I don’t know about you, but I’m an industry peripheral. I sate my appetite for being a published writer / illustrator by attending enough talks and workshops to distract myself from what I actually should be doing – writing and illustrating.
The Pre-Workshop BriefI received an email from the SCBWI Illustrator Masterclass Team, detailing Will Steele’s workshop. There was a brief. The task was to re-imagine a classic children’s book. Will wanted three black and white inside illustrations and up to three, full colour, cover illustrations within 1 month.
"This was the real deal and I had better do my homework."
Sure, I was very excited by this challenge. But, I also felt something else. Something I hadn’t felt in a long while – panic. There was nothing for it. I took myself to the local library and sat amongst the children's books.
As soon as I read the brief I was sure of what book I would recreate – Alice in Wonderland. That part was easy. The next task was to look at its peer books – for children aged 6-9. What size and shape were these books? How colourful were the covers and the inside pages? What was a typical palette of colours? All of these questions I’d never ask myself when I come up with my reams of (bookless) characters. This was the real deal and I had better do my homework.
I scheduled in a working time slot and took myself away from distraction to a studio. Three hours and five pieces of work later, I felt confident that my work was ready to be passed before a professional. I scanned all of the artwork and lingered over that dreaded ‘send’ button until it was done and (temporarily) out of my hands. That, my friends, was stage 1.
I waited in anticipation during the review period that followed. Then finally that day came, and an email from SCBWI with my feedback. My feedback! From the Art Director at Usborne! I firstly scanned the email for any crucial words – you know the ones – quit, you and suck. Thankfully though, I found no such thing. I was actually surprised to see how much thought went into his response and even more surprised to learn that the qualities that I value in a good illustration are some of the qualities that he saw in my work.
I took on board his ideas of improvements and set to work again. This time, only following Will’s requested changes. I was finally ready to show up on the day of the event and meet ‘my critic’.
Workshop DayThe Masterclasses are hosted by the wonderful House of Illustration. This beautiful old building is where the eyes can feast on one of the many exhibitions they host there as well as talks and workshops through the year. Where else would a SCBWI masterclass call home but here?
The session kicked off with a presentation by Will himself. Will told us all about his career and the paths and choices he had made that had taken him to where he is today. I always find it fascinating to hear other people’s stories and the Journey they’ve had.
Will is, although very accomplished and, to many in the room, the golden egg of contacts at Usborne, very down to earth and friendly. The first half of the session showcased Will, his life, his work and the covers and artworks that he has commissioned over the years. He was not strict about the order or flow of his presentation and was very comfortable in taking questions at random throughout the presentation. As indeed, we were very comfortable in asking.
He had laid out on a table a stack of what can only be described as beautifully produced children’s books. He spoke a little to each of the chosen books merits, the decisions taken in producing them (various meetings with marketing) and his thoughts on the overall outcome. The books were passed around the room with great interest.
He explained processes he goes through with commissioned illustrators and took questions, disclosing some very interesting tidbits about some famous illustrators, their working habits and their interactions with the publisher.
Perhaps what I found most interesting was my personal discovery of the world of copy artistry. Many, many illustrators only begin to feel ‘legit’ as an artist once they have developed their own unique style. So it fascinated me that copying - an idea that arguably is never really looked at favourably amongst creatives - can be just as highly valued and sought after in the publishing industry as the ‘real deal’ itself. I won’t drone on about it too much. Needless to say, there were a lot of people in the room that had a lot of questions about that particular area of the business.
After burning questions were met with very satisfying answers, we broke for lunch where light refreshments were provided. I found it was a great time to mingle with peers and catch up with familiar faces.
Illustration, much like writing, is a lonely sport. We often lock ourselves away and go at it alone. So in times where you are able to meet people with likeminded goals and passions it sparks rigorous conversation and possible companionship through the (often testing) processes.
The CritiqueNext up, the face to face critique. Not only is your work being looked at by an Art Director but also by 15 of your peers. Is it daunting? Well it should be, but somehow Will managed to construct a feeling of trust and kinship from the start of the day. The atmosphere and energy felt relaxed and open. We were all ready.
Each Masterclass student received 10 minutes of personalized attention from Will. He carefully looked through the original pieces and allowed the illustrator to talk him through the development process undertaken to get them to their final piece. Will would offer his own thoughts and insights on each final piece as well as allow the rest of the class to comment (constructively) on what they liked and what they thought could be revisited.
All in all, I left feeling invigorated. It was a thoroughly satisfying session. I had definitely learned the importance of ‘weighting’ ones work with a deadline. And, maybe it really is time to start sending my work out. After all, Usborne's finest has already seen it!
To summarise, being involved in the masterclasses this year has been a great journey. Meeting and liaising with illustrators, agents and art directors alike has been brilliant. A head full of insider information and a phone full of new contacts and networks later, I feel less daunted by the world that awaits and am excited to see what the masterclass team will conjure up for us next year.