ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Staying Focused through Experimentation


It can be tricky to keep up the tempo after the exhilaration of your first book, especially during a pandemic. Alina Surnaite looks back at some of the activities, tools, techniques and experimentation that have kept her focused. 

Since my debut title came out in early 2018, I've created several other picture books on my own initiative and with the support of my wonderful SCBWI Picture Book critique group. It has been a challenging time, with lots of rejections and frustration, but also many special moments, mostly thanks to the lovely SCBWI community. I have been drawing a lot of animals and have enjoyed exploring various traditional tools, encouraged by insightful feedback received from SCBWI events with industry professionals in London and my critique group. I am enjoying this continuous journey of experimenting with different art tools and techniques, which I have been doing throughout my MA Children’s Book Illustration studies and the publishing of my debut book.

I Love You, Bunny (Lincoln Children's Books, 2018), I used charcoal and digital colour to illustrate this picture book about overcoming the fear of darkness

For quite a while I used charcoal in my illustrations, but switched to drawing with a graphite pencil a couple of years ago. I found it worked out well as I could achieve more subtle lines and tones and draw more details, especially in vignettes. My scanned drawings were coloured digitally, adding separate colour layers in Adobe Photoshop and trying out different brushes to have some texture. I was happy with this technique for a few years until the Covid-19 pandemic started and turned things upside down. Seeing how much the publishing industry has suffered during the pandemic I worried about my future, and this uncertainty motivated me to find a full-time job related to the arts and education, which I am very happy with. I am learning a lot from the young people I work with, finding their enthusiasm very inspiring, and am still working on my children’s book projects, although more slowly and without any pressure to sell it. I would like to develop my work by enjoying the creative process and learning along the way.


Andy's First Flight, I wanted a soft look for this picture book so graphite pencils were ideal for it (scanned drawing on top the digitally coloured illustration)

Currently I am working in traditional media such as graphite, pastel and coloured pencils; this might be the result of spending so much time on the screen throughout the pandemic. I enjoy the limitations of working with traditional tools, the accidental smudges and subtle imperfections, which can add character to a drawing. I might return to colouring digitally in the future but until then I am happy to play in my sketchbook and make mistakes!

Cheetah sketches from a video on Vienna Zoo’s Instagram

Being part of the creative community and sharing my work with others on social media became more important than ever during the pandemic. I am lucky to have a very supportive SCBWI critique group and meet with them online via Zoom every month. After so many months of meeting virtually I look forward to seeing them in person very soon! It's been a challenging year in many ways and this support has been invaluable. A set schedule of monthly meetings has been a much needed certainty in these uncertain times.

Writers and illustrators at the Talliston House and Gardens scrawl crawl in spring 2019

Same goes for the monthly SCBWI Virtual Scrawl Crawls, which have been a nice alternative to travelling with fellow writers and illustrators. These events help the participants to explore different art tools and techniques while studying other artists' work, and visiting various museums around the world. Drawing in coloured pencils, watercolour pencils and pastels, I try to draw different subjects such as people, animals, plants and landscapes. I also make studies of great artworks by the old masters and contemporary artists, which I find very inspiring. 


Some beautiful work from the attendees of a scrawl crawl at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge

Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge is a wonderful place to practise drawing skills and get inspired

It’s sometimes very easy to focus on mistakes instead of appreciating the overall effort of learning but having fun while studying is very important. I find that having others drawing along and encouraging each other can help with this! If you are on Facebook and would like to attend one of these events, you can join the Virtual Scrawl Crawls group, which is open to members of all SCBWI British Isles regions.

Study of Jan Asselijn’s painting The Threatened Swan in pastel pencils from the SCBWI Virtual Scrawl Crawl at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam


Through SCBWI events and online courses at SVSLearn and Schoolism I have continued to learn more about children's books and art techniques. I greatly enjoyed online picture book intensives with American children's book creators Marla Frazee and Peter Brown and a wonderful non-fiction illustration masterclass with a British writer and illustrator Helen Ward and art director Nghiem Ta in London. 

Non-fiction illustration masterclass with writer and illustrator Helen Ward and art director Nghiem Ta in London

I have been drawing more animals since then, which I am very happy about, and plan to continue doing so in the future. Currently I am working on a picture book story featuring only animal characters. I find it very exciting since the last time I did this was in 2012 when I had a go at creating my first picture book dummy during the Children's Book Illustration Summer School at Cambridge School of Art. My work has changed quite a bit since then and my curiosity has led me to where I am now.

I am very grateful to the amazing SCBWI community for all it has given me. I am glad to contribute to it too by organising events. I hope you stay curious and keep exploring too!


Alina Surnaite is a picture book writer and illustrator based in Cambridge, where she graduated from the MA Children's Book Illustration course at Anglia Ruskin University. She has been a SCBWI member for over five years and organises events for writers and illustrators. Twitter: @AlinaSurnaite Instagram: @alinasurnaite

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