Friday, March 21, 2014

Top Take Aways from SCBWI New York, Pt. 2: The Style Dilemma

In my last post I wrote that the key point I came away with from the New York SCBWI conference was that character and emotional connection are of paramount importance when illustrating and writing for children. These points came up time and again during the illustration intensive, especially during the panel critique.

Conspicuous in it's absence (at least to me) was the topic of style. Which is something I was looking for some input on. So I had to go looking for the input myself. But I'll get back to this later. First I need to give you some background so my style dilemma will become clear.

I've been illustrating full time for a while now. I got my start working in-house for a giftware company designing mostly gift bags. This gave me lots of opportunities to experiment with different techniques and approaches. Eventually I settled into a more basic version of the approach and style I use today. Once I started freelancing full time this approach became my signature style. Now, after several years I've refined my style fairly well.
One of the earliest examples of what would become my standard style
I've done pretty well working in this style. I've had a good deal of success with magazines, educational publishers, and even some corporate work. Where I haven't had success yet is in picture books. Now don't get me wrong, I'm very happy doing educational and magazine work, but creating children's books is the goal of any children's illustrator.
A very recent piece to show how my style has evolved
Children's books are an incredibly tough market to crack. I feel like my work is only now approaching where it needs to be in order for me to be a viable option for book publishers. Picture books also have their own needs in terms of flow and pacing that I've done my best to research over the past couple years. I've also had some practical experience now since creating my own picture book dummy. But I've only now come to realize that my style may lean a much too commercial to be suitable for most picture books.

This first came up in the feedback I got from Anne Moore Armstrong about my picture book dummy. She was giving dummy critiques in exchange for charitable donations so I jumped at the opportunity. Her input was really helpful and among her insights were some notes on style. She felt my style would only be appealing to a mass market publisher. If I wanted to reach a trade audience some adjustments may have to be made. She suggested softening shapes, and toning down the exaggerated eyes and mouths as first steps. I felt like these were good ideas, but on their own still wouldn't get me to where I needed to be.

So I went to the New York SCBWI conference with one of my goals to get ideas about which direction I could take with my style. The first opportunity to address this came during the round table critique I had with the wonderful Rebecca Sherman. Here's the piece that was reviewed:
My Snow White Assignment
The assignment was to create a scene from Snow White. The input that Rebecca had was to pull it further away from the Disney version. My intention was to set the story in a gold rush type era, which Rebecca thought was a really interesting idea, but that it didn't fully come through in the image. She thought one way to address this would be to take the bright colours out of the dwarf costumes to make them look more dismal. I thought this was a brilliantly simple solution. It would also serve to distinguish between he character of the dwarfs and Snow White. After the initial points I asked her opinion on my style. She admitted she thought it was quite commercial looking, and likely contributed to her reading the image as Disneyesque.

A big wake up call came later that night after the portfolio showcase. I retrieved my portfolio at the end and it looked like there were still a lot of my postcards that hadn't been taken! I should have listened to my new friend Keith Frawley and counted them beforehand so I knew exactly how many had been taken. I think I left a really big pile so maybe a bunch were taken and I over reacted. Nevertheless it gave me pause and made me question my work all the more.

The next day I went to a session by Holly McGhee. She asked the artists she represents to talk about how to create your own style and brand, and gave us some of the responses. Most of it boiled down to doing lots of work, and lots of experimenting. This is an idea I liked and will get back to later in this post. After the session I took the time to talk to Holly and ask for her input. I showed her my postcard which she helped review at the panel critique the previous day.
My postcard image

She asked if I had an animation background, which I don't, but animation is a huge influence on my work since there's never been a time in my life that I haven't watched cartoons. Her overall feedback about my style was that is was commercial looking, but that if that's the way I work, then that's the way I work. I agree that as illustrators we shouldn't reach for a style just because we think it will appeal to art buyers. But we also shouldn't lock ourselves in too much and not evolve, which is where I was worried I was getting.

I had a good conversation later that night with another new friend Rob McClurkan at the illustration social. He also works digitally and has a fairly commercial vibe to his work, but he's been quite successful and has his first picture book is coming out later this summer. It took until the next day to understand where his works succeeds a little better than mine.

The big moment of clarity came thanks to Arthur Levine. I approached him during the autograph party on the last day of the conference. After he signed my copy of The Very Beary Tooth Fairy I showed him my postcard in hopes of picking his brain a little. He was also one part of the panel that reviewed this same piece earlier.

Arthur was incredibly pleasant and helpful. He said that to bring my work more into trade market territory it should look less crisp, more hand drawn, and less obviously digital. He pointed out the characters faces and how crisp they looked, and how digital the background looked. A great piece of insight that Arthur had was that the more the work looked like it could be a cartoon, the less appropriate is for trade picture books. The biggest take away from our conversation was that my work needed to have more evidence of the artists hand. This is why Rob McClurkan's work succeeds really well. His hand is very obvious even though he works digitally.

I was so glad I put myself out there and spoke with Arthur, otherwise I might have ended up in fog as to which direction to take my artwork.

So now the big drum roll moment... I've come to realize that I need to start experimenting more. I know, that should have been obvious from the beginning right? Remember how that was mentioned earlier? Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get to simple conclusions that you probably already knew.

Below is my first crack at experimenting and I think it was marginally successful.
A new version of my postcard
As an exercise I took all the information I processed and attempted to roll it into a new version of my postcard image. My process was all the same except I used a brush to block in my shapes instead of using the pen tool. This was to give my shapes a more naturalistic edge. It's not a huge difference, but I think it helps. I also used line to give more texture to the background and gave the characters smaller pupils to make them less cartoonish. That was about all I played with stylistically but I think it helped make the image stronger.

I also incorporated the notes from the panel critique by making the monster more unique, distinguishing the uniforms more from the background, and giving the characters a wider variety of expressions. Inspired by Tomie DePaola's talk I also framed the characters with the trees a little.

So this is the first step in my experimentation, with many more to go. Who knows, I may even go so far as to actually use real paint! I'm thinking of giving myself some sort of challenge to try some sort of new technique or medium each week, but I haven't figured it out yet.

So... does my work still look too commercial? What do you think, any tips, tricks, or techniques that you'd suggest?


  1. Marcus - Thanks for sharing all your take-aways from the NY SCBWI. It was super interesting reading what you have learned and seeing you apply it in your new postcard. I think you are on you way. The new postcard definitely has a less digital feel to it. I like the texture in the image. Good luck with your experimentation!

  2. Hello Marcus. What an interesting post. I've only gone to the local SCBWI conference and have yet to venture out to the NY one. It's so cool to read about your experience. Thank you for sharing it.

    Here is a suggestion, since you are requesting suggestions. It's off the top of my head though, so take it with a grain of salt.

    The only suggestion I have is to go to the library and seek out children's books in a style you would like to illustrate in. Pick more than one style if you can, but all pleasing to you and take them home. Pretend you're one of those illustrators for a day by trying to produce the same style. Then try another one. You'll learn what you like and don't like and what works for you and doesn't. Then bring what is pleasurable and what works into your own imagery.

    Your style will remain yours so long as you are exploring what you enjoy. As soon as you are doing it only for the sake of fitting into a genre you'll stop bringing the main thing you have to offer, which is your own take on things. That's no good. So don't do that. But experiment with what you love in the styles that are currently published and bring that into your own. That's the best tip I can think of. And, I think that it's a fun thing to do, at least. I'm sure you only need a little more tweaking and exploration to get it there. Good luck! :)

    1. Thanks Kimie! I think that's a good idea. I'm looking to experiment more and playing in different approaches will help.