10 Mistakes Illustrators Make

Every illustrator is different. And yet—regardless of experience, education, or talent—there are common mistakes all illustrators make. Some of them are harmless oversights: while others can damage a reputation. 

Here are my top 10 most common illustrator mistakes.

10. WRONG FILE TYPE

Even though this is No. 10, it might be the most frustrating. Every so often, my designers and I receive a low-resolution JPEG as art intended to print. Here’s what a JPEG does to your file: Imagine your art is a crystal champagne glass. Now imagine you pulverize the glass with a hammer, stuffing some (not all) shards into a matchbox. Imagine you shove the matchbox into a thimble. You then send the thimble to someone with a note saying, “Drink your champagne out of this.”

Submitting the wrong file type is perhaps the easiest mistake to avoid. If in doubt, communicate with your client. A quick email or phone call will save you from an embarrassing gaffe.

9. WRONG COLOR SPACE

Not as egregious as “wrong file type”, but it’s No. 9 because it can be a big time-waster. This mistake can cost you hours, if not days, worth of work. 

You’re humming along; happy with the intense colors you’re whipping around the page; proud of yourself for delivering files on time. Only, you receive an email later asking that you provide the files as CMYK, a much more limited color space than RGB. “No problem”, you say. That is until, after seeing your intense colors die, you have to go back and adjust them to claw back some of the vibrancy you had in RGB.

For traditional art, you can forget about reproducing unnatural colors in print (unless the publisher antes up for what’s called a “5th (or 6th, etc.) color”. Any inks used in print production beyond the first four (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) is costly, so it’s a good bet it’s not in the publisher’s plan.

Communicate with your client about the color space for your project. That, or be content to see your neon oranges and neon pinks not match what you provided.

8. PUSH COLORS

Speaking of color, No. 8 is No. 1 or 2 when I’m conducting portfolio reviews. I see this constantly: grass is just green, the sky is just blue, snow is just white, space is just black, bark is just brown. So many, so many, illustrators go to the 9-pack crayon box when choosing color. Now, I’m not saying I want a kaleidoscope of absurdity. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to make grass green. You can paint any way you like. My point is, avoid choosing the color by rote without first thinking about the piece’s overall tone.

Sure, a sky can be blue. Could it have varying blues? How does the sky color affect the surrounding colors? Does the sky gradually change in value? What other colors could you add? Does it have to be blue?

I’m also not saying that you have to use a lot of color. My favorite pieces of art all tend to have very limited color palettes.

Colour is a means of exerting direct influence on the soul.
— Wassily Kandinsky

There’s no one right formula to applying color. But there is a rule: Color shouldn’t be approached as a foregone conclusion.

7. POV

The point-of-view is called a few things: camera-angle, perspective, distance-to-reader. Whatever it’s called, forethought for the POV is paramount when illustrating children’s books. In books, we see several dozen images in a short amount of time. If the POV isn’t considered—if it’s the same throughout the book without a clear reason—engagement with the reader will be lost.

As with most of these points, I’m not asking you to do it for the sake of doing it. I’m asking that you give it some thought. With the POV, could we be close up, or far away? A step above, or a step below? Behind, or in front? Bird’s eye view, or worm’s eye view? Are we seeing the main character, or are we the main character?

Again, I’m not asking for M.C. Escher on every page. POV changes can be subtle. They can be close-up in an emotional or revelatory moment. They can be far away to describe scope or convey a character’s feeling of insignificance. These infinite choices are vessels with which you will carry emotion and story.

6. CROPPING

Cropping refers to the relationship between the art and the trim of the art. For inanimate objects, my general rule of thumb is that if you’re going to crop something, crop more than a 1/3 of it. If you don’t want it cropped, bring it onto the page with at least a 3/8th inch distance between it and the trim. Whatever you do, avoid placing the object right on the trim. It prohibits the viewer from imagining the space beyond the trim (unless you want to do that).

Instead of cropping her at the upper arm (like Vermeer intended), I cropped her at the neck. It doesn’t look so good, does it? Johannes Vermeer, Girl With A Pearl Earring, oil on canvas, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Instead of cropping her at the upper arm (like Vermeer intended), I cropped her at the neck. It doesn’t look so good, does it?

Johannes VermeerGirl With A Pearl Earring, oil on canvas, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

For animate objects, the rule is much more…cut and dry (sorry). Avoid cropping animate objects at joints (knees, elbows, wrists, neck, hips, ankles, etc.). Cropping at joints gives off an uneasiness in the visual.

Put another way, cropping at a joint implies that there’s nothing beyond the joint. Of course we know there’s more; but placing a joint on the trim acts as a full visual stop. We know better; but as readers, we take your lead. If you’re visually telling us there’s nothing beyond the joint, we will believe you. 

I’m sure there’s a more concise, perhaps even physiological, explanation; but take my word for it.

Instead, show at least some information beyond the joint. Crop at shins (which I don’t like, but at least it feels better); crop at thighs; crop at upper arms, chest, stomach, the middle of the face. One exception is cropping slightly above and below the wrist and ankle. There’s no reason to lob off just the hand or foot.

Yes, there are exceptions (there are always exceptions). But following these general cropping guidelines will save you hours of revisions.

5. COMPOSITION

I wouldn’t be surprised if composition was higher up on other art directors’ lists. I would place it higher if mistakes 1 through 4 didn’t happen more often.

In children’s books, not only do you need to compose a page to successfully carry a narrative, but you have to know how that composition plays with the previous and next pages. There are many examples of books with great compositions—not just on a single page or spread, but throughout the book as a larger body of work. For me, it begins with Where The Wild Things Are. Look at that book again. Note what Sendak does with his compositions. You might remember it as being pretty straight forward. It isn’t. He visually expands, then contracts, the live area of each spread. It’s his very subtle, but very smart, visual cue to show how Max feels about the world around him. 

Composition isn’t just “this goes here, that goes there”. Through composition, you are holding the viewer’s hand, acting as a guide for your world. What do you want them to see? How do you want them to see it?

4. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU

Congratulations! You just got offered an illustration project. If you’re new to this, let me be the first to tell you that many people acted on your behalf before you even got the job.

Their involvement doesn’t end after you say yes. In fact, it intensifies.

The mistake here is that too often, illustrators bristle at the idea of receiving notes. I’m here to tell you, be thankful it isn’t worse. In my case, a piece of art is reviewed by the designer, art director (me), copy editor, editor, editor-in-chief, associate publisher, and publisher. It’s a damn miracle you aren’t getting more notes. What notes you do receive are meant to bring out the best in you. That is our collective job.

This is where the term “gate-keepers” comes into play. People who deride traditional publishing don’t like the idea of having a professionally trained team (or “gatekeepers”) voice opinions on their book. They then go off and self-publish a poorly edited (if at all), poorly designed (if at all), poorly copyedited (if at all) mess of a book. You can’t run around with a scalpel and say you’re a doctor.

I’m not taking anything away from people who are serious about self-publishing. One of my favorite people of all time, Beatrix Potter, self-published. These folks self-publish from a productive, healthy, entrepreneurial mindset—not because they hate the gatekeepers. They respect the fact that a book is for the reader. And the reader deserves a well-written, well-edited, well-designed, well-copyedited, well-vetted, quality product.

Gatekeeper is defined as “a person at a gate who is employed to control who goes through it”. If we’re gatekeepers, we’re really bad at our jobs. The fine folks who work in children’s publishing are always leaving their gates (and their families) to attend conferences, schools, seminars, and workshops in an endless attempt to find YOU. If you want to walk through the “gate”, bring a good key.

3. SPECS

This mistake is second to No. 10 in boiling an art director’s blood. If I want a piece that’s 5 inches by 7 inches, don’t give me something that’s 11 x 17. If the cover of a book is square, don’t supply a rectangle. If I ask for bleed (a specified amount of art created beyond the trim), don’t not give me bleed. If I want 300 DPI, don’t give me anything other than 300 DPI. You get the point.

Good clients provide clear specs. If they don’t, then ask for specs. Remember how No. 9 wasted your time. No. 3 wastes your client’s time. 

2. CONSISTENCY

This is the absolute most frequent mistake illustrators make. The only reason it isn’t No. 1 is because No. 1 is potentially more harmful to an illustrator’s reputation.

“Consistency” is why I think classically trained animators sometimes make better illustrators than classically trained illustrators. Animators are taught early that consistency matters. Drawing the same character or environment hundreds of times ingrains the concept of consistency deep into an animator’s being. 

So often, I note consistency issues with even the most professional illustrators. There are three stripes on a shirt on page 3, but five stripes on page 5. A character is wearing dark gray shorts on one page, but white shorts on another. The colors of a bedspread on one page don’t match the colors on another. And on and on and on. I see it with seasoned pros and undergrads alike. These details, no matter how small, separate pro from amateurgood from bad, a repeat hire from one and done.

Consistency isn’t just about keeping details in the art, either. It’s an illustrators job to thoroughly read the text, in an effort to be fully aware of the feeling (as well as the details) in the text. The tone of the art needs to be consistent with the tone of the text.

Do you think kids don’t see inconsistencies? One of our editors was approached by a young reader. They noted that some background characters in book two of a series couldn’t possibly be there because the characters lived in a different place (as explained in book 1). They were right. It was a minor detail none of us caught. 

My 7 year-old son caught a pretty big mistake in an illustration in one of the more popular series out there. It’s very popular. You all know it. The text described the character in a certain pose, doing a certain thing. The art, however, was just off enough to catch his attention.

I’m sure we all have stories like this. Forget the Devil. A good illustration is in the details.

1. SURPRISES

Nothing can end a relationship with a client quicker than not providing what they’re expecting—in other words: surprising them.

I’m not talking about the good surprises (providing three sketches when I asked for one; submitting art early; going above and beyond what I’m expecting). I’m talking about the disappointing surprises, including: reneging on a contract; being incredibly late (with no warning); under-delivering; complaining about your client on social media; and not following directions. I’m cheating a little in that this mistake is a series of mistakes. Separately, they don’t happen often. But together, they happen more than you think.

When an art director hires you, they’ve put their trust in you. Chances are, they went to bat for you, staking their reputation and expertise on the idea that you are the right person for the job. When that trust is broken, it does more than harm you as an illustrator. It also harms the person who hired you. 

When an illustrator doesn’t fulfill their end of the deal, the art director doesn’t just say, “Oh, well”. They have to answer to the managing editor (for blowing the production schedule), the editor and/or author (for not delivering), Sales (for not providing what they need to sell), and the publisher or the creative director (for not upholding expectations).

It’s always puzzled me how frequently illustrators and educators of illustration criticize art directors, questioning their intelligence or understanding of illustration. I once heard a well-respected illustrator and educator say, “Illustrators go to art school. Art directors go to art director school.” Most art directors I know come from art schools—good ones. A lot of art directors are great artists in their own right. I know he wasn’t being literal—and yes, of course there are some bad art directors out there—but art directors are an illustrator’s line of defense against inane comments, unreasonable requests, and sluggish accounting departments. Good art directors make themselves available to talk shop, calm anxieties, and provide as much information as needed.

Few people know better than a father of three, juggling a full-time job and graduate school, that life happens. We’re not robots. I’ve had illustrators experience every joy and tragedy in life (from the birth of their first child to being stuck in a country because their passport was stolen to the death of a loved one) while working on a book with me. I’ve had illustrators vent; ask for payments; challenge comments; complain online; and even change their mind on a project after accepting. As with any relationship, communication is vital. As long as you stay communicative, you and your client can work through any issue together.

BOTTOM LINE

I’m sure this list varies from one art director to the next. It’s also a reflection of the modern age. While I still receive traditional art, it’s not as frequent as it was in the 90’s or 2000’s (for me). If I wrote this list fifteen years ago, I would have included:

  • DON’T SEND WET ART!

  • KEEP TEXT ON TRACING OVERLAY FOR EASY SCANNING

  • LIGHT YOUR WORK PROPERLY WHEN PHOTOGRAPHING IT

I’m not suggesting that you have to be perfect. People make mistakes ( I probably made eighty punctuation mistakes in this post). A single email or phone call wipes out most of these mistakes. And an art director—your source of guidance and information—will help you with the rest. 

You’re not alone in this. Help is just an email, a phone call, a tweet, a podcast, a blog post, a book, a classroom, a conference, a video chat, or an arm’s length away.