Monday, July 26, 2010

DAY 1 - My First SCBWI-Carolinas Conference (Part 1)

Hold on tight. Long reading...

Before I begin, I want to mention that I'll be posting another part to day 1 since this post got really long and I am still not done with all that happened on day 1. My next post will be about my portfolio review. I also apologize if my English is not great. I tried.......Enjoy!

Word of the day...

If I was asked to describe my experience in one word, that word would be:

My first conference was really an unforgettable experience. I learned so much. These conferences are unique and filled with people that have passion for writing and illustrating. There was a lot of energy from the panel of experts invited to speak at all the workshops. We had wonderful 'award winning' speakers at the conference. Some of them were representing major publishers in the U.S.

The conference was 3 days long. It was draining, I have to admit. There was so much going on and so much to learn. It is safe to say that it is going to take me a few days to recover from this one.

I cannot disclose all details of my experience because as a member of SCBWI, I want to make sure that people continue to support these conferences by assisting. It would not be fair to the speakers at the conference either but I hope you get some benefit from what I do disclose. Most of it relates to my artwork specifically. In addition, I wanted to mention that all the speakers at the conference were experts in their fields yet it is important to understand that sometimes they expressed their own personal opinions and not necessarily those of the industry. So try not to assume that what one person says is necessarily the rule throughout the industry.

What a first impression...

When I arrived to the conference, I immediately met two, very friendly, ladies at the registration desk. I quickly recognized them. They were: Bonnie Adamson and Teresa Fannin. I met them both through e-mail and twitter so it was nice to meet them both in person. What a pair. They worked so hard and with so much passion to ensure the success of the SCBWI-Carolinas conference that it was beautiful to see. Combined, they definitely had more energy than me. This conference was indeed a success and I am glad I went. Thank you, Bonnie and Teresa, for what you do.

Here is a picture of me with these two wonderful ladies. Bonnie Adamson to my right and Teresa Fannin to my left.

Pre-conference workshops...

I signed up for 2 additional activities. The 'Illustration Intensive' and the 'Portfolio Review'. For the Illustration Intensive we were taken through the simulated process of dealing with an art director. Before the conference, participants were given a short manuscript about a retell of the story the 'Tortoise and the Hare' . The retell was called 'The Tortoise or the Hare'. We were expected to submit a sketch (full spread) of a scene of our choosing. The art director would then comment back and we were expected to incorporate those comments and bring the final art to the workshop. I have to say that this was a lot of work for me. I had never drawn bunnies before and I admit that the story didn't quite inspire me, even though I knew it was a classic. At the end I am glad I did it. It was so, so worth it.

We were very, very lucky to have an Art Director that was pretty cool and totally fun to interact with. His name is Laurent Linn. Laurent has been in many of the major conferences in other states so a lot of people know him. He is an Art Director working for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. He worked as a puppet designer in Jim Henson's Muppet Workshop and he became the Creative Director for Sesame Street, winning an Emmy Award. In spite of all of his credentials, for someone that I have never met before, in my eyes his biggest accomplishment was elevating the art of critiquing to a new level. I felt that his critiques were the most meaningful critiques I have ever received. His method of delivery was really special and very professional. To come out of a critique even more inspired is, for me, rather unusual.

Here is a picture of me and Laurent Linn:

He also has a really cool website:

So it all begins...

Here is what happened in this workshop and how it almost turned into a disaster for me.

I was able to create the initial sketches, as assigned, which was good. I have shared those here, on my blog, before ( Then I got the comments back from Laurent. He definitely made me see things that I would have never seen on my own. His main comments were:
  • With so many hares, a child might get confused and not realize that they are all the same hare (excellent point). He offered the solution of potentially adding motion techniques to tie them together but left it up to me to decide.
  • He wasn't sure why my audience did not have any animals or children (Wow. Another excellent point. I don't know why I did that. It makes no sense).
  • He felt that my hare could be wilder with the poses. The hare was supposed to be an athletic character. (Oh great, I thought, I don't know how to draw bunnies well and now I have to make them athletic? Yikes!).
A few bumps on the road...

After I analyzed the comments further, I realized that the best solution was to re-do the entire scene again. I then went into panic mode for a few days as I tried to understand how I was going to get it all done on time. To add to my mental state, I started to get really busy with school as I was approaching my finals for the quarter. I had to work on a website and on a design of a social media site. Two time consuming activities but also my main priorities.

The crisis continues...

It was now a week before the conference and the end of my quarter at school and I was already resigned to the idea that I was going to show up with nothing completed. New sketches were not the issue, it was the painting that I was worried about because that takes time.

In my desperate moments, I got the e-mail from Illustration Friday with the new word for the week: Acrobat. I decided to draw something for that and somehow I decided to draw a hare and a tortoise. I think subconsciously, I was feeling guilty. The theme for the week was perfect to attempt to draw an acrobatic hare.

Never good enough...

I finished the illustration and posted it on Illustration Friday but it was a rather quick illustration. It did not feel quite finished as I tend to deepen my colors more and the trees were too simple. I then started feeling really guilty and the idea of not showing up with something for the conference became unacceptable so I went ahead and completed another illustration (the whole spread was supposed to be 11X17). While I was happy that I had something to show, I would be lying if I didn't say that the pieces were rather unfinished. I am more used to deepening the colors and adding more detail to my illustrations but I ran out of time.

The moment of truth...

Here is what I presented to the Art Director:

I took a risk. Well, I think I took more than one. I was the only one in the class that changed the entire composition from the initial sketch. I didn't get to work on this piece the way I would have liked to. The colors are too soft for me but oh well, we don't always get to do what we want.

The lessons I learned, from Laurent Linn, at the workshop were lessons that I will try not to forget when I illustrate going forward. Here is what he said we should all try to aim for when illustrating:

  • Storytelling. Use the illustration to tell the reader what the story is all about.
  • Emotional Connection. Not just a composition that looks beautiful but a composition that establishes a connection. That is accomplished with what the face, eyes and body movements are doing. Often times kids don't know how to feel until you tell them with the eyes and face.
  • Every object in the scene is a character. A couch, a lamp. Give it personality.
  • Kids are never still. When they have an emotion, they really let you know with exaggerated body movements. Do the same when drawing animals and children.
  • Costume Design. Helps give an idea of who the characters are which text might not.
  • Showing motion of a character, with anything other than motion lines is a good thing to do.
  • Keep the story moving forward
I think at one point or another, if you have researched the industry well, you have already heard some of these. However, it was beautiful to see (in another workshop I went to) how all these concepts applied. You can't really connect well to these concepts until you see them presented the way they were presented at the SCBWI conference.

With those concepts in mind, Laurent started the critique of my illustration.

The Good:

To my surprise, he believed that my new composition was a good choice and that it worked much better than the previous one.

He felt that there was storytelling just by the fact that the hare was doing acrobatic moves on top of the tortoise's back. That leaves the reader wanting to learn more. I also immediately presented to the audience what it was all about - a tortoise and a hare. He thought it was clever that I dared to have the hare do acrobatics on top of what is supposed to be his enemy, the tortoise. He also liked the idea of having the two characters together because it gives the child an opportunity to decide who to go for, the tortoise or the hare.

For emotional connection, he felt that I did a good job at that too. Specially as it pertained to the hare and the tortoise on the second page.

These are two contrasting emotions and I guess that also helped establish the emotional connection. It also gives a visual cue to a child of how to feel about each character based on their facial expressions.

The Not so Good:

I connected right away with all the things, he said, I needed to work on because deep inside I knew that I had rushed through the work to get it done and I did not really have a final piece. I can tell he picked up on that too.
  • The trees were too generic (I couldn't agree more. Trees are time consuming and I couldn't dedicate to them. When done well, however, they add greatly to a scene. They are supposed to be characters that add to the story and they should be unique.)
  • The eyes of the hare looked a bit too cartoonish for him (He is right. I do need to practice drawing more bunnies.)
  • The tortoise has a little hat that gives him personality but I did not do anything special for the rabbit. (He is right, I did give him shoes on the initial sketch but I did not add anything on the final piece. It is unusual for me not to add detail to my pieces but in this case, I ran out of time).
  • The hare blended a bit too much with the background (Very true. My color palette I thought was too soft and does not reflect my style but I have weaknesses on the use of contrast too).
  • The way I used black (like in the movement lines) was a bit too strong. He would have used another color. (I agree and I saw that when I was doing it but it was too late to change).
  • The characters in the crowd looked a bit unfinished (Yes, they did because they were..oopps!).
  • Think of light sources. (I do need to work on contrast, shading, etc.)
Overall, I learned that my biggest weakens is shadows/contrast. I am not putting too much attention to that on my illustrations and it is the reason why my characters are not standing out more instead I tend to compensate by outlining the character.

A little surprise we were not told about until the end...

The retell of the story is now an actual published book. It was a retell because it was thought that the message of the original one was a bit too strong and for the retell, the author wanted to make both characters winners. At the end, the tortoise and the hare ended up as friends so they were both winners of a friendship. We got to see the book, written by Toni Morrison (a Nobel Prize-winning American author) and illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Here is a link to it: I purchased a copy for my collection and because I am now connected somehow to the story.

The illustrator, Joe Cepeda, did an outstanding job with the illustrations.

Points of interest...
  • One of the spreads, on the published book, had a series of 3 illustrations of the hare doing acrobatics. I thought that was interesting because I had the same exact layout on my initial pencil sketch but the comments back from Laurent were that I needed to connect the illustrations so a child would know it was all the same hare. He explained that for that particular spread on the now published book, they had to leave it as is because of time constraints but he would have gone back to the illustrator for a redo to show motion-connection between all the hares.

  • There was another spread that contained an illustration of the hare holding a prize and the tortoise holding a newspaper. I almost drew something similar to that but after asking friends for opinions about the story, just about all of them could not get past the original classic story written by Aesop. It was hard for them to see the story as a retell and the tortoise and the Hare as friends (all my friends were past age 40 so they grew up knowing the classics and a retell was not quite as acceptable, I guess). I wasn't born in the U.S so I was not exposed to those classics until much later in life and therefore I did not understand why it was so difficult to understand the retell. The whole thing was very interesting to me. I ended up dropping my plans for an illustration of that particular scene because I thought that if others couldn't get the new retell, chances were I was probably not understanding it either.
In closing...

Overall, it was a wonderful workshop. I encourage all people out there, in this business, to truly consider being part of such a wonderful conference. I consider myself lucky to have had Laurent Linn as the first art director to look at my work for critique. I certainly believe now that critiques are another art form or at least Laurent Linn has made it one. Even though we all need to understand that at the end some of the critiques are sometimes personal opinions and they can be subjective, there was something special about the way Lauren Linn delivered his opinions. It does not compare to any critique groups out there. Sorry! (personal opinion here).

He ended the workshop by giving us some wonderful words of wisdom. It was explained that for Simon & Schuster, digital work was treated like any other medium and they had no preference for digital over traditional because it was not about the medium. It is always about the characters, the stories and the emotional connection. So if you are thinking of abandoning a medium that you really love because you think you are falling behind with all the trends out there, those words should offer some comfort.

Some of the final points he made, I believe are somewhat standard and I have already heard them or seen them on other websites before so I think I can share them:
  • Send postcards to art directors. They still work fine. If we were to look at the offices of art directors and designers, we would see postcards hanging all over the walls, doors, etc.
  • Keep things organized on a website. Separate B&W from color and also group mediums.
He also asked us all to mail him a copy of our final pieces.

I didn't do it justice...

Still with this post, I don't feel I relayed my experience well. Reading it is soooooo very different from experiencing it. I cannot emphasize that enough. I met so many wonderful people, so many talented people, yet not for one moment did I feel my work was not good enough. I crossed that bridge long time ago and learned to love my art but I wasn't sure what to expect for my first conference so I was a bit nervous (I admit) about someone of the caliber of Laurent Linn looking at my work. What a fool I was to think that way as there was indeed nothing to worry about. Everybody was so wonderful that I felt right at home.

I don't know enough about other SCBWI conferences in other states. Sometimes I think that going to the larger ones is a good thing because there is so much energy in the room and so much to see but I also think that you might get lost in the crowd. The SCBWI-Carolinas conference was somewhat small in comparison to the one in Los Angeles and NY. I would say we were probably a total of 250+ participants? maybe? I didn't keep count versus the LA conference which I think was pretty large. I would love to go to the large conferences some day but I am very happy that ours was not as big because I think each one of us got special treatment.

If you are in North or South Carolina, I highly recommend this conference. I don't have experience on any other, but from all the reading I do about others around the country. I think they are all really exciting and worth it.

One last note...

I asked about illustrating characters whose faces were drawn to look directly at the readers. I tend to do that on some of my illustrations. I have heard that we are not supposed to be doing that and instead we should try to draw as if observing the characters' world. I was glad to hear the response because I think it makes sense. It was mentioned that that was a thinking of the past but that today it is all about interactivity. Having the reader interact with a character is not a problem at all. That was nice to hear because it makes total sense to me.

Keep in mind...

I want to remind all of you that the entire post was written based on my perception of what I experienced at the conference. So the words mentioned here are my own interpretation of what was said. They are not direct quotations or words from any of the speakers or participants at the conference. I also asked permission from those featured on this post.

Also, I will be posting part 2 and the remaining 2 days at the conference in a few days....stay tuned.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing the details of your critique with all of us. Critiques are such a personal experience that sometimes it's difficult to put it out there and let others know your weakness. However, reading about yours is very interesting and helpful. It's fascinating to see a little glimpse into what an Art Director is thinking. I'm glad you came away inspired. And I'm looking forward to see more of your work.

  2. Thanks Michelle. I put it out there because I think others can benefit from it.

    There was so much good information that I couldn't just keep it all to myself.

  3. I enjoyed your comments on the conference. The larger settings, NY and LA, may be more exciting but I think you get more out of the smaller sites. It is really the speakers that set the tone.

  4. Thank you, Bob. I think you are right about the larger conferences.