The first practical move for me was to surround myself with people who were either working in this field of illustrating or would have the same passion. I did not want to go back to uni and study the subject as at that time I felt I had already spent enough money on my education. I also did not want to step into any regulated environment with my art but rather explore what kind of illustrations I wanted to create and make the rules myself.
A friend of mine mentioned the Brisbane illustrators Group (BIG) to me and I went to one of their monthly meetings at a cafe. This has been a very crucial step in my career because even though up until today I am blatantly frozen in awe of this group's combined talent and professionalism, I made many friends and found an amazing support system in regards to my illustrating. Especially Anil Tortop (illustrator extraordinaire, Turkish coffee brewer AND she speaks Minion!!) has always been there for me with advice, help and constructive criticism and I appreciate her honesty in regards to my work. Sometimes you are so involved with what you have been creating that you don't see the truth. You really should have someone in your life then who occasionally says "I don't like this, looks strange!".
It was also Anil who suggested to me to post my work regularly on Facebook and give it a larger audience and the practise I needed. First I joined a couple of illustration-minded groups and within time I established my own artist page on Facebook. All of this has been a long process and not always just fun and games as putting your (mostly not-quite-there-yet) work out there requires thick skin. I will be coming back to this special topic on another day.
Throughout these years of "research" I noticed two main ingredients were really important requirements for my illustrations to take them to the next level - "my voice" and "the look". Both can make all the difference between creating an "ok" illustration and one that people/ children come back to multiple times to enjoy. Obviously there are other factors that influence the success of your illustrating work, too, but for now I will only focus on these two as I find them most fascinating.
"Finding your voice" in illustrating is probably the most tricky to achieve. For one, you can't really put a finger on what it actually means. Secondly, it is a very individual process that takes time - or so I was told. To me it is what your work enables others to FEEL when they look at your work. Your "voice" as an illustrator carries an additional message than just the visual to the (small) person who looks at it.
Then there is also the "look" of your work or your "style" - the colours you choose, the settings, the shape of your characters and also the way you present everything are very crucial to create a good illustration that appeals to your audience. If you come up with an amazing character that carries your "voice" perfectly but it doesn't appeal visually or if you present it in a sloppy way it will be very difficult for your illustration to reach a broader audience. Vice versa you will have trouble engaging children/ editors or whoever you would like to show your illustrations to in the long run with a perfectly drawn and composed illustration that lacks a "voice".
All of this is very subjective, of course, but I think it is a good thing to aim for and to keep in the back of your mind because magic will happen if you get it all right. It is the picture books that children and parents always come back to because they teach you something between the lines where this magic happens. They don't only teach via words and action but through an emotion.
So now I had this idea of how I theoretically could achieve meaningful illustrations and I was surrounded by very talented, professional and helpful people both in the real and in the online world. It is still a very long way from here to achieving the results you have in mind and the results that will get you published (if that should be your goal) and I wonder if I will ever be there. It's the journey, though, that keeps me going.