Laura Chamberlain on children’s book illustration

Laura Chamberlain, a 2017 graduate of our BA course, came to Baseline shift this week to tell us about her experience of masters study and career in children’s book illustration. Following her studies in the department, she went to study at Anglia Ruskin University, and is now, as of recently, a full-time illustrator.

Laura began her studies here in 2014, and at the time didn’t know where she wanted to head with her career. Only in Part 3 did she really begin to gravitate towards book design, starting with her dissertation topic.

‘I hadn’t really considered illustration being something I wanted to pursue.’

Now, Laura has worked on all sorts of children’s books, from sound books to sticker books, and she usually designs for children aged between 3 and 7. Her first book, ‘The Little War Cat’, was published this September.

’It’s all happened very quickly.’

Laura’s first published book, ‘The Little War Cat’.

Draw to find yourself

Laura’s illustration style evolved dramatically during her MA, due to the fact that she was encouraged to go crazy and experiment with new techniques. Experimenting is often the best way to find out what works best for you. Try printing, sketching, etching, or even drawing with your eyes closed and letting your brain fill in the blanks. Observational drawing is key, and is something which Laura would recommend for anyone, even if you’re not looking to go into illustration.

‘It helps you find your style.’

Laura realised that her illustration strengths lay in emotion, despite not initially thinking she wanted to go this way. She emphasised that it’s best to let your style develop and evolve naturally.

Laura’s examples which highlight how her drawing style evolved over the course of her MA.

Being a designer vs being an illustrator

When she was first interviewed for her MA, Laura was told that being an illustrator who has the ability to think with a design mind gives you an edge. Her design background has allowed her to view the process of children’s book design from both angles. In relation to the design of a picture book, a designer’s role is the front and back end of the process; to create rough layouts, find illustrators, retouch and arrange, and administrate. As an illustrator, your job is the ‘fun middle bit’. You get to experiment and push the design.

‘As a designer you never want to overrule what the illustrator is imagining.’

Making a picture book

Making a picture book is a multi-stage process. From the point at which you receive the manuscript, Laura says it’s a good idea to note down any ideas you have that might initially come to mind. You will then work to define the style and layout of the book via a range of sketching processes, increasing in detail. Thumbnails, via which you determine the structure and pacing of the story, are Laura’s favourite stage. Only in the later part of the process will you refine your illustrations and utilise colour. As a whole, the process takes time, as it is usually collaborative and you will need to gain approval for your work – even more so when tackling the cover.

Early thumbnails of covers for Laura’s first published book.

The sequential image

You should always ensure that it is clear how each image leads to the next. The reader should be able to understand things such as how time has passed, or how the characters have moved from location to another. Leaving them questioning is not helpful. In relation to this, Laura says that adverts are good examples to look at as they have to tell stories in short amounts of time.

‘Everything is part of one bigger picture.’

Visual structure

The way in which you structure your illustrations can change the way the reader interprets the time and pace of the book. A sense of calm might be more easily created if you fill a page with 1 image, as your eyes might look around the page less. In contrast, using lots of separate, consecutive images provides something for your eyes to skip along, creating more of a sense of action. Also, think about where the light points to, or what it highlights. Does it emphasise something of relevance? 

Jon McNaught, ‘Pebble Island’, 2012.

If in doubt, Laura says to just use 4 panels. Dividing up a spread into 4 different panels of illustration is a great way to show time passing, but also to fill the page. Laura has utilised this technique in every book she has illustrated.

One of Laura’s examples of a 4 panel layout.

Working with your text

You should avoid simply placing type next to your illustrations without much consideration. Consider how the illustrations and type can work together to create a better reading experience. The text should feel comfortable in context with the illustrations, and you should leave enough space to allow for the text being translated into another language, as this may occur further down the line.

‘You never want the typography to overtake or cover up anything important. With the illustration you can lead the eye from one bit to the next.’

Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen, ‘The Dark’, 2013.

Adding detail

Once you surpass the thumbnails stage and begin creating rough illustrations, take the opportunity to add details. You need to ensure that you provide enough visual content for children to look at if they don’t read the words. And if every time someone reads the book they notice something new, their interest will be better sustained, making for a better experience.

‘You can really make your world come alive.’

However, be careful not to over detail your work and distract from the text, and it may be a good idea to avoid particularly specific cultural elements in your illustrations if your book is going to have international reach.

Some of Laura’s detailed illustrations for her first published book.

Getting yourself out there

Throughout her studies, Laura built up her connections and gained recognition as an illustrator by submitting some of her work to Macmillan – for which she was highly commended – and both from her graduate show and from attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the largest children’s book fair in the world, where she met art directors. She then started a job as a junior designer before graduating from her MA. This highlights that it can really help to enter competitions, visit fayres and put yourself out there early; it will help you gain work in the long term.


For anyone considering a career in illustration, Laura’s tips for tackling children’s book design and illustration and insight into her journey as an illustrator should be greatly valued. But equally the notion of storytelling, as touched on by Laura, is relevant in regards to other design applications. If you’re not sure about whether illustration is right for you, experiment with different styles and just get out and draw. To everyone, Laura’s final piece of advice was to keep note of all the weird thoughts you ever have; you may be able to create something from them. Be kind to yourself and set aside time to create.

If you’d like to read some well designed children’s books, Laura would recommend ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen, and ‘The Dark’ by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen.

Follow Laura on Instagram @chalaurate

Students’ thoughts

‘It was very insightful and full of tips and advice which you can’t obtain from the internet. The fact that she studied our course and then progressed into illustration is interesting since we don’t do a lot of illustration. This made me rethink my dissertation topic and think about ways to include illustrations in my current projects.’ – Lamar Kaki, Part 2

‘I really valued hearing from a past graphics student and their journey towards a successful career. This talk also highlighted the link between graphic design and illustration, which was really interesting as it showed me the possibilities for careers after my degree.’ – Part 1 student

‘Incredible visuals and very inspiring talk. Feeling very encouraged.’ – MA student