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Frequently Asked Questions

Got a question? Find the answer here!

Q. I've written a children's book. I need to find an artist. Would you take a look at it and see if you want to illustrate it for me?

A. You don't need to find an illustrator. After a publisher has decided to publish your manuscript, they find, hire, and pay an illustrator. Because publishers prefer to choose the illustrator for their books, most professional illustrators will consider a project only after it's been contracted by a publishing house. You can always recommend a favorite illustrator in your cover letter, but sending your story without the illustrations is a much better idea.

A good organization to join to learn more about the process is SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Their website is

Q. But I don't want to go through a publisher. Would you still illustrate it?

A. Unfortunately, I still only work with publishers. You can self publish, but you should try submitting your manuscript to publishing houses before trying to self publish. Self publishing is very expensive and not always successful.

Q. What do you show in a childrens' book illustration portfolio?

A. Children, of course! Show children interacting with adults and/or animals. Create a picture sequence. One charming illustration is great, but illustrating a book requires a series of charming illustrations. Once you have a visual story in mind, be sure to show your characters consistently - clothing, age, etc. I can't emphasize that enough! It sounds easy, but it's really not. Play with points of view. Show your character in different moods. Action is very important to show as well. Pick a dramatic point of your visual story to illustrate -- where something important has just happened, or just about to happen.

Look at your competition. Is your work comparable to that of published illustrators? If you say, "yes!", that's great -- submit your work. If you're not sure, or thinking "no", keep working on your portfolio and save your (and the art director's) time and postage. Some good places to look at children's book illustration portfolios:

Q. I don't have any money to pay you, but would you design some graphics for my website?

A. I, like everyone else, need to eat and pay the mortgage. I love what I do, but this is my income. I'm a professional illustrator, not a hobbyist or a student. You expect to pay a lawyer or doctor when you visit them, don't you?

Q. I need to design a logo for my new business. May I have your permission to use your artwork for my logo and website?

A. Unfortunately, no. I would not be a very good business owner if I gave away my product for free. However, I do enjoy designing logos and would be more than happy if you wanted to commission me.

Q. Would you critique my work for me?

A. I'm sorry -- my schedule doesn't permit me to do personal critiques.

Q. I am a high school student and I am having trouble deciding what I want to do with my interest in the fields of art. I had a few questions on how you got to be where you are. What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue art as a career?

A. Since I get these kind of questions almost weekly, I guess I can at least describe my own experiences and the lessons that I've learned.

Most artistic people I know say that they've been drawing since "they could pick up a pencil", and I'm no different. I was blessed with supportive parents who recognized my interest and supplied me with lots of markers and crayons. Away from home, my mom would keep me occupied by keeping little pads of paper in her purse.

Lesson #1: Learn to be resourceful.

As the public schools where I grew up were not the greatest, I was enrolled in a tiny private school in a small town 30 minutes north. As there wasn't a "real" art department at the school, by sixth grade I decided that I could be the art department. I designed posters, programs, and of course, worked on the yearbook. When tenth grade rolled around, I was determined to get accepted into the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts. Governor's School, at that time, was an intensive five week program held in the summer for talented rising juniors and seniors. The screening process was highly selective. I showed up at my interview with a portfolio full of (*cringe*) cartoons. Of course, I wasn't accepted.

Lesson #2: Be persistent.

I did, however, get into Firespark, a two week arts program in Georgia for that summer. There, I learned about presentation, portfolios, and had my first experience with life drawing. My confidence soared, and after I applied to Governor's School the following year, I was finally accepted.

At Governor's School, I was thrilled to be around people my own age who were artistic - but, it wasn't a perfect five weeks. I realized that all these kids had amazing art programs at their high schools. Some even attended art high schools. I was jealous of their good fortune that they seemed to take for granted. I was further upset by the fact that I felt terribly behind everyone. I had no visual vocabulary. I could not talk about my art or my process.

Lesson #3: Don't waste your time feeling sorry for yourself. If you feel at a disadvantage, do something about it.

Fortunately, these feelings were short lived. Overall, I felt extremely lucky to have accomplished as much as I had. I left Governor's School determined to fill in the gaps of my arts education. I also was determined to attend an art school. This was not without its own problems. When I made the decision to attend art school, my yearbook advisor, biology teacher, and AP English professor all agreed that I was "wasting my brain." Somehow, I think that nearly everyone recognized my talent, but they thought of it as a hobby - definitely not something to pursue as a career. In December of my senior year, I was accepted to Ringling College of Art and Design. As it was a private college, my parents wondered how they were going to pay for it. That prayer was answered when I received a huge scholarship from my father's company, AT&T. My parents and I agreed it was a sign.

Ringling was exhilarating. I was suddenly surrounded by people who were even weirder than I was! I tried to absorb every bit of information and experience I could, in and out of the classroom. When the actual illustration training began sophomore year, I began to stress about not having a distinctive style. It seemed that everyone had one but me. Some professors were encouraging about my lack of "voice", while others were complete nightmares about it. My illustration professor my junior year nearly made me drop out. Burnout seemed right around the corner. I didn't even want to think about drawing. I returned home that summer not wanting to talk to anyone. Wanting to lessen my course load for my senior year, I took my advanced art history credit at the University of South Carolina. The class was "Rubens and His Contemporaries", and my professor was thrilled when she learned I attended Ringling. I realized that my classmates, all art history graduate students, seemed to be amazed that I could discuss paintings as well as they could. It dawned on me that I could discuss art because I created it - they just wrote about it. The professor loved my thesis paper, and my confidence was renewed enough to return to Ringling that fall.

Lesson #4: Believe in yourself and your talent.

I again worried about my upcoming senior thesis. How was I going to have a consistent body of work without my own style? Since I had started working completely in chalk pastels, the problem seemed to solve itself. Even with the three different short stories that I illustrated for the thesis, it turned out to be a strong body of work. The style that did began to emerge senior year was very "cute". This, of course, caused a lot of teasing. "Not everyone does cute well", one of my professors assured me, "but you should stick with it." I was encouraged to apply to Funnybone Interactive, a children's software development company in Connecticut. Cuteness worked in my favor, because I was hired two weeks after graduation.

Final thoughts...

If you're a student, especially in high school, don't limit yourself too soon. This is the time to explore and learn all you can. Explore different design fields even if you're not sure you want to pursue them. For example, find out what it takes to be a successful graphic designer versus a successful illustrator. Whatever you decide upon, it must be something you feel passionately about.

Art school or no art school? In my situation I definitely needed the four years to mature, both as a person and an artist. Most art schools prepare you with at least portfolio and presentation training, and some have career placement programs. If paying for art school is out of the question, at least take some art courses -- whatever is takes to gain experience and practice. Take figure drawing courses and especially human anatomy courses. Drawing the human figure accurately is one of the greatest challenges an artist faces.

Try to draw everyday -- practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for practice.

Be willing and openminded enough to accept criticism, but don't compare yourself to others. You'll either think you are the best or so bad you wonder why you bother. Compare yourself to how you were a year ago. Get out old drawings to see how much you've improved. What can you still work on? It will motivate you to better your work.

Look at as many different kinds of art as you can, even the kinds you may not think you like.

What kinds of art do you like the best? Why?

Don't try to be perfect. Don't expect perfection on the first try, second try, or even third try. Nobody is perfect instantly. These skills take time and patience to develop. If you obsess about being perfect the first time you make a mark, you'll never get anything done.

Read everything you can. Form your own opinions. Keep up to date with current trends, especially in design.

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Caroline McKay Illustration and Design
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