When I saw illustrator Vivian Mineker’s illustrations for Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken (Familius), the book took on a very vivid meaning for me. Vivian’s talent in using color and depth truly made the woods feel as big as the decision the boy must make at the fork in the road.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivian in 2019. After the interview and seeing other books Vivian illustrated, I knew if ever I decided to put imagination to paper, she would be the first illustrator I would seek out. Fast forward to revamping our ChildrensLit website. Our team wanted illustrations that personified what ChildrensLit is all about- how books open up young imaginations no matter where one is or where one chooses to read. I knew, without hesitation, that I wanted Vivian to create the ChildrensLit world. She did. As you can see in the illustrations in our newsletters and on our website and social media pages, Vivian captures the joy of reading. She encapsulates how a child can get wrapped up in a story no matter the location, how a family can enjoy stories together, and the power of oneself entering the story.
We often hear about an author's struggles and challenges but less so of those of an illustrator. Vivian spoke with me again, but this time the conversation was about the life of an illustrator. I hope you enjoy this look into the life of a children’s book illustrator, and if you are a budding illustrator, will find answers to some of your questions.
The Illustrator’s Life
Many aspiring illustrators picture themselves spending their days collaborating with authors on books all day long, all months of the year. What has the reality been for you?
Vivian: When I first started out, I definitely spent a large portion of my time doing everything I needed to promote myself, which includes creating my own projects to add to my portfolio, making and updating my website and social media, as well as sending out emails and postcards periodically to publishers and potential agencies. As I started to get more work, naturally more time was spent working on books and various projects. Recently I’ve had quite a lot of projects, so I’d say I’ve been spending only about 10-15% of my time on everything that is not drawing — replying to emails, printing/shipping products, sending invoices, etc. The rest is creating illustrations.
What are some misconceptions people have about illustrators?
Vivian: I think a lot of people think that because we draw/paint, it’s a very relaxing job. While it is super fun and rewarding, it definitely has its tough moments. I had prepared to work hard before I started because I’ve heard from some of my illustrator friends that it could get crazy, but I was still overwhelmed when it happened. There have been periods where I felt suffocated by the crushing amount of work and the little amount of time I had to get it all done. Sometimes I would work 14-16 hours a day and still barely catching up! However, this is definitely not all the time; it just happens from time to time. It’s a side of the job that I don’t think many people expect when they think about illustrators.
What has been the preferred author/illustrator collaboration by publishers? Who decides on illustration edits- you, the author, or the publisher?
Vivian: Every illustrator has his/her preference on this. For me, I’ve found that a good and detailed brief by the publisher really helps at the beginning. It gives me a good starting point when they’ve laid out their vision and a general direction they’d like to see the book going, and from there, I would do a few sample drawings and character designs. It’s super helpful and saves a lot of time to start off on the same page. After that, I like to have the freedom to explore my own ideas and come back to the publishers for feedback. In short, I like to have a common starting point with the publisher and author, then go off on my own without too much instruction since my work always turns out much better when I feel free to imagine and explore.
What are some of the biggest challenges/hurdles you have faced as an illustrator thus far?
Vivian: As an illustrator, the biggest challenge for me has always been coming up with the best image for the text. And sometimes there is just no inspiration or good ideas; I’d spend hours and hours struggling to come up with something. Especially when I’ve been working on client/paid work for a while without doing any personal art, I find my creativity goes way down. I feel myself going stale and nothing interesting comes into my head, and my work started to become quite boring and predictable. So now I make sure I leave time for personal art as a reset for me and a little palate cleanser for my creativity.
On the practical side, I’ve had a hard time managing my schedule. I had a full-time office job before becoming an illustrator, so I was not used to being a freelancer, especially the part where the income isn’t consistent. And as a beginner, I was so grateful to have any work at all; I said yes to everything. After a while, the projects piled up, and I became overwhelmed and couldn’t devote enough time and energy to one project. There were a few things that I did that I wish I’d had more time to spend on, but it was just not possible with the amount of work I had. So now I’ve learned to turn down some work so I can have more focus on the projects I have.
What are the pros and cons of having an agent?
Vivian: I’ve generally had a positive experience with my agency. Since I signed with an agent pretty early on in my career, they’ve been super helpful in terms of exposure for me. I was able to get work with clients that I would’ve otherwise not been able to reach, or it would’ve taken a lot more time. To have the experience of working with larger publishers really helped me develop my portfolio. They’ve also taught me a lot of little things about the etiquette and quirks of the industry, saving me from making mistakes that I would’ve on my own. Overall, it just feels nice to have someone who’s got your back and on your side working with me towards my career goals.
The most obvious drawback is the commission fee. Depending on the agency, they take between 20-30% of the fee from each project. But on the other hand, they do increase the amount of work I’ve been able to get and negotiate higher rates than I would’ve done, so I think it’s more than fair. Another thing that had confused me in the past was whether I could still have my own clients. Sometimes clients reach out to me directly without knowing I had an agent, so in that case, I had to really look into the agency’s policy on that. Each agency is different, so you just have to make sure you read the contract carefully and understand everything to avoid any awkward incidents.
Best advice for budding illustrators?
Vivian: Find your own voice! In illustration terms, your own style. There are so many great and successful illustrators out there, and one of the most important qualities they possess is that they have a unique style. It’s something that is not like anyone else’s, and it’s recognizable from a mile away. There is no shortcut to developing that style. It takes A LOT of trial and error. You just have to keep drawing until the style/voice comes to you and sticks. I had a hundred totally different styles before I found the one I have now. Just keep drawing, draw everything you like and try everything, eventually you’ll evolve into your own artistic identity.
Another thing is just to work hard. There is no quick and easy way to become a good artist. You have to draw all the time and work harder than others to get to your goal. Illustration is a competitive industry. There are SO many talented people out there, so you can’t just take it easy and expect work to magically appear. Put yourself out there as much as you can, make any contact you can find, go to book fairs and conventions, meet with any publisher/agent that would meet with you, and keep creating new work.
Lastly, have faith and keep on going. If you’ve got good work, a positive attitude, and are persistent, magical things will happen!
Visit Vivian’s website for more information about her and her work: https://www.vivianmineker.com/