SCBWI Picture Book Retreat 2014

painting outdoors Caran D'ache Paints
Caran D'ache Gouache Paints

It helps if you have a good reason to go on a writers' or illustrators' retreat but it's not essential. Sometimes you surprise yourself.


I needed to explore colour again. My picture book in progress has had interest from a publisher - (ooo, I love that phrase). And also, an A4 letter of suggested changes.

 Since returning from the retreat a week ago, I have re-read and checked those comments and I'm amazed to find that I have cracked the story problem, broken the colour barrier, even rewritten the whole thing and it was all down to one tiny little thing:

The Mini Book

I've made many dummy books - scrappy little ones - full-size labour intensive ones but this has to be my favourite. Sarah McIntyre showed me how to make one years ago but I couldn't for the life of me remember how to make it. Note to self - this is how you do it.

Make 4 of these altogether to make a 32 page dummy book.


photo of my goal setting postcard from SCBWI retreat

This was the diagram I drew on my goal-setting postcard. Our illustrious SCBWI Illustrator Coordinator, Anne-Marie Perks, encouraged us to set ourselves 3 achievable goals by the end of the year - write them on a postcard and hand them to her before we left the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat last Sunday. I photographed mine so I could remember what I planned to do over the next several months. Was that cheating, Anne-Marie?

Colour is my goal

Garden colours
Garden colours

I re-packed my bag for the retreat several times. I couldn't decide what to take for my colouring. Acrylic tubes were too heavy to take by train. Colour pencils and brush pens don't allow for mixing.


I pulled out my art trolley and dug deep. The Caran D'Ache gouache paintbox I'd had for at least 10 years and never used was begging to go with me.


7.30am on the first morning, I was in the garden testing the paints and trying to capture the 2 colours I had spotted in a patio pot the evening before.

Imagination and observation

Helen Stephens at SCBWI Picture Book Retreat 2014
Helen Stephens 'How To Hide A Lion'

 When I signed up for the retreat, I requested help with my colour work and I was paired with Helen Stephens. We talked about my picture book story and agreed the text still needed work. Helen suggested that I draw in colour with a limited palette. Limited palette, I do - but DRAW in colour - yes, let's do it! So I painted character sketches and realised my main character was the wrong colour. I painted 4 colour spreads in my minibook, coloured 8 more spreads when I got home and now it's done.


The most amazing thing about focusing on the colour is that I re-imagined the story and I'm halfway through goal no.2, part of which was to rewrite the ending.

Alexis Deacon demonstrations his observations of life in the retreat garden
Alexis In Wonderland

Alexis Deacon reminded us that observation is the key to our unique vision and sent us into the garden in search of things to draw or write about.


In groups we sat around an object and had to find 30 ways of describing it. Try it! It makes you study an object. The real test was when Alexis sprung a drawing exercise on us - draw the object from memory.


Then with a list of descriptions from another group, we sat down to illustrate a thing with these attributes. I homed in on the list that mentioned a colour! So this is what it looked like - I didn't see the object until after I'd drawn it.

Lollipop Toy

Imagination/Observation exercise -
Lollipop Toy
  • wearing a jester hat
  • wears a scarlet dress
  • it has shaggy hair
  • lollipop shaped
  • feathery plume
  • something to play with

Armed with colour and character, I set up in part of the garden at the retreat. Alexis stopped by and dropped a book title in my head. Had I read Theory Of Colours by Goethe? No - but it's on my desk now and I know I'm going to have a lovely time reading it in my garden. In my imagination, my garden will always look like this.

Bug-eyed at the end of the retreat

So, I am off to buy some colours. I plan to give my eyes a rest before I begin to tackle my 'best piece of artwork for my main character'. Helen - you are a jewel - Alexis, you are a gem and SCBWI - see you again! I should add that all picture book retreats are best experienced with a mix of illustrators and writers. Work is so much more colourful.

Comments: 7 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    Candy Gourlay (Saturday, 02 August 2014 13:01)

    Wow! I love your report, Sue. You really were focused the entire time. It's good to have specific goals. I'll remember that next time.

  • #2

    Fran Price (Saturday, 02 August 2014 15:48)

    That's a lovely summary of a great retreat, Sue. So much inspiration, so many talented people. Thank you Anne-Marie and everyone involved in organising this.

  • #3

    Sue Eves (Saturday, 02 August 2014 18:08)

    Thanks Candy & Fran - it's good to hear from you. Yes - I felt the retreat was all the better for being filled with so many creative brains.
    It really was worth every minute. Candy - we didn't really expect to be critiquing up to midnight on the last night, did we?

  • #4

    Pippa Roberts (Saturday, 02 August 2014 18:20)

    Wow! This sounds wonderful. I'm working on what could be a picture book, but will need the publisher to find an illustrator. I'd love to be able to do it all!

  • #5

    Sue Hyams (Sunday, 03 August 2014 17:19)

    I so enjoyed reading this, Sue, and seeing your lovely colours. In fact this post has made me set some goals of my own. Thank you!

  • #6

    Sue Eves (Monday, 04 August 2014 00:51)

    Pippa - you can still make the mini book - writing the text on the pages helps set the pacing of the story.
    Thanks Sue - don't forget to send yourself a goal-setting postcard too! Or give it to someone to post for you in a few weeks time :) Have fun
    Sue Eves

  • #7

    Jane Porter (Sunday, 10 August 2014 18:56)

    Catching up late here but what a lovely report - of a fantastic weekend! Can't wait for next year, so nice to meet everyone...