SCBWI Portfolio Workshop!

     I've been the Illustrators' Coordinator for the Southern Breeze region of SCBWI for a few months now and boy has it been exiting! I mean, how could I top our first Illustrators' Gallery Show being picked up by the Southern Arts Federation to tour the South for two years?
     Well, yesterday's Portfolio Workshop was all about helping those just starting to wade into this crazy business of children's book illustration. We held it at my favorite independent children's bookstore, Little Shop of Stories. Helping me pull everything together was Co-regional Adviser for the Southern Breeze, Donna Bowman (who is behind the camera in all of these shots).

     Several masters in the industry dropped by to offer encouragement and support (and hang with fellow illustrators). From the left are: Mark Braught, Bill Mayer, Rick Lovell, Loraine Joyner, me, and Laura Knorr.
     And here are the men being silly . . .
     But the big star was our keynote speaker,Loraine Joyner, Art Director of Peachtree Publishers.
     Here I am with Loraine and two of Peachtree's latest books, "Trick or Treat on Monster Street" (written by local author, Danny Schnitzlein, illustrated by Matt Faulkner) and "The Story Blanket" (written by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz, illustrated by Elena Odriozola).

     Loraine started her talk by pouring out the collection of postcards and illustration promotions she had received over just the last month. It was an impressive pile! Then she let the audience go through them picking out the few they would keep as potentials for future work - and what a learning experience it was! Obviously many samples just weren't up to snuff, while many pieces were good but not appropriate for children's books. Others came in beautiful packaging which often-times outshone the work within. Loraine said she wished she could send notes of thanks to every artist who sends samples, because she obviously gives them all serious consideration and as an illustrator herself, knows the work we put into what we do. But it was scary how many samples were good but didn't fit any existing projects - and if Loraine couldn't use that illustrator's work, she can't realistically respond. (It would take too much time away from an already hectic schedule.) We often hear how getting a job can be like kismet - the right sample crossing a desk at the same moment the perfect manuscript match arrives. There's a lot of hit or miss which has nothing to do with an illustrator's skill level.
     In all cases, it took Loraine's trained eye about two seconds to know if a piece was something she wanted to hold onto or not - it was a real eye-opener to what illustrators are up against when trying to get work.
     Along with the run through of promos, Loraine did a 30,000 feet-type review of the portfolios presented. She spent a few minutes with each one (more time than most illustrators' work gets with any Art Director), and although she was gracious, it was quickly obvious which portfolios made a strong impression on her. Again, it was interesting to see how quickly Loraine was able to process the work and form her opinions - the sign of a truly experienced Art Director.

     Watching the crowd as they leaned in, I wished I had had the same experience when I was starting out. It can be a tough dose of reality, but through Loraine's comments and their own time with the individual portfolios the students were able to see how other illustrators presented their work; what worked and what didn't; the amount of images Loraine would look at before moving on (6-8 tops); and what made an impression and what didn't. They were able to get a sense of what the real world's reaction will be to their work.
     One of the most important responsibilities an artist has is to develop an objective eye for their own work, and this is why this exercise was so important. It's always easier for people to objectively judge somebody else's work for which they have no emotional attachment. By consciously judging others' works, we develop a language of critique which we can then gently turn on our own work. It's not an easy thing to swallow and can take years to develop - especially after a lifetime of friends, relatives, maybe even teachers telling a person how good an artist they are. Unfortunately, that doesn't pay the bills or put food on the table.
     I strongly believe you don't do artists any favors sending them out into a cut-throat world of free-lance with unrealistic views of their own work and potential. And I believe this experience was educational and illuminating for all - leaving the young illustrators better prepared to attack the market from a knowledgeable standpoint.
     Rick Lovell, SCAD-Atlanta Illustration Program Director, did a round-up of the event on the SCAD blog with his own unique perspective. I encourage you to check out his post. (He also got some great pictures including the full line-up of portfolios...)
     As he mentions in his round-up, we definitely plan to do this again - perhaps annually. We'll be coordinating it a bit more with SCAD as the workshop seemed especially profound for their students.
     Thanks so much to Loraine for sharing her knowledge and experience - she was the perfect professional to address this audience. Thanks to Little Shop for sharing the space, to Donna for being such a help, and to all those who helped carry chairs and supplies up and down the stairs (these legs are getting rusty!). I love being able to pay-it-forward like this. There was a hole, a need, and to be able to create that exepreince for the next generation of illustrators about to enter the real world was an honor indeed.
     Several of us went to dinner afterwards joined by one of my "Creating Picture Books" class students, Brooke Lauer Mitchell and her husband Daniel. We had wonderful discussions about the philosophies behind our business which ran late into the night. Illustrators love to talk their craft! And we are tight. This is a tough business to be in, and yet it's driven by passion which creates a sense of solidarity. And goodness knows, a strong support system of friends and peers is vital to one's success in the world of children's book illustration.

Read my article How to Present Your Portfolio Like a Pro.

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