ILLUSTRATION FEATURE The Good Ship Illustration

Bridget Marzo reports on illustrator Helen Stephens' new venture with her friends Katie and Tania.

I caught up with Helen Stephens earlier this year from her home in Berwick-on-Tweed and she told me some exciting news. Alongside her own book commissions, she is now launching The Good Ship Illustration with two illustrator colleagues, Tania Willis and Katie Chappell.

Author-illustrator of How to Hide a Lion and many other successful picture books, Helen was the resident artist at our first two SCBWI BI Picture Book Retreats; in 2013 alongside her illustrator partner Gerry Turley, and in 2014 alongside Alexis Deacon. Helen steered all who were lucky enough to attend towards further exploration, with fresh wind in our sails, so I wanted find out more about what led her to create this aptly-named new venture for any illustrator looking to navigate and expand the horizons of their career.

The Good Ship crew.

How did you get the idea for this, and why?

I am lucky to have a friendly following on Instagram, and people send me lots of questions about writing and illustrating picture books. I love chatting with people, so at first I tried to answer everyone. But it was exhausting, and I just couldn’t keep up with it. So a couple of years ago, I started making some free downloadable print outs and popping them on my website: reading lists, picture book templates and sketchbooking tips. But even then I was still feeling overwhelmed with messages. I started to toy with the idea of launching some sort of course as a way of answering the questions in a more organised way. But writing and illustrating picture books is a full time job in itself and I just couldn’t seem to carve out the time. It was only when chatting with my friends Katie Chappell and Tania Willis, that I realised we could do it together. They had both toyed with similar ideas, and we all felt it would be more fun as a team.

How did you three meet and how did they come on board?

I left London 12 years ago, and moved to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a little coastal town on the border of Scotland and England. It turns out there are quite a lot of illustrators living here.

Tania moved here about three years ago. She lived in Hong Kong for 25 years, teaching at degree level, and working as an illustrator over there. She was also my tutor at Glasgow School of Art, so it has been so lovely having her back. Katie grew up in Berwick-Upon-Tweed and did her illustration MA at Edinburgh School of Art. She also teaches at degree and MA level.

We would meet up for a coffee and a chat every couple of weeks - it can be isolating working as an illustrator, and these meet ups felt really valuable. We would share stories and ask each other things we’d feel silly asking anyone else. We realised that we have over 60 years experience between us, and that by joining forces we could make some brilliant courses. Katie is a live illustrator, I write and illustrate picture books and Tania has worked right across the board in editorial, advertising, murals, covers, surface design and licensing. We are the three bears of the illustration industry!

Sketchbooker’s Friend Art Club - 5 and 10 minute sketches by Helen Stephens

How will you balance it with your own work?

We plan launching courses every few months. The doors will open, people will sign up and the course will last for a few weeks. The work will be quite intense during those periods when we are writing the courses, but in between we should be able to work on our usual projects. To be honest, I don’t think any of us really know how we’ll juggle our time, but we’ll work it out on the job - which is always the best way to learn!

How have you managed to write your courses during lockdown?

We are in lockdown now, and that has actually been very useful for us. It has given us all a break in our usual schedules so that we can knuckle down and build the first course. We have been recording audio content on Zoom, and making videos at home, we are making reading lists, top tips and worksheets, there is so much good stuff going into this course! We made a free audio drawing prompt that is available on the website now. It’s called the ‘Sketchbooker’s Friend’ and has had nearly 1000 downloads already.

People are posting the drawings they do using the hashtag #goodshipillo. It’s very exciting to see all of the amazing work, and hear people’s comments. We have had newcomers and old timers alike take part, one man hasn’t drawn since he was eleven and is joining in the Sketchbooker’s Friend, getting up early to go and draw his garden shed, and we have artists who have been doing it all of their lives taking part too.

We started ‘Sketchbooker’s Friend’ draw-along on Instagram in mid April. We had so much good feedback that we decided to give it a name: The Sketchbooker’s Friend Art Club, and do it each Friday during lock down. I think a creative community is more important than ever at the moment. I fact I saw you were there last week Bridget! Thanks for joining in!

What will your first course be about?

The first course will be called, ‘Find your Creative Voice - Fly Your Freak Flag’.

It is a course that I really wish had been around for me in those early days. I studied illustration at Glasgow School of Art, and we were encouraged to go out and draw in sketchbooks everyday. I am so glad that this was the main emphasis of the course, it has been such a good grounding that has stayed with me for life. We were occasionally given an illustration brief, but I would struggle to know how to make a finished illustration. I just couldn’t work out a bridge between my sketchbook drawings and my illustration work.

I graduated in 1994, this was pre internet days, I moved to London because that is where all the publishers were. I went to see lots of publishers, and was eager to take on any advice they gave me. I was like a sponge for advice! And in that eagerness to get published I started working without knowing my own artistic voice. I made about 30 books this way, which sold all over the world, but I felt conflicted about the work. Publishers wanted me to make my work flatter and brighter, and brighter and flatter. I found I could only illustrate happy, bright books.

Although those books had some success, it was a frustrating process for me and didn’t feel authentic. In the end I took a year out and decided to work on my own visual language. It was an incredibly scary time, but I am so glad I did it. I came back to publishing a much happier person. I could draw happy, sad, scary, and all the emotions you need to tell a good story. I freed myself from my flat, bright acrylic coffin! And those early years in publishing were a fantastic apprenticeship, I have no regrets.

I have been teaching and mentoring people on and off over the years, and see that this problem, of not knowing your own artistic voice, is very common. So I hope that in this first course we can give people some of the sign posts to help them on their way to flying their own freak flag!

Quick #goodshipillo sketch by Ruby Wright

Ah yes - that question of artistic voice - finding what we really want to say rather than simply trying on an off-the-peg style. Who are the ideal candidates for your Good Ship illustration courses?

Our courses are aimed at illustrators, wherever they are in their careers. We all have times where we need community or guidance. I have been offering mentoring sessions by Skype/Zoom for the last six months, and I see people right across the board: people who have recently graduated, people who have had a career in animation and are starting out in illustration, people coming back to illustration after a break, people who have for whatever reason just got stuck… So we have designed the course to help everyone, newbies and old timers! It’s never too late to start, and never too early to get going with your plans.

Quick #goodshipillo sketch in situ by Sasha Welsh

How does a course work - is there individual feedback and how long do they last?

The first course will last six weeks with a one week break in the middle. That week could be a catch up week, a rest week, or an opportunity to dig deeper into one of the tasks we have already set. We will have a closed Facebook group where people can share their work with each other, and we will be there one afternoon or evening ever week to give individual feedback. There will also be a VIP version of the course where you can have a one-on-one Zoom session with Katie, Tania or me.

Some of our SCBWI members have worked with Orange Beak whom I’m sure you know.  What is different about what you’re offering?

Yes, I know and love Orange Beak, they are dear friends. Ness designed some of my first ever picture books, and they have been to visit us up here in Northumberland.  I hear so many good things about their workshops, I thoroughly recommend checking them out. I think the difference between us and Orange Beak is that our courses will be online. When you sign up you will have tasks and content to dip into at home. You will meet us on Facebook, and if you sign up for the VIP version of the course you will get some one-on-one mentoring by Zoom. The other difference is that we are going to offer courses across the board, from making beautiful digital art, to map making, to sustaining a career as an illustrator, to running your online shop. We also plan offering a picture book making course, I can’t wait to create that one!

There are other brilliant online courses out there too. We think our big point of difference is that we are British based illustrators, and teach in a very European way. We don’t teach ’styles’ or ’techniques’. We want to teach people to find what makes them weird and distinctive. We want to help people to fly their freak flags, because that individuality is what makes them stand out from the crowd, and it is how they will maintain a long lasting career.

Do you plan any other courses?

Yes, we are all keen to do one about picture books, and another about how to keep the magic of the handmade in digital art. If anybody has any burning questions, or courses they would like us to write, get in touch. We’d love to hear what people want to learn.

Website address:
Twitter: @thegoodshipillo
Instagram: @thegoodshipillustration
Facebook: The Good Ship Illustration- Sketchbookers Friend

Sketch of cupboard by Jane Porter


Bridget (Strevens) Marzo has illustrated over 25 picture and novelty books for English, French and American publishers. The first ever SCBWI International Illustrator Coordinator, she returned to London in 2011 after decades in France. You’ll find her on Instagram @bridgimage_art and Twitter @bridgimage

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.