What I did last summer - The Highlights Foundation Advanced Illustrators Workshop

The annual series of Highlights Foundation workshops for children's writers and illustrators takes place amongst rural scenery in Honesdale in the USA. Here, our Illustrator coordinator Anne-Marie Perks reports on last year's Illustrator Workshop.

As part of my continuing professional development, I commit to at least one class a year, to further my skills and to be inspired. It’s not all about learning a new mark making technique, story development strategy or digital technique. It’s also about the camaraderie. Fellow illustrators and writers working together on honing our craft, sharing stories and industry news at various levels of our careers, and taking time out to experiment, explore and have lots of fun. Two years ago the Highlights Foundation, after many years of the successful writing workshops, started their very first Advanced Illustrators Workshop. I feel privileged to have attended both the very first workshop in 2011 and their second in 2012, taking place over the American Labor Day weekend (first weekend in September).

The foundation is part of Highlights for Children, Inc. They publish Highlights Magazine, 6 - 12, High Five, 2 - 6, and Hello, 0 - 2 years of age, and the book imprint, Boyds Mills Press. Kent Brown, executive director of the Foundation and editor in chief emeritus for Highlights Press, is very active in several organisations that promote education reading. During the workshops, Kent often stopped by to talk to students and faculty during meal times dressed in his characteristic denim jeans and braces. All workshops are now run in the Barn on what used to be the Myers’ family farm just outside of Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

View of the Barn, Highlights Foundation Conference Centre.

There are a few things that stand out in a typical Highlight Foundations workshop. They do everything they can to make you feel welcomed and comfortable. The meals are prepared with mostly organic and locally sourced food. Every meal is a piece of art. Everyone from the kitchen to the faculty are committed to you being able to focus entirely on your craft. Each attendee is assigned a mentor to work with over the five days you are there and every mentor has received recognition through a Caldecott prize, a Coretta King honour or some other prestigious award that highlights their work. The faculty for the very first workshop in 2011 was Eric Rohmann, Floyd Cooper, Melanie Hall, Suzanne Bloom, and Lindsay Barrett George along with several special guests. The 2012 faculty was Eric Rohmann, Floyd Cooper, Kelly Murphy and Ruth Sanderson with special visits from Donna Jo Napoli and David Weisner, and Neal Porter from Neal Porter Books, imprint of Roaring Brook Press. The workshops cover not only art techniques but also address dummy preparation; storyboarding; continuity; portfolio expectations; character development; self-promotion; and finding a market. Attendees range from on the edge of being published to published a lot, leading to informal critique sessions and discussions throughout the five days.

So how does this journey begin? With a submitted application to the Highlights Foundation. From there, the faculty vets all submissions and chooses who to invite to the Advanced Illustrators Workshop. Once you are approved and invited, then you pay your workshop fees. You’ll get several mailings informing you who your mentor is, the time set aside for you to meet; about 45 minutes, and a reminder to bring your portfolio and any work you want feedback on. Though you are assigned a mentor, other faculty members will look at your work if asked. There are scholarships available for those who need it. Be aware that if you intend to apply for a scholarship, apply early.

Highlights Press back door used by staff going between Highlights Press and across the green, Boyds Mills Press.

Everyone from the kitchen to the faculty are committed to you being able to focus entirely on your craft.

Before the illustrators workshop officially begins, all attendees are invited to a tour of the beautiful old houses on Church Street in Honesdale where the editorial and design staff offices are. Across a shady green from Highlights Press is Boyds Mills Press. Art directors and editors talk about their magazines or books with a chance to preview the books and magazines that they publish. The most amazing piece of trivia from the tour is that every, yes, every piece of mail is answered and all the craft activities published in their magazine is tried out by staff physically making them. Every craft piece made and published is stored in Highlights’ archives. They are always looking for new craft activities to publish.
My cabin on the grounds of what used to be the founders farm across from the Barn.

Looking at the cabins from the woods. None of the cabins are too close allowing for quiet.

It is with excitement that faculty and students meet for the first time in the Barn over an amazing dinner. Every attendee is assigned a rustic cabin to themselves that includes lovely Pennsylvania decor, shelves full of books Highlights publishes and a work area for writing or artwork. This is just me, but I did keep my eyes open for bears reputed to populate the woods around there.

Workshop area inside the Barn.

All the facilitators were very giving of their time and expertise.

Every day begins with an art technique session facilitated by one of the faculty, about three hours. These sessions are hands on and all art materials are provided. You will end up producing a sample piece from each session. It is up to you whether you pursue taking your piece to final finished form or you keep it as a sample.
Reductive processes seemed to be the keyword last September. We began with prolific illustrator Kelly Murphy. The process included Wintergreen oil, a printer’s technique for transferring images, Crystal spray fix, watercolour and gel medium for sealing the paper.

Illustrator Kelly Murphy showing us her original art.

Kelly demonstrates reductive process, lifting highlights from a raw sienna midtone wash.

The next three mornings were led by Ruth Sanderson showing another reductive process that included sealing the paper with gesso medium after drawing out your image in prismacolor pencil. Then coloured using oil washes applied with cotton ear buds. Eric Rohman gave an in-depth talk on his lino printing process on the book, Kitten Tale and led us all into designing a small lino print. Floyd Copper showed yet another reductive technique in which oil washes, or sepia chalk in this case, are applied to sealed paper and areas of light are lifted with a gum eraser.

Clockwise: Facilitators Floyd Cooper, Eric Rohmann, Ruth Sanderson and Kelly Murphy.
The afternoons were filled with mentor appointments, individual work time and optional offerings in character design, storyboarding techniques, narrative development, talks by Neal Porter and a session with author illustrator David Weisner and author Donna Jo Napoli. Donna and David shared their evolving process between writer and illustrator responding to each other’s work, which will result in a graphic novel. An interesting exercise done in a small group portfolio critiques had the group decide on three of your best pieces to exhibit in the evening exhibition set out in the loft. Highlights provided table easels and cloth covered tables for the work. Note: the favourite pieces you’ve fallen in love with that you think are your best are rarely the ones that are chosen! Dinner was always preceded by drinks and snacks on the patio in front of a huge fireplace and old stone walls reminiscent of English rock walls.

Showcase exhibiting three pieces from each illustrator chosen by their small portfolio critique group.

Large outdoor fireplace at the barn. A fire was set every night.

On the walls in the barn are a few original paintings by the publisher’s illustrators. I sat in front of Floyd Cooper’s painting from The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars by Jean Merrill, in awe working out how he did it. Over the two Advanced Illustrator workshops I attended, my mentors were Floyd Cooper and Eric Rohmann. All the facilitators were very giving of their time and expertise.

Illustrator and Coretta Scott King award winner, Floyd Cooper.

On publication of this article, the 2013 Advanced Illustrators Workshop is taking submissions. Over the American Labor Day holiday you will work with children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis, author illustrator Matt Tavares and art educator and children’s book designer, Joy Chu; all award winners. If you are interested in finding out more about this year’s Advanced Illustrators Workshop, follow the links for information and application forms for both the workshop and scholarships.

Anne-Marie Perks


  1. This sounds a lovely time and a lovely place. It makes me wish I were an illustrator.

  2. Great article Anne-Marie. Highlights are lovely people to work for, and the courses they run sound very inspiring. They have some heavy hitters as mentors. Makes me want to find out more about 'reductive processes'!

  3. I wanted to rock on those rocking chairs. All that's missing is a peek at the work you created while you were there!


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