illustrations, "roughs should show a clear intention of the required objectives from the brief and the intended composition. It should also show any ideas the illustrator would like to suggest. Once the rough is submitted, the creative team considers the image. Feedback is then given for any amends or revisions.

"With picture books, sometimes the illustrator has already roughed-out the whole book to communicate the story. When this occurs, the roughs are used to help compose page layouts with text in place. The designer will then feedback to the illustrator with recommendations or any necessary amends."

Case Study: Bear Moves by Ben Bailey Smith and Sav Akyüz. The first layouts by the designer utilising the first roughs and setting with text.
Case Study: The second draft, developed after creative team discussion.

As a designer, Ness has a hands-on role in the picture book development process. "I would decide on the typeface and position the text on the spreads. Depending on the illustrator, I would send them a PDF of the layouts or 100% printouts. When I work with Shirley Hughes she always prefers 125% printouts. The illustrator will do initial roughs and then I will scan or receive them digitally and position them in the layouts. I send these layouts, with the roughs in position, to the editor with my comments. Alice Corrie is an editor I work with a lot at DFB. We will to-and-fro, moving, amending and reading the text in position with the images. I may go back to the illustrator a couple of times to amend the roughs before we then send these layouts to the rest of the team, the publisher and another editor. They may make comments and, again, I will feed back to the illustrator.

"At this stage the editor will send the layouts to the author (if it's someone separate to the illustrator). The point of the process is to get finished roughs signed off before starting artwork. Some rough stages are quicker than others. [It can take] between two and six months to get roughs sorted. It depends from title to title and length of the book."

Recent titles designed by Ness

In part 2, Nghiem and Ness will offer some thoughts and examples of final art and post-production.

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Header image © Sally Rowe.
Many thanks to Nghiem and Ness for the use of copyright images.

Nghiem Ta was the designer of the phenomenally successful Ology series at Templar, which sold more than 17 million copies worldwide, before moving to Walker Books in 2015.

Art Director Ness Wood has worked with Faber & Faber and David Fickling Books and co-founded Orange Beak Studio, teaching and mentoring illustrators.


Sally Rowe illustrated her first children’s book in 2017. She also coordinates the Wokingham SCBWI Writers’ Critique group.

1 comment:

  1. Mary Rosambeau20 June 2018 at 16:41

    Great I found that really helpful Sally


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