Alexis Deacon: Visual Storytelling - SCBWI Conference 2013

Perfecting Your Illustration Technique

my pen poised for notes
Distracted by shadows

I arrived late. All the brushes had been handed out. I took out my pen ready to write or draw. Alexis Deacon was about to take away my familiar creative tool and hand me a paint brush - the long-handled chunky sort that I remember from school. With coffee cups on every table laced with watery, orangey acrylic paint, formality spilt onto the table and was mopped up with loo paper on several occasions. We played with visual narrative in ways I have never experienced before.

The focus was on making the pictures and shaping them so that readers can understand what they are looking at.

We started by painting several A3 pages of root vegetable shaped orangey splots.


Briget Strevens-Marzo & Anne-Marie Perks at Alexis Deacon Intensive Workshop SCBWI Conference 2013
Orangey Splots and coffee Pots with Alexis Deacon

























Gillian McClure (Left), Zam Zuppardi, Dave Cousins, Bridget Strevens-Marzo (Middle) Anne-Marie Perks (Right) and myself, amongst others, were liberated by this first of Alexis Deacon's intensive workshop techniques. Painting what would turn out to be backgrounds or frames for our individual narratives. While we waited for the paint to dry...

Power of context, rough drawing of girl enquiring at a mouse hole
"Where Did I Put The Cheese?"



 We began a sophisticated game of consequences - our visual brains muddled with keeping track of what caption went with which picture but, it didn't really matter. We wrote down a caption and drew in a frame. I felt like a kid again. I could draw anything I wanted and I didn't know what to draw!


With a helpful nudge from Margaret beside me, I began with a pencil line and I can't remember what I ended up with. We passed it on and responded to a new drawing and caption in front of us. Once we had begun - it was easier to respond to the illustration and caption we received. This was my response to "Where did I put the...cheese?"

We collected several narratives - maybe 100 frames. I lost count and Alexis chose some and put them under the illustrator's microscope - The Visualiser. I would normally have been hiding under a table at this point but somehow it wasn't too humiliating because as Alexis reminded us, we were all trying to communicate not demonstrate our illustration skills.

'Separate great drawing from great communication'

snails on a cliff edge looking a t a nucluer explosion
I know you are scared of heights...

The aim was to make every element in the frame count because the reader is looking for clues and wants to make a story out of every frame. For example, (I am sure Anne-Marie Perks will be mentioning this too), a large hen centre foreground and a small house to her right inspired the caption "Does it hurt when you lay a house?"

We had to pay attention to detail. The more information in a picture the more we are communicating. Focus on:

  • Behaviour/direction of light
  • implied journey
  • interaction with characters
  • directional gaze
  • space around and between characters
  • Point Of View

I drew snails on a cliff edge watching a nuclear explosion.


drawing on the orangey acrylic splot
Super Rabbit Saves The Day





















Our orangey splots were dry and we drew a contained narrative. Characters had to interact and we used the inherent strengths of the shape to illustrate an event. The shape I chose from our pile immediately suggested tunnel. I plucked a Derwent Vermillion red pencil from Alexis clutches and started with a pair of rabbits and decided to throw a load of rocks at them.

Alexis then invited us to choose a frame from our work in progress - one that is troubling us would be ideal and it was!

We were looking for information not aesthetics. My fellow illustrators discussed one of my frames.

Fox arrving at house
Original frame - Work In Progress

The most surprising thing was that they thought the characters knew each other (they didn't) and the Fox's gesture was ambiguous - it looked like he was waving - everyone was reading something other than I had intended. I realised that the focus was on the wrong character.

At Alexis suggestion - I changed the main character's Point Of View and put him and the reader inside the house looking out. Now we know a character is hiding indoors (concealment without awareness was difficult when both characters were so visible in my original) and looking out the window - we now see Fox arriving somewhere new.

Frame from Alexis Deacon's workshop
One day somebody stumbled upon...

Thank you, Alexis Deacon for an excellent intensive illustration workshop. It was good to have several hours focussing on Visual Storytelling at this year's British SCBWI Conference.

Lighting The Spark

I'm on fire!

Comments: 1 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    Bridget Strevens-Marzo (Monday, 25 November 2013 13:55)

    thanks for a great write-up - and all true. I arrived even later - but left re-charged!