Nghiem Ta (left) and Helen Ward (right)
Writer/illustrator Helen Ward and art director Nghiem Ta led an informative session exploring the wonderful world of non-fiction illustration. Nick Cross reports.

This was the first Illustration Masterclass I attended, and also the first that SCBWI ran in partnership with the fabulous House of Illustration in London. Lacking confidence in my artistic abilities, I was full of trepidation and imposter syndrome while travelling to the venue. As with all SCBWI events though, the atmosphere was welcoming, and I saw lots of familiar faces as well as meeting some new friends.

It turned out I had an unexpected role to play, as I was whisked downstairs ahead of the session and tasked with fixing the projector, which was baffling everybody! We tracked the problem down to a bad cable and, once that was replaced, the session could begin.

We started with a presentation by Helen, with Nghiem adding context where necessary. The two tutors previously worked together at Templar books on the hugely successful Ology series, which has sold more than 17 million copies worldwide. Nghiem was art director on the series and Helen was the lead illustrator. Since then, Nghiem has taken the role of art director at Walker Books, and Helen has worked on a number of other projects, illustrating both her own books and those by other writers.

As well as being an incredible watercolourist, Helen is a diligent archivist of her work. She brought some fascinating documents showing the evolution of Ology pages from original brief, through roughs to finished artwork. Seeing these, it was clear what makes the partnership between the two work so well. While Nghiem has great vision in terms of deciding how individual pages should be laid out, Helen is able to take those rough layouts and intelligently compose her artwork to fit. In the case of depicting creatures, this would often mean Helen needed to know how the animal might flex and move, allowing her to pose the creature as necessary. Sometimes, she had to convincingly draw things that didn’t exist, such as the musculature of a dragon!

Helen was not the only illustrator on the Ology projects, and Nghiem talked about how she would choose artists according to their strengths. For instance: Helen might paint the main artwork on each page, with another illustrator contributing black and white portraits, and a third drawing maps and diagrams. It is clear from the briefs that timescales were tight, which makes the creative and commercial success of the series even more heartening.

Something that was stressed again and again during the session was the importance of not copying another artist’s work. Although this sounds obvious, it extends to not reproducing someone else’s photograph as a drawing. Publishers have to be very careful about image copyright, and illustrators may need to demonstrate they own their source photos.

Inspecting Anna Violet's fabulous bee artwork

Following the initial presentation, much of the rest of the session was devoted to Helen and Nghiem providing feedback on the optional task that had been set:

Task: Present a creature on an A3 double page spread.

Illustrate a creature of your choice within its habitat or with additional drawings showing things that make this creature particularly interesting or beautiful. It could be one drawing or several drawings. If you wish you can use diagrams, maps, cutaways, flaps, folds, close-ups etc. to get information across.

If text is needed to give more information about this creature, give consideration to where the text might go. Please bring along any working drawings and research so we can see your thinking.

Amazing orangutan sketches by Alina Surnaite

Sixteen attendees had completed the task, so critiquing all of our work took a long time! Through it all, the tutors kept their good humour and were generous with their feedback - something I appreciated as a relative newbie to the world of illustration. It was fascinating to see the range of different styles and subjects, from hyper-realistic animal drawings to more playful stylised representations. There was a lot of standing up though, and by the end of it I think we were all grateful to sit down for a final Q&A.

Helen deconstructs my Japanese spider crab illustration

Overall, it was a fantastic session and I learned a lot. Despite my initial trepidation, I think my artwork for the task stood up well, and I received useful pointers on where to go next. I feel like a proper illustrator at last!

All photos by Anne-Marie Perks

Nick Cross is Words & Pictures' Blog Network Editor. An Undiscovered Voices winner, he both writes and illustrates for children, and was honours winner of the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award for fiction.

Nick also blogs for Notes from the Slushpile. His most recent post is Further Adventures in Illustration

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