SCBWI Illustrator’s Intensive

Originally Published: Sep. 9, 2010
by Emily Goodman

On Saturday, July 24, picture book illustrators were treated to an intense and inspiring day of workshops, personal critiques and insider tips from industry professionals that one participant called “revelatory.”

In the morning, participants attended a critique workshop led by either Laurent Linn, art director at Simon & Schuster, or Pat Cummings, illustrator, author, and teacher at Parsons. About half of the participants brought work for critique.

Linn had asked participants in his group to illustrate a scene from a modern version of “The Hare and the Tortoise” that is coming out this fall from Simon & Schuster. Linn described how he “reads” an illustration. On the first pass, he said, he looks at the art on its own and notes where his eyes fall, what jumps out as important.

On the second pass, he tries to relate it to the story. “I immediately focus on the main character here,” Linn said about one participant’s illustration. “The warm colors and the diagonal composition lead my eye right to the hare.” On his second pass, relating the picture to the story, Linn noted that “in the story, there are two main characters, and while here the hare is important, the tortoise is getting lost. There’s not an even focus on both of them.”

He suggested that brighter colors or more space around the tortoise would make him just as important as the hare, which would be better for “telling the story.”

The students in Pat Cummings’s class brought in samples of work from their own projects and Cummings responded to them, also encouraging comments from the other participants. She advised participants over and over not to waste any space on the page. “If there are shelves, fill them with interesting things to attract kids. If there are curtains, add a pattern that will draw attention to the cat sneaking in. Kids have plenty of time to look as they’re being read to, and they love to find tiny details. So give them lots of eye candy. Don’t have any throwaway parts of the picture.”

In the afternoon, all participants came together for a workshop on picture book dummies led by Monica Wellington. She began by showing sample picture books and then asked each participant to choose a picture book and make a story board of it, sketching the design of each spread onto blank storyboard pages.

“This exercise makes you more observant,” Wellington said. “Pay special attention to what’s in the illustrations but not in the text.”

She also asked students to note how the spreads work together and how variety is achieved.

Finally, she asked if there was anything in the design that the students would have done differently. “Just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s perfect!” she said. Then Wellington instructed students to follow the same process for their own manuscript. “It’s a big jump from a single illustration to 32 pages that all look great and hold together,” she pointed out.

In addition to the group workshops, participants could also schedule individual 15-minute critiques of their portfolios with a professional, either an art director or artist’s agent.

Participants raved about the workshop. Lise Yellen, who works in advertising, noticed “the sweetness of constructive criticism, which you don’t see so much on the job.” She also commented on the huge variety of styles of participants’ work. “There are a lot of good artists here, and their approaches are so different, it’s hard to say which is best.”

Carl Strom said, “The best part was learning from people with so much experience in the publishing world. You learn best from the best.”

And Robin Mork commented, “For people like me, who didn’t know where to go next, it was extremely helpful. My critiquer never failed to tell me how to go about correcting the problems he saw in my portfolio, so I ended up with a list of tasks. It made me want to get to work.”

Other nuggets of wisdom from the Illustrator’s Intensive faculty:

  • “Keep in mind the age of the reader. Your storytelling can’t be too sophisticated. I might appreciate what you’ve done, but I’m not sure a kid would understand it.” –Linn
  • “Keep revising your layouts to ratchet up emotion. Emotion is most important; logic is second. I start with each element on tracing paper and move the elements around. Starting immediately on paper inhibits you because it’s so much work to change anything.” –Cummings
  • “Everything is a character–hills, trees, clouds. Make them specific and individual to add to the storytelling.” –Linn
  • “In a crowd scene or a classroom of kids, each person should look different, be doing something different, and be dressed differently. You want people to believe your world is real.” –Cummings
  • “What’s in the picture should not be in the text; what’s in the text should not be in the picture. Put your own twist on the story.” –Linn
  •  “Don’t just illustrate the words. Bring something extra to the party.” –Cummings
  • “The cover is the most important picture. It must entice you into the book without giving away the ending.” –Wellington
  • “Don’t think of individual pages; think of couplets and sequences.” –Wellington
  • “Even if you’re not a writer, get in the habit of coming up with ideas for books and suggest them to editors. You’ll get more work that way.” –Wellington

Emily Goodman wrote the award-winning picture book Plant Secrets (Charlesbridge, 2009) and is working on other nonfiction and a fantasy novel.

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