Over the weekend of September 12-14, Nashville Tennessee hosted the Midsouth regional SCBWI conference. The faculty included editors, agents, and art directors from a variety of publishing houses plus writers and illustrators from the kid lit world. I always sound like a broken record but I really think joining and participating in SCBWI conferences are a must for illustrators trying to break into the kid lit biz. From all my pages of notes here are my top 5 from the sessions I attended:
1) Pay attention to all your characters and love your villain. Don’t relegate the secondary characters in your story to props. This was from keynote speech by Gennifer Choldenko, author of Al Capone Does My Shirts. From an illustrator perspective this means give the secondary characters just as much detail and expression as the main character.
2) Every tweet is in the Library of Congress. Whoa, what? This was from a session on social networking and building your brand with literary agent, Lauren MacLeod. What does it have to do with an illustration career? It means what you tweet could literally last longer than what you say or write anywhere else. Just something to keep in mind as we network online.
3) From Workman publishing director Daniel Nayeri’s session on “How To Make Interesting Art” I wrote down “nearly everything is art but not everything is interesting.” Nayeri urged artists to determine for themselves what the conversation of our age is (consumerism? sensationalism? meta-theism?) and have our art inform one side or the other of the conversation. This session was intense, almost like a college art and philosophy class. Now that I’ve had a week to mull over my notes I believe this goes back to the concept of ‘voice’ in art. Is for own voice shaped enough so that your art looks like no one else’s?
4) On Sunday I attended a panel with agent Rosemary Stimola, author illustrator Amanda Driscoll, and editor Kelly Delaney of Random House where they discussed the spark and creation of Driscoll’s debut picture book Duncan the Story Dragon. While little of the text changed from acquisition through edits, Delaney urged Driscoll to push Duncan’s character through some extreme changes. Duncan started as a more “traditional” looking dragon but evolved into a more childlike character, which resonated with the story better. In a study in editorial revision, almost every page of the original dummy was changed dramatically… but for the better. Another thing I noted from this panel was that one of reasons Stimola was initially drawn to the story in order to offer representation was that she appreciated the real world solution to the problem even though the characters were magical creatures.
5) My last session was with Simon and Schuster art director Lucy Cummins who discussed “How To Get Work, Agented Or Not.” The number one thing she looks for in illustration submissions are memorable characters. Postcards are still a great way to get the attention of an art director, and they don’t get as many as some illustrators might think. Cummins mentioned that she is always looking to add to her to go-to stable of artists who are excellent draftsmen – they can draw anything. And, it bears repeating, they never miss a deadline.
Mary Reaves Uhles has created award winning illustrations in books and magazines for clients such as Cricket Magazine Group, McGraw Hill, Magic Wagon, and Thomas Nelson. Before beginning her career as a freelance illustrator, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. A PAL member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Mary calls Nashville home and spends her free time behind the wheel of the family mini van.
I recently attended my first Illustrator Intensive hosted by my regional chapter of SCBWI. For several years I’ve wondered whether these workshops were really worthwhile. And after some thought, I decided to feed my curiosity and see for myself…and what I found was a mix of both good and bad. I wanted to share my experience with everyone.
But before I go any further, I wanted to quickly go over the general setup of the intensive. Along with an option for a portfolio review, the main event of the intensive were the advanced exercises. Participants were given a choice between two exercises, one by each of the two speakers. Our speakers for our intensive were Loraine Joyner, Senior Art Director at Peachtree Publishers, and Ronnie Ann Herman, Artist Rep at Herman Agency. We were required to start on our exercises prior to the actual day of the intensive, and we would bring our work and get feedback and share with the group. Loraine’s exercise involved choosing a story from three selected manuscript and with that, we were tasked with creating character concepts, a 32-page storyboard, one tightly rendered sketch, and finally a finished color illustration. Ronnie’s exercise was slightly different, she had two basic scene ideas. For each scene, she wanted characters sketches, a rough sketch, and a finished illustration.
I ultimately went with Loraine’s exercise. I thought it was the more challenging of the two, and developing a storyboard was something I felt I could use more practice in. For this exercise, we had about two months to create the character concepts, storyboard, and tight sketch, with a two week deadline to complete each portion of the exercise. As we finished each part, we turned in our work via dropbox our regional adviser with SCBWI. Once we had everything submitted, the work was then forwarded to Loraine and she critiqued it. We would then take her comments as we worked on our final colored illustration. This was presented on the day of the workshop and shared with the group.
Below are my two character concepts for the story I selected. For my exercise, the main characters were a zebra and a lion;
And here is my finished illustration;
The main highlights of the intensive include;
– After meeting Loraine in person, I definitely felt I made the right choice in working with her, I thought her presentation was very informative and she had a lot of useful nuggets to share.
– Loraine gave my work a very thorough critique, and made some really good comments.
– The day reminded me of my time in art school, and I enjoyed the energy in the room. Everyone was engaged and eager to learn.
– The day long intensive allowed for time to catch up with some friends and fellow illustrators who also attended. It’s always nice to be able to “talk shop” with other people who know can relate.
On the flip side, here are some things I wish were better;
– Poor communication was a big source of frustration for myself as well as other attendees I spoke to. Some of this blame fell on the shoulders of the regional adviser that was collecting the work. To me, she gave the impression that she wasn’t receptive to any questions we might of have.
– For the better part of this venture, I personally didn’t feel like I had anyone I could go to for questions. And this almost ended up in disaster! It was unclear whether we were required to complete a finished illustration, and in the end, I had to rush at the last minute to get it done.
All in all, I’m glad I decided to do it at least once. Would I do it again…probably not. I really enjoyed being in the company of “my” people. It was reminiscent of my college days. And though it felt like this workshop catered more for novices and the inspiring, I still walked away feeling recharged and inspired. I recommend these workshops for those who might need that extra bit of motivation, or for someone looking to get a little taste of an art school class setting.
A few weeks ago I was able to attend a wonderful SCBWI, which had some very enriching sessions for illustrators, leaving me feeling inspired and excited to create new pieces and to apply what I learned to clients’ work! If you are not involved with your local chapter of SCBWI or other professional organization, I encourage you to do so. Attending national conferences, while obviously very great opportunities, can be difficult to attend, depending on your financial, traveling and other personal needs/situations. Local conferences can be a great alternative, and can offer a more intimate experience for the attendees. For example, in addition to participating in the sessions for illustrators, I was also able to volunteer as a reader for a picture book manuscript critique session, which was a fun additional way to connect with the staff and members and be more involved with the weekend experience. Here are some highlights from my favorite sessions.
Keynote Speaker LeUyen Pham
LeUyen Pham is an award winning illustrator and author who works in many diverse styles. If you haven’t seen “Big Sister, Little Sister”, you should check it out. My own daughter loves this book, written an illustrated by Pham. In addition to talking with us about her history and journey into the publishing world, she spoke about strategies she has used to stay fresh and relevant in the constantly evolving world of children’s book publishing throughout her career. Pham style is constantly in a state of evolution, and she likes to very her technique and look, sometimes drastically, from book to book. She encouraged illustrators to take on projects with which they feel a connection, to create samples that reflect the types of projects they would like to work on that year, and to send those samples to a small targeted group of art directors. Most of all, Pham spoke about the importance of making personal connections with clients, and allowing clients to see you as a multidimensional person rather than just a work source. IN noe of her breakout sessions, Pham talked about how she goes about constructing a picture book. We looks at the development of visual hierarchy to facilitate storytelling in each individual scene, as well as how that hierarchy fits into the overall scope of the book, creating a natural flow between page turns. She was such an inspiring and engaging speaker, and this particular session on picture book construction was so enriching!
Maria Middleton, Associate Art Director
Two of my other favorite sessions were offered by ABRAMS Kids Books associate art director Maria Middleton. The first few illustrators who signed up for the conference had the opportunity to work with Middleton on a “homework project” in which we had to create character and place them in a situation where they will encounter conflict, great or small. We got to send her our sketches, which she reviewed ahead of time, and then created final art to be reviewed during a session at the conference. This was so much fun! I love seeing everyone’s interpretation of the theme, and the evolution for sketch to final. Here is my artwork that I created for the assignment.
In a separate session, Maria talked about the makings of great cover design. She encouraged us to think about the spine, which is often the only part of the book that is visible on bookshelves, and giving attention to typography. For those illustrators who feel comfortable doing so, she suggested hand-lettering the title text, so that the cover has that added touch of image-text unity and customization. She also walked us through the many stages of some of the book covers that she art-directed, explaining how the team arrived at the final cover design for each book. It was intriguing to see the thought process behind each revision, and to see how those changes drove the cover towards a stronger design.
This is a great little video that I ran across from MidSouth SBWI that goes through the do’s and don’ts of what to put in your Children’s book portfolio. We often forget those standards and we thought it a good idea to put up a quick reminder to the folks who have been doing this a while as well as the ones just starting. Always keep an eye on your portfolio and make sure it’s in tip top shape for an Art Director’s eyes.
Also note all the great work being featured in the video! Including the work of OnceUponASketch contributor Mary Reaves Uhles!