ILLUSTRATION FEATURE 10 Bright Ways to Fight Illustration Gloom!

Under-appreciated, under-employed and under-paid? Feeling down in the dumps about your children’s illustration progress? Illustration Features Editor John Shelley offers ten tips to get you focused.

1) Sift through the rubbish

You go into a bookshop and are overawed by all those wonderful bestsellers, and your heart sinks. So many fine books! How can there be room for you? The fact is there are great books out there, and there are not so great books out there. Your work will fit in somewhere between the top and the bottom. If you’re serious about your art, on a 1-10 scale, you’re not a zero. Yes, sure be inspired by those titles you love, but also check out the bottom of the pile - look for books you don’t like, the ones with stories you think are throwaway, with insipid characters or plain badly drawn. “Why is this in print with a major publisher? I could do better than that,” you think.

Yes, you can do better than that - now go and do it!

2) Go cheap, and scribble

Put aside your lovely expensive art paper and equipment, and pick up a tatty sketchbook. The cheaper, more throwaway the better. Write “Scribbles” or “Bad Drawings” on the cover. And let yourself loose on it. Scribble, doodle, have fun just being silly on the paper. Get angry if you have to, take out your career frustrations on the page. Don’t worry about making great art, or impressing anyone. Just make the kind of marks that flow from you. Don’t be afraid of blank paper, hey, this is just a rubbish old sketchbook anyway, it doesn’t matter if you mess up. Do it again and again, be fearless. Creativity will flow.

3) Set yourself daily drawing exercises

Try doing a daily doodle over breakfast or some other set point in the day. Keep it simple - you might find it will become a habit. Having an easy-to do graphic project you can spend a short time on every day can focus your work; daily drawings may follow a theme and over time link together into a bigger project. It might be a character study - every day the same character in a different pose, or situation. Take them on adventures, one sketch a day. Time yourself to do short pictures, loosen up, aim to complete quickly. If you have a commuting day job, make a policy to draw things on the journey - things you see through windows, fellow passengers, something on the street … an every day visual doodle journal. Or try this - throughout September the House of Illustration is running a Daily 1 inch Drawing Challenge inspired by work in the John Vernon Lord show.

4) Try a new art technique

Pick up a medium you’ve never used before, and be bold with it. Don’t just dip your toe in the water, take the plunge - big picture, be vigorous and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Explore what the new medium has to offer.

5) Shine the spotlight on your creative core

Put aside the 'business' for a moment. Ask yourself what is it that you enjoy about creating and viewing art. Make a list, or notes on a pin board - do a character analysis on what makes you tick as an artist. Think back to your childhood. What motivates you? What inspired you to art and to illustration? What do you personally gain through the process of creating? List your all-time favourite work, all eras, all types. What themes or common factors connect them? Where does your own output connect with this? The core thing that stimulates you to make pictures can be the thing that appeals to other people too - focus down on the nucleus of what inspires you, look beyond styles and influences, get to the heart of your passion, and if you can express that in your work, it will inspire others.

6) Deconstruct the masters

Look at successful illustrated books you love. Try to mentally dismantle them (don't damage the book!), dissect their construction, reduce them to their bare bones, analyse their layers, look for every facet that makes the book something whole. What makes it work? Why did the writer or illustrator make this or that decision over character, story, scene etc. Where does it not work? If it's a picture book, try typing out the words and examine how the story was constructed. Redrawing great illustration or gallery art purely as an exercise can sometimes help to get your own creative juices flowing. Regard it as a warm-up, don’t try to reproduce stroke-by-stroke, just use the source as a base from which you launch your own experiment. Try it in a different medium, or different colours.

7) Be selective with social media

We love it, we hate it! It's a good idea to think carefully how you involve yourself, and cut out things that negatively affect your mood and enthusiasm. Be inspired by other artists, but try to avoid comparing yourself to others on social media. It’s not about followers or keeping up with others, it’s about developing the artist in you. It might seem everyone else is achieving more, with more confidence, highlighting your own perceived lack of progress. But the fact is everyone manages their public image, people hide the bad stuff, the uncreative days. Sure be motivated by others, but focus on the progress in your output, not theirs.

Social media can be useful though. For illustrators the hashtag challenges can really help to motivate. Joining one of the daily, weekly or monthly group activities might be a progressive exercise (see 3) above). It doesn’t matter if you only occasionally join in, it’s all about establishing a rhythm and getting you to produce work.

8) Declutter your workspace

Do you have enough space to wave your arms around, or are there piles of paper or equipment in your work area? Oust them! Unused art equipment - either use it or put it into storage away from your workspace. Sometimes in a studio, the less you have around you, the more focused you become on your active equipment. And it goes without saying - minimise things that might distract you from working. Think Zen - in Japan, shodo calligraphy artists create in bare rooms, clear of everything except brush, ink and paper. But don't use a studio clear-up as a procrastination excuse!

9) Develop a day one attitude

We all have old artwork tracing our progress. Try not to allow this to become baggage, for the current market all that matters is now, today. Though it's important to absorb lessons, avoid comparisons with your past successes or failures. Thoughts like "oh it used to be like this….”, or “I’ve been rejected X number of times”, or “five years ago an editor told me…” don't help. Everything is new, the past does not count. Publishers change staff frequently, last year’s market is different to that of today, which will be different in turn to that of tomorrow. Even long-time staff members change their policy for the current market. Only what you are presenting to the world right now matters. Refresh, re-start, re-submit. That's not to say you should discard your old work - good work has value, fashions come around again. But try to leave behind the trappings of your past output, don't be weighed down by your past experience - today everyone is a debut.

10) Get out and mingle

There’s nothing like real contact with real people and face-to-face experience of seeing physical works of art. Visit exhibitions, go to book fairs. No SCBWI group nearby? Join a local art group. Maybe start one! (talk to your network organiser). Or join in some art activity outside of SCBWI. It doesn’t have to be an illustration or writer’s group, cross-pollination of creative ideas come from all sorts of stuff. How about a life drawing class or urban sketchers or something else creative that may not be about children’s books at all? Meeting and working with other creative people can shake us out of the enclosed tunnel of issues we build around our work.

Good luck!

All illustrations © John Shelley 


John Shelley is the Illustration Features editor of Words & Pictures, and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, for publishers in Japan, the US and the UK. He was one of the UK nominations for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.
Website: Twitter/Instagram/Facebook: @StudioNIB


  1. Thanks John, these are great things to keep in mind.

  2. Thanks, John - these will come in handy. And great illustrations too!

  3. Thanks, John. Really inspiring and sound!

  4. Useful and the inch challenge sounds especially doable for a self-doubting procrastinator - thanks, John.

  5. Thank you, John. I just graduated as a mature student from university where I chose to focus on children's book illustration. Now being able to dedicate myself full time to my career as illustrator, there is this big What if hanging over me and I just couldn't make myself pick up a pencil. I can really relate to the points you mentioned and have found that they worked well for me. Starting with low/no expectations to draw in a "bad drawings" notebook freed me up so much and showed potential I wasn't even aware of and turning off social media for a bit and then return with my own ideas and clear guidelines proved to be invaluable too (e.g. I share my process but only on Wednesday s which I call "Instagram Wednesdays" to help me focus and not get distracted from what really matters to me - making art that inspires and moves me and others). Thank you again for sharing these points. Makes me feel not alone in this early stage of my career and also feel more prepared for those moments when a good strategy can help out of a creative low.


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