A List of Ideas for Self-Initiated Illustration Pieces

Creativity / Inspiration / Process / Show and Tell

Above: A new piece for my portfolio, based on feedback from SCBWI-LA. ©Robin Rosenthal

For the past few months I’ve been working on new pieces for my portfolio based on the amazing feedback I received at the 2014 SCBWI LA Summer Conference. (I was one of six illustrators who received the SCBWI Mentorship Award, and I got to meet individually with six mentors who each gave me guidance on my work. It. Was. Awesome. Read more about my experience here.)

More than one mentor told me to forget about words for now. I should think in pictures and create wordless stories. Don’t think about a whole book. Think of an episode or a paragraph. This concept of letting the images lead the storytelling, and of choosing smaller stories to tell with those images, has been very liberating for me.

I do not currently have a particular story dummy in the works so I need to come up with some smaller narratives to illustrate. To get myself going, I’ve compiled a list of ideas—collected and expanded upon from past class assignments, fellow illustrators, and published picture books—and I’ve shared them below.

Think Non-Fiction: The World is Your Inspirational Oyster

Illustrate a few scenes from a historical or current event that interests you.
Some books for inspiration: Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum and City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Meghan McCarthy, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland.

Make a mini-biography of a friend or famous person.
A while back, I wrote about Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson who created these really cool ‘zines of their family and friends. Some more inspiration: The “I am…” series, including I am Rosa Parks, and I am Amelia Earhart written by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos, Malala, a Brave Girl… by Jeanette Winter.

Think about your own childhood and illustrate an important memory or feeling. In The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, Nancy Lamb includes a great page of prompts to get you thinking about your past.

Eavesdrop on your kids and write down what they say. Illustrate those quotes.

Find a picture in a magazine—like National Geographic or a travel magazine—that inspires you and create a story around it. What happens next? (idea via Jeslyn Kate Cantrell.)

Look to Existing Texts

scenes from a fairy tale, folk tale, myth, or fable
(There are lots of great published examples to look to. Check out Paul O. Zelinsky’s takes. Also, A Handful of Beans: Six Fairy Tales Retold and A Gift From Zeus both by Jeanne Steig, illustrated by William Steig)

a nursery rhyme

lyrics from a childrens’ song.
(Inspiration: Wheels on the Bus by Paul O. Zelinsky)

a favorite poem

a story that is in the public domain
(Check out Sergio Ruzzier’s interpretation of Heidi for inspiration, or Giselle Potter’s illustrations for Wynken, Blynken and Nod.)

a newspaper or magazine headline. (You can start with a google search of [newspaper name] and [subject] to narrow things down.

other old or found texts.
Liz reminded me of How To Keep a Pet Squirrel by Axel Scheffler. For this book Scheffler took text from The Children’s Encyclopaedia of 1910. (You can see a few images and quotes from that book at the end of this post on German illustrators.) Esther Pearl Watson loosely based her book Unloveable on a diary she found in a gas station bathroom.

re-illustrate the cover of one of your favorite books.
(Check out this redesign of The Graveyard Book cover from the Brothers Hilts.)

(If you are using words from someone else’s text as part of a piece in your portfolio you need to get permission from and credit the writer.)

Constraints and Structure can be Your Friends

Sometimes giving yourself some parameters to work within can boost your creativity:

My piece for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an assignment for the Illustrators' Intensive.

My piece for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an assignment for an SCBWI Illustrators’ Intensive. I was not at all into the idea of drawing the dwarves but I made myself do it as an experiment and I came up with a new technique that I use regularly now.

Use the four seasons as the structure for some illustrations. Take some favorite characters that you’ve sketched and draw them in a scene from each season. (Inspiration: Chicken Soup With Rice by Maurice Sendak, Spring is Here by Taro Gomi.)

Start with a holiday: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day. What happens to your character(s) on that day?

Use the alphabet or numbers as your structure.
e.g. Draw an alphabet of animals. Draw an alphabet of ___________. Draw one type of animal of monster in increasing numbers from 1-10.
(Inspiration: One Was Johnny and Alligators All Around by Maurice Sendak.)

Pick an animal you like drawing or have always wanted to draw. Draw a day/week/month/year in his/her life.

Draw something you don’t want to.
Okay so this idea is a little half-baked, and it is counter to the “Draw what you love” advice we often hear, but there is something to the idea of stretching yourself in this way that could yield some great—or at least interesting—results. I took a color class in college and one of our assignments was to pick six of our least favorite colors in the color-aid pack and create a design with them. I loved the result. Is there an equivalent with a potential picture book self-assignment? If you hate drawing horses, make them the subject of your illustration and see what happens. If you hate purple, force yourself to use it.

Give yourself a limited time frame. Liz once took a studio class where they each started and finished a complete assignment by the end of every full-day session. It forced her to be loose and spontaneous and she came out with some great pieces. Try dedicating a day to a mini-story and see what you can create. There’s the 24-Hour Comics Day in the comics world. I wonder if there is something similar in the picture book world.

“Action/Reaction/Interaction”-Cecilia Yung (and Others)

The three key ingredients to a picture book. Make them the basis for your pieces.

Pick two animals or characters and draw a scene where these two meet for the first time, share a meal together, take a trip etc.
(Some book inspiration: Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems, Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry, illustrated by Maurice Sendak)

Make some pairs:
Pair an animal with a subject—dog parade! dinosaur party!
or animals with a verb—alligators arguing!
or  animals with an adjective —super smart snakes!
(ADVANCED MOVE: Put a bunch of verbs/subjects/adjectives in one jar and a bunch of animals in another and randomly pick pairings. YOU MUST DRAW WHAT YOU PICK.)

Additional Resources

I just learned about Tara Lazar’s blog from fellow illustrator, Kathryn Ault Noble, and there are a lot of great posts on there about writing and creativity. Every November she hosts PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) where participants think of one picture book idea a day and lots of guest bloggers share where they get their ideas. She also has a great list of “500 Things Kids Like” and “79 Things Kids Don’t Like” that will surely inspire you.

Ann Whitford Paul has some awesome suggestions for generating ideas in Chapter 20 of her book, Writing Picture Books.

I came across this great post on Dani Jones’s blog. It has some of these same ideas plus many more ideas and links to EVEN MORE ideas! I especially love: “Illustrate a fortune from a fortune cookie.”

Got anything to add to my list? Please share below!


  1. Lynn Alpert says

    Great post, Robin! Just the thing to kick off my new year – thanks!


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