A Question of Voice

By Anne Marie Perks with Bridget Strevens Marzo
Illustrator Masterclass Series last event for 2011

Bridget Strevens-Marzo
Author illustrator and SCBWI International Illustrator Coordinator Bridget Strevens-Marzo began the afternoon with a slide show.

The first image was to inspire us, an image from the French Book Fair in Paris, Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse, always the first weekend of December. My own experience of this fair a few years ago was an amazing, creative experience being inspired by French publishing for Children. We all briefly mused on an Illustrator’s Masterclass Series trip to Paris.

The next slide showed several images of illustrated elephants and Bridget asked us to pick the oldest one. Of interest, the oldest one actually looked contemporary and was illustrated by an Australian illustrator, Harry Rountree, in the 1920’s. The images also showed that there are a 101 ways to illustrate an elephant.

We also had a look at Scott McCloud’s pyramid of different ways to illustrate a character, moving between reality to abstract.

Then we got into the discussion point of the masterclass, talking about style and voice. Bridget told us all that she actually hated the word style, because there is something that overrides that. And that something is ‘voice’. Our own unique ‘voice’ that makes our work authentic and our own.

In art school, we are told that you need to have a style to sell.  But, where we got to is that it is really about content and having something to say.

Lots of ways to illustrate an elephant!
Illustrating Children’s Picture Books, Steven Withrow and Lesley Breen Withrow, RotoVision Publishing - 
filled with interviews from published illustrators and Bridget is one of them.  Second book is on creative exploration.
 Bridget showed us a few pages from Quentin Blake’s book, ‘Drawing for the artistically undiscovered’,  and noted that illustrators could be divided between painters and writers. Quentin Blake is a writer. It is easy to see whether the illustrator favours lines or shapes and, it is possible to be both! An expressive line that tells the story one way, or might be more sophisticated for older children, and very simplified shapes and colours for younger readers. Bridget also suggested that If you want to add new ideas to your work, go to old books. There is so much in the past that we have barely even grazed!

‘So,’ Bridget asked us, ‘What kind of children’s illustrator are you? Are you a fox or a wild boar?’

This was a question asked of Bridget by a French art director. He then went on to tell Bridget that the fox sniffs around the forest and get’s excited and looks things up.
Meanwhile, the wild board tends to stay with it’s family, in it’s own corner. Strong in what it knows how to do, but sticks in one place. A fox is adaptable and fits what they are doing to the voice of the story. Bridget is a fox.

Busy, busy, busy.
Just a taste of lots of different art materials around the table.
Looking at more inspiration!
More playing with art materials.
So again, we come back to, It is the voice that counts, not style.

In this journey to figure out our sense of identity as artists, Bridget asked us to ask ourselves the following questions.

How old are you deep down inside?

What kinds of children’s books do you positively enjoy reading?

What ideas for books do you enjoy wrestling with the most?

Stories? Concepts? Activities?  Pop-up?
There are non-story, activities books. Games, which made me think of Highlights Magazine and the range of magazines that are part of Cricket Magazine Publishing such as Baby Bug, Lady Bug, Spider, Cricket and Muse Magazines - Cricket publishing.

Other illustrators are very conceptual. Alphabet books tend to be one of the first projects many illustration students work with.

And for those who are worried it’s too late, or that publishing gap has been going on a while now; the award winning book, Not a Box, was illustrated and written by Antoinette Portis, a designer who was over 60 when she produced it.  And, it sold all over the world!

There are fold out books  and artists books for children. Bridget pointed us to a fabulous exhibit in Paris that is only opened by appointment, Le Tois Ourses.

We also all agreed the kind of storytelling in which your character takes a child reader by the hand... This means your reader needs to immediately know who the main character is and that one character begins and ends the book.

If you are working on bringing more expression to your character’s face, Bridget suggested a great website called, artnatomia.net. On this site, it shows expression either as a mask or as a realistic drawing for reference. She also referred us to whole books on drawing eyes, noses, hands, and so on for reference. Don’t just focus on facial expression, jump into drawing your whole character in lots of positions. Look at body language as part of the expressive language you work with.

For fun, have a look at Ed Vere’s youtube video on, ‘How to draw Mr Big’.

The shape/silhouette of your characters and how they alter with gestures and expressions tell us more than a specific feature.

Part of Bridget’s workshop included written feedback on images sent to her in advance to the workshop. One of the participants said after her feedback. ‘I think I’ve got it. It’s more about what they do, and how they think and act.’ For me, it was the reminder that our characters are actors moving across a stage and interacting with each other.

Bridget also told all of us.
‘A key design word to grab (and keep) us and visual readers interested is,
How do we show contrast? I know it seems like one of those basic design principles and elements talks, but, it is never said enough.

We do this by how we work with the following elements of design:
Space - full or patterned areas versus empty areas
Scale/size - clearly articulated big/medium/small in one composition, plus add surprise changes in scale from page to page.
Value - lights versus darks, even within colour ranges (light yellow versus dark purple)
Colour temperature -  warm versus cool colours
Colour saturation - strong versus diluted colour including chromatic greys and blacks.
Line - thick versus thin, spotty, straight, curved ...

If your work is contemplative, you have to come out of that contemplation to action and  interaction with the environment, other characters.

‘Illustrators we can easily get hung up on style - one way to do things, one type of process. To me, that’s putting the cart before the horse.’ Bridget said. ‘The horse is the content and
content is what really drives us.  It’s what we want to ride over to the reader!’

The action ‘doing’ part of the workshop was given to us as a two part mission. The first mission: Draw a character in the way you usually draw it now and try to draw it with a different expression than you’ve done before, or put in a situation that is different for that character.

The second mission: Use someone else’s art materials to colour that character. Let the strangeness of using different art materials than our own take us to a different view.

Though we had a small group, the time was full. If anything, maybe it made the afternoon even more intense in that we all love what we do and want to keep progressing in our craft.

A few lovely things I took away from this afternoon’s work are:
An introduction to a wonderful deckle edged sketchbook from Paper Chase with lushes paper that shows tonal work and colour to it’s best.

Remembering that my characters are ‘actors’ moving across my pages, telling a story.

And, an idea for a future workshop on colour and composition.


  1. Great post, Anne-Marie, and well done Bridget!

  2. Thanks you so much for this post! I enjoyed it tremendously and learned a lot from it :o)

  3. It was a great afternoon. Thanks.

  4. Wow - big thanks to you Anne-Marie, for such a detailed recording of my workshop!
    And you've got me wanting to try out some of that deckle-edged paper from Paper Chase...

  5. What a great blog post. I wish I could have been there! You have given me a few things to think about.

    I know I'm a fox! I am probably a writer.

    Now to check out those links!

  6. Dear Bridget and Anne-Marie,

    Thank you both for such an inspiring workshop!

    Bridget's views on "voice" and "content" were food for thought, and I am sure that these considerations will help to enrich my future work.

    Looking forward to the next set of illustrator's Masterclasses for 2012!

  7. Bravo Bridget and Anne-Marie!


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.