Sharon Davey looks back at how a SCBWI event helped to kick-start her illustration career.

So, It’s September 2017 and I’ve been working on my portfolio for three years. I’ve changed my eyes 6 times, I’ve used ink, paint, potatoes, pencils and finally settled on a way of drawing hands that doesn’t make me cry. There are animals, children, animals dressed as people, people dressed as dinosaurs, black and white work, landscapes and character studies. I’ve done the work. Now what?

At the very last minute I decided to sign up for the portfolio intensive that SCBWI was running. I was late, the train/tube combo was a mess, I smelt of desperation and a quick blast of tester spray deodorant. I knew nothing about who was there, and I really, really didn’t feel ready. Now ready for me was a BIG thing. We, as creative people, want the affirming nod from industry folk that is so difficult to come by. That is if, like me, you don’t choose the traditional path into this world i.e. Born with a 2b pencil in your hand and straight to an illustration degree. There is no tutor, no grades and no feedback. Likes on Instagram and a lovely note from my mum was all I had access to until…

In a room of nervous but friendly illustrators there were four overwhelmed industry professionals. Waiting for my turn. Waiting to know the secret. The secret of success. It was very Indiana Jones and at any moment if one of the editors has said “I’ve got a book contract! Who wants it” There would have been a landslide of people and a huge boulder would have appeared.

My turn. I showed my ever so carefully selected work and waited for the expected criticism.

“Hmm the height of that nose!”
“What’s wrong with his foot?”
“Is that Rapunzel? More like Rumpelstiltskin!”
“Why do so many of your characters have hands in their pockets?”
And trust me, all those comments did happen but… and now here’s the bit to listen out for.

“That’s your best piece.”
“oooh I love it’!”
“Great atmosphere.”
“The animals are very appealing.”
“I’d be interested to see more of him/that/this shape/these colours”
“Who have you shown your work to?” 

Answer: Nobody

“What are you waiting for…You’re ready!”


Bless that startled looking art director because I nearly kissed her. I didn’t realise I’d been holding in three years’ worth of portfolio preparation anxiety or PPA as I’m now going to call it. Trying not to blackout, I listened and took notes to the next bit.

  • -Get a website
  • -Get business cards
  • -Get your stuff to an agent

I got it! The feedback I wanted, the affirming thumbs up and the one thing that I was holding me back.

SCBWI events were so important in that last push over the line to considering myself ‘legitimate’ as an illustrator. Imposter syndrome is something a lot of creative type folk suffer from and really, it can hold you back. If you don’t know if you’re ready. Sign up to an event and just talk about your work. You never know, you might be.

I met my agent at an agent’s party. I met the art director who commissioned me for my first UK picture book at the conference. I worked very hard to get my portfolio ready and all I needed was someone to hold my hand whilst I said hello to the industry.

(all images © Sharon Davey) 


Sharon Davey is a two-time portfolio winner at the SCBWI conference. She's represented by Plum Pudding Illustration and currently working with David Fickling Books, Oxford University Press, Usborne and Bloomsbury.

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