• Jennifer Jackman White

My Creative Process For Writing & Illustrating Picture Books

Hi everyone! I thought I'd share my creative process behind making picture books as an author illustrator. Writing and illustrating picture books sounds easy at first, until you sit down to try and write and illustrate one! There is a lot of work and thought that goes into a book to make it feel effortless and easy to read, and I've gone through a lot of trial and error with my creative process, but I think I finally found a system that works for me. What creative process works for you? I'd love to hear about your creative process too!

Essentially I follow this structure:

1. Play! Doodle! Sketch! Explore! Let your brain run wild and free! I like to brain dump all my ideas on paper (or an ipad). Ideation should feel playful, fun and free, to explore all your thoughts and ideas. The more I draw, the more I'll discover little story gems and characters.

2. Pick your favorite ideas and characters. Then continue to draw them...a lot. How do you relate to this character? Do they have a dream or goal? What is their biggest fear? What makes them happy? What makes them sad or mad? Where do they live, what do they wear? These are all the thoughts that go through my head as I let my mind wander and make a bunch of sketches.

3. Start to define your story. Ok! By this time, I have enough drawings, sketches and ideas that I can sense a story really start to reveal itself. Still thinking big picture, I try to imagine a beginning, middle and end. I also like to come up with one word or feeling to describe the entire story (this helps me stay focused on every word I plan to write).

4. Sketch out the storyboard. Now it's time to create your book's 32 page storyboard! But just with loose sketches to make little thumbnails. I like keeping the whole storyboard on one 11x17 piece of paper, that I usually tape to the wall for reference. Sometimes I cut up the 11x17 piece of paper to move spreads around, or tape on new thumbnail sketches that work better.

5. Start writing. It might be shocking for some that I'm starting to write so much later in the process! I'm an illustrator first, so I always start with drawing to bring my ideas to life. Later I start to add my words. I 'll starting writing out my story in a word doc, inspired by my illustrations that I've created this far to develop my story idea. Once I feel pretty good about my story in the word doc, I'll start to add my copy directly on my storyboard.

6. Make a dummy. Once I feel pretty good about my thumbnails and my storyboard, I'll take screenshots, scans or photos of my storyboard, and start to import all my pages into an Indesign file. I've been a designer for about 17 years, and I used to work in publishing! So I use a lot of the design skills I've learned over the years. I'll create a file in Indesign that is the exact size of the book I want to create, make 32 pages, and start to import all my sketches into the file to really see my book come to life! I'll also start to place copy on every page, including the front cover and back cover. I live in this dummy phase for quite a while, cleaning up sketches to look more clean, and fine tuning my copy and page turns.

7. Make a mini branding guide! This is where I start defining the look and feel of my book, so I don't stray (which is so easy to do when you are creative and are inspired by so many things around you!). This is what I'll include in my branding guide:

  1. Moodboard I'll pull references from some of my favorite illustrators, or inspirational photos or objects that sets a mood and look and feel.

  2. Color palette For consistency, I'll decide on the main 3-5 colors I'd like to use throughout the book. This can be paint swatches, or hex codes for digital art. This is SO helpful to have.

  3. Character studies and expressions This is a huge anxiety reducer for me! I like to draw my character from different angles and in different poses all at once. Then I like to draw my character's expressions. This is amazing reference to stay consistent when you have to draw your character throughout your book.

  4. Background study I'll usually do one background study for my branding guide (or more if I have time!) because it also helps me stay focused and consistent. Once established I like to keep my brushes or line weights similar throughout the book so it all looks cohesive. This is also might define if I'll go for a more flat and graphic style, or a painterly style with dimension and detail.

  5. Book cover This is totally not necessary, but I design book covers as well, so I find starting with a book cover design really inspires me to create the rest of the book. Does anyone else do this?

8. Polish that dummy! Once I feel pretty good about my dummy, I'll send it to someone I trust to review, then make edits.

9. What's next? There are many directions to take at this point depending on where you are at in your publishing journey. If you are already represented, you could send your book package directly to your agent or publisher, editor or art director for review before you get the green light to start completing your entire book. If you are unrepresented you could send your book package to illustration or literary agents. You could also decide to finish your entire book yourself and self publish. Also please note: to shop around your book idea you really only need a book dummy, thumbnails, 3 final illustrations and your story in a word doc (copy only). This post simply wraps up my creative process from start to beginning so I'm not overwhelmed when I have to complete an entire book.

10. Don't give up! Just keep going and don't give up, keep writing, keep telling stories, keep illustrating, and always remember why you got started in the first place: for the love of making picture books. This should feel fun and exciting! It's super easy to become discouraged with rejection letters or changes, I can assure you thats %110 apart of the process and completely normal and nothing to take personally. Rejection letters are super common simply because people are busy, their list is most likely already full and they are not looking, or they are looking for something specific and even if your story is the most epic story ever, if it's not the subject matter they are looking for it will get rejected. Even if you get a lot of nos, it only take one yes :-)