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How To Become A Children’s Illustrator – Top Tips From 'Elmer' Creator David McKee

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Illustrating children's books may sound like a relaxing career to undertake, compared to long hours sat behind a desk, but what is it really like, and how can you get started?

After the popularity of our feature showing you just how to become a children's illustrator earlier this year, Stylist jumped at the chance to catch up with the writer and illustrator of Elmer and Mr Benn David McKee, who shared his top tips after a long career in the children's publishing industry.

David's first book, Toucan Two Can was published in 1964, and he was later approached to create the famous Mr Benn TV series, about a magical fancy dress shop changing room in the early 1970s based on his books about the bowler hat-wearing character, before illustrating for other children's authors, including the new editions of Michael Bond's Paddington books.

It's been 25 years since Elmer was first released, and 40 years since his first children's book. With all that experience, there's definitely a thing or two you can learn from him. Here are his top tips on making it as a children's illustrator:

Take inspiration from everywhere

"Largely my illustrations just come off the end of the pen but in fact lots of the elephant characters in the Elmer stories were inspired by people I know, including members of my own family!"

Create something memorable

"I think children are drawn to Elmer because elephants are quite popular, fun animals usually. People seem to remember Elmer because his patchwork makes him quite different."

Persevere

"I had finished my first book completely before I sent the whole thing by post to a publisher. It got sent back so I rewrote it and sent to another publisher. Every time it got sent back I changed it and sent it out again until eventually it sold. In fact, by the time the first book sold, I’d started work on my second book Two Can Toucan and that actually sold first!"

Tell a thousand words with a picture

"With picture books, both the words and the illustrations tell the story - what you’ve drawn you don’t have to write."

An original rough Elmer sketch from one of David McKee's drawing pads

Have a message in your stories

"The Elmer books are used in schools and are popular with teachers as well as children, probably because they appeal to boys and girls and are all about accepting difference and standing out from the crowd."

Don’t expect an average routine

"There is no such thing as an average day! Practically everything you do relates to illustration in some way, you never really stop and leave it behind. If you go out for a walk you might meet people you can use in illustrations or be inspired by something and have to draw it. Illustration happens all the time, not just when you are sat at the drawing table. It isn’t work, it’s a way of life!"

Never stop looking for subjects to draw

When it comes to the stories themselves, I believe that the world is full of stories and you just have to be tuned in to pick them up.

Keep up with the digital world, but keep your original work

"I know a lot of artists now illustrate digitally which has not only produced other styles, but has meant originals are done away with. Personally it hasn’t changed the way I work - I create my books these days in the same way that I always have done, with original illustrations. So that process hasn’t changed, but my publishers have created Elmer apps and ebooks, so Elmer does exist in digital form!"

Look back to the art world for inspiration

"For me, illustration was a natural development from cartooning but I was influenced by illustrator Andre Francois and particularly his book Crocodile Tears, as well as the artists I encountered at college – Paul Klee and Saul Steinburg. I love the freedom illustrating books gives me. The images are mine and I have the creative freedom to illustrate whatever I like."

Work, and work, and work

"Do as much as you can when you are young, as you get older it gets harder and harder to find the time! And just keep going, don’t give up!"

A new hardback story book, Elmer and the Monster is out now

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