Sunday, 2 August 2015

SCBWI Retreat 2015: Workshops with Grown-Ups (and FOOD!)



Last weekend I was away from home for 4 days in the historic village of Evesham, near Worcester, doing another of my dream jobs. It involved enormous amounts of eating (best rhubarb crumble I ever tasted), sketching in the sunshine, listening to stories, chatting into the night over glasses of wine... oh, and also delivering workshops and portfolio advice for members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

I knew the SCBWI retreat was to be held in a lovely old house with pretty grounds, but I was completely gob-smacked when my taxi stopped outside a long, Tudor house, all timbers and thatch. I was shown up a big, wooden staircase into a lovely old room, whose floorboards sloped down into one corner. I unpacked with a smile.


We kicked off about an hour later, with a brilliant getting-to-know-you exercise run by fellow author/illustrators, Loretta Schauer and Alexis Deacon. We paired up and had to draw or describe events from each other's past, stimulated by silly questions like: When have you injured yourself as a result of your own stupidity?

Then I ran my first session of the weekend: teaching people how to make concertina sketchbooks. 




SCBWI had provided a big pile of watercolour paper. We set to, cutting and sticking. We cut up old cardboard boxes for the covers - it worked a treat. Then we all filed into the dining room for the first feast of many.



After dinner, we had a book review cum storytelling session, where we each read a favourite picture book to the rest of the group. There were 30 of us, so it took a while, but was a lovely way to spend the evening.

Next morning was a workshop by Alexis. He taught us techniques for making narratives more interesting, looking at the potential for using dishonest characters with hidden motivations. We all tried to create a story, though mine ran out of steam half way through. After coffee and biccies, we had a bit of free time, so I took my newly-minted sketchbook into the grounds:


Then it was lunch (yum), followed by an interesting talk by Andrea MacDonald, Senior Editor at Random House, about what makes a good picture book:


I did a couple of one-to-one advice sessions next. I found a lovely little summer house tucked away at the foot of the garden, which was perfect for a cost chat. people had booked appointments with me and I did my best to be wise and helpful with first an illustrator, then an author:


My 2nd workshop used the sketchbooks we made earlier. I wanted to explore the idea of finding a narrative in a place, of capturing the essence of a particular period of time using words and pictures, but doing it through close observation, recording what we could see, hear and smell. This is of course something which I am very used to doing in my sketchbooks, and I thought it might make a good source of inspiration.

I sat under a big tree and rang a bell. People gathered from around the grounds. Some had been playing croquet on the lawn!


We had expected mostly illustrators to take up the challenge, but a few authors went for it too. I showed the work I'd done since I arrived, as an example, and talked through easy techniques for getting instant results with watercolour (it was a revelation to most people that you could paint with clear water first, to control the colour), then everyone dispersed for an hour or so of experimentation.


After dinner (yum), we gathered in the conference room and, in small groups, talked though our work-in-progress. Each group then chose the strongest 3 pieces of work for each person - a great idea, as your own favourite bits of work are not necessarily your best and a fresh perspective is very useful. All the work was then displayed for everyone to browse and the next thing I knew, it was midnight!


Sunday began with my main workshop (after breakfast of course - yum). I devised a technique for drawing a journey, one piece at a time, to build up the elements of a story. Only, to put a fly in the ointment and get people out of their comfort-zone, many of the components were chosen randomly, by a neighbour. For me, the challenge was making it work, when about a third of the delegates were not illustrators. Still, it seemed to go extremely well. After coffee (and biccies) people took it in turns to pin up their drawing and tell their story.


Some ideas were hilarious, some were quite dark, some narratives were in a bit of a tangle, which the group helped to sort out: the brainstorming of 30 creative minds, all focussed on progressing one story idea was fantastic to watch.


The 'house cat' decided he wanted to join in. He demanded to be let in from the rain through the French windows, jumped up on the tables, walked across people's work, then took at seat near the front to listen:


After this of course, it was time for lunch (yum). Then we had another talk, this time by Emily Lamm, once my editor at Gullane (who worked with me on Swap!), now working as Commissioning Editor at Hachette. She gave some excellent advice on what editors are looking for and things to try / avoid in your writing. I tried to capture her and highlights from what she was saying in the concertina sketchbook:


I had two more mentoring sessions during the afternoon, sadly in the house this time, as rain was still bouncing around outside. Then Alexis did a demo session, showing how he draws with ink, using different kinds of brushes (in various stages of decay): 


I had my final one-to-one session, then at 7pm the gong sounded and it was time for another glorious dinner. I was impressed with the fact that the veggie choice for every meal was just as adventurous and delicious as its meat counterpart. We were all so impressed as a group that we asked for the chef and kitchen staff to come out and gave them a huge round of applause.

After dinner, we took a group photo in the garden:


Then we were all given a postcard, onto which we had to write three achievable goals for the next 3 months. The illustrators decorated the front of their cards. We stuck stamps on and handed them back to Loretta, whose job it was to post them all back to us in three months time. Good idea, or what?

We stayed up chatting and drinking and taking photos of each other until late, a gradually dwindling group. Finally, at 1am, the last dregs gave up the ghost and headed for bed.

Next morning, I packed my suitcase then luxuriated over my final breakfast (yum):


Then gradually, a few at a time, people had to leave (cue hugging...). It had been such a rich weekend, we all felt rather sad to be on our way. I was so sad that I had to buy myself a present from the gift shop (a VERY funky necklace).


Thank you to Loretta and all the team at SCBWI for inviting me to take part. It was a joy. Thanks as well to Sue Eves and Paul Morton, for the photos.

It was lovely to meet everyone, including the rather amazing Alexis Deacon, who's head is just stuffed with crazy story-stuff. And you know the really good news? I get to do it all again next year, as it's a 2-year invitation!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Step-by-Step: How to Draw Hands


I have finally tackled the remaining teaching-drawings for the book. The publisher calls them step-by-steps and some of them are exactly that, like the one I did on using colour as a framework. There's also one on 3 stages of drawing eyes. 


However, quite a few of the so-called step-by-steps are not actually a series of stages, but sets of little graphic features, to help explain how to draw certain aspects. Since hands are always so tricky, I thought I would do some teaching-drawings, looking at how you can use the position of the knuckles to help judge whether you are getting things right or not.


It's a trick I always use. Though the knuckles are staggered, rather than in line, the shape you get when you join them up is echoed in the next set of knuckles, as well as the finger ends. This helps you get finger length right - another thing that is easy to misjudge.



I sketched three line-drawings, (actually, I drew 5: the other 2 were a bit rubbish). I tried to get really different poses. Then I placed a bit of tracing paper over each sketch and circled the knuckles in a coloured pencil. As soon as I joined them up and then drew in the finger-end line, I knew the drawings would work really well.


I scanned both drawings and tracings, then put them together in Photoshop. 


Job done.

The rest of the spread on How to Sketch Hands uses drawings from my archive of sketchbooks to talk through some other ways of thinking about the various problems, including creating montage sheets, drawing just hands, over and over for practice. This is useful for stopping you getting frustrated when people move. It's also good for making the individual sketches seem less 'precious', so you are less inclined to worry if they go a bit skew-whiff here and there:


It's a great way to pass the time on a train. Try using a couple of different coloured pencils, to stop things getting too confused. 


Friday, 24 July 2015

Urban Sketching People - No More Scanning!


I think (think...) I have now done the last of the scanning for the urban sketching people book (hurrah!). We lost one drawing completely though. This boy was going into a new section I added last month, on things to look out for when drawing people of different ages. 


Because he was a last-minute addition, he didn't get sorted out with a reference number when we tagged everything, to remind me which sketchbook he was in. John and I scoured the pile several times (now nearly 100 books). We had a clue - we could tell from when I originally uploaded the sketch to my website sketch-space that it was done in 2012, which narrowed the field at least. We couldn't find it anywhere though. Total mystery. 


In the end we gave up and I substituted this one instead, which is a nice sketch, but not as clear for demonstrating the teaching-point: how children's lower lips are often set back, so the upper lip protrudes slightly. Hey-ho.

I don't have many drawings of children, because they are generally such a pain to sketch. Babies are even scarcer in my sketchbooks. Luckily I did find this page, done on a plane:



The montage system is definitely the easiest way to deal with the constant motion of babies and it was great for the book, as all the different angles gave me loads of observations to talk about. 

Things might be a bit thin on the ground for younger ones, but I have plenty of examples at the other end of the scale - I just love drawing older faces. So much character. As we age we get more and more individual. 



Fortunately, there are some constants to watch for when you're drawing older people, like the tiny, vertical creases we women get above our top lip, the deepening shadow between eye and nose, the loose neck... oh goodness, I've got to stop - it's all too depressing!!


Monday, 20 July 2015

People-Sketching Book: My Last Few Weeks!


Goodness: the deadline for the book has suddenly jumped out of the bushes and is frantically waving its arms at me! I have until August 20th to get everything done. It's about a month, but counting only the free days I have to work on it, it's actually 3 weeks. Trouble is, that is also the only remaining time I have to prepare for filming the Craftsy class too - same deadline. Yikes. 

I clearly need to get my skates on. I hate to be so busy when it's summer though. I spent last Sunday working at my computer with the blinds down, while other folks were prancing around in the sunshine. Sob.


I have gone through the design layouts for almost all the book now. There are about a dozen new images to scan, because of rejigging the content at the design stage, then I have to choose sketches I want to feature as full page images for each of my chapter-header pages. It's hard to do that without having a proper overview of the content, so Quarto are about to send me a definitive version of what we have done so far. 

Once the final sketches are scanned, I will at last be able to get rid of all the sketchbooks piled around the studio. I'm really looking forward to a good tidy up.


There are still a few little bits of text that need doing: extra sections that have appeared as we have made changes (it has been very much a project that you have to allow to evolve as it goes along). That won't take long though. The main job left is all the step-by-step drawings dotted through the book. 

I am going to do some of them live to camera, so we can choose stills from the film to use to illustrate stages of the process. It's a wee bit scary, to be honest. I am going down to London to sort that out in a fortnight. We have 1.5 days to work on the filming and sort any photography, like taking pictures of all the elements of my sketching kit for instance.

Right. Back to it...