Sunday, July 12, 2015

Organizing My Ideas - By Maple Lam

If you are a scatter-brain like me, your brain sprouts an idea every 35 seconds.

This makes me jumpy and quirky, and it takes a life-time of discipline to organize these thoughts methodologically to ensure the truly good ideas do not slip through my fingers.

Visual cues trigger my memory the fastest, which is why I like using transparent folders. (They cost $1.50 for 10 folders at my local Daiso.) Other simple tools include small post-its and paper clips.

In my previous post How I Study Picture Books, I shared my method of using rough thumbnails to understand picture books. When I write stories, I use the same method. The only difference is that I use post-its to brainstorm, for the process requires switching scenes' order constantly.

I name this section "Concepts".

Sometimes the story comes first; other times, characters come first. The process is organic. I create a section called "Sketches" and place all my early drawings here.

The "Sketches" section.

With both "Concepts" and "Sketches", I will create a dummy, translating rough thumbnails into legible contents. I send a PDF dummy to my agent and print a copy for my reference.

A section called "Dummy v.1" for my reference.

If my agent likes the story, we work on it together to make it better. When the story is ready, my agent will send the dummy to publishers. And if the story finds an editor, the story editing and revision process truly begins.

At this stage, the story gets an "upgrade" – The packet will move from a flimsy transparent folder to a rigid transparent folder, for it holds more contents.

More developed ideas get a folder "upgrade".

Transparent folders organized vertically for easy access.

I hope you find my process helpful. How do you organize your ideas, sketches, and artwork? I would love to learn from you too. :)

~ Maple Lam

Illustrator of Two Girls Want a Puppy by Evie & Ryan Cordell, Published by HarperCollins, June 2015.
Author/Illustrator of My Little Sister and Me, Pubished by HarperCollins, Summer 2016.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Portfolio Tips

© Jen Betton 2015
The SCBWI LA conference is coming up quickly, and I know many of us are squeezing out a few more paintings, and starting to agonize about portfolio flow and presentation so as to put together the absolute best package of work! 

This post is a combination of my own thoughts, the great advice of Lauren Rille, an art director at Beach Lane Books, and remembered comments of various other art directors and art school instructors.

Who is going to see it? A children's book portfolio is different than an editorial portfolio. Put in your portfolio the kind of work you are trying to get. If it is a children's book portfolio, be sure to show kids! Include narrative images, and series of related images – tell a story with your pictures.  

At my very first conference, I was told that my kid's book portfolio didn't have enough kids in it! It's important to know your audience and what is important for that type of portfolio. © Jen Betton 2015
Show you can draw! Show good composition, values, color, consistent style, good control over media, and varying points of view. Be accurate with your perspective and anatomy, don't fake it. Show emotion in your characters, and interaction or connection between characters.

Consistency: Quality
The quality of your work should be very consistent. Ideally, all your pieces will be exceptionally good, but be sure to put some of your best pieces up front. Also make sure that the last piece is strong. Bob Dacey uses the fence analogy: support your planks (weaker pieces) with posts (strong pieces) interspersed. Eventually, your portfolio should be all posts!

Less can be more; don't succumb to the temptation to leave something weak in – I did this a few years ago with a couple pieces I knew were not as strong, but I wanted more kids in the folio. Bad idea, the art directors who looked at my folio said "take them out"! Art director Cecilia Yung says "If you leave in weak pieces art directors will think you can't discriminate between good and bad work." Yikes!! When in doubt, throw it out!

Consistency: Style
Pick a style and make sure you love doing it. Have a clear "voice" and show good visual continuity. Starting out, focus on mastering one style. If you display more than one style, both styles should be equally well developed. If you have work in a totally unrelated field (fine art vs. children's book illustration) don't put it in the same portfolio – on the web this means a separate website (ex: Skip Liepke goes by Malcolm Liepke for his fine art work).

Advice about this varies, somewhat up to individual taste. 15-20 is most often quoted, but you can have less or more. Pat Cummings suggests showing no more than 12 images. Websites – this is again variable, and you may consider different categories if you work in different markets (editorial, advertising, book, etc) or styles.

Example of a series of related images; all three have the same characters and setting, but with different perspectives, scale, and varying emotion. © Jen Betton 2015
Make it easy to update. My first portfolio was made with carefully mounted boards. However, they were labor intensive to create, and it discouraged adding in new work. The same thing is true of a web folio – whether you have a custom site, or a blog, make sure it is up to date and you regularly edit out your weakest work. Also be aware of whatever size or format constraints there are for any competitions or shows you enter (like the SCBWI portfolio showcase). Whatever you choose, make sure it does not distract from the work, but complements it.

Make sure your name is easily visible! Put your contact info up front! This doesn't mean you have to put your contact info on every item, you can also use a cover or title page. It's good to use a consistent font and presentation with your business cards, postcards, website, and portfolio. 

Finally, fill your book with what you love to do! What you see is the kind of work you will get! Remember that "good work will always find a way in" – Lauren Rille.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tiny Color Studies

One of my favorite parts of the illustration process is the color study.

I used to forego painted color studies, instead relying solely on a digitally rendered study. However, I've found tiny painted studies to be helpful tools before I begin working on a final painting.

While some artists do larger, more detailed studies. I prefer to work tiny to problem solve at this stage. For me, it's the color and painted version of a thumbnail. Not only does it save paper, but these tiny studies are quick. They allow me to do several potential versions in a short amount of time. (For each study shared below, I've included the full-sized measurements.)

My studies are often messy, but I do attempt to be somewhat organized and lay out a test strip of the colors that I'm considering for the piece on the same paper that I will be using for the final. I work with a variety of different papers and each reacts to the paint in different ways.


I usually lay out a basic thumbnail of the larger painting and block in the major colors. On the same strip of paper, I also test different combinations of paint to figure out what works best for the particular piece in question.


When I'm being really organized and taking my time, I label each layer and how it was made.

(paper is roughly 6x5.325", each thumbnail is about 2x1.5")

These studies, though tiny, can still be extremely detailed.


Color studies are invaluable. They can be used to test every part of your painting but on a quick, small, and easy scale.

They can serve as tests for background effects,


for testing details, like patterns and plaids,


or they help answer larger questions, like overall palette.

(paper is 5x4", each thumbnail is roughly 2x1.25")

If your process involves paint, I would urge you to try out some quick tiny studies. I hope you find them useful!

~~ Lisa ~~

_ _ _ _ _
Lisa Anchin is a Brooklyn based children's illustrator doodling her way across the five boroughs. You can see more of her work at, on instagram @lisa.anchin, and on twitter @lisaanchin 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Are You Entering The SCBWI-LA Illustration Portfolio Showcase? Here Are Tips For Before and During the Conference - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Only a month and a half until the SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles! I can't wait. Not only is it the conference that kickstarted my book illustration career, but I always come away super-inspired by the talks, sessions and chatting with other writers and illustrators.

For those of you entering the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase, here are a few tips from past SCBWI Illustration Mentees who have since gone on to win top prize in the overall Portfolio Showcase:


A Few Thoughts On Editing Your Portfolio - by Andrea Offermann (2013 SCBWI Portfolio Showcase winner)

Mentee Portfolio vs Grand Prize Winner Portfolio - by Juana Martinez-Neal (2012 SCBWI Portfolio Showcase winner)

Portfolio Comparison: What Made An SCBWI Winner - by Eliza Wheeler (2011 SCBWI Portfolio Showcase winner). Eliza is also doing a portfolio workshop on the Friday 4-5 pm in the Pacific Room; check your schedule for details!

Mentees Roundup: SCBWI Portfolio Showcase Tips - compiled by Eliza Wheeler

For more great advice, do browse other portfolio-related posts on and find out what Mentees have been learning about improving their portfolios.

And here are some of my own tips about what to do AT the conference...


Once you've handed in your portfolio, stop obsessing about it. Don't start making excuses for it, how you weren't quite sure about some of the pieces but put them in anyway, how you wish you had more time to work on it.

Learn how to take compliments gracefully. If someone says something nice about your work, learn how to say "thank you" instead of immediately lobbing back a "I wish I was as good as xxx" or "I totally suck at xxx." See above.

Do make the time to look at other illustrators' work. Not only is this a sign of professional courtesy, but you can also turn it into a learning opportunity. Some portfolios and postcards will immediately stand out for you; ask yourself why.

Try very, very hard to be inspired and NOT discouraged as you browse other illustrators' portfolios. As illustrator Heather Powers says, don't forget that everyone is at a different place in their creative journey. "Get excited - you are just starting out and have a fun path ahead of you! Learn from the best, they will be all around you during the conference!"

Don't be discouraged if you don't win an award. While winning awards is nice, of course, there are so many other benefits to being in the Showcase. Industry people are looking at your work. I have heard of illustrators getting work many months after an event because an art director or editor liked their work enough to pick up a postcard.

Remember the quote that "80 percent of success is showing up". Persistence is essential in this industry. I have heard art directors comment on how they could tell a particular illustrator was working on his or her craft because of the changes in their portfolio from a previous Showcase. The fact that you're at the conference and entering the Showcase already puts you far ahead of many others.

Come to the Illustrator Social on the Friday from 7:30-9 pm in Olympic I. It's a great place to meet other illustrators as well as some of the faculty. Bring your postcards! Plus do find me and say hello...I'd love to meet you. :-)

Good luck, and don't forget to have fun! And if you're nervous about attending the SCBWI conference for the first-time, these comics might help.

- Debbie


Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author/illustrator of WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2015). Her illustrations also appear in books by Judy Blume and Michael Ian Black. She blogs about reading, writing and illustrating children's books at You can find her on Twitter at @inkyelbows and Instagram at @inkygirl.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mailing Original Artwork -- by Eliza Wheeler

Illustrators creating artwork for picture books work for many months or even years on a single book, and those working in non-digital mediums often have to go through the terrifying process of mailing that finished work to the publisher for the scanning and reproduction process. Making sure the art is properly packed can help ensure that all that hard work will reach your art director in safe form. I'll share my process of packing up and mailing finished artwork here. 

The materials I use:
- Four large sheets of cardboard
- Packing tape
- Plastic wrap
- Craft paper
- Tracing paper
- Artist's tape

1. Protect and label each illustration. 
Cut sheets of tracing paper to cover the drawing, and secure them with artist's tape on the back. One each illustration, write:
Your name
The book's title
and the page number

2. Wrap the artwork in plastic, just in case the package gets wet in transit. 

3. Make a large envelope for the artwork out of craft paper.
Secure the envelope with tape onto the middle of one of the cardboard sheets. Taping it in place will keep the artwork from shifting into the edges/corners and possibly getting damaged. Add a nice note to your art director, who will be unpacking the art when it arrives. 

4. Layer the four sheets of cardboard together, positioned with alternating cross-grains. Two sheets with ribs going in the same direction can bend easily, so layering them perpendicular to each other creates super strong, non-bendable layers that surround both sides of the artwork.

5. Sandwich the artwork in the middle of the four sheets of cardboard. You can get sheets of cardboard from a shipping supply store or art store. In the photos here, I'm re-using the box from Blick that my watercolor paper was shipped in.

6. Tape, tape, tape. Double-seal all the edges of the cardboard sheets with packing tape. Label each side of the package with ARTWORK.

7. Bring the package to your mail carrier for shipping. I usually use UPS, and buy a large chunk of insurance for the package (once the package reaches the publisher, it should be insured for loss or damage under their policy). Have them add FRAGILE stickers to your package, and make sure it is not scheduled to be delivered over the weekend when no one will be at the publisher's to receive it. Email your art director and editor the tracking info for the package and ask them to let you know when it reaches them.

8. Go out for brunch! Celebrate a triumphant job well-done.

~ Eliza, Wheelerstudio on Twitter and Instagram, Eliza Wheeler on Facebook

Author/Illustrator of NYT Bestseller Miss Maple's Seeds
Illustrator of Wherever You Go by Pat Zietlow-Miller
Illustrator of CODY AND THE FOUNTAIN OF HAPPINESS by Tricia Springstubb
Illustrator of The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff
Illustrator of Newbery Honor book Doll Bones by Holly Black

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sketchbook - The Adventure of Discovery

Are you having trouble finding the words for your next story? Do you have a character without a setting? Are you swimming in a sea of ideas without being able to spout out a single one? Open your sketchbook! All of the things that you are struggling with can be worked out between the pages of this wonderful little book that most of us carry everywhere.

"I don't feel like drawing.", you say... Well then look back through the pages that you have already filled. You will be surprised by the elements that are waiting for you to rediscover them.

Just recently I found my new favorite character tucked away in an old corner of a sketchbook that I finished years ago. I carefully collected and dusted off this character and look at how she shines!


 She came fully equipped with a story too, handing it to me as I placed her on a brand new white sheet of paper.

Last year in August I attended my very first annual SCBWI conference in L.A. One of the essentials was a tiny little sketchbook and it turned out to be one of the most important items that I packed! When I got home that little book was filled with notes, doodles, and the makings of at least 3 stories.

 I got to thinking that if I hadn't had my sketchbook where would these thoughts have gone?! Would they have ended up in the margins of a notebook? On a napkin? Would they be lost entirely? I shudder to think of it!

A sketchbook is like a source of inspiration. It is a place where we can brainstorm or work through ideas that aren’t quite fitting into a story. It is a place to study the make-up of picture books. It is a stream of consciousness where we can record thoughts, notes, and quotes that we love. I follow other artists to see their sketchbook drawings. I love them because it gives insight to their process and thoughts at the time that those doodles/sketches/notes were created. Here are some great ones:

Try drawing once a week, once a day – any little bit helps and you never know when the muse will strike! Try sketching in different places as well. The coffee shop is a great place to practice sketching people! You could also try the park, the public pool, the mall, an amusement park (this is great for food and setting too!), or the library.

I wish you the best of luck in all of your creations and leave you with a challenge: A 30 day sketch challenge! Are you up for it?

I would love to hear back from you. Did you try the 30 day sketch challenge? Did you find your new story? Tell me what your sketchbook means to you!

 ~Jeslyn Kate

Jeslyn Kate writes/illustrates for children and teaches art.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Twitter: @jeslynkate

Monday, May 25, 2015

Process: How I keep my portfolio on course by Rodolfo Montalvo

The SCBWI portfolio showcases have been the anchors that hold me steady in the crashing sea of fear, doubt, and distraction. That’s right, trying to be a children’s book author/illustrator is an EPIC journey at sea.

Long ago I understood that being an artist/illustrator, was going to be a life-long venture. It would take lots of dedication, patience, and of course discipline to make things happen. For me, this is where the conferences came into play. I began attending SCBWI conferences in the fall of 2010 and have been attending ever since.

Early on, I found out how useful and informative the conferences were and have held tightly to them. The portfolio showcases at the conferences and the opportunity to share my work with many like-minded individuals is, for me, the most valuable piece of the “building a strong portfolio” puzzle.

I was fortunate to discover the SCBWI shortly before graduating in 2011. So I began to attend the conferences and I tried to soak up every little comment I heard about my work.  Along the way I’ve collected comments and guidance for my work by many great, established illustrators, agents, editors, art directors, and many, many fellow illustrator friends. I can remember at least one thing in each person’s critique of my work. I also have all my written notes, all in little books, stored away like precious treasure maps.

After the conference, I do what we all do: go over my notes, reconnect with people online, and start new, hopefully better illustrations for a new portfolio. I always come out of the conferences tired, inspired, excited, and Oh, SO motivated. I feel like I can reach the farthest points of my journey, like I can reach the stars, all so close.

For the past five years, I have used the SCBWI showcases as my constant yearly goal line where I get to reevaluate my work. Having the physical evidence of my past portfolios gives me confidence as I move forward. I can see how I’ve grown, and each time I reach a little farther. Always reaching for those masterful levels of craftsmanship that we all admire and sometimes fear never being able to reach.

This has been the process I’ve used to help me grow as an illustrator. This may not be the way it works for everyone. But I can say, enthusiastically, that I have found many great friends and the start of what I hope will be a long career in children’s book publishing. So, go out there and find that vessel that will keep you afloat and moving into full sail illustrations one day.

Rodolfo Montalvo illustrated the middle grade novels The Contagious Colors of Mumpley Middle School and The Amazing Wilmer Dooley, both written by Fowler DeWitt ( Simon & Schuster imprint, Atheneum). He is currently working on his first picture book Dear Dragon, by Josh Funk (Viking Children’s books – Fall 2016).
For more of his work visit