EVENTS Picture books: from concept to creation

In late September, SCBWI Scotland welcomed Floris Books' Leah McDowell to talk about picture books. Yvonne Banham reports.

Leah, who is Art and Production Director at Floris Books, shared Floris illustrator, Nataśa Ilinčić’s top illustration tips.

Nataśa's first tip

Don’t stress about style, especially if you’re just starting out. Concentrate on improving your technique and skills instead, and make sure you have a solid knowledge to build on. Style will develop organically – through media experimentation, lots of practice and personal taste.

Leah during her presentation.

Leah’s first step when selecting an illustrator is to look at websites, Instagram, blogs, degree shows, agents and their own Kelpies Prize for Illustration (Nataśa Ilinčić was Highly Commended in 2017).

The process is similar for in-house projects: the publisher sees a gap in the market and appoints both author and illustrator.

An illustrator is expected to be techno-savvy, and to be able to engage an audience in a society where there is so much more to grab readers’ attention. Sample portfolios are then looked at, searching for specific skills. In this case, skills for illustrating humans and monsters, creating atmosphere and building narrative.

Attendees at the Floris picture book workshop.

Next, a short list of illustrators supply samples (some are sent to the author before commissioning). Finally, an illustrator is commissioned. Leah added that demonstration of dynamic composition and character consistency are vital. So is author/publisher trust. It’ll be the publisher who finally chooses the illustrator, as they’re usually more objective about the project and the market. Once the project is underway, character development is worked on – time period, clothing style and colour are all considered.

In the case of The Treasure of the Loch Ness Monster, a big question was, how would Nessie look? More dragon? More eel? There’s a fine line between great tension and too scary.

The illustration brief is then placed alongside some text to provide focus.

Nataśa's second tip

Blank page anxiety? Try switching paper. Use different or less expensive paper. Take the pressure off.

Next, the flat-planning stage. The book is looked at as a whole with spreads and vignettes (placed to speed readers through the narrative). The illustrator may also produce thumbnails to settle on composition, followed by roughs. They’ll still be working on composition, but also on character motives and flipped perspectives. Each rough is then signed off, leaving room for text.

Leah and SCBWI Scotland's Elizabeth Frattaroli.

Nataśa's third tip

Isolate a couple of good ideas and settle on a few compositions, then submit them to the Art Director. The work from this point is highly collaborative; a constant back and forth until a final composition is settled on. Be flexible and make the most of your Art Director. When you’re working on a book, there is a difference between a good illustration and a good illustration for that particular book. The illustration (header image) is an excellent example of how a more dynamic approach to composition can make an enormous difference. The first rough was a side view of the boat on the surface with Nessie underneath, effective but not the same impact as the final illustration. 

At the roughs stage, there may be more author involvement before the final illustrations are worked on. The artwork then gets final approval, including another proofreading by the author. The time frame for the creative process is normally around six months but this depends on the length of the text. Floris photograph and scan the artwork and the original is kept by the illustrator.

SCBWIs socialise after the event.

And we still had a few questions…

Q. What about author-illustrators?
A. They will tend to lean heavily on the visual side, whilst taking editorial advice on the text. The whole concept is then presented to the publisher in words and sketches.

Q. And payment?
A. Book covers generate a flat fee, whereas book illustration is paid either as royalties or as an advance/part advance.

Q. What are your recommended word counts for the age ranges?
A. Board books: very few words, concept-led, rely much more heavily on illustrations. Picture books: usually less than 1000 words. Young Readers: 7-10K. Middle-grade novels: 30-60k words.

Q. Are both the author and illustrator involved in promotion?
A. It’s usually the author, but it really works if the illustrator is involved too. At Floris, the marketing team helps develop these skills.

The afternoon was rounded off with 1-to-1 portfolio sessions and a sneak preview of the Kelpies Prize for Illustration 2020, now open to entries via their website.

Thank you, Leah for an interesting and informative afternoon.

*Header image: by Nataśa Ilinčić from The Treasure of The Loch Ness Monster. Event photographs by Yvonne Banham and Elizabeth Frattaroli.


Yvonne lives in Edinburgh, working to the soundtrack of a snoring Beagle. She studied Illustration but loves writing more (though she is still fond of a scribble). When she’s not writing MG fiction or gazing lovingly at her to-be-read pile, she’s running in the Pentland Hills, falling once a year on average. Twitter @yvonnebanham


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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