Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Picture Book Retreat - Getting Paid to Have Fun!

I was booked to teach at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators retreat a whole year ago, when I could not have known how tricky it would be to take 4 days out of the studio at this particular time. In actual fact though, the weekend was exactly what I needed: a rest from organising my exhibition and a chance to escape my computer for a while.

I taught at last year's retreat, so I knew it would be a lot of fun. Picture book folk are so lovely to spend time with. The event attracts a mix of authors and illustrators, with people at various levels of experience. The time is packed with workshops, talks and work crits. It all happens in a beautiful old house near Worcester, with gorgeous grounds too. What's not to like?

We kicked off on Friday afternoon with some silly get-to-know-you games. One involved working in pairs, telling your partner about the death of a childhood pet, while they did a drawing. This is my sketch of illustrator Paul Morton's multiple attempts on the life of his goldfish. He seemed so nice too and really not that much of a psycho...

I told him about our rabbits, one of whom did indeed turn out to be a psycho and ripped out the throat of his companion in the night. This is Paul's drawing:

After a lovely dinner, I did my first workshop: creating concertina sketchbooks. This was so popular last year that they asked me to do it again. We were making the books which we would be using in my Saturday afternoon workshop, another repeat request from last year. 

SCBWI provided all the materials. Luckily there is a 'messy' studio building at the end of the garden. A bit of cutting and sticking was good fun, although the measuring and folding foxed those who had started on the wine over dinner!

Next day began with a writing workshop with my counterpart: author/illustrator David Lucas. He talked about the story behind his work and read us his beautiful book The Robot and the Bluebird. It was partly autobiographical, written early in his career, when he felt at sea and was trying to find his direction and purpose. I couldn't resist starting on my concertina book while he talked:

After coffee and cake to fortify our creativity, David talked about the structure of a picture book, then used a technique of random words to get us to come up with story ideas. I started one about a pencil who wrote messages to its owner. I couldn't think of an end though (what's new), so was glad to be saved by the lunch gong!

Then we had a talk by Kristina Coates, Art Director at Bloomsbury. She talked about what makes a good book and showed us some of her favourites. She gave advice too about how to submit work and what she looks for.

More coffee, more cake... Then it was time to do my 2nd workshop. This was about observational sketching as the means of capturing ideas and atmosphere. I talked about ways in which people could use their new concertina sketchbooks to record the multi-sensory experience of whatever space they were in, as inspiration or as research for their work.

I started with a demonstration using the various art materials in my kit bag, especially looking at how to use watercolours in a non-timid fashion.

Then I asked people to let their creativity rip and they took me at my word. People spread out around the room and in the garden. Even some authors gave it a go and said they had great fun.

Time flew of course and it was immediately dinnertime. Lots of chatter. More wine. Smashing.

We did group crits in the evening. People were asked to select their favourite 3 stories or illustrations from their folios and, in groups of 4 or 5, the other people chose which of the 3 they liked best and discussed why. Limiting it to 3 pieces was a great way of simplifying down the process. We still talked for hours. It was approaching midnight and I was finally on my way to bed, when I chanced upon a knot of people in the library who seemed to be having fun. Before I knew it, it was 2 o'clock in the morning!

It was my big workshop session next morning too. At least, being Sunday, I didn't have to start until 9.30. Like David, I used a technique to get people to come up with a series of ideas for stories. My approach focused on the story's lead character and on some task which they really ought not to be doing. I got people to work in pairs, because I find ideas progress much more quickly when you bounce them back and forth.

I had intended it to be just an ideas session, creating starting points to play with, but people got so carried away that, by the coffee-and-cake break, over half the group had developed complete stories, with good endings too. I was chuffed to bits that there was so much fun and laughter when people shared their ideas with the group:

After the break, we talked about timing. I wanted people to think about how to choose moments of focus. For authors, it might be the place where page-turns create dramatic tension, or for illustrators, it is the specific part of a moment of consequence which you choose to draw. I used the Roadrunner cartoons as an example. When the coyote runs off the cliff, the animators always stop the movement for a moment, to give him time to look down and register that he's about to fall. It's this moment of anticipation which is the most powerful, not the actual fall.

The after lunch publisher's talk was by Ellie Parkin, Commissioning Editor at Scholastic. She talked about themes: about how they are effected by trends and internationalism, about why some themes work so well and why others generally don't. One of the authors pitched the idea to Ellie which she had written in my workshop that morning. Ellie said she was extremely interested and wants to take it to show her team. What a result!

The rest of my afternoon was filled with 30-minute, one-to-one appointments, looking at portfolios or discussing people's picture book manuscripts. SCBWI is especially good at providing these kind of opportunities. As well as myself and David Lucas, there were also two other published author/illustrators there for people to make appointments with. Both Ellie and Kristina saw half a dozen people as well. It's so useful to get concentrated feedback on what you are doing.

David Lucus did another workshop after tea, about the role of pattern in illustration. He read us another story too. This time it was Grendel: a tale based on King Midas, only this time everything he touches turns to chocolate.

Then it was dinnertime again. Talking of pattern, are you getting the pattern of the weekend? Yep, everything was threaded through with lots of lovely food at every opportunity:

After dinner, we grouped up again for impromptu work-crits. A couple of people had asked me to take a look at their work. One person in particular was doing some fabulous illustration - really loose and gestural drawing, painting and printmaking. Gorgeous! Then it was wine and chatter again. I finally got to bed at midnight.

On our final morning, at breakfast, we did our last challenge of the retreat. Anne-Marie Perks always gives people a postcard (watercolour paper, so the illustrators can have fun painting it). Before you leave, you have to decide on three achievable goals for yourself, for the coming year. You write them on the postcard, address it to yourself and put a stamp on, then give it back to Anne-Marie. She puts them all away for about 9 months, then posts them all out. By the time you get them, you have completely forgotten about them, so it's interesting to see how many of your goals you've managed to achieve.

And then it was over. Time to pack and then do lots of hugging, before heading back to the station. It took ages to actually leave, as there were so many new friends to say goodbye to. Thanks so much to Anne-Marie and the SCBWI team for all the organisation. A really enjoyable and inspiring weekend, spent with a great bunch of people. Can't quite believe that I was paid as well. I love my job!


John Shelley said...

I was really great to see you Lynne, your energy, enthusiasm, and practicality was incredibly inspiring to both beginners and seasoned pros. Not forgetting your amazing sketchbook techniques!

I'm off to Topshop now for one of those wristbands....

Candy Gourlay said...

It's the highlight of my year! I thought you and David were a fabulous combination. I learned so much!

Anonymous said...

Had a fab time with you all, and I too love your concertina books and observation/sketching style. Have now made a dinky one to use in our grounds here!