9 Rules of Illustration practice

Inspired by the need to share suffering help, the Wolf dishes out some unsolicited illustration advice.

Last week, while at a sticking point in my beloved current picture book project, I found a link to this article on artistsandilustrators.com:

Quentin Blake’s 7 Golden Rules of Illustration


Hooray! I thought. Help just when I need it! Umph. Well. Quentin’s advice is wonderfully insightful of course, but, if you look at the article you’ll see it’s all rather general. All about “losing your inhibitions” and “taking inspiration from your surroundings”. Not immediately helpful. Not much there for the illustrator in a pickle.

So I’ve put together my own ‘9 Golden Rules’ for the artist who just needs some quick, helpful advice. Now. Here goes:

The Wolf’s 9 Rules of Illustration For Those Who Are Actually Illustrating Right Now

1: Take an honest, hard look at your drawing skills

Does your work look stiff or tentative? Are figures resolved? Do some areas or elements just look a bit, er, poor? If so, stop working on this drawing! It will never work out the way you hoped. Get pencil and paper and redraw, regularly flipping the layout and/or holding up to the mirror until you’re happy.

2: Step away from the screen

Are you on the computer and moving things back and forth and around and around with your mouse or stylus? MEEP MEEP MEEP! Move away now! The computer will not improve your drawing or composition skills. In fact, don’t draw using a computer at all unless you’re already confident with your line-work.

Instead, use a light table to trace and retrace and shuffle things around till your composition and characters start to come together. I have this light table:

It quickly pays for itself, as you don’t need to buy fancy tracing or detail paper but can just trace and retrace on cheap photocopy stuff instead. And it’s more convenient (and possibly safer) than leaning on a window.

3: If in doubt leave it out

Can’t get your leaves looking quite right? Is drawing 1000 roof tiles giving you a headache? Perhaps that forest of trees in background looks murky and contrived?

So ditch the detail! Pare it all back – at least until the composition and characters are resolved. Then you can research the detail you’d like to add: What style of roof tile for example? How does a favourite illustrator of yours depict grass (and do they bother? It can be surprising how loose and vague – yet effective – some detail can be). Sketch out the fiddly elements before adding them to the final picture, remembering that too much detail can make an illustration look stiff and lifeless.

4: Don’t like it? Change it

Are you hating drawing that same bleedin’ grey mouse on every page? Or is the outfit on your schoolteacher character depressing you? Is the point of view making everything look weird? If you’re the illustrator, then aren’t you in charge of character styling and layout (hopefully so…)? Draw the mouse until it’s something you feel good about. Work out what’s wrong with the outfit. Do some thumbnails of the scene from alternative points of view. Stay in control and make sure you’re enjoying your work.


Of course, if you’re being directed by an editor or art director to illustrate exactly as they’d like to you, then my advice is: make a pot of coffee, draw all the elements you don’t like in one go and just get the miserable thing over and done with…

5: Simplify and make shapes

Sometimes, a character or compositions to be broken down into simple forms. I love the way Andrew Joyner simplifies his characters. Have a look at his ‘how to draw absolutely anything’ sheet for children here. It’s tongue in cheek but the point is clear. It’s all about the shapes.

If you break troublesome elements back down again, it’s easier to see where problems and inconsistencies are cropping up. Also, if you don’t like the look of something, try using shapes you wouldn’t expect to make a new version. For instance, I hate drawing necks, they never seem to belong to the heads I’m drawing. So I did a series of characters where their heads just joined onto their bodies directly. They looked so much better (and wonderfully quirky). Who needs a neck?

6: Loosen up with a nice thick pencil

A soft, bluntish tool can be very freeing. It saves getting bogged down in detail early on. Personally, I like to use the buttery ‘Lyra’ pencils in any colour, or smooth and dense ‘Derwent Drawing’ pencils in Venetian Red, and/or the black, velvety Wolff’s carbon pencils (which are a perfect mixture of graphite and charcoal).

Wolff's carbon pencils: a happy find

Wolff’s carbon pencils: a happy find

7: Go for a walk

Have a big glass of water, walk briskly to the shops and buy yourself something nice. Maybe a new pencil. Everything will make more sense when you come back to it. Don’t stop by a wine bar though unless you’re actually finished.

8: Go over colour choices

Have you resolved the final colour scheme? If using paint, have you mixed original and lively colour or have you just picked straight ‘out of the box’? If it’s all still a bit woolly or basic colour-wise, pull back; do some research and puddling around to work out the final colours you’ll need. Although colour is usually applied last in the process, the overall look should be considered early on.

9: Remember, it’s supposed to be loads of work

Illustrating for children is tricky. Illustrating a whole picture book is a long haul. Making dozens of drafts and dummy after dummy is not wasting time or getting distracted – it’s just what has to be done.

I do hope this helps – with the problem, should you have one.



  1. September 21, 2016 - Reply

    […] Illustration For illustrators: Lucinda Gifford: 9 Rules of Illustration Practice for Those Who Are Actually Illustrating Now […]

  2. Jess
    March 2, 2018 - Reply

    Great honest tips thanks, always a timely reminder!

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