Paint me a Birmingham

Never ask an illustrator to 'make it look just the way I plan'

“‘No! I am an artist with ideas and thoughts and vision of my own! Let me have some input!'”

Driving alone from LA to Denver some years ago, I tuned into the car radio for company. Aside from a brief moment when in the vicinity of Las Vegas – a glittering city that really does appear from nowhere and then, in a single twist of the road, disappear just as fast – my station choices were limited to about five country music options.

Nothing wrong with a spot of country, but ten hours later total silence and staring grimly ahead definitely had more of an appeal.

“Wouldn’t you far rather have a home-made picnic by the sea with your best friend, than a dinner in an expensive restaurant with somebody you loathed?”

Tracy Lawrence’s version of ‘Paint me a Birmingham’ played, oh, a couple of hundred times (or so it felt), and the lyrics are forever embedded – knocking useful information out of my mind, such as why I walked into a room or where the devil my car keys have taken up residence. ‘Could you paint me a Birmingham?’ he croons, ‘Make it look just the way I plan…’.

At which point, the painter should have interrupted. ‘No! I am an artist with ideas and thoughts and vision of my own! Let me have some input!’

And thus it should be for the author working side by side with their illustrator. I often read comments about writers creating complete ‘storyboards’ that they hand over, planned down to tiny details. How can an illustrator work effectively while being so constrained? Picture books consist of two major components: a written story, and a drawn story. The artist would never have the presumption to change the writer’s words, and yet the writer so often thinks they know better than their partner when it comes to images. I’ll admit it, I occasionally ask for something to be tweaked or shimmied to the left or – very rarely – discarded altogether, but the original illustrations come from the artist’s interpretation of my words.

That is why the most important thing when choosing an illustrator is finding one you ‘click’ with. There will be hours of back and forth spreading into weeks and months, fine-tuning everything, and I can think of nothing more infuriating than a non-responsive illustrator who disappears into the ether for days at a time. The first question I have been (repeatedly) asked about illustrators is, ‘How much do they charge?’ Wrong question, I’m afraid. Wrong question.

“If an illustrator loves and believes in your story in the way you do, you’re probably onto a winner.”

While everyone of course has a budget, it doesn’t necessarily transpire that the cheapest illustrators will be ‘bad’ and the most expensive ‘amazing’. Maybe think about it this way: wouldn’t you far rather have a home-made picnic by the sea with your best friend, than a dinner in an expensive restaurant with somebody you loathed? If there is no enjoyment in the process, it will show in the book.

Everyone knows the websites you can go to and find cheap writers and illustrators. We all have to start somewhere, and maybe you will be lucky enough to stumble across an emerging gem on there. But if an illustrator hasn’t had the inclination to put together their own site – or even Instagram page – with samples of their work, do you really want to be working with them? But don’t just use an illustrator ‘because they’re cheap’, and don’t choose an illustrator you like and then tell them what to do. For years I have written stories for EFL students, constrained by strict specifications, and although it is workable there is little magic involved. There can’t be, playing by somebody else’s rules.

Find illustrators you like. Approach them. Talk with them. Establish whether or not you have a connection. If an illustrator loves and believes in your story in the way you do, you’re probably onto a winner. Then and only then start working out the figures. When projects are dictated from the outset by financials, they can never work as beautifully as one that is powered by a shared motivation.

And when you’ve found the right one, don’t then tell them how to do their job. Words from the wisest of all, Julia Donaldson: “When you’re writing a book, the illustrator brings something to it that you can’t really control – and I wouldn’t want to totally control how the illustrations are.” ‘The Gruffalo’ alone has sold 13 million copies. I reckon she knows what she’s doing.

2 Comments

  1. Melquea

    Wow! I love you take on this! Thank you so much for sharing! As an illustrator when I work on projects, I also market them on my side as much as the author would market on their side. It takes a ton of energy to come up with content and share stories, and share a project I’ve been working on for 6 months to a year. I can only do that if it’s also a labor of love and believing in the story. If not, then it’s just an assembly line of drawing.

    Reply
    • Ollie

      Exactly that – there is also so much after the project that requires effort and energy, and nobody is going to do that if they aren’t emotionally invested in some way. Thank you so much for responding to this so positively; it’s good to know I’m going about things in a way an illustrator would appreciate!

      Reply

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