Illustrating for Children by Artist Dawn Milstrey

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Please join me today for a wonderful guest post by illustrator Dawn Milstrey on illustrating for children’s books.

Seeing Through the Eyes of a Child

By Dawn Milstrey

When illustrating a picture book, we need to look at the world through the eyes of a child. There is so much to learn about life if we just open our minds to a simpler way of seeing things, much as we did when we were young. Imagination blooms in the mind of a child!

One must consider all of the unwritten possibilities when illustrating for children. Taking the written words of a story and transferring them literally into drawings just isn’t enough. Ask yourself, “How would I have imagined those words when I was a child?” Children have a wonderful gift that allows them to see “more”. As illustrators, we need to dig deep and find that special gift of sight buried deep inside each of us.

Illustrations that are rich in detail are the direct result of a vivid imagination. Let’s say our task is to interpret the words “Van Gogh, a large yellow pond snail, slowly made his way across the warm rock to the edge of the water.” There are definitely enough details in the sentence to draw a nice picture such as the example below, but just drawing an accurate picture isn’t illustration.

Try imagining those words as a child might see them. Magnify what your imagination sees and zoom in on the details. Inject emotion into your characters. Breathe life into the scene by adding the suggestion of movement. Exaggerate the ordinary and illuminate the words; break convention!

Since the word count in a picture book is limited, we need to make the most of each sentence. It is our job as illustrators to show details that aren’t mentioned in the text. We must push the story BEYOND the words.

The example tells us that Van Gogh is large, yellow and a snail. First, how can we show that he is large? By making his surroundings seem a bit smaller by comparison, we can give the illusion of size in a fun way that also allows us to set the scene. Be sure that Van Gogh is surrounded by easily recognizable plants, etc. so the reader can easily judge size. Adding another living character that children can identify as being a consistent certain size will help them to compare the two. For example, adding a ladybug to the scene will help them to gauge the size of the snail. Also, choosing to crop the scene tightly around Van Gogh will make him dominate the page and appear even larger.

We know that Van Gogh is yellow, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a solid color. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to give Van Gogh’s yellow shell some polka dots or stripes and maybe add a touch of another color? Keep the art true to the words, but imagine them to be even more… 

The sentence also indicates that Van Gogh is slowly moving across a warm rock. We can use body language to show motion, but how? Van Gogh can be lurching forward with his head and his back half can be stretched behind him as if slowly being dragged along. Since he is a snail, we could go one step further with a slime trail left on the rock to show he has indeed moved forward recently.

Now, we know from the text that the rock is warm, but how do we show warmth of an inanimate object within an illustration? Since the scene is outside, the obvious source of heat is the sun. We can simply have the sun beating down on the rock and casting shadows. By creating reflections on the slime trail, we can add another level of detail within the illustration as the sun hits the wetness, creating bright white spots. Kids love details!

Lastly, we are told that Van Gogh is headed to the water which seems simple enough to show. We can use this information to get a bit creative. What if Van Gogh, at that very moment in the story, arrives at the water’s edge and sees himself in the water’s reflection? By positioning him in such a way that we can see some of the back of his head from above along with his face in the water, we can have two views of Van Gogh at once. This ¾ view makes for a much more creative image for the page. Show Van Gogh’s facial features in his reflection because expression equals emotion.

With all of these fresh ideas enhancing the text, we now have a book illustration such as the example below that will catch the attention of adults as well as children. Don’t forget who is actually reading the story to the child. Be sure to make it interesting for them, too!

If we aren’t afraid to imagine more, one well written sentence can spark the imagination and result in a creative and original illustration. Before you pick up your drawing pencil, sit back, close your eyes and set your imagination free.  

Think as a child might think…see as a child might see.

Illustrate the words so that they come to life, dance across the page and welcome the child into their magical little world…

Artist Dawn Milstrey lives with her husband, her daughters, and their dogs in rural New Jersey. Also an art instructor at a local college, she illustrates children’s books for independently published authors and is currently writing and illustrating several books of her own. Dawn enjoys all manner of illustration but especially loves to paint realistic landscapes in acrylic.

Van Gogh is a real snail that lives in her fish tank with three fancy goldfish–Monet, Renoir and Gauguin…

To see more of Dawn’s work or if you’d like to discuss a project or idea, visit her on the web at

Follow Dawn on Instagram

All artwork by Dawn Milstrey.

Please share Dawn’s work and this post with your friends, readers, and followers! Thanks for reading!
~Rosco’s Reading Room

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