Are You Ready for the Illustrator Showcase at the 2019 Sydney International Conference?

One of the most popular elements of our SCBWI conferences is the Illustrator Showcase. A chance for members to show off their artwork to publishers from Australia and overseas. Our next conference is Feb 2019, so now is a great time to start thinking about Perfecting your Portfolio. With that in mind, we are re-posting the feedback and advice we gathered from art directors and publishers:

In the illustration world, you need to be seen to be hired. The Illustrator Showcase is an opportunity to get your work looked at and considered by a very impressive number of publishing professionals—including art directors, editors, publishers and agents.

During the Illustrator Showcase we make sure that publishers have every opportunity to view your portfolio, collect your postcards and business cards and revisit your work on the Showcase website. Publishers take away sheets filled with notes and fistfuls of business cards, so that's got to be good!

But the effectiveness of the Illustrator Showcase begins and ends with the quality and relevance of the work in your portfolio. In effect the Illustrator Showcase is a job interview. You wouldn’t go into a job interview wearing your gardening clothes and without preparing your resume, would you?  So, the first step in this “job interview” process is to Perfect your Portfolio.


Perfect your Portfolio

Ideally, a portfolio should be refined to a “professional standard” before it's submitted to a publisher—whether that's through a slush pile or the Illustrator Showcase

Now, please don’t confuse “professional standard” with “published”.  We've had a number of illustrators offered contracts as a direct result of the Showcase—and many of them were previously unpublished. The difference is that they had something in their portfolios that grabbed the attention of a publishing professional.

The feedback we’ve had in the past is that on the whole publishers were very impressed by the high standard of the work, and seemed very excited about what they'd seen. We were also consistently told that the event itself was incredibly useful to them.

We gathered some general feedback about the standard of work through informal interviews with publishers during the Showcase. The points that were raised most were:

  • In some portfolios there were lovely images, but they didn't show characterisation (character in different situation) or they didn't tell a story. It's vital to develop visual narratives and expressive characters if you want work illustrating children's books. 
  • Some people need to curate their work—don't include too many images, or poorer quality images mixed with more finished work.
  • Some people looked like "one trick ponies" and needed to show more range, while others looked like "four people did the work"—so the take home message from this is probably to find a middle ground. Identify what you do well, find a consistent style that works for you, and then show a range of subjects and approaches within that style. One comment was that a portfolio should help an Art Director know what they'll get if they hire you, so some degree of consistency and coherence is good. 
  • Need to see new work—some portfolios had mostly old work that they had seen before. 


Resources to Perfect your Portfolio

So we’ve established that we all need to cast a critical eye over our own work. This can be a daunting task but we’ve pulled together a few resources to help:

Join an On-line Critique Group—SCBWI Australia East & New Zealand offers free On-line Critique Groups. These include groups specifically for illustrators and should greatly help people from any location "get together" to give and receive the necessary preliminary feedback on their portfolios. As long as you are prepared to be an active participant in the critique group, you can join as many groups as you like.

Putting together a Prize Winning Portfolio
Molly Idle—SCBWI Member (and recent Caldecott winner!)—put together this excellent blog post about how she perfected her prize winning portfolio.

 Molly writes:
“At the first SCBWI conference I attended in LA, 12 years ago, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a workshop with Dilys Evans—agent, founder of The Original Art Show, and author of Show and Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children's Book Illustration.

Dilys said that whenever she was considering representing someone, she would pick out both the strongest piece and the weakest piece in their portfolio, and she would take those pieces to a meeting of her staff. There, she'd hold up the best piece, which presumably would get "Oohs" and "Ahhs". Then, she would hold up the worst piece...

Now, when she said this—almost every person in that workshop cringed. I knew we were all thinking the same thing... "What would they say if she held up my weakest piece?"

I resolved then and there to take anything "cringe-inducing" out of my portfolio.

So, whether you're in it to win it—or just to placing your work out there to see and be seen—putting together a portfolio that is both professional and personal is essential.”

Mentee portfolio to Grand Prize Portfolio Winner
SCBWI Member Juana Martinez Neal tells how she improved her portfolio from a Mentee portfolio to a Grand Prize Portfolio winner.

Check out the Interview with Donna Rawlins and the brief for her Workshop. Both are insightful and give a glimpse into what an art director will be looking for when they view a portfolio.

Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz
This is an oldie but a goodie. Make sure your illustrations “Tell a Story” and are appropriate for the Children’s publishing world.


Don’t Stop with your Portfolio

Your Illustrator Showcase “job interview” doesn’t stop with your professional portfolio. There are a few additional things you need to consider to polish off your presentation.

Business Cards—Have some.

Postcards—The feedback from the last Showcasewas that the publishers liked to have postcards to take away. Many publishers commented that they liked postcards that had a selection of images available— they were useful aids for remembering a specific image from the portfolio that excited them.

Created by SCBWI member Dana Carey, the Sub It Club “Postcard Post Archive” is a very useful overview on illustrator self-promotional postcards.

Dana writes:
“There are lots of companies online who will print your postcards., Modern Postcard, Overnight Printsmoo… They all have specifications (templates, sizes, file formats) that you need to follow. Read carefully so you get the best result for your money.”

Website or Instagram account—If you don’t already have one then get one! Remember, you must be seen to be hired and a website is ideal for illustrators to showcase their work. The Illustrator Showcase is an excellent opportunity to get your website details directly into the hands of commissioning art directors, publishers and agents.

There are many online platforms to create you own website including WeeblySquarespaceWordpress and flickr.

Make it simple and easy to use. Consider things from the point of view of the busy publisher or art director. Do they want to wait while fancy animations or graphics load? Do they want layers of menus? No! They want to get in there, see what you have to offer, read a bit about you and (hopefully) contact you to offer you a commission! Don’t make them work for it.

Your website or Instagram represents you on a job interview. Make it professional and personal.


And finally, please remember that the Illustrator Showcase is a Showcase—
NOT a critique session!

The event is set up to be as pleasant and easy and welcoming for publishers as possible so that they'll be eager to attend—they're giving up their time to be there and we've been very careful to make it feel like a fun, social event for them.

Rest assured that each portfolio has been directly viewed by editors who are actively seeking new talent, their business cards and work samples have been eagerly collected, and they are now on the radar of Australia's leading publishing houses.

What each illustrator gets from the experience is the opportunity to have nearly 50 top publishing professionals cast a serious eye over their work! This is certainly not a minor perk—it's VERY hard to get publishers to view your portfolio if you're acting as an individual freelancer.

The Showcase isn't a vehicle for feedback or critiques. We will make other opportunities available at the Conference for Portfolio Critiques, but the Showcase is a separate experience. Participation in the Illustrator Showcase is a very real tangible investment in your illustration career but only you can make the decision if you want to invest your time and money to prepare and send your portfolio specifically for the exposure.

Good luck polishing those portfolios! We can’t wait to see what you come up with. 



SCBWI British Isles - Portfolio Intensive

by Liz Anelli

SCBWI British Isles - Portfolio Intensive - Friday 10th June - 13:00 – 17:00 at the House of Illustration A chance to network with agents and professionals in the children’s book industry, help target the right publisher for your work & present your portfolio and gain valuable insight and advice as to how to develop it to the make the industry sit up and take note?

A perfect English summer’s afternoon saw me dusting off my jetlag and heading for the fancy new canal-side arts complex at Granary Square, London new home to Central St Martins School of Art and The House of Illustration - to take part in SCBWI British Isles Portfolio Intensive Event

Ness Wood, Art Director, David Fickling Books, Holly Tonks, Commissioning Editor, Tate, Sharon King-Chai, Art Director for Two Hoots imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing ( and Chrissie Boehm, Artful Doodlers Illustration and Design Agency spent a full four hours sharing their expert advice with a room of about 20 eager illustrators.

Sharon King-Chai critiquing a portfolio

Sharon King-Chai critiquing a portfolio

The format of small group critiques really worked for me as you could hear feedback and advice on other people’s portfolios as well as your own – rather like being a fly on the wall at a publisher’s office. There wasn’t enough time to be seen by all 4 experts but (having submitted your choice of 3 in preference order beforehand) you got a fair go. Format didn’t seem to matter too much, (printed portfolios, laptop screen shots or a bundle of sketchbook studies), it was age appropriate characters and subject content that caught the eye along with individualistic style. Some general advice was to ensure your main characters held the focus of the reader, experiment with different ways of drawing faces and to keep tonal contrasts clear. Also -  have a web presence on sites such as, enter competitions and develop little stories and characters through greetings card designs. Most enlightening for me was to hear Holly Tonks explaining the refreshing angle Tate Publishing have of working directly with artists to develop picture and activity books and merchandising ideas. Being an art gallery, their focus is on visual narratives and experimentation, with text taking second place.

The publishers each have submission policies on their websites. DFB also publish a weekly story comic for children called The Phoenix  and regularly hold ‘Master of the Ink-pot’ competitions for open submissions.

Melany Pietersen’s portfolio

Melany Pietersen’s portfolio

Chatting with the other delegates, several had studied at the renowned Anglia Ruskin Children’s Book Illustration MA and many were from overseas. The afternoon was smoothly facilitated by SCBWI reps Trish Philips and Patrick Miller who ensured we were all happy and kept topped up with tea and biscuits.

Free entry to the beautiful exhibitions on show upstairs and the delights of an illustration-purposed gallery shop rounded off my day with just enough time to trundle my suitcase down to Kings Cross station, past Platform 9 ¾ to jump on the Cambridge train to go see my family


Chapter Two: Climax! The Craft of Illustration

Skpe Session B: The Craft of Illustration with Caldecott award winning US illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky MC: Sarah Davis and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall

Paul Skyping from the US

Paul Skyping from the US

I’m an Illustrator and I was really looking forward to this amazing opportunity to listen to Paul O. Zelinsky. There is a lot of advice out there on illustration and how to develop as an Illustrator. Paul was really keen to not come across like his advice was the only way forward for an aspiring illustrator and I really appreciated that. Though, I agree with everything he said. Especially when I’ve had a recent portfolio critique from some amazing Art Directors and a subsequent master class with Sarah Davis - all of them sharing the key themes of ‘feeling’, ’heart of the story’ and ‘using different mediums to extend and stretch yourself as a visual storyteller’.

More info about Paul can be found on his website, Facebook ( and twitter (

Below is a recap of the discussion. Sarah Davies and Marjorie Crosby-Fairall collated questions fellow SCBWI members had and boiled them down to the following :

Q - When you receive a story, when you are illustrating someone else’s text, what is the process you go through, how do begin getting to grips with the text, breaking it down, working out which direction you want the illustrations to go in?

  • My first reaction….I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s one of the consequences of not having a really established style or way of working that I do the same time each time.
  • I read and read and read the text. Even if I wrote it, it doesn't really make a difference to me whether it was it was my text or someone else’s text - I kind of absorb it as much as I can. I am aiming to do the right thing for the text.
  • It’s free association, [ between feeling and what visual imagery to use ]

Often times, it’s what I don’t want the picture to look like. That’s enough of a clue to get me going a little bit.

I was not trained in illustration at all. I got a Masters degree in Painting. I think of Fine Art, the whole history of Art all kinds and all places.

  • What is the feeling that this text gives me?
  • What sort of pictures do those feelings call up?
  • I try to be in-tune with every level of feeling of the text.

Paul then showed us “The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless her Cat” by Lore Segal

This story has a feeling of ‘not cosiness’.

So German Expressionist (with its angles, and sharp lines, poking and not sitting flat) - that’s what I tried to do, pictures that would not sit flat, have angles and sharp points.

Q - Mediums - Do you have a favourite medium? How much experimentation does it take to match to the feel that you want to create? How do you go about deciding which medium you use?

At the beginning I don’t really have a handle what I want my pictures to be like. The medium is often the first I can settle on because of the feeling, because for me different mediums define different sorts of feelings.

“The Wheels on the Bus” adapted and Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

It’s a jumpy song, bright and happy. The feeling that I wanted visually was not just colourful but also ‘chewy’ like bubblegum. The pictures should be something that you could want to chew on and they’d be sweet when you ate them.  The song is bouncy.

[So I went with] oil paint with a certain amount of thickness. The act of pushing oil paint across the page felt sort of like the feeling of singing the song.

‘Awful Ogre’s Awful Dday’ by Jack Prelutsky

There was a high level (castles, knights) and a low level (a messy, gruesome ogre). For a long time I wanted to make pictures that were like throwing mud - thick and droopy. I looked at Abstract

Expressionist paintings - visually interesting compelling gooey textures. I tried it for two weeks and despaired.  I then tried a combination of elegant line (inspired by Albrecht Durer) and  watercolour on top of it that would have its way of being messy.  The story had a high level and low level and I was trying to come up with ways to express that contradiction, which made the text so funny.

At the beginning I’m always worried that I won’t come up with anything.  Most of the time I’ve pulled myself through.

Paul's Zelinskograph

Paul's Zelinskograph

Paul then showed us his ‘Zelinskograph’ - a marvellous device he made so he could see a projection of his sketch on top of the surface he wanted to paint on. He called it a tracing box but his friends coined it the ‘Zelinskograph’.  Here’s great blog post with a clear photo of the ‘Zelinskograph’

Q - It has been heard that you’ve said. “Photoshop doesn’t have a lovely smell and you don’t engage in a physical dance as you would with physical material, as you would with pen and paper, but it takes forgiveness to whole new level”.  What’s the role that Photoshop plays for you?

I don’t expect to plan or go more and more digital. The last book I did was completely digital.

Paul then shows us some spreads from his hilarious book ‘Doodler Doodling’ by Rita Golden Gelman .  "I didn’t take a course in Photoshop, but I would try things. I did a lot of drawings on paper and then scanned them in and put them into Photoshop and every now and then a friend would say ‘oh do you know the right way to do that was this...’.  ‘Oh was it?’  and it would have saved me a lot of time if I had used Photoshop in a different way. So it turned out I did a lot of things wrong, wasted a lot of time, but learned a lot, too..

Spread from Doodler Doodling

Spread from Doodler Doodling

Photoshop allows me to do things that I could not have drawn.

I like the challenge - here’s the problem, what can I do to solve the problem… and if I come up with the solution then that’s just great and Photoshop is good for finding ways to coming up with solutions to certain problems.

Q - We have a lot of people who are just starting out in their Illustrator career - what’s pearls of wisdom could you provide?

Paul notes that this is just from his experience and not the only way.

  • I would encourage people to not limit your artistic vision to illustration, but think about the whole world of other kinds of art and everything. There are a lot of trends that happen in illustration… and if you look only at children's books then it’s limiting…and that’s just me because I didn’t study illustration.
  • I go to figure drawing and draw from the figure once a week if I can. Drawing from life is a great thing and is good for training.
  • In terms of ways that you can make images, I just look at different things.
  • And copy Art. It’s amazing what you can learn if you just start copying it.
  • Writers as an exercise will retype someone else’s story and the act of putting down someone’s words will give you insights.
  • Drawing from life is similar to copying from art. It teaches you to see more things then you would otherwise see.

Career advice? It’s different now  from when I started. Illustrators in the US, can send their work to Art Directors and it will be seen.   (Giuseppe: from what I’ve heard, it’s the same here in Australia. Publishers are always keen to receive samples of an Illustrator’s work.)

Q - how much freedom do you get to experiment? How much notice do you have to give your Publishers?

I show them at an early stage and I like to get feedback.

I look it as a terrific collaboration -  they need an artist, they need art…and they want someone with a vision, someone who can have interesting ideas. Everybody thinks that they are someone who wants to bring out the artistic potential in everybody. If you deal with people on that level - it is a collaboration. You try together to make it as interesting and fun as possible.

I’ll show them an idea very early. If I find they don’t like it I might agree. If I disagree then we’ll discuss it further.  Every publisher is different.

Questions from the audience :

Q - Do you still do painting for yourself?

No. When I first started out, I was making this distinction in my head, that this is for my art and this is for my illustration. I was using oil paint for my art and anything else for my illustration. I guess I came to the point I wanted to illustrate a Grimms' fairytale and I really needed/wanted to do it in oils, which blew my strategy out of the water. And then I started looking at the illustration work and I was making better art for the books than I was for myself. So I stopped and I don’t really miss it.

My ambition is channelled into the illustration I do - illustration is painting, it’s also pictures  telling stories and they are also as interesting as art as I can make them but they are also telling a story. I don’t think that it stops them from being art even though some may not think so.

Q - You mentioned a lot of about feeling - it’s the number one thing in your approach. What’s the second thing?

There will be feeling behind everything. The first thing that would help me make it would be the proportions of the book, is it going to vertical or horizontal and how much - and I guess that’s purely on feeling. I ask myself that and I can answer  because I know from having read the story.

The feelings are the sound basis for everything.

Every kind of real world physical question (what materials, what medium, etc) comes from the feeling but then you have what will the character look like… what should it not look like, what are the sensations of that character? are they soft or hard, big or little, darkness or lightness?

Hansel and Gretel…I had the feeling that it was about little children lost in a big wood and I could get the emotion to flood the image. That  was the basis of everything that I did …like the kinds of trees that I put in, the kinds of colours.

“The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless her Cat” by Lore Segal - I learnt from myself about using colour doing this book.

  • You don’t have to have a huge number of colours.
  • You can think of having a colour chord in relation to the book and that colours can change as the story changes and the emotions in the story change.
  • That was really a revelation and that too was all about the feeling of the story

[*Editorial addendum from Paul himself! "I thought afterwards that I should have answered the "what's the second thing" question differently: although I did speak in my response about book format andlook of character and use of color --so I wasn't totally deflecting the question back to my one answer of "feeling,"-- I wish I had mentioned the act of dividing the text up into pages. So much follows from the choices in that act-- the structure of a picture book; the rhythms and the pacing. Page turns are the one real dynamic artistic effect unique to books, and they are set in place by that one act, at the beginning, of taking the more or less continuous stream of text in a manuscript and turning into a 32-page (or whatever) codex. I didn't mention this and I wish I had. So I took the opportunity to tell you, even though I think it would be editorially wrong to include it here!"]

Susanne Gervay comes in to thank Paul, there’s a huge applause and that concludes the session.

Thanks Paul for your time - you wow’d us, you made us laugh, you left us inspired and empowered.

A big thanks again from the delegates there,


Giuseppe Poli Roving Reporter