2013 Illustrator’s Boot Camp: Creating Characters

Originally Posted: September 2013

by Stephen Martin

There are many ways to draw a cat. It is the illustrator’s responsibility to take the author’s words and infuse that cat with traits and visual appeal to create a character that children will care for and relate to.

Patrick Collins, creative director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, started his morning master class by showing examples of illustrations in different styles, from the very realistic to the highly cartoony, and demonstrated how he put an illustrator’s characters and an author’s words together.

Prior to the workshop, Collins had sent participants a homework assignment: to create several character sketches and one finished piece for a manuscript chosen from a group of four: two picture books and two chapter books.

In the workshop, Collins critiqued each participant’s work, reinforcing the positives and encouraging improvement without hurting any feelings. He also stressed some of the fundamentals of successfully illustrating children’s books and creating memorable characters.

Most participants chose to illustrate a picture book manuscript which was about a woolly mammoth getting a bath.

This didn’t surprise Collins, as even his daughter singled out this book from the pile sitting on his desk. Collins pointed out that certain characters, like the woolly mammoth, lend themselves to fun illustration.

Illustrations by workshop participants were done in many media: colored pencil, watercolor, ink, acrylic, Photoshop, and combinations thereof. Here is a sample of some of the feedback:

  • Use line and value to make characters “pop” from the scene.
  • Use color to highlight special characteristics or actions.
  • Do not try to cover too much action – less is more, pages can get cluttered.
  • Pay attention to the age of your characters. The tendency is to make them look older. Picture book characters are usually picture book age.
  • Environment can be a character.
  • Do not “stiffen” your sketches when doing final renditions. Concentrate on maintaining the fluidity and spontaneity of your sketches into the final artwork.
  • Sometimes it’s necessary to exaggerate the action.
  • Adding texture to digital artwork can make it look more handmade and less digital. If the picture you drew on the paper is not what is in your mind, vocalize it. Say out loud what you are picturing in your mind and then draw it.

For chapter books:

  • A super realistic style can be cold; a looser style is generally more successful especially for fiction.
  • Characters are generally the same age as the intended reader or slightly older. Make sure your characters look the right age.
  • Because these pieces are primarily black and white, make sure portfolio pieces clearly tell a story without explanation.

Finally, Collins showed the actual illustrations that will be used for the manuscripts participants had worked on. It was interesting to see how the published artwork differed from the portfolios and how the simple rules and suggestions from Collins came together to create child-relatable characters.

So, back to the cat: When you draw that cat make sure she leaps off the page, rubs up against you, purrs up a storm and makes you smile.


Stephen Martin is a SCBWI “prepub” writer, artist, and pilot of Antique Aircraft. He maintains himself as the proverbial “Jack of all Trades-Master of None”. When not flying, writing or at his day job as an industrial designer, Steve is in his studio, bringing out the cat in things by creating cat sculptures out of discarded everyday items and appliances.

Steve currently resides on Long Island with Karen, his wife and “the Kittens”- Loki, Kinner, Belle and Beasley – plus two Superstorm Sandy victim foster cats, Marvie and  Frankie.

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