During October and November 2018 I took the five week ‘Illustrating Children’s Books’ MATS (Make Art That Sells) online course hosted by Lilla Rogers and Zoë Tucker. I thought it might be nice to share my experience here in case anyone else is considering this course, or just looking for a children’s illustration course in general.
The aim of the course is to assist you to produce several pieces of work for your portfolio to help pitch your illustrations professionally. Just before the course begins you are given three texts (children’s stories written by Lilla and Zoë) to read through, so you can decide which you would like to work with. You are also given access to a Facebook Group specifically for members of the class. This means that throughout the course you can chat with your classmates, share with others what you are working on, and find and give support. I found this group to be warm and friendly, but it is quite large so sometimes posts can get swallowed up quickly. I personally also found it a bit addictive so by the end of week three I had to cut back on posting and replying because I was getting distracted - with the class being global there was always someone on there to talk to! However it was nice to know that there was a bunch of people in exactly the same creative boat as me.
Each day (apart from Sunday) you are given a daily prompt to work on for ten minutes or so, to help you get started and loosen up, these correspond with the subject that you are working on that week, so it is something that you can refer back to as you work on the main assignments. I found these prompts really useful as they were a great exercise to get you moving each day without all the worry and procrastination, they also reminded me of the importance of drawing from reference, it was good to get back into that practice. The only problem with the prompts that I had was my own lack of self discipline, if I happened to be enjoying a prompt, ten minutes could easily turn in an hour or more.
On Monday you would be given a mini assignment, the aim of these is to introduce you to the main assignment gently, you have two days for the mini and then on Wednesday you are given the main assignment that you have until Sunday to complete. Once completed you upload your main assignment to the gallery on the website (mini assignments can be shared in the Facebook Group), then on the following Wednesday the gallery goes live and you can look through all the work produced by the class.
On the Wednesday after submitting your assignment, Lilla and Zoë do a review of some of the work from the gallery. They choose around twenty pieces and talk through what is great about them and also suggest ways in which they can be improved. You are warned before purchase that not everybody will get personal feedback on their work, so it is up to each illustrator to take the advice from the video and apply it to their own work. Looking at the gallery, I would estimate that there are at least 250 people taking the course, so it just isn’t possible for every piece of work to be commented on, those twenty chosen pieces create a review video over an hour long - you would be there all day if everyone was featured!
Each week you are also given at least one article/interview/video/info sheet a day (apart from Sunday), but most days it is more than one. These cover a range of things such as interviews with illustrators and publishers, articles on how to approach art directors and what they are looking out for, what is actually involved when you get a job (how projects work), as well as guidance on the main assignment. I think this might have been my favourite part of the course, you are basically being told a whole heap of stuff you wouldn’t usually know unless you have been there and done it already. It has given me more confidence on what to expect once I’m happy with my portfolio and I try and find work.
Week one was all about the main character. We began by reading through our chosen text searching for clues about their personality, inventing the accessories we thought they would wear and carry, before we moved on to drawing the actual character. I hadn’t thought of doing this before and it helped me to understand my character more thoroughly, and flesh him out a bit.
In week two we concentrated on emotions and expressions, drawing nothing but the head and playing with how we could convey meaning through the face. This was built on in week three by adding the body and developing poses to go with some of those expressions, trying to ensure that meaning was being communicated consistently throughout the whole character.
During week four we worked on environment with the main assignment being a double page spread. This was the assignment that I was most nervous about. I mostly work traditionally using watercolour ink and sometimes find it difficult to bring the characters and their surroundings together neatly and naturally. The course permits any medium, traditional or digital so I decided to paint each element separately then brought all the pieces together in Photoshop. I am as slow at Photoshop as I am painting, so it still took me ages but it did take the pressure off - if I made a mistake while painting, I wouldn’t have to do the whole thing all over again (whether I’ll continue to work like that I’m not sure yet).
In the final week we worked on the front cover (see top of post). By the final Tuesday, working from first thing in the morning to late most days had aggravated my crummy back and I was having difficulty sitting for any length of time. I felt I had to rush to get the cover done and dusted, which is a shame, but I was still pleased that I finished every assignment - I uploaded the cover on the Friday and I can’t lie, I was happy to have a free weekend back after four weeks without one!
So was it worth it and did I enjoy it? Yes it was and yes I did (I even had a tiny cry at it after I uploaded the final assignment… or maybe I was just overworked! :) ). It is, if you want it to be, a lot of work, the amount of information given to you and the amount you are asked to do is intense, but I also found it great fun and exhilarating to be part of something, and to have set deadlines and goals. I was also surprised by how much work I actually produced in five weeks. Although I wasn’t entirely happy with my character and aspects of my other assignments, I now feel like I have a better idea of what things I need to change and work on in order to improve, and I’m looking forward to working through all the downloads and absorbing all the information and advice properly. I now also feel more confident about what my next steps will be once I am happy with my portfolio, I feel like I’m in a position to make a plan.
Were there any negatives? Not especially, but it is worth taking note of a few things that might make you feel a little negative personally, what with us creative types inclined to be a little more emotional or sensitive than others. Firstly, the course is quite a lot of money, that’s not to say it isn’t great value, but if you are going to spend your money on it, get the most out of it that you can by committing as much time to it as possible. Also it seems really obvious to me in hindsight, but when you purchase the course, as far as I can remember, the product page doesn't mention ‘may be subject to VAT’, so when I had (just under) an extra £80 added to my basket, it wasn’t the most pleasant surprise!
Secondly, you know you shouldn’t be comparing yourself to others, we all know that, but when you are surrounded by so many different styles and mediums, it can be really hard not to. You will need to have little mantras along the lines of “I’m me, I’m being me, they are doing them, and I am doing me” for the days when you aren’t feeling so confident. My experience, (and from what I can tell the experience of a lot of people in the Facebook group), is that the course is a bit of an emotional roller coaster, one minute you are motivated and enthusiastic and the next you feel like a sack of crap (we all have some kind of pesky doubts right?), it is a great practice for pushing through and continuing to work while you are feeling like that sack of crap. Of course the other side to there being so much other work to compare yourself to is that it is really inspiring - there is so much eye-candy.
I think the final thing I want to mention goes back to the review. My work wasn’t chosen for review, and while you know that statistically it is unlikely, each week you still hope that you are chosen. You don’t even realise that you were hoping until you aren’t in there and then you feel disappointment. It is pretty weird to feel disappointment for something you didn’t know you were hoping for… it isn’t the best feeling, but it isn’t the end of the world either, you soon get over it, you don’t have time to dwell on it, you have another assignment to start! I just figured I wasn’t standing out enough, I wasn’t hitting the mark, and if I’m honest with myself that is perfectly fair, I need to improve - and I will.