SCBWI CONFERENCE 2019 Report for Illustrators

The 2019 SCBWI conference in Winchester was a whirlwind of excitement, activity and socialising. It wasn’t the first time Soni Speight attended, but it was her first as organiser, here she and the team give us a summary of how the illustration programme went.

You may have been there or have seen quick snapshots on social media, or maybe watched some livestreams from KidLit TV – but for me the conference was a high energy weekend, with the most amazing and inspiring people. Here is a whistle stop tour or what happened and how it went.

Drink & Draw

There are only two rules to this Friday Fringe event – grab a drink and have a draw. How better for illustrators to get to know each other on a cold and rainy November day, than to tuck yourself up in a pub with a sketch book and like-minded folk? Jeff Crosby ran a relaxed and fun session of drawing games to break the ice.

Starting off the weekend with the DrinknDraw worked really well. It was a great icebreaker and a lot of fun. I felt like I knew most of the illustrators by the end of the weekend and that we were a fairly tight knit group, thanks largely to the social start off. (Jeff)

Drawings from the Drink and Draw

First impressions

For this Saturday morning session, brave souls sent their work in anonymously and a selection was shown to our panel: Bridget Marzo - Illustrator, Arabella Stein  - Agent from The Bright Agency and Strawberrie Donnelly – Art Director from Bloomsbury. The goal was to get their honest reactions to seeing the work for the first time, to demystify what happens at the other end when you send off a submission. It was our first time trying First Impressions at the conference but I think everyone got some positive insight into how to grab people’s attention.

First Impressions with Strawberrrie and Arabella
Both Strawberrie and Arabella stressed at the outset that the very fact of submitting work to be shown as slides to everyone is in itself a success as nothing is gained without getting work ‘out there’ however hard that can be to do for us illustrators.

I think that is worth remembering as I tend to hold back from showing - and well done too to all four brave people including one author-illustrator, who presented at the pitch. (Bridget)
The First Impressions panel went really well. Strawberrie was great! She was very knowledgeable and knew how to talk about art. I think the panel provided helpful feedback on the art and gave everyone insight into what art directors and agents are looking for in illustration. (Jeff)

There were so many questions we will try to follow it up with a more detailed post.

Mini Grey keynote speech

The wonderful author illustrator Mini Grey gave us a Magic Sandwich for her presentation. Key highlights were: “magic is what happens when you turn the page” and “no one sees the hard work that happens behind the scenes to create an illusion (or a book), they just marvel at the end result”.

 Mini Grey Keynote
I really enjoy the lateral thinking and inspiration from Mini Grey as she moved across the stage showing unexpected and wondrous pieces of magic,  even a decaying replica of Vaucanson’s famous mechanical duck -  an automata from 1700s made to mimic a Digesting Duck.  She suggested that this duck missed a trick because replicating the movement of the digestive process was not enough.  We really want to know how nature feels and we really need to give nature a voice.  We want to know how it feels to be someone else.
Other quotes from Mini that I loved:
‘Books are idea delivery systems.’
'Picture books are like performances - between the adult, child and you as a kind of collaboration.'


Niki Leonidou headed up the 1-2-1s for illustrators. Those who booked got to show their work to Strawberrie Donnelly, Arabella Stein, Bethany Sparks from Plum Pudding and Jude Evans from Little Tiger. I think most people found something useful in these reviews; the reviewers certainly offered plenty to think about and commented on the amazing range of topics and talents they saw.

For the 1-2-1s, I was very happy to chat with most illustrators after their review. They were happy with the feedback, time they were given with the art director, help to know which direction to go in, what worked and what needed improvement. They all said they would definitely book again next time. (Niki)

Knights of

After being stuck on a train that was going nowhere, Aimee Felone co-founder of Knights of and Selom Sunu one of their illustrators walked into their  session and gave an insightful talk about diversity and inclusivity. Selom showed us his cover development and they both talked about being the change you want to see. Diversity matters, it really shouldn’t still be an issue but there is a lot of work to be done. It starts by everyone reflecting the world around them, creating from honest sources and giving everyone the chance to have a voice.

Selom Sunu – Cover ideas

The Party and the Scrawl Wall

This year’s party was as spectacular as ever. The cake looked amazing with Mini Grey’s characters scattered amongst all the SCBWI members' books from the year. For the first time we had what got renamed as ‘Introverts Corner” where us scribbly folk could chat and draw.

Imogen Foxell and Candy Gourlay at the scrawl wall

Competition Winners

We had two competitions this year, the reviewers from the 1-2-1s looked through everyone’s work and chose their winners. The Beginning Middle and End prize was won by Natelle Quek, who receives a 1-2-1.

Jun and the Dragon by Natelle Quek

And best portfolio went to Elly Jahnz who won a year’s SCBWI membership.

Elly Jahnz Portfolio winner 2019

As usual the portfolio room was well visited by everyone. With such a high standard of work to look at, there was plenty to see.

Portfolio room 2019

Mini Grey Workshops

Highlights from the conference? - Mini Grey's workshop of course. It was a lot of fun to experiment and play with her toys. Mini came really well prepared and maintained a good pace for the workshop. Everyone seemed engaged with the activity and with her. Triumph! (Jeff)
 Mini Grey came back on Sunday to deliver two fun packed and idea generating sessions. The preparation Mini had done for us blew us away as we all created little books and characters on stage.

Mini's How Not to Draw first session

How Not to Draw  Session 2

One of the results, from Jools Wilson
In the morning we all drew in the How Not to Draw session where we learnt cutting, sticking, rearranging and even hiding could all lead to really interesting plots and characters. Then in the afternoon books were made, with some people making several – magic must have been afoot.

Mini Workshop (Photo: Isabel Thomas)
Mini Grey's workshop was fantastic. She had done such preparation for it! It got all of us really engaged and personally gave me a different point of view when creating a new character. She was also 100% into it, very inspiring and enthusiastic which made it even more fun. (Niki)
Mini’s generosity in preparing cut out Pollock’s theatre-like facades, and royalty free Victorian hats, shoes and characters to cut out or expand with drawing, inspired us to come up with surreal character combinations - and background scenery too.  A great story prompt to have two or three of our quickly assembled characters meet and ‘perform’ together  in a staged theatre. (Bridget)


 Jude Evans

Jude Evans delivered an Art Directors Masterclass all about characters, emotion and storytelling. She took us through all the magic ingredients you need in your portfolio to get commissioned and went into a lot of depth with great examples to illustrate her point.

One of Jude’s examples of emotion, character and the play of words and pictures across the page was of SCBWI member Claire Helen Welsh’s book The Tide, illustrated by Ashling Lindsay.

The Tide

There was so much more happening but it’s impossible to cover it all (there will be a separate post in Words & Pictures shortly, telling the tale of the brave illustrator Claire Lewis who drew LIVE in The Hook).

Jude’s discussion and slides were carefully researched and though an old hand, I was impressed and learnt some new tips.
At a publisher meeting she might be happy to see as many as 30 pieces in a portfolio which surprised me  - and up to three different styles and sketchbooks too.
She showed all kinds of characters from simple to complex but always likes to see whatever subtle changes can be made to differentiate  expressions and emotions to reflect the internal life of a character.  One way to do this could be to confront two  characters in say three different scenarios and reflect how they react to each other - be it grumpy, confident, rebellious, shy… She also likes to see different settings - not just the ubiquitous middle class environments.  She also recommended thinking about colour carefully to create relevant but interesting palettes to help make the work stand out. 

The Team

I’d really like to thank the illustration volunteers Jeff Crosby, Niki Leonidou and Bridget Marzo. I’m sure you’ll agree they did a cracking job.


Niki, Jude Evans, Soni and Bridget
If you have any ideas, feedback or want to volunteer I’d love to hear from you at this address


Soni Speight is the new SCBWI British Isles Illustrator Coordinator and Conference organiser for Illustrators. A published illustrator based in Oxfordshire, she was our Featured Illustrator in September.

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