SCBWI Portfolio Intensive

In the wake of another SCBWI Portfolio Intensive there were mixed emotions: happiness, elation, relief, joy and feeling deflated in some cases.  It was a day of positivity and focus, but also packed a punch or two.  ‘Intensive’ is the perfect description. By Trish Phillips.

 “What’s it all about?” you may be wondering. Not sure you like the sound of ‘Intensive’?  Who wants to be poked and cajoled out of their comfort zone?

 Held at the House of Illustration, the SCBWI Portfolio Intensive is one of our illustrators’ favourite annual events.

For those illustrators out there who are toying with the idea, here are a few questions answered which just might nudge you in the right direction.  OK so you may have missed it this time around but now is the ideal opportunity to think about it as the advantage is yours – there is a whole lot of time to prepare your portfolio.

Let’s answer a few questions: What’s it like?  What’s it for? Who’s it for?  What do I get out of it?  Am I good enough? Is my portfolio suitable?  What should I include? Here goes.........

What’s it like? 

This year it was a bright sunny day, and the illustrators were eager and chomping at the bit. So much so that Anne-Marie, the Illustrator co-co-ordinator and I, arrived to find a bemused, grinning Mark Mills, Director of Plum Pudding, sunning himself on the steps of The House of Illustration telling us we had a lot of illustrators waiting inside.  He’s so cool and laid back!
Our wonderful reviewers this year were

Mark Mills     Plum Pudding Agency
Ali Ardington     Stripes Publishing
Will Steele     Faber & Faber
Ed Burns    Advocate Art

Here they are hard at work!

If you’ve never been, the House of Illustration is a fantastic venue a cat’s whisker away from Kings Cross, always with lots going on and very buzzy as you can see.
The event is not stuffy or formal and everyone is very friendly as one of our illustrators commented:

"I had a fantastic day thanks; a real eye opening experience. I picked up 
some useful pointers which I am already taking action on.
I'll certainly be seeking membership from SCBWI and attending some more
 masterclasses (once I have some new work to bring along). 
I found the informal atmosphere very 
refreshing - and relieving! It's pretty daunting walking in to a room full
 of other artists and industry professionals with your life's work under your
" – Jon Holder

Some who turned up were old hands, tuning their portfolios like fine musical instruments whilst others, never having been before, were showing their portfolios for the first time. Some got cold feet and very nearly didn’t turn up at all, but were so glad they did. It’s a great mix that was fantastic to see – the one thing that they all had in common was their love of children’s books and absolutely bags of talent.

"We discussed the expectations of different markets, e.g. The US market is more ‘classic’ and ‘traditional’ than British. The European market likes newness as long as its commercial and can be sold in an international market. The Scandinavian countries take more risks, smaller runs and produce highly innovative art house books for children". – Vikki Gibson

If you are new to this, it is a brave thing to do, and of course our event will differ with other groups and societies, but if you take the plunge, you will find that SCBWI’s is a wonderfully informal ‘do’. You are not on your own for an individual review but in a friendly group, and as the reviewer goes around the table commenting on each portfolio, you pick up many a useful tip which you can apply to your own work.  It’s your choice to see a well known agent or publisher, depending on what you are looking for. 

"Thank you so much to you and Anne-Marie for organising such a brilliant Portfolio event yesterday! Such helpful 'feed-back', lovely people, great atmosphere and a fantastic venue!" – Katy Dynes

What’s it for?

Well, if you have a portfolio of work, then you're obviously passionate about illustration. If you have a love of children’s books and your work is tailored for just this, then this is definitely for you! 

For newcomers it will give you a direction and aim, and an insight into what publishers are looking for, and indeed each different publishing house looks for different styles and have different approaches. The reviewers will have this in mind when commenting on your work and give invaluable feedback. 

"I really enjoyed the event. I was very pleased to be put into the group which was run by Ed Burns. The feedback he gave me was extremely useful and I now have a greater incentive and a focus on where my illustrations will need to be aimed!" – Dave Oliver

If you are an old hand, it's a great opportunity to have an outside view on your progress, to keep you in line and let you know if you are going off on a tangent – or indeed if this tangent may be a positive new direction for you. It's good to get an annual check-up on your progress, especially as the nature of the job entails hours on end by yourself with no one to ask advice from but your cat, dog, teddy bear or the spider dangling from the window pane.

Who’s it for?

Everyone! As you saw in the previous answer, illustrators new to the scene and the more experienced, even published illustrators, like to come for some advice and direction. There’s no better person to see when you need to get a perspective on your work in the industry than someone currently in the very hub of the illustration scene.

What do I get out of it?

An insight into the children’s publishing world, top tips from the best in the business. The chance to rub shoulders with agents and art directors, and fellow illustrators, and as a number of illustrators that have gone before and it has happened to – a chance to be signed up. That’s not to be sneezed at!

Am I good enough?

You will have a pretty fair idea of how good you are by having compared your work with the current children’s books on sale today in bookshops, keeping up with what’s occurring in the library and critique groups within SCBWI. You will hopefully have checked out the different publishers and decided which ones your work might fit into very well. The question is not ‘am I good enough?’, but ‘do I feel good enough?’ 

Do you feel confident enough to show your work and be prepared for comments, good or not so good?

It would be nice if the world of Illustration was fluffy pink and candy sweet, but in reality it's very competitive and fast moving. We may love what we do but have to have a pretty thick skin to survive in the business.  The advice will be good and certainly aim to improve your work. It also might not be what you want to hear, it might be that you like painting pink teddies and the fact that the publishers don’t have any call for pink teddies is neither here nor there. But if you listen, they will be pointing out your potential and strengths to you.
Just to give you an idea, here's a wonderful selection of some work shown at the Intensive. Sadly I couldn’t include them all but believe me the standard was high!

Clare Tovey

Emma Latham

Jon Holder

Luella Barlow

Rebecca Gerlings

Is My Portfolio Suitable?

If you have already done the above, then you will have a portfolio full of relevant material to make a publisher or an agent very happy and able to give you valuable feedback.  This is not a slick, presentation-is-key type of event, it is the content that is important but you are potentially presenting to someone you might one day work for, so tidy and clean is good, and if you have business cards or postcards they are always useful.  As an illustrator you should never miss an opportunity to market yourself.

What is needed?

It is pretty full on and busy on the day and certainly intensive, so don’t bring a portfolio bursting at the seams – there just won’t be time for more than a flick through. An A4/A3 with 6-8 images would be a good guide at the moment, although we do give more detailed advice nearer the event and requirements may change.

Although you will spend a couple of hours in your group listening to comments on the group’s work, the time each individual portfolio gets for a review will be approximately 15 minutes, so you don’t need to bring too much.

So you can see that the Portfolio Intensive is an awe-inspiring  afternoon packed so full of information you will find it hard to take it all in...but do try! You get to speak to the best in the business and illustrators will go away and work with new vigour and goals.  The reviewers will go away with new illustrators to keep an eye on. 

Keep an eye on our website for more events!

SCBWI thanks our excellent reviewers for all their time and invaluable help. Here’s to Children’s Book Illustrating - until next year, happy illustrating everyone.


Long time SCBWI member Trish Phillips is an author, illustrator and paper engineer, her website is
Twitter: trish_again Blog biglittletale


  1. Excellent report of an inspiring event Trish!

  2. It was a great event! I learnt so much, and it was a treat to see so many quality portfolios. I highly recommend going next year if you want to learn how to take your portfolio to the next level.


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