Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My first SCBWI Conference (part 1)

One thing that leaves me not so enamored of blogger...I have no idea how to do a cut on a long entry, or if you even can. Which is unfortunate, as I have a feeling this is going to be a Very. Long. Entry.

Thursday morning, I took the bus from DC to New York. Forty dollars round trip, and being a weekday, everyone had a free seat beside them to stretch out for the four hour ride. I'd hit up a friend, the ever amazing Melissa, for a free place to stay, so aside from the conference itself, I was feeling pretty thrifty. After getting in to 34th and 8th, grabbing some lunch, and catching the train to Brooklyn, I arrived at Melissa's apartment. There, I collapsed on her couch and stayed until dinner. We did a little catching up - Melissa's website keeps her über-busy, and right now, they're raising money for Haiti relief. She asked how long it had been since I'd last been to New York, and I told her two years. Later, I figured out it had actually been three. Insanity, in any case. Walking around, it didn't feel that long, but that's New York for you. The subway cars have been upgraded, but the lines are still the same. And the G never works, awful, evil train that it is.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my assignment for the illustrator's intensive.


The following morning, I headed into the city with my super-heavy bag. I'm not sure why I thought I would need my laptop, but I really didn't. (The only time I cracked it open the entire weekend was to watch a movie on the way home, and then Windows Media Center freaked out, so it was useless even then.) I'd promised myself I was going to use this weekend as an opportunity to meet people, not stand in the corner looking sullen as I usually do. But it was such a relief when, after getting my registration packet, I was going to check my coat and ran into a former classmate from Pratt as she was just getting off the elevator.

The opening keynote was delivered by Paul Zelinsky. Before the conference, had you said his name, that gorgeous, Renaissance-y cover for Rapunzel is what would have come to mind. Looking through the bios pre-conference, I realized he'd done the illustrations for Swamp Angel, a book I've flipped through many times in my mother's fourth grade classroom. I love the illustrations for both books, but I'm guessing I didn't automatically connect the two because they're so different. And Zelinsky said as much - he does "what's right for the book". He demonstrated this by showing the way he thought the publisher expected his characters for The Shivers in the Fridge to look, and how he actually ended up drawing them. Of course, if you're using a range of styles, it probably helps to be Paul Zelinsky, but it was still a message I was happy to hear, and one that the next two illustrators seemed to agree with as well.

The first workshop was led by Lisa Desimini, who did the cover for Walk Two Moons. I read the book when I was in middle school, and though I can only vaguely remember the story, I remember the cover art vividly. She showed us pictures of the evolution of her style as well, from paint to collage and back-and-forth. Then it was time to check our homework. Our assignment had been to illustrate a birthday party with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We were supposed to start with a sketch, then try and push our own boundaries. I'd started off with the group sitting around a table with a birthday cake, but I was bored by it - I've done it before for other things, and it always ends up looking like some Norman Rockwell parody. So I erased that, before remembering we were supposed to keep our first sketch. Oops. I stuck to character design for a while instead. Once I got a Snow White I was happy with - wearing black and red of course - I realized she probably wasn't the happiest camper. I mean, she's on the run from her stepmother, who is trying to kill her. And so, I ended up with this...

We laid out our sketches and finals, and then had some time to wander around the room. I'd really been looking forward to this. I was happy to see only two or three other piñatas. There were a lot of the Disney characters, which I was a little surprised by - the Mouse does not share its toys. (Though as someone pointed out, even the dwarves' names are a Disney invention...) Anyway, it was definitely fun to see the different styles, and the different solutions people had come up with. Lisa Desimini had us sketch what might happen if the wicked queen decided to crash the party, and had people call out suggestions.

Afterwards, there was an hour-long lunch break, just enough time to grab some sandwiches from the Grand Central food court and head back up to the conference room, where Grace, Amber (another classmate we'd spotted), and I chose closer seats, talked, and ate.

The next workshop was led by Kevin Hawkes, who did the illustrations for Library Lion, amongst other things. (And here's where it gets weird for me, because I could have sworn this was a book I read when I was a kid, but it was published in 2006, so now I'm wondering what book I'm confusing it with, and it is bugging me A LOT.) Anyway, Kevin Hawkes also talked about, "changing [his] art to accommodate the emotional core of the story." Again, this is such a relief, to know that other artists feel this way, and I'm not just sitting alone in my little corner, using bright, happy watercolors one day, and nothing but black and red pen the next. For the workshop portion, we chose paper in happy colors, and cut out two happy shapes. Then we chose colors that could be jarring, upsetting, suspicious, and used them to cut out similar shapes. Next, we were supposed to turn these shapes into illustrations. I hated my happy picture (happy illustrators are all alike; each unhappy illustrator, blah, blah, Tolstoy...).

So I quickly set it aside to work on this instead.

Then it was time for the portfolio drop-off...

This is probably the time to say, everyone I met last weekend was friendly and encouraging. Regardless, (and perhaps irrationally) this is how it feels.

Next it was time for an Art Director panel, featuring Ann Bobco, Lee Wade, and Chad Beckerman. This was pretty cool - each AD showed their work with a first-time children's book illustrator. The panel was informative from both a business perspective and an artistic perspective, and it was also nice to learn some of the individual ADs preferences - for example, who likes postcards, who would rather be sent digital samples, and who still looks at printed source books (answer: no one). I probably ended up taking more notes during this panel than any other.

Finally, it was time for a few closing remarks and a prize drawing. I gathered my stuff, figuring you needed to have dropped your door prize slip in the big red box. But I'm glad we stuck around, as I won the last book! Chad Beckerman called my name, and made some comment about it being fun to say - I've heard this a couple of times before, but it was still one of the highlights of my weekend. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) Now I just have to work on making the quality of my portfolio match the fun-ness of my name, because I'd imagine it would be disappointing to pick up a book illustrated by a Polly Beam and have the pictures only be "meh".

Anyway, the book I won was Supersister by Beth Cadena, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer. It's seriously cute and the main character has red hair. I'm going to need a book shelf exclusively for children's books pretty soon. (It's only right, seeing as I already have one just for Harry Potter, and I'm trying to make this my next "fandom".)

Amber, Grace, and I walked a few blocks to a pizza-pasta place and had dinner. It was fun, and it's the reason I really need to find my way back to New York - I rarely get the chance to talk with other artists, especially ones with similar career goals.

We got back just as the doors were opening to let the masses in to look at portfolios. I had a suspicion the portfolios would be much stronger than the Snow White assignment, and naturally, they were. It was definitely eye-opening. For example, after looking at portfolio after portfolio, I came across one that was just simple, beautiful work in watercolors. Looking through it, I felt like I'd been holding my breath without realizing, and suddenly, I could breathe again. It wasn't that it was better than all the others. It was just different. There were other standouts as well, some so amazing that they had the opposite effect - just mind-bogglingly awesome work, the kind that makes you feel like you should pack up and go home, because you're never going to make anything that gorgeous, ever.

This is a good place to note, however... someone, at some point during the weekend, brought up the point that the writers get feedback from an editor in regards to their work. For the illustrators, unless you win one of the top prizes, you have no idea. You could, as I saw suggested on the SCBWI boards, count your business cards - but that no longer works, since they open the room to everyone after the art editors, etc., come through.

After looking at everything, I grabbed my portfolio about 30 minutes from closing time and made my way back to Brooklyn where I watched some West Wing with Melissa before crashing. I am so glad I signed up for the intensive - it pretty much made the weekend for me. While Saturday and Sunday were wonderful, overall I feel like SCBWI skews toward the 'W' side of things. So it was definitely worth the extra money to have a day purely devoted to the 'I'.

...And here, I think I'm going to leave off for now. Given that I've used up hours of my snow day(!) on this one.

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