Friday, November 27, 2015

Illustrator Insights

what it takes to get published as an illustrator



What is your art background? 
I loved to draw from the time I could hold a pencil. My early passion led me to the University of Michigan, School of Art, where I acquired my BFA. Then after living in New York City for three years, (which was an art education in itself) I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I earned an MFA. 

Have you been published in other illustration related fields?

No. I did not seek publication until I developed my style in Children’s books. I wasn’t ready. In the past I’ve participated in Art Gallery Exhibitions and small poetry publications, but very casually.

How long were you trying before you got a contract?

I officially started my path to publication in 2009. My first book deal came in April of 2014. So: 5 years.

How many hours a day did you work on your illustrations?
This varied tremendously. I am also a photographer. In the summer (my busy season) I would say my work on the illustrations was less. Two – six hours per day of daydreaming/ brainstorming/ sketching/ writing/ character designing/ etc. In the winter, however, I would have long stretches of time where I would be able to work 10 – 16 hours of the waking day working on a project.

How many hours a day did you work on your self promotion?
VERY LITTLE. Self-promotion was and is a huge weakness of mine, and I never enjoyed doing it. However, my first big step in this area, was building a website and curating a portfolio exclusively for children’s illustrations.

What steps did you take?  

I built and started a website in December of 2012. In making my work visible and public, everything became more real. In May 2013, I attended the Wild Wild Mid-West conference in Fort Wayne, which was a game changer for me. Energized by the conference, and by finding a strong critique partner, I worked even harder on my writing and portfolio that summer.

In August of 2013, I had a full picture book project to pitch (with 3 final art pieces, manuscript and finished dummy book – all uploaded to my website on a password protected page) so I started targeting and soliciting specific agents. Although this first attempt garnered 100% rejections from the 10 or so agents I submitted to, I took everything I learned (which was a lot) and was more motivated than ever. It helped that in some of the rejections I received helpful feedback and encouragement. I decided to start a totally new project that September, and by the end of October it was ready to send out.

I used the Writer’s Market book and the internet to help me find an agent that might be a good fit for me and my new project. Within a week (two agents wrote back or called on the same day of my email submission), I had several interested parties and after several revisions and a few months later, I signed with my current agent, Danielle Smith with Red Fox Literary. Even though I currently have accumulated five book deals with Danielle, I still have room in my schedule for more work, so I continue to send out snail-mail postcards with new art every three months to a list of 100 editors/art directors.

How did you find an agent and how long did it take?

I used the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market Book as a starting point in my research, then I followed up by doing online research on each potential agent. From my initial search and submissions (two rounds – with two different projects) to finding and signing with an agent, it took about 6 months.

How many agents/ art directors did you approach?

With my picture book in August, I approached 10. And then with my illustrated early middle-grade project in November, I approached 8.

How many conferences and workshops did you visit?

From 2009-2010 I attended two six-week community education classes with Esther Hershenhorn in Chicago. In 2013 I attended two SCBWI conferences: The Wild Wild Mid-West multistate conference, and a small regional conference on “The Picture Book” in Indiana.

How did you prepare for them?

At the Wild Wild Mid-West Conference, I signed up for the Illustrator Intensive with Laurent Linn. In preparing for the intensive, we needed to come with a finished drawing of the “Mad Hatter”. The critiques gave me amazing insight. I mostly attended the conferences prepared to be a sponge. I took a notebook and a pen, and wrote down all that I could. After each conference, I went back to my studio inspired with a deeper understanding of what I needed to do to make my work stronger.

Is there anything special you did that other people might not think of?

There are two things that stand out to me in answering this question: 1. Putting in the time. 2. Ability to be critical and self-reflective in one’s own work.

Was there a point where you wanted to give up?

I honestly don’t think so. When I made the decision to really give this a go – I knew that it was the long plan. That it would be a journey. I knew I had to take big rejections with the small victories… and that everything moves at a snail’s pace in this industry.

What kept you going?

When moments of doubt crept and creep in, I almost always shift my focus to a new project; re-directing my energies helps keep my creativity flowing.

Do you have any tips to stay motivated? How do you stop procrastinating?

I create routines. I stay disciplined by making lists and creating very specific time-sensitive goals. I try to leave room in the schedule for making mistakes – those are such an important part of the process for me

Do you write too?

Yes – I have always loved both.

Do you approach it the same way as illustrating?

I approach them in very similar ways. I love to create work where the images and words lean on each other for meaning – and in their juxtaposition, they are able create something totally new, that neither words nor pictures can solely do on their own.

What was your biggest aha moment?

This came after the Wild-Wild-Mid-West conference. I walked away realizing that I needed to strengthen the narrative elements in my portfolio. Not only did the art need to have strong color, line, composition, character designs, etc., the art needed to evoke emotion and feel like it was in the middle of a story. I wanted each of the images in my portfolio to prompt the viewer to want to “turn the page” so to speak.

What do you consider your biggest break through?

My process: When I finally figured out a way to merge traditional media with digital to create images that didn’t feel or look “digital”. My biggest compliment came from my editor at Harper Collins when she asked if I worked digital or traditional – because she couldn’t tell!

What people or events helped you most on your journey?

I would have to say that my writing partner has helped me the most on my journey. We met at an SCBWI conference, and even though he lives in another state, we were and are able to share and critique each other’s work via email and on the phone. It has been the most critical part of the journey for me. I don’t feel alone in this work, and when I get stuck, or even when I think I nailed it – I send it to him or now, to my agent (who is editorially hands-on, which I love) and they see things and ask questions that I hadn’t even considered. Having a partner in this work helps me get out of my head and see what I’ve done from a new angle, which leads to revision and consequent improvement.

What is your advice to the aspiring children's book illustrator?

Work hard. Put the time in. Make mistakes. Revise. Make more mistakes. Revise again. Find a writing/art partner or group. Know that it will take time (you will need endurance). Every person’s journey is unique in this field because you have to forge it. Be open to critique. And lastly, the most important thing might be: to believe in yourself. 

Deborah Marcero received a BFA in drawing, printmaking, and photography from the University of Michigan, and her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Creative Writing. Deborah’s illustration debut in The Backyard Witch series, HarperCollins, released July 2015, her picture book URSA’S LIGHT, Peter Pauper Press, will be published in Spring 2016 and she is also contracted to illustrate Corey Rosen Schwartz’s new picture book, Twinderella, set for publication by Putnam’s Sons (Penguin) in 2017. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2009.


  1. What a thoughtful post, Deborah. Thank you for sharing your journey. I love your message that hard work, persistence, and being open to change can make a dream a reality.

  2. Great story! Thank you for sharing Deborah :)

    1. Thanks, Carol! I really appreciate your note!

  3. It was great to learn more about you, Deborah!

  4. It was eye-opening to see the process illustrators have to go through. Thanks for the in-depth interview.

  5. The art for Ursa's Light is wonderful! Thanks for this thoughtful interview.