Saturday, 26 November 2016

Facing up with the SCBWI Conference

Last weekend was the annual SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester, which was as ever educating and inspiring.

Sunrise over Winchester on the first morning of the SCBWI Conference

I've volunteered with SCBWI for very many years now, initially when I was in Japan, and, since my return to the UK, with the British Isles chapter. Apart from supporting Anne-Marie Perks on the illustrator's committee I co-run our network in East Anglia with writer Helen Moss, and edit the Friday (illustration themed) page of our web-journal Words & Pictures. As the Conference is such a key part of the SCBWI calendar I wish I could go every year, but picture book deadlines and other concerns have often intervened. As a volunteer I try to attend once every other year at least, though I'm not directly involved in organising the Conference itself (I may be raising my hand next year though!).

One of the highlights of the weekend - and there were many - was receiving a prize in recognition for volunteering, I was greatly surprised and absolutely delighted - thank you SCBWI!!

There are full reports of the Conference on Words & Pictures, so these are just my thoughts. This year I was there to help out, but also on a personal level with the hope of reviving interest in my own picture book ideas. All my children's book work over recent years has been commissioned texts for publishers in the US and Japan, written by others. These titles have been sometimes complex projects that completely absorbed my attention, just looking at the past three years -  Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be (written by Jane Sutcliffe), Crinkle, Crackle, Crack - It's Spring (written by Marion Dane Bauer) Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (also by Jane Sutcliffe) Yozora o Miage-yo (written by Yuriko Matsuoka) and,  forthcoming from Holiday House in 2017,  Magic For Sale (written by Carrie Clickard). 

All of these books have been wonderful projects, fine texts by marvelously talented writers, but concentrating on these has meant I've neglected my own stories, which remain as rough idea notes and little more, I've not submitted dummies to publishers for a very long time. However right now I'm working on black and white ink drawings for novels, so taking a break from commissioned picture books, this slight breather is encouraging me to once more look over my story concepts and ideas.

It's hard to believe I've been back in the UK for almost nine years now - my life in Japan still seems like just yesterday (though I do go back whenever I can). After an initial period of re-adjustment I enthusiastically pursued UK publishing, but the obstacles of the book trade in this country compared to the relatively easier markets (for me at least!) of Japan and the US led me to focus on my Japanese and American connections, hence most of my work still comes from overseas. It's about time I really tackled British publishing head on and started submitting again!

Will's Words on sale through P & G Wells bookshop at the Conference

So, was the Conference as inspiring as I'd hoped? Absolutely! The activities for illustrators were brilliant, from the fringe event Sketchcrawl around Winchester, which really got the creative cells buzzing, to the illustration keynote from Leigh Hodgkinson, and really excellent Pulse events - a hands-on picture book workshop from Viv Schwarz, and thorough session on promotion from Paul Stickland. Plus the sheer energy of seeing all my old friends, new faces, discussion, companionship - it was terrific.

Industry Picture Book Panel talk, with Miranda Baker (Nosy Crow) seen here with the book, David McDougall (Walker), Caroline Walsh (agent) and Polly Whybrow (Bloomsbury)
Some of the costumes at the Mass Book Launch (photo: George Kirk)
Hard at work during Viv Schwarz's workshop
Leigh Hodgkinson artwork
The Marvellous Paul Stickland

But what about my plan to get writing? In addition to the illustrator activities, two key-note presentations particularly inspired me, one from author David Almond (who I've known since he presented to our Tokyo SCBWI group many years ago) and another from Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Both these had me squirming in my seat, their passion for the story really shook me up, I've got to write, I've got to write!!!

David Almond (photo: Candy Gourlay)
This isn't the first time I've been to an SCBWI conference and been inspired to write, but with no major picture book projects on now I've no excuse NOT to write now, to actually do something about it.

My problem is that I regard myself as a professional illustrator, with years of experience and a back catalogue of over 50 published children's books illustrated, and the confidence that brings. I've struggled with creative writing though, it's not my natural form of expression, although I can write, I don't feel I'm a comfortable picture book writer. My pictures already tell stories, but expanding them to create a binding narrative is a struggle. When I write, pictures kind of get in the way, I'd rather write without thinking of images, then once the story is there come back to illustrate it with my 'artist' hat on. This may not be the best way for an illustrator to go about writing picture books!

I wonder if I'd feel a little more comfortable writing longer fiction than picture books. Because I don't feel my words are as professional or instill me with as much assuredness as my drawings, I've not much confidence when it comes to submitting to publishers. Also I don't take story rejection well, my one attempt at writing a novel when I was 16 was shelved after two publisher rejections (it really was not very good though!), previous picture book dummies sent to publishers have also been shelved rather than worked on and improved.

Although I've had stories published in Japanese through children's publishers in Tokyo, I've not been published as a writer in the West, only as an illustrator. This really has to change!

Anyway, the Conference really helped me feel a bit more focused on this, I've a lot to thank SCBWI for, not only the award, but the companionship and encouragement. Maybe this time I will get writing again, it really is about time! As a US editor once told me, "if you want to make a mark you have to produce your own stories, it's no good sharing your royalties and glory, your books should all be yours".  Indeed!

Monday, 31 October 2016

Inktober Day 31: Into the Woods

Into the Woods. Day 31 of #Inktober2016.

It's the last day of Inktober, so here is my final offering. Happy Halloween everyone!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Inktober Day 28: Poor Children

Poor Children. Day 28 of #Inktober2016.

Today's Inktober is a little different - rather than personal sketchbook doodles here's an extra illustration for a current book project, a new edition of L. Frank Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This was a 'warm-up' drawing to get me in the groove and test nibs, so a little rough and ready, though often first drawings have an energy that re-draws somehow miss! Unfortunately, although there are several sections featuring children in the text, this drawing doesn't quite fit with any specific passage, so I've not submitted it to the publisher with the other cuts.

I can show it here though!

The book is in production as I write, more news on that to come.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Inktober Day 16: Tree

Day 16 of #Inktober2016. Last night's sketchbook while half-watching the telly.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Inktober 2016

I'd not heard of "Inktober" before, but after a few recommendations, one of them from everyone's favourite anthropologist @DrAliceRoberts I thought I'd give it a go this year. The idea is to post on social media an ink sketch every day throughout October and tag it with #inktober2016 and #inktober. I wasn't sure at first whether the sketches have to be created the same day you post them or can be older, for the first five days of October it overlapped my series on Archives, which included ink drawings, so I just tagged those posts, but this week from 6th October onwards I've been tweeting fresh sketchbook doodles.
Day 6
Looking at the splendorous work from other artists tagged with Inktober some has clearly been laboured over for several hours, but I'm keeping very much within the spirit of the idea and just posting coffee-break doodles, and other down-times grabbed during the day, so these are very rough around the edges.

Day 7
In case you don't follow me on Twitter (@Godfox) here's a summary of the last few days worth of Inktober sketches. Anyone can join in, and it's not too late to start now... here's more information

I was offline on Day 8, but this for Day 9.... feeling somewhat adrift perhaps

Day 10. In retrospect I think I might have been subconsciously channelling Mervyn Peake's Captain Slaughterboard

Day 11 - messing about with faces on the TV last night

I'm thinking, well, if I'm going to do it I shouldn't just limit to Twitter, let's put them on my blog, so for the remainder of the month I'll post one a day. Provided I can keep up that is .... lots to do, so few hours in the day....

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.10: Tokyo Sketchbook, 1987

The final item in this History of my Archive in 10 Objects found in my father's loft are two sketchbooks from my earliest days in Japan in 1987.

Just after I arrived in Tokyo in January 1987 I bought a number sketchbooks of various sizes and spent a lot of the first year in particular being the sketching tourist, drawing, painting and photographing downtown Tokyo, the people around me, the whole experience of being in Japan. I didn't think any sketchbooks from early days in Japan had survived, I had a series of major purges for one reason or another over the 21 years I was there, the biggest down-size being at the very end when I left most of my belongings behind and threw away much of my commercial illustration artwork.

These two sketchbooks survived because I brought them back from Japan in the early '90's after buying a house in London, they stayed there until I later gave up the house, then found their way with a few other items to my dad's loft.

Iidabashi, 6th May 1987. This old building stood near the West exit of the station (the Kagurazaka side), and was I believe demolished in the early '90's development of the area. pen & ink.
Street vendor's cart, Yotsuya, 6th May 1987. pen & ink
There are so many memories wrapped up in these pages, that first year in Tokyo was a roller-coaster of experiences - I had a sponsor when I first arrived in the country, they had no real work for me but nevertheless required me to sit in their dingy downtown office every day, doing literally nothing except breathe in the permament fog of tobacco smoke (I was a non-smoker) and hope the editor would come back to the office and give me permission to go out. Initial joy at being in Tokyo was soon replaced by deep unhappiness, after six frustrating months of this our relationship finally unravelled, and I was out on my own in Shitamachi, free but penniless, fraught with fear over the future. These two sketchbooks cover that period.

The office, waiting for permission to leave, 17th June 1987. ballpen

Because I was under-employed (and yet tightly under the watchful eye of the sponsor), I leaped on any opportunity to slip out of the nicotine stained office in Iidabashi and study Japanese in the quiet of the British Council building, or go walk-about in downtown Tokyo. When I eventually found my own place to rent in Yanaka and parted company with the sponsor these sketchbooks were both a comfort and way to come to terms with Tokyo, it's architecture, atmosphere, details, all things that would serve me well later on.

Roppongi, 18th April 1987, ballpen

On the Hibiya Line, 8th October 1987. ballpen
So these drawings were at a point of change for me, initially a creative escape from my sponsor's office, they then became a comfort when I was on my own in Yanaka, it was a time just before things started to move for me, so looking back at them now brings a mixture of nostalgia and vivid memories of the turmoil I was in then.

Mishima village near Sendai, painted during a volunteer weekend with UNICEF, Summer 1987. watercolour
With these drawings I come to the end of the 10 pieces from my archives. Discovering all of these things in my late father's loft has made me very contemplative about my current position in life, especially after his passing. They're a reflection not only of my early development, but also how creativity tends to mirror physical changes in life. It's never a smooth path, often creative progress happens in spurts, due to some factors affecting life or physical circumstances. But experience and volativity in circumstances alone can't force your creativity either, it's equally possible that change in the wrong direction can herald stagnation or artistic cul-de-sacs. There are no easy predictions.

If there's anything these old archive things has taught me though, it's that on the whole change is generally good, provided you establish a goal that's just out of reach.  Provided you maintain this goal and keep pushing towards it, things will most definitely get better!

Monday, 3 October 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.9: Bag of Portfolio artwork, 1984

The penultimate item in this series of 10 objects from my dad's loft is a bag of unpublished portfolio material from circa 1984.

There was a lot of material from London in my dad's loft, when I left my studio just before I flew off to Japan it was the natural place to just shove everything, my entire output from 1983-1986, and it's pretty well all been preserved, waiting for me to reclaim thirty years later.

I moved to London in 1983, encouraged by two children's book commissions, but finding more work wasn't easy, a miserable, barren year went by with precious little interest before I reconnected with an old friend from Manchester Andy Royston and eventually joined a couple of other illustrators and designers to set up Façade Art Studios in Crouch End, N.8.

I've blogged about Façade Studios before  (here, and here). The aisles of an old church on Crouch Hill had been converted into studio space and were rented to us by animators Bob Bura and John Hardwick (of Camberwick Green/Trumpton fame), whose studio was in the adjacent church hall. On the other side of the church New Statesman cartoonist John Minnion had a studio, while the old nave between the two sides was renovated and used for Sunday services by the Eternal Sacred Order of Seraphim and Cherubim. Bob and John retired soon after we set up the studio, selling the old church hall to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox (The Eurythmics), who converted it into their recording studio. Cherubim and Seraphim then became our landlords. With such a hotbed of activity all around I found myself spending most of my time in Façade, the studio was my second home, it seemed to turn me into a full time illustrator almost overnight.

When I look through the piles of old artwork now there's so much material it's hard to choose any particular piece, but this bag of unpublished portfolio images from the very early days of the studio sums up the renewed focus I had on illustration. It was a very productive period, especially for editorial work, I experimented in all kinds of directions, from very tight to cartoons, though my ultimate target was always children's books. These were all aimed to grab real paying jobs, I was hungry for commissions and had nothing to lose - no back up plan, no more signing on, it was either make it in London or run back to Norwich and get a day job, and I was certain that wasn't going to happen. I was still gunning for children's book commissions, but magazine work paid the rent. Here's a few.....

Saxon versus Viking, A drawing aimed at the historical non-fiction niche, circa 1983

This drawing and the one above are the oldest from this era, I realised very quickly that there was a limited market for tight penwork, and soon changed tack.

Two early experiments aimed at picture books

Bloody Mary - Part of a series on visualising cocktails

Give us a job! Self portrait in desperation - it probably wasn't such a good idea to show this to potential clients!