Monday, January 27, 2020

Finding your Niche as an Illustrator - by Rob Sayegh Jr

Let’s not kid ourselves, it is really hard to find a way into the children’s publishing world. Through the SCBWI, mentorships, workshops, and basic trial and error, I have learned the steps to take to begin a career in children’s books. The harder part was to find how I could authentically embed my personality, style, and vision into my journey.

I love the moment when I realize why and how I am going to create something by exploring new possibilities within my creative process. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago I was able to move past this idea of being stuck by anchoring myself to three things I felt extraordinarily passionate about. These three values now guide every piece of artwork that I show to an art director, my agent, my family, and social media. My guiding values help me translate how my process and experience from work that reflects who I am on and off the paper.

I found my guiding values by creating three circles in a Venn diagram, broken down into the three categories that make every great author/illustrator identifiable: genre, artistic style, and subject matter. I hoped to establish a baseline from which I could critique my work. I wanted to learn how each piece interacted with the diagram to remind myself to genuinely represent who I am in my work.

For each of the three circles, I didn’t think about marketable or trendy answers that paralleled today’s book lists. Instead, I thought about what I enjoyed creating and reading. It was very liberating to think this way. It was also the best way to get projects that matched my passions. Now, an art director might think that I would be the perfect candidate for a project because of what shows through in my portfolio. It was scary to define myself because it meant that there would be a lot of work that would not fit my niche. But sometimes, turning down the wrong project for me is for the best.

Below is a look into my thought process and what I made of the Venn diagram.


What picture books YA novels do you love to read?

I adore funny and witty picture books. Jared Chapman, John Bond, Bob Staake, Dav Pilkey, and of course, the authors of the most fabulous horror book about a bunny ever written, Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe I internalize stories and illustrations best as a reader when I laugh the cleverness of a joke or all the layers behind a good punchline. Whether a New Yorker cover or a silly advertisement, I appreciate the skill it took to create such a compelling story. It inspires me to show more layers in my work. I am experimenting with new ways to show that side of me.

My answer: Funny stories that appeal to both kids and their parents

Artistic Style:

How do you create your work? Who are your favorite illustrators?

This was the most challenging circle in my Venn diagram. The question that helped me the most was, “can I do this for 12 hours a day, every day?” I am not a detailed illustrator. I am not someone who loves spending days or weeks on a single image. I know what I liked as a viewer. Both as a child and today, I can stare at an Ezra Jack Keats or an Eric Carle book for hours. The simplicity and texture of each component on the page blow me away. Keats and Carle will always be who I aspire to be as an artist.

While I was creating the Venn diagram, I was also beginning to experiment with the idea of taking pictures of textures to use in my work. I would take photos on my commute from my job to my home in NYC on my phone to inspire my drawings that night. I didn’t exactly know how it was going to work out, but I loved the idea of bringing something personal to my illustration work.

My answer: Simple shapes and textures.

Subject Matter

What do you love to draw?

I would imagine this is the easiest question to answer for most artists. I think every illustrator has that one thing they love to draw. For me, it is dogs. I am DOG-OBSESSED. It’s something my friends and family know about me but also is something I love sharing about myself. I have two dogs and a dream of owning three more. I’ve worked at a dog toy company, and cannot pass a dog on the street without saying hello.

I used to always draw dogs, but I never paired the illustrations with textures, shapes, nor humor. They were just dogs on the page. There was no consistency. My challenge was to tackle all three parts of the diagram, simultaneously.

My answer: Dogs and animals (anything cuddly)

The Outcome

Once I had three giant circles in my notebook that said “funny, simple shapes and textures, dogs (and other cuddly creatures),” it was very easy to see the holes in my portfolio. Not one of my pieces held all three elements, which for me meant I was not putting out my best work,

The three circles became my mission statement. I still refer back to the statement as I create new pieces of personal illustration, promos, and client work. I needed to create a lot of new work for my portfolio,.I truly believe that the new work I have created since my Venn diagram has helped me find new client work through my rebranding journey.

What I have found is when I consistently push elements of who I am through my art, the easier it is for someone to get a sense of what I represent and why. It has been easier for me to pitch my work coherently and concisely. I don’t feel as bad when I don’t get a project because I know it wasn’t the best fit.

The diagram has also made me much more productive because I no longer struggle with how or what to start creating. My habits formed around what I love most, and I continue to build new techniques and understanding of my three anchor points. Where they have limited my focus, I feel they have allowed me to grow much further. The result is a richer, more engaged base and a professional community that has opened many doors for me.

I create more personal work that becomes part of my portfolio than ever before. On top of that, I am having more fun with all aspects of my author and illustration career because my passions weave through every step of my process.

Attached is a Venn diagram you can download and use for your reference. I hope this diagram helps you as much as it helped me.

Here are some of my pieces that represent my mission statement:

Rob Sayegh Jr is a former toy designer turned author and illustrator of children’s books. A 2019 SCBWI Mentee Award winner, Rob’s clients include Scholastic, Abrams, HMH, and more. Rob is represented by Justin Rucker of Shannon Associates.

You can see more of Rob’s work at and @robsayart on Instagram and Twitter.