Feb 27, 2012

Lori Nichols on her SCBWI Experience

These are two photos from a polaroid journal I used to keep in 2003. They were taken at the 2003 SCBWI regional conference in Mobile, Alabama.

Can you tell us about your first SCBWI experience?
My first SCBWI conference was in February of 2003. I waded into the conference as a new mom with two, little girls under the age of two. I also had just quit my job as an art director for Health Magazine and was trying to keep my foot in the “art door”.

Because the last decade of my creative work was more design and design direction, my portfolio really wasn’t very appropriate for children’s books and the art directors looking for artists. This is when it dawned on me. This conference is about learning, not about being discovered.

At the same conference, Susan Sherman, from Charlesbridge Publishing, emphasized the importance of emotions in characters. She showed image after image of character emotion that worked and explained why it worked.

Donna Brooks from Dutton Books also introduced me to William Steig. We studied “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” and I went home and read everything Donna and Susan referenced. If it was an author or illustrator mentioned in one of their talks I wrote it down and checked out hundreds of books from our local library. I also started studying and drawing emotion.

Equipped with those few priceless tips, my family and I started swimming in oceans of books and fell in love with the magic that happened as we snuggled and read. I didn’t study children’s literature. Instead, I studied how my girls responded to images, stories and each page-turning moment. We read and reread Sandra Boynton, Kevin Henkes, Rosemary Wells, Maruice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, P.D.Eastman, Tommie DePaola, Sara Stewart and David Small, Dan Yaccarrion ...the list goes on and on.

Three years later, I went to another conference, had another girl, kept drawing.

How did your latest SCBWI experience differ from your first?

My first SCBWI experience was a smaller, regional conference in Mobile, Alabama. I was very new to the field of children’s books and trying to figure out if this was the direction I wanted to go with my illustration work.

Fast forward 9 years later to the national conference in New York at the Grand Hyatt. By this time I had been to at least 6 conferences both regionally and nationally and I knew this was where I wanted my career to advance. Two years prior to this conference Joanna Volpe, an agent from Nancy Coffey Literary, contacted me after seeing my work at the 2010 NY conference. I signed up with them and now I had an agent! That was huge. Joanna really helped me fine tune and focus my children’s books. In essence she acted as an editor while I created several books. And, she never downplayed any of my very raw ides but was willing to guide me through the shaping process.

At the New York conference I was able to absorb so much. The illustrator intensive is unlike any class you could ever take. Being able to soak up such great information from accomplished industry professionals is amazing. And most everyone I met, from the admin to the speakers to the sound people were so generous. I think when you love what you do and you get in a room filled with people who love what they do, there is an energy and excitement that surpasses most things.

What new experiences have you gained after submitting your portfolio for multiple years?
Each time I’ve met with an art director and had a portfolio review I’ve left with an new set of techniques. Four years ago while at the Atlanta SCBWI conference, I met Martha Rago from Harper Collins. She encouraged me to put my watercolors aside and focus on my pen and ink techniques. She challenged me to work smaller. This was the opposite of what I learned in school: work large and flaws are diminished in reduction. This allowed me to see the beauty “flaws!” Martha also took time to write a two-page letter with insightful, constructive criticism of my prototypes.

How do you prepare your portfolio?
I’ve found that art directors and editors like to see your ability create continuity of character. For that reason, this year I focused on showing three unpublished, but complete, books. Showing one character in 30 different scenes allowed me to show character emotion, technique and other elements.

I also try to pay very close attention to the portfolio guidelines. When going to a conference I try to remember that there are a ton of portfolios and the people who set the guidelines do it for a very specific reason. If the instructions say no portfolio over 11 x 17 and you come in with a 20 x 40...well, it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Did you look at others works at SCBWI? Did you have any favorites?
I try to pick up illustrator’s cards and at all the conferences to see who’s out there. I find the illustrator-intensives extremely helpful. This year John Rocco, Dan Yaccarino, Dan Santat and Sophie Blackall all spoke. It was amazing, and I highly recommend it to any illustrator. I’m trying to figure out how to make it to the LA conference in August. I heard last year the intensive was amazing.

We were thrilled to learn that you were first runner up. How did it feel the moment you found out?
I wish I had bought a one-way ticket to New York because I could have floated home! It’s a great honorand I’m still buzzing from it.

What is your favorite medium to work in?
Right now I enjoy working with an oblique pen that I dip in ink. I’m also a sharpie junkie! I like to work extremely small (thanks Martha Rago!) and enlarge my work. It holds the grain and scratchy feel of the lines this way.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring illustrators?
Read. Study other artists you love. Listen to everything these generous art directors and editors have to share! Find a wonderful agent who believes in you!


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering where the Query Log is?? I realize it has nothing to do with this post, but since querying authors cannot resply to the "receipt of query" emails we get, I figured this was my best shot. Every link and search I try tells me the page doesn't exist. Help please! My fingernails won't survive the weekend...

JoSVolpe said...

Hi Anonymous,

We have taken down the Query Log for the time being, but plan on re-launching it this summer.

Until then, if you received the auto-response, that means it was received!