Seeking the Specific in Illustration

For years I have worked as an artist, with dreams of being a children’s book illustrator. At last year’s New England SCBWI conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, I had the opportunity for a portfolio review with Candlewick Press Art Director Kristen Nobles. Among the many great tips and feedback she gave me, she told me my characters needed to be more specific.

It was a great bit of info, as I had been working on creating children’s market illustrations for a while in somewhat of a generic way.

When I started thinking of doing children’s book illustration, I was doing large still-life paintings of objects. Not so fun, not kid-oriented, not even illustration!

Then, I started trying to piece together illustrations.


This one had some actual characters in it, but it was not so clear or fun and it took about a thousand years to create. It made it into an art show juried by the contemporary art curators from two major Boston-based art museums, the ICA and the MFA, but it was not kid-oriented. A 7-year-old girl at an open studio event zeroed in on it and asked me, “What’s going on here?” and really tried to figure it out.

Then, I started doing weekly Illustration Friday challenges to see if I could speed up my process and make something fun-ish for kids. (Also, I started saying a daily mantra about making illustrations that were lively and engaging.) I created something that almost looked like a child!


But it was still kind of vague, in a not-so-fun situation, and still not quite right for kids.

By the time I got to the SCBWI critique with Kristen Nobles, I’d spent a bunch of months doing Illustration Friday challenges, trying out different topics and images, working to make clearer statements.

My top-of-the line offering at the time was this image, and it was the one where Kristen advised me to make more specific characters. (As you can see, the girl in the red shirt and blue pants was my go-to character.)


An A-HA! moment! Be more specific!

Specificity is what makes your character stand out, be memorable, be lovable, and elicit strong feelings from readers. It’s what makes your monster distinct from every other illustrator’s monster. It’s what makes readers connect with the character.

At the SCBWI Illustrator’s intensive at this year’s winter conference in New York City, art directors commented on an image of a superhero grandmother that a fellow illustrator had done. Even though the concept was cool — an airborne, crime-fighting grandma! — the image still elicited the comment, “Well, she’s kind of a generic grandma. She needs something more.” Even flying grandmas aren’t enough. They need something that makes them different, special, innovative, memorable.

So I have been working at it ever since, trying character flourishes — hair styles, clothing, accessories, hats, freckles, different head and body shapes — anything that will make the character unique from all the other similar characters I draw. I looked in Parent and Child magazine for kid fashion ideas and hairstyles other than straight brown hair. I watched kids whenever and wherever I could. I am guessing I have to also match up the external flourishes with actual internal character qualities and get even MORE specific. My illustration process is a work in progress.


This is a recent one – perhaps this witch is still a bit generic, but at least she’s not in jeans and a red t-shirt!!


You can check out more of my specific and not-so-specific characters at

Illustrators, what have you learned as you’ve developed your process? Share your experiences in the comments section.

Related post on Writers’ Rumpus: Illustration Friday–A Portfolio-Building Tool


  1. Great stuff! I’ve learned that you really need to know the character inside and out! Make a character sheet describing everything about them. You can make your own or print off a template (just google it!). I keep a binder full of blanks for when a character pops into my head! So helpful! 😊 thanks for sharing your experience!


  2. Diana it is such a journey this illustrating business, I am learning to illustrate a picture book. My images have gone from realistic cows to orange cows slurping on milkshakes. Most of all I listen to my kids, when I get one right they let me know. I love your journey and your illustrations thank you for sharing I will be following you from now on.


  3. Great input! And thanks for sharing. When I write, I tend to grill my characters to see whether they measure up as ‘real’ people. But somehow didn’t give them the 3rd degree when illustrating them. Will remember this FOREVER!


  4. Thanks for sharing your process. Like everywhere else in life, it seems, the things we struggle with remain the things we struggle with, I guess. But maybe (hopefully?) we start to recognize them faster? Develop more/better strategies for fixing them? Something?!? 🙂


    1. I think you are right! I think getting others (critique, study, etc.) to help you recognize what your work is lacking helps you bit by bit incorporate the solutions into your images. Can take longer than you might want it to sometimes, at least for me!


  5. Man, writing stories is hard enough. Illustrating seems terrifying, even if you’ve got loads of artistic talent. I’m glad that’s left up to more adroit people than me. Break a leg, Diana!


  6. My art is just beginning to grow and I produced just one piece in the last six months I am truly happy with because the picture told a story. I am trying to achieve that more often. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.


  7. Thanks for sharing. Good point … as I read this, I thought of one name I often use in draft stories. That name may be my red shirt and blue pants!


  8. Vey cool learning process. It’s interesting to see that when creating a character the core process with writers and illustrators is the same. You call it specificity we call it voice. Either way the character needs originality.


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