One Way to Break into Children's Illustration

Think back a few years, (okay, a few more!) to when you were a kid waiting for the dentist to call your name. You used to sit in the waiting room searching the Highlights magazines for hidden pictures, right? Well, Highlights is still around and if you're an artist looking to break into the children's market, hidden pictures are a great way to get published!

What is a Hidden Picture?

A hidden picture is an illustration which at first glance appears normal, but on closer inspection you start discovering familiar objects lurking in the oddest places. Wait, is that elbow really a light bulb? Is there a sailboat nestled in that little girl's hairstyle?

While the money isn’t all that great for the amount of work involved, (ranging from under a hundred dollars for a one page black and white illustration to about $700 for a two page full-color spread) this market is always wide open to new artists.

Creating a Hidden Picture.


The first step in creating a hidden picture is to come up with an interesting scene to draw. Look through your old sketchbooks. Think of old nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Contemplate the mob scene after your soccer team won the championship when you were a kid. You want something that's going to give you a fairly complex scene. The more that's going on in your illustration, the more places there will be to hide objects.

Decide which magazine you’re aiming for. Some like health-related topics. Some like sports themes. Some like animals. Some are geared towards girls, some boys. What age are the readers? Once you choose which magazine you’re going to send the finished Hidden Picture to, you’ll be able to figure out the dimensions of your art.


Now sketch out your idea with a pencil. Do it full size. Have fun. Draw loosely at first and don’t worry about the objects you’re going to eventually hide. This drawing must stand by itself with only a title to explain it. Refine your sketch until you've conquered every problem with anatomy or perspective. Stand back and look at it. Hold it up in a mirror and look at the reflection.

Okay, it’s perfect. It’s the best thing you’ve ever done, because you’ve always wanted to be your own art director. Hey, you’ve even got the background thing going! It’s finished.

If you're like me, the next part is going to sting a little.


It’s time to pull out your eraser. You’re going to look at your illustration and start hiding objects. Think about when you were a kid and you saw faces in the folds of your bedroom curtains and animals in the shapes of the clouds. You see that perfect baseball cap you drew? It has the slightest resemblance to a duck. You’re going to make it look slightly more like a duck. Ouch. Hey, That bedpost almost looks like a baseball. Add a couple of lines to make it look more like a baseball. Ow. (And tread lightly, at first glance you should see bedpost, not baseball.) It’s sad to ruin a seriously excellent sketch, but remember, you are going to break into the children’s illustration market with this thing.

That’s two objects hidden. You need to hide about 13 more for a full page Hidden Picture. But once you get the hang of looking at your illustration through the eyes of an eight year old, you’ll be breezing along. For a while. Then come those last few objects. Those are the worst. This picture is full. You are positive you can’t hide one more thing in this picture. Hold on, there are some old standbys that you can use if you just need "one more object." Things like spoons, pencils, mugs, thumbtacks, combs. And don’t forget negative space. I’m still astounded by the distinct goose the late John R. Crane of Highlights found in space behind a bent leg I had drawn for a Hidden Picture called "First Aid."


Finally! Sketch done. You have cleverly hidden 15 objects in an illustration that has hardly suffered at all from distorting tennis shoes into ten-pins. It is all downhill from here. You can get a nice crisp Xerox of your sketch and send that in, or, if you’re really feeling confident, you can go on and finish your art. (You can always use it for a portfolio piece.)

Take your favorite black and white medium and turn your sketch into a finished line drawing. (If you do this, you’d better be sure of the size!) You can do it exact size or larger, in pen and ink, or even in black fine-line permanent marker on bristol paper or illustration board. I have even done mine on computer, either sending a Photoshop file to the art director on a zip disk at 300 dpi, or using a vector program like Adobe Illustrator. But first make sure the art department accepts computer submissions.

Send in your Hidden Picture, and a nice little personal note to the art director telling her that you’re a young illustrator trying to break into the market. Don’t try to make her feel sorry for you, just let her know you appreciate her taking the time to look at your work. Also enclose a SASE (Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope) so she can send you back your picture if she doesn’t want it. (Don’t cry, this happens to the best of us.)


Last, and most important, immediately start on your next Hidden Picture. It is astonishing how much you will have learned from your first effort. Whether it sells or not, the best thing you can do while wondering is to get busy with your next one.

A Few Tips to Remember

  • Take a trip to the bookstore or library and get a copy of the magazine to which you intend to submit. (If you’re embarrassed to be in the kids' section, borrow a kid to come with you and pretend you’re buying it for her!) You will then have a good idea of the dimensions your art should be, and the styles of art the magazine tends to publish.
  • You may need to leave room for text in your design. Depending on the publication you're submitting to, your hidden picture may have a title and perhaps a couple sentences, including a list of the objects the kids will be trying to find.
  • Look in the children’s activity book section of your bookstore for one of the Hidden Picture collections by Highlights. You’ll see lots of examples of successful Hidden Pictures.
  • The children’s magazine market for the most part is extremely PC. No guns, matches, sharp, pointy objects. Show racially mixed groups of kids. Show kids in wheelchairs or with glasses. Include family members like grandparents. Don’t be sexist.
  • You want to be really clever? Try hiding only objects with a summer theme in your beach scene.
  • Don’t hide objects that are already in the scene.
  • Don’t hide letters or numbers in your picture. (You might get away with this in a Hidden Picture geared towards very young children.)
  • Include an answer key when you send in your sketch. Either a tracing paper overlay or an extra Xerox with the answers circled.
  • Don’t give up! Display your rejection letters like battle scars, then get onto the next drawing. You don’t just have to be talented to succeed as a professional artist, you have to keep coming back for more abuse!

Maurie J. Manning

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