SCBWI Illustrator Series – ‘Producing outstanding art samples for submission’, with Egmont’s Sarah Malley

‘Afternoon, all!

Somewhat disorientated (as I have been) by the the recent occurrence in the South East of a phenomenon known as ‘sunshine’, this post comes to you a day or so later than originally intended. Appealing to your generously patient and long-suffering nature though, dear Reader, I hope that I may be excused on the grounds that squandering the sunny hours miraculously bestowed upon us this weekend – by huddling indoors to ‘blog’ – would have amounted to something approaching a criminal enterprise (?).

SCBWI British Isles – Illustrator Series: Producing outstanding art samples for submission

Ahead of Saturday’s SCBWI‘s Illustrator Masterclass with the very lovely Sarah Malley, Senior Designer at Egmont UK, all participants (15, give or take a couple of enthusiastic, last-minute additions!) were required to undertake some preparatory work – in earnest pursuit of the ‘outstanding submission’ of the workshop’s title – to a supplied brief. What made this a particularly exciting exercise, was that the picture book manuscript provided (in strictest confidence!!) was a live project and the finished title, illustrated by an artist already selected, will be published in September, so – in addition to the fascinating array of interpretations amongst the other SCBWI illustrators who’d responded to this text (an always-surprising, frequently revelatory experience) – we were able to see the finished article and explore the processes and transformations that the illustrations had undergone in order to arrive at that ‘outcome’.

As the picture book has not yet been shared with the big, wide children’s books world, I am keeping the text under my proverbial hat (not sure that this is entirely necessary, but out of deference to the publisher, illustrator & author, and being a lifetime subscriber to the ‘better to be on the safe side’ school of cautiousness, thought it would be prudent…). Accordingly, none of the finished pieces feature the text as I had planned it to be placed (courtesy some pretty hasty, rather clumsy Photoshop excising of the same prior to posting today), and – unfortunately – I am not able to share the original double-page rough I produced as the text is very much an integral part of the illustration. However I hope the below will still be of some value in terms of demonstrating the transition from initial roughs and character design, to final artwork (not all entirely successful, I must emphasise – but a valuable learning process which is, after all, what the workshop was about…):

character-sketches_emailBLOG

A handful of preparatory sketches for some of the principal members of the ‘cast’…

p. 8-9 Introducing the setting for the remaining action - a spread I chose for  its potential to show movement and character expressions (i.e. abject terror) to 'set up' the rest of the tale.

p. 8-9 Introducing the setting for the remaining action – a spread I chose for its potential to show movement and character expressions (i.e. abject terror) to ‘set up’ the rest of the tale.

A Tense Moment...

p. 18 A Tense Moment…

A single page rough towards the end of the tale, just before the all-important twist...

p. 19 The facing page – towards the end of the tale, just before the all-important twist…

And the coloured-up artwork moving on from these roughs:

I added a lot more background detail here than is evident in the roughs - there was to be quite a large chunk of text on this page, so I wanted to be able to accommodate this but still give the impression of focusing in on these tiny creatures in their moment of peril within the darkness of the cave.

I added a lot more background detail here than is evident in the roughs – there was to be quite a large chunk of text on this page, so I wanted to be able to accommodate this but still give the impression of focusing in on these tiny creatures in their moment of peril within the darkness of the cave.

A hair-raising moment of high drama a bare-faced fear... I'm really not happy with the horribly neon, kryptonite-esque 'villain' (I'm not revealing any more  - you'll have to read the book to discern the veracity of this descriptor for yourselves...), but - alas - there was no time to re-create this page illustration, or really 'doctor' this version, particularly as certain patches of this and the double-page spread watercolour paper seemed to be reacting VERY oddly to the application of pigment, (wilfully disobedient, I swear...), and I was mindful of the tendency to 'muddiness' that multiple layerings of watercolour can often result in.

A hair-raising moment of high drama a bare-faced fear… I’m really not happy with the horribly neon, kryptonite-esque ‘villain’ (I’m not revealing any more – you’ll have to read the book to discern the veracity of this descriptor for yourselves…), but – alas – there was no time to re-create this page illustration, or really ‘doctor’ this version, particularly as certain patches of this and the double-page spread watercolour paper seemed to be reacting VERY oddly to the application of pigment, (wilfully disobedient, I swear…), and I was mindful of the tendency to ‘muddiness’ that multiple layerings of watercolour can often result in.

The format of the workshop provided an invaluable opportunity to work on producing a full-colour sample, as an illustrator is often asked to do before a final artist selection is made for a project, while benefiting from the sort of feedback that a publisher would ordinarily only offer after this stage, i.e. once the illustrator had been selected for a project and was working through storyboarding and producing rough drafts for the final picture book. We were supplied with the picture book text and given a period of time in which to produce character studies and two double-page (or equivalent) pencil roughs, which were then submitted to Sarah for her consideration and comments. This feedback was then returned to us individually in order that we might act on it to try and craft a set of final work (the ‘sample’) that better satisfied the elements a publisher, specifically Egmont UK, might look for in a submission of this type.

As a group, the general feedback we received at the roughs stage pertained mainly to:

– giving much greater consideration to the world the characters inhabit (ensuring that it had some real ‘hook’ of interest and wasn’t too generic-looking)

– giving thought to the distinguishing characteristics of the main characters and how this might be reflected in their appearance/personalities

– and – that crucial, exciting element that arises from the alchemy between text and illustration – adding ‘value’, i.e. not merely reproducing things specifically described in the text, but conjuring that extra dimension of interest (and humour) that comes from imagining around the words

Alas, as I was still very much Employed at the time of submitting the roughs, I only had time to produce some character studies (a handful shown above) and one double-page rough, for which I selected the cave scene (I may be able to add this in to this post once the book is published in September, but unfortunately I am not able to show it here – which is a little obstructive to the point of this post, as the progression from pencil draft, via feedback, to final art cannot be demonstrated [and I didn’t receive feedback on the single-page roughs as these were unseen at the time of the original submissions… Gah!). Ordinarily, I would probably have taken a cowardly evasive step around such a complicated and ambitious scene and plumped for something a little more straightforward, but I had resolved to challenge myself on this project – chiefly in terms of creating backgrounds for the characters to inhabit and interact with – so there was no avoiding this particular gauntlet! Consequently, although it would probably have been extremely helpful to rough out an entire storyboard in order to arrive at a solid understanding of the context, I instead devoted pretty well all my drafting time to the detailed drawing of this scene in an attempt to really build something with convincing depth (layering of fore-, mid- and background elements) and a substantial dollop of action 😉

As the lovely Sarah Malley foresaw, one of my most daunting challenges at the final artwork stage would be setting the colour palette in such a way that it showcased the characters, distinguishing effectively between the main ones, and constructed a background setting that didn’t compete detrimentally with the action. In response, I made the decision to select from a very limited palette for the background – Payne’s Grey, Black, a nautical blue and sea green (to at least differentiate between the cave walls and floor and hopefully avoid the scenery looking to monotonous)  – and to identify the various types of little creatures featured in the story by ascribing them patternings and colour schemes depending upon their characteristics (skinny, wing-ed, sting-ed, chubby, etc.). I am not sure that I was entirely successful in rendering the two chief little creatures (i.e. the two that carry the action of the story to its conclusion, and which feature in the other two colour pieces) sufficiently remarkable that they are immediately identifiable as fundamental to the story from this one illustration, but the subsequent pieces contextualise them and their significance, and I might argue that – as part of the general, scampering horde in the early cave scene – a reader might find more interest and satisfaction in returning to this spread to pick them out than having them flagged as immediately and obviously The Main Characters from such an early point in the story.

Other feedback on the two additional pieces centred mainly on p.19, featuring the big, lumbering green guy, as being a.) too scary and threatening for child readers (the age group wasn’t specified, but probably around the 3 – 5 years mark), which included the placing of the unfortunate little 8-legged creature who finds himself betwixt the green chap’s bulbous digits in this scene, and b.) not particularly mindful of the necessity to include, er, text (and – actually – rather a lot of it on this particular page…!). While I had, wildly optimistically, imagined that the ‘expanses’ of not-very-line-dense image would be sufficient to accommodate the requisite lines, I will admit to having sort of ignored the fact that I recognised this space was woefully inadequate quite early on in the drafting process in favour of producing the image that I had envisaged for this part of the story… :/ What made this much more obvious was the fact that I had presented these unseen roughs, with text hand-lettered over the drawing, so there was absolutely no escaping the fact that I had just crow-barred this into position with about as much grace and elegance as a large warty walrus attempting to take afternoon tea at Claridge’s (and finding that gnarly great flippers are of extremely limited use in negotiating a fine porcelain tea-cup – or a crustless smoked-salmon sandwich, for that matter – to one’s gaping maw…). *sigh*

Among other gems from the afternoon, though, (including an injunction to check out the brilliant Andy Stanton’s site for advice on writing for children – much of which is, apparently, equally applicable to illustrators – frustratingly, I haven’t been able to locate this online, but there was a suggestion that it would follow by email, so I’ll tack it on here if and when it materialises in the Inbox!) was Sarah’s quick run-down of general advice for new illustrators and for portfolio/sample submissions:

  • Make yourself easily ‘find-able’ – websites, blogs, Tumbler/similar, online portfolios to which you can easily point someone whose nibbled at the bait of your marketing/promotional mail-out and where they can find a whole banquet of your amazing work!
  • Only show your very best artwork in your portfolio/marketing material – this is your ‘shop front’ and should contain only your most remarkable, most exciting work with which to tempt your quarry! Your work has to stand out from an avalanche of other submissions, so make it something really amazing and consider constructing your mail-out to be something more inventive than the distinctly mundane postcard: think paper engineering, stitched items, badges, hand-drawn envelopes – they may seem a bit gimmicky, but the lovingly hand-crafted, personal touch is so important and really worth investing the time in if you are desperate to work with a particular client – we were assured that it makes all the difference!
  • Edit your work down – If you have a lot of material that’s quite similar/themed, e.g. a set of illustrations from a finished picture book (dummy), try and resist the temptation to show everything but instead select maybe two or three of the best from the set, enough to show consistency and narrative progression perhaps but not so much that the reviewer’s eyes begin to glaze over… Remember to also take sketchbooks along to any interview/portfolio review – these are often of even more interest to publishers than your polished, endlessly tweaked portfolio as they show the very germs of ideas and perhaps more honestly show your working and thought processes. Entire book concepts have grown from a single, tiny page-corner doodle in a sketchbook (we are told)!
  • Humour – Sarah mentioned this as particularly applicable to the Egmont list, but I’d hazard that the majority of publishers are looking for something funny, clever and engaging to entertain and capture their readership. Increasingly, and with the importance of co-editions at the forefront of sales teams minds (almost without exception, it seems, the commissioning team has to demonstrate to the sales team the marketability of a concept across a broad range of territories before a book project can progress from the, quite literal, drawing board stage), she stressed the importance of finding universal themes when submitting a proposal. This isn’t to say that they should be hackneyed or unimaginative tales, but themes that everyone may broadly identify with (e.g. the weirdly ever-metamorphosing path of friendship over a childhood/lifetime), given an innovative/quirky twist.
  • Characterisation – Character is King!! Arguably the most important consideration when crafting a sample for submission – there has to be that elusive, indefinable draw that ignites an instant connection and investment between the character and the reader, enough that the character can stand alone and narratives be constructed around it. In terms of visual dynamics, animation and movement are also emphasised as hugely important to the appeal of an illustrated tale – the reader has to feel almost catapulted into the story and bowled along with the momentum of the characters’ action. Displaying your character experiencing a range of emotions, and viewed from every conceivable angle, was also indicated as a particularly important consideration and the demonstration of which could really benefit your ‘case’ in terms of helping the commissioner/publisher understand your character and how they might behave and react within the narrative.
  • Consider texture – you only have to scan along the display shelves of your local purveyor of children’s book to see that collage, texture, digital art and a greater experimentalism with media has really begun to dominate the ‘look’ of new picture book titles, and that more traditional styles (e.g. watercolour – curses…) are distinctly less prominent. As a, perhaps rather obvious, point for those not familiar with digital art creation, Sarah also emphasised the importance of working in layers as far as possible so that the process of image manipulation  – both during the original illustrating and during the inevitable tweaking/re-working stages – is made as easy and efficient as possible. For artists not so comfortable with digital processes (and I’d probably include myself in that bracket, to a large extent) at the origination stage, I can totally see how embarking on an IMP-powered journey might feel like succumbing, albeit reluctantly, to The Inevitable rather than harnessing the magical powers of such programs (Photoshop and Illustrator) to expand and often expedite the design process, but I certainly feel that this digital revolution to the artworking process (and it can play as large or small as the creator chooses) is ignored at the professional (and would-be professional) illustrator’s peril…

Well, that’s a rather more, ahem, meaty posting than I had anticipated – and I fully appreciate that, for many (perhaps all…) of you, the latter portion may be so obvious as to be borderline offensive (and certainly not warrant further comment), or at least of only the very faintest interest, but I do hope that someone finds a little grain of usefulness amidst that veritable haystack (blithely mixing metaphors there, you will no doubt note, but finding that it doesn’t much bother me…) of wordage.

Before I go, though, I’d just like to mention the delightful Ms Sarah Underwood (sarahunderwood.co.uk, @sarahundart),  whom I had the pleasure of meeting – among some of the other ‘usual suspects’ of the SCBWI British Isles contingent – at the weekend: really great to be able to extend the discussion beyond the slightly chilly church hall venue in the sunshine, and find a bit of solidarity in the struggle for recognition! 😉

I’d also draw to the attention of any SCBWI members, whom may be reading, the ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition, submissions for which opened today (and which will run until 15 August). As a SCBWI event, this was inevitably an Item of Interest on the agenda on Saturday, but I’d really encourage anyone considering submitting an entry to vacillate no more (!!) and send it in – this competition is, according to Sarah Malley, very highly regarded in children’s publishing spheres and one they pay great attention to as the entries roll in! Check out the Undiscovered Voices site for entry details.

‘Til next time! I hope you have an unmitigatedly AWESOME week!

AP x

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About illustratedbyamanda

Illustrator and time-fritterer extraordinaire
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