Illustrator Don Tate’s in the House!

Posted by Rita Lorraine

Hi Everybody,
We’re well into Black History Month 2011, and on to our next interview with the enormously-talented children’s book illustrator, Don Tate. Don is on deadline and super-busy this month, but he generously agreed to stop through and share some of his “animated wisdom” with aspiring children’s book illustrators.

I’ve condensed this interview down to what I call Rita’s High-5; five basic questions most aspiring illustrators want to know. Namely,

1. What is your illustration work-day like?
2. How did you break into the business?
3. What do aspiring illustrators need to know about breaking into the business?
4. How do you come up with your illustrations…and do you meet the writers?
5. What is your advice for aspiring illustrators and/or illustrators of color?


Don lives in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. He was always busy drawing pictures, making his own toys and otherwise keeping his hands busy. He always knew he’d be an artist someday and by the time he was in college, he realized he wanted to become a commercial illustrator.

Don attended a vocational technical high school where his core area was commercial and advertising art. During his senior year, he designed and illustrated a poster for AAA that discouraged drinking and driving. “I wanted to win so I could be honored at the senior awards ceremony along with the jocks and brainiacs,” he said. “You know…prove that I could do something special, too.” Don won second place nationally, and was proud to walk on stage and collect his scholarship money alongside the “successful kids.”

Don attended Des Moines Area Community College where the few drawing classes he had “weren’t really instructional or specialized like an art or design school.” Although he earned an associate degree, he is “mostly self-trained” in the area of art and illustrations, [My Two Cents: Self-trained or not, his work rivals the best illustrators out there!]

As an illustrator, Don feels he’s “doing what he was created to do–draw, paint, create.” His favorite illustrators are Mark Teague, Sean Qualls, Daniel Kirk, G Brian Karas, Kadir Nelson, Mark Buehner, Floyd Cooper, James Ransome, Jerry Pinkney, Joe Cepeda, Shane Evans, Frank Morrison, Leo and Diane Dillon. And as for illustrator Clint Young, Don says…“Keep an eye out for him!”

Don gives back to the creative community by regularly speaking at schools, because he believes every kid has a special gift that needs to be encouraged and supported.

Now on to Rita’s High-5. Remember, RLH is me, DT is Don.

– What is your work day (illustrating) like?

DT – I am a full-time illustrator. I split my week in half. The first part of the week, I work as an illustrator and graphics reporter for the American-Statesman newspaper. The remainder of the week, I work from home illustrating children’s books.

– How did you break into the children’s book illustration business?

DT – After college, I accepted a job as a publication designer at an educational publishing company, where I designed supplemental educational products — books, classroom posters, teaching guides. I also had the opportunity to illustrate the products. While traveling with the company to reading conferences like The International Reading Association, I met editors, agents, librarians, teachers — book people in general. I fell in love with the field of children’s literature.

– What do aspiring illustrators need to know about breaking into the business?

It’s tough out there and very competitive. In addition, the internet makes it even more competitive. An art agent recently shared with me how American illustrators are now competing with illustrators from all over the world who can produce the same art but charge pennies compared to American artists. Also, many other markets have shrunk (advertising, for example). Those artists are now seeking work in children’s publishing. Aspiring illustrators should keep all this in mind.

– How do you come up with illustrations? Do you ever meet the writers you illustrate for?

DT – I come up with the illustrations by reading the text and creating thumbnail sketches–tiny doodle-like drawings of ideas that come to mind. Later I create tighter sketches and share with my editor and art director. Once they’re all approved, I paint the final art.

I do occasionally meet the writers, but it’s well after the book is published. I meet many of them online, through email or Facebook.

– What advice do you have for aspiring illustrators?

DT – My main advice would be to work on polishing your portfolio. Develop a clean, marketable, distinctive style. Visit bookstores and libraries. Also, compare your work to those of the professionals: Is your work really up to par? Is your presentation professional? Join SCBWI and form a critique group comprised of others you respect. Listservs are okay too, if you have time to read them. Most times I don’t.

For illustrators of color, my advice is, don’t get hung up on the color thing. You’ll limit yourself. Illustrate what you enjoy. If you enjoy drawing people of color, if you’re really good at it, illustrate people of color. If you enjoy drawing landscapes, if you’re really good at it, illustrate landscapes. If you enjoy drawing pigs, illustrate pigs. Heck, I’ll bet there are more pigs on the NYT best-sellers lists than people of color.

Well, that wraps up our interview with the talented and generous Don Tate, who is currently hard at work illustrating a book about Duke Ellington — Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, which will publish later this year or next with Charlesbridge.

Want to see some of Don’s illustrations? Click here!

Want to know more about Don? Here are two websites chocked full of information:


Thank you, Don for a wonderful interview!
Best wishes,

Rita Lorraine


  • This is a great interview. I love the illustrations. Thanks for sharing Don.

  • Thank you for this wonderful interview. It’s interesting to get to know a little bit the “behind-the-scene” of illustrators. 🙂

    • Rita Lorraine Hubbard

      Hey Nathalie,
      Thanks for stopping by. I was very interested in hearing Don’s answers because I have many friends who are illustrators, and they’re all still trying to break into the business. Don’s answers were very informative.

      Have a great week!

      Rita L.

  • hello, I’m new on here and excited to be a part of the discussion.

    • Rita Lorraine Hubbard

      Hi Sarah,
      So glad you stopped by. I hope Don Tate’s interview is as inspirational to you as it was to me. Are you an illustrator, or a children’s book writer? We would love to hear from you again.

      Rita Lorraine

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