SCBWI-BI CONFERENCE 2018 — Introducing Benji Davies

In our latest post for November's conference in Winchester, Patrick Miller asks illustrator keynote Benji Davies a few questions about his working methods.

You started out in animation and later found your spiritual home in picture books — how much did the animation cross-over into your illustration portfolio as it was developing?

I think I found my voice in illustration simultaneously with my writing when I made The Storm Whale, and that was based on a film I made as an animation student, so I suppose in that way animation had a big effect.
I think an interest in the way things move, the way characters come to life, all feeds into the way you draw. For me it’s almost like freeze-framing the particular moment that accentuates the way the character is feeling and shows what they are doing in the most expressive or succinct way.

Benji Davies.
Has there been one moment or event that you could describe as your 'break'?

When I presented the very initial image of The Storm Whale to my art director, Nia Roberts.
I had been developing some new work for my portfolio and really was trying to get into something very personal that felt like ‘me’. That image was a development of a sketch I had done of some beach huts in Whitstable, Kent.
Her response to the image was something like, “Well, what's the story here? There must be one, because this one picture is already telling a story…”
I had already made that story, in an earlier form as my graduation film. I’d often thought it could be turned into a picture book, but it took me about three years on the side of other work to get it ready to be commissioned as one.  So I think my big break that led to becoming an author-illustrator was the moment that Nia saw potential in that piece of work.

You seem very drawn to seasides and ocean travel - or is that just me? If you are, can you pinpoint where that’s from?

I’ve always loved the coast. My grandparents lived in Cornwall and we used to spend a lot of summers there. I’m also a regular to Norfolk where I draw a lot of inspiration from the coastline.

You’ve talked in the past about the challenge of making picture books - is it getting any easier now that you’re a few in? How long was The Grotlyn in the making in comparison to The Storm Whale?

I’m not sure if it’s easier or if you just get used to the fact that it’s bloomin’ hard!
My process is probably a little more refined now as I’m supposed to know what I’m doing - so they're probably quicker to do, but no less fraught with doubt! It’s usually about 18 months to two years from inception to completion, overlapping along the way with other things, the main work happening in the last six months.

Typically, do the story ideas or the visuals come to you first, or has it been different with each picture book?

It’s always different in one way or another.  My most recent book I wrote entirely without making any drawings, then storyboarded it afterwards, but that was a totally new way of doing it for me. It was just the way it happened. More and more I’m writing first, drawing later. I think that ideas must be visual first though, mustn’t they, in your mind’s eye?
Sometimes you’ll have a turn of phrase or sentence which sounds good and that can spark something off, but the idea itself is essentially visual in its inception, whether you make written notes to capture it, or make a sketch. I’ve become quite comfortable with making text notes on my phone as a way of recording my ideas. It helps to pin them down.  Very rarely will I draw without an aim or an idea behind it.

The Storm Whale books are such beautifully simple tales but tidily deliver a lot of emotional depth between Noi and his dad and Noi and the whale. Was that depth there from the very beginning?

It was always part of the story. It was harder to make that become real on the page, but I knew what they were thinking and feeling even if at first I didn’t know how to deliver that message to the reader.  I find it hard to see a story to connect to if there is no emotional expression within it.

Can you tell us about any new hush-hush projects you’re working on at the moment?

After Grandma Bird which is out this October, I have another coming out in March next year about a tadpole who becomes… you guessed it... a frog. I’ve only just delivered the artwork for that one. The first time I have written and illustrated two books in the same year… yikes! The title hasn’t been announced yet but I expect to have revealed the cover by the time of the SCBWI conference.

Colour is a very important part of artworking a picture book so I’m going to talk a bit about my ideas on how that operates visually, how it helps to tell the story
Can you give us a quick nugget of what SCBWI conference delegates doing your Picture Book Intensive Workshop can look forward to?

Well, I’ll be able to share more of that book I’m sure. But also I’d like to talk more about my journey as an illustrator and animation director to working on my own picture books. Colour is a very important part of artworking a picture book so I’m going to talk a bit about my ideas on how that operates visually, how it helps to tell the story, and how that can be applied in practice.
From a writing perspective I’ll be breaking down my process and showing how I weave words into pictures. It’ll be interesting to show how I mix up my approach with words and pictures, which came first in different projects, and how a book changes and develops as I work on it.

*Featured image: artwork from Grandma Bird by Benji Davies.

Patrick has pulled together speakers, session leaders and 1-1 portfolio reviewers from the best of the biz to hopefully give illustrators and author-illustrators, unpublished and published alike, a meaningful, fun and productive conference. He currently illustrates middle-grade chapter books and short stories for OUP. During the conference he’ll be easily recognisable as he’ll be looking withered and shell-shocked next to a no-doubt very calm Clare Tovey. Contact him at
Twitter: @patrickjmiller
Website: Patrick Miller Illustrator


Fran Price is part of the editorial team at Words and Pictures, the online magazine for SCBWI-BI, and is Events Editor. Contact her at

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