“If you are drawing characters really swing your cat.” Highlights From the 2014 SCBWI Winter Conference

Events / Inspiration / Process

Above: My piece for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an assignment for the Illustrators’ Intensive.

I am still riding an inspired high from last weekend’s SCBWI Winter Conference. I’ve been to the conference four times now and the Illustrators’ Intensive Day is always the highlight for me. Art Director Cecilia Yung’s interview of Tomie dePaola was fantastic. They structured the talk around a comparison of Tomie’s book illustrations and his costume and set design work. Tomie and Cecilia drew insightful parallels between the stage and the picture book spread and picture books and the theater in general. As an illustrator, you are the casting director, costume designer, set designer and director.

Cover from Fun With a Pencil. Brett Helquist says "If you buy one book on drawing, buy this."

Cover from Fun With a Pencil. Brett Helquist says “If you buy one book on drawing, buy this.”

Brett Helquist offered some great insights into creating memorable and engaging characters. He also encouraged us to practice every day. “Musicians practice daily,”  he said. We should practice things that won’t necessarily be published to refine our skills. His recommended reading: Fun With a Pencil and Creative Illustration, both by Andrew Loomis, and Cartooning the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm.


An interior page from Fun With a Pencil by Andrew Loomis.

Jack Gantos cited Miss Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson Is Missing! as a great example of a memorable character. By Harry G. Allard Jr. (author) and James Marshall (illustrator)

Paul O Zelinsky schooled us on staging and set design. He also gave some great general advice about creating illustration. My favorite quote from his talk: “Value trumps all.” I am going to put that on a post-it on my computer.

The unofficial theme throughout the weekend was the importance of building strong characters that feel unique and show emotion. Jack Gantos, who gave one of my favorite talks of the weekend, said that a great character is the key: “If you are drawing characters really swing your cat.”

Check out this post with some great conference sketches by Brooke Boynton Hughes. Brooke was a runner up in this year’s Portfolio Showcase. You can see more of her awesome work here. I got a chance to meet and talk with another runner up, Katie Kath, and I love her work. And ooooh Ruth Chan was also a runner up. Check out her  “Portraits of the Unsure.”  She’s got some great pieces on her blog as well. I’ve admired Lori Nichols‘  work for a while so I was so glad that she won the Portfolio Showcase. She has a sweet new book just out, Maple. You can see illustrations by these guys at the end of this post.

Kate Messner cited this book a few times in her talk and I can’t wait to read it.

On Sunday Kate Messner brought the house down with her talk titled “The Spectacular Power of Failure.” More than one attendee including yours truly admitted to getting teary during this one. Our ideas about perfection often get in the way of our work, she said. She noted that we should look to athletes and engineers as role models for dealing with failure. These guys expect to try new things over and over that don’t work. Kate cited the  Art and Fear a few times. My favorite quote from the book: “Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did.”

And another quote Kate cited from Art and Fear: ” You learn how to make your work by making your work.” And on that note, I am off to make some myself… or watch House of Cards.

Pirate Pancakes

An illustration by Katie Kath, A runner-up in this year’s Portfolio Showcase.

Dia De Los Muertos

…and another great illustration by Katie Kath.

An illustration by Portfolio Showcase runner-up, Ruth Chan, from her "Portraits of the Unsure" series.

An illustration by Portfolio Showcase runner-up, Ruth Chan, from her “Portraits of the Unsure” series.

Peter and the Deer by Brooke Boynton Hughes, Runner-up in the Portfolio Showcase.


Star Prayer by Brooke Boynton Hughes.


Petrified Trees. A piece from Ruth Chan’s blog.



A spread from Lori Nichols’ sketchbook.

An illustration from Maple by Lori Nichols

An illustration from Maple by Lori Nichols.


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