Bruce Whatley’s Masterclasses

Roving reporter Peter Taylor’s impressions of multi-award-winning writer/illustrator Bruce Whatley’s presentations and workshop activities.

A sneak peak of Bruce's 'no compromise' project.

A sneak peak of Bruce's 'no compromise' project.

Attendees at Bruce Whatley’s picture-book Masterclasses varied in their levels of expertise from authors and writers with limited or no drawing expertise, to acclaimed artists, and he made us all feel equally at home, firstly breaking up a text into the normal 14 spreads, plus page 32 if required. We then envisaged characters and setting, and sketched a double page opening. It was fascinating to discover the range of imaginative interpretations that people considered.

It was also interesting to hear the experiences of published individuals as Bruce questioned the degree to which each publisher had tried to keep author and illustrator apart. (Publishers often try to do this, but they usually fight a losing battle in Australia as the majority of our children’s book creators are Facebook friends, at the very least.) Bruce feels that when completely separated, it’s easy for neither partner to see the big picture, and though he discards most illustration suggestions, he recognises that, in general, books are improved by an element of dialogue and cooperation. Bruce also highlighted the danger in self-publishing if there’s a lack of external professional artist input from an art director or similarly qualified individual. It would also be preferred that someone who is an art creator or expert is involved in choosing an appropriate book cover design, not just have this task left to sales and marketing professionals to announce their requirements.

Bruce provided so much useful advice that we all wrote notes by the dozen – “…on a spread, the action takes place from left to right. …It doesn’t work to flip a picture horizontally. …Be consistent in placing the text so that readers don’t have to search for it – start in the same place on each spread…”

Image from  Flood  created using his left hand.

Image from Flood created using his left hand.

While it’s possible for writers to manufacture stories by creating lists and other devices, attendees nodded in agreement with Bruce that the best ones invariably come from the soul – predominantly based on experiences and family happenings. He recounted how several of his own stories came to be written and we marvelled at the detail in the large-sized originals on full sheets of watercolour paper that were shown and passed around - and also in the wide variety of styles and media in which he has worked over the years.

Bruce’s descriptions of his drawing and painting techniques, his answers to questions and the input from other attendees will all be immensely useful – though we were encouraged to develop our own personal styles and working methods. As a large number of illustrators favour watercolours, I was delighted to discover that, like me, Bruce has used diluted gouache for some works, and that he doesn’t stretch paper.  Few of us will immediately purchase the Cinema 4D computer program that he demonstrated, but we greatly appreciated looking over his shoulder as he worked, and now have an awareness of its potential value and capabilities.

I think that many of us, in the coming months, will continue to reflect on Bruce’s ‘no compromise’ ideal, but with the acclaim and awards gained for his books, it was surprising that when he develops a new project idea, it is not always instantly accepted by the first publisher he contacts. We must all recognise through our research that each publisher’s list has a unique blend of book styles, and Bruce also gets told that ‘…we don’t publish books like this.’

After we had created interesting characters and settings according to the random criteria supplied by audience members, and then based our design on someone else’s effort (try drawing a jealous astronaut jellyfish wearing a neck-tie and living in ancient Rome (OK, just use a few of them)), we transitioned to unfamiliar territory and drawing with our left hand. A still-life was drawn firstly with the right hand, and then with the left, and most of us agreed that the line quality was more interesting when using the left hand (except for James Foley’s version, because he’s naturally left-handed). And then our final task was to sketch Bruce as our model, initially with black Conté pastel in our right hand and white in our left (equal amounts of black and white to be applied in five minutes), and then with the colours swapped. The result, for me, who’s unaccustomed to drawing people: I certainly did find it easier to get more realistic proportions with the black in my left hand – the top left picture shown in the image, and I believe others felt likewise.

I’ll need to experiment a lot more prior to drawing the illustrations for a whole book using only my left hand, as Bruce did for ‘Giants of Galapagos’ and ‘Flood’.

Thank you, Bruce, for inspiring us and for all that you so generously shared.

Master Classes are Open for all SCBWI Members!

As a special feature of the SCBWI International Conference, outstanding presenters conduct the optional 3-hour Master Classes on Wednesday 16th July 2014. Bookings have been opened up for all SCBWI Members but only a few remain in each class so Book Now!

The presenters are:


Connie Hsu
Senior Commissioning Editor, Roaring Brook USA

Connie Hsu accepted the role in 2014 of Senior Commissioning Editor for Roaring Brooks, an imprint of Pan MacMillan USA. While at Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Connie Hsu acquired everything from board books to YA. She loves books that give readers a visceral reaction, be it goose bumps, butterflies, or a surprised laugh. She has worked with award-winning and bestselling authors and illustrators such as Tom Lichtenheld (This is a Moose), Dan Santat (Crankenstein, The Adventures of Beekle), Nina Laden and Renata Liwksa (Once Upon a Memory), and Pseudonymous Bosch (The Secret Series, Bad Magic). She has worked with Australian authors such as R.A. Spratt (Nanny Piggins) and Simon Higgins (Moonshadow), and has a new YA novel forthcoming with Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children)


Bruce Whatley
Internationally and nationally acclaimed Australian illustrator

Bruce Whatley is one of the most highly regarded and talented authors and illustrators for children, both in Australia and internationally. Bruce started his working life in advertising as an art director and illustrator and since then he has created over 60 picture books. His books have won awards both in Australia and overseas, including The Ugliest Dog in the World, Looking for Crabs, Tails from Grandad’s Attic and Detective Donut, The Little Refugee, Whately’s Quest and The Wild Goose Chase.  He write and illustrates his own books as well as is part of the dynamic duo with Jackie French creating the multi million selling books in the Diary of a Wombat brand.

Meredith Costain
Meredith Costain is a commissioning editor, editorial consultant for publishing houses, reviewer, award winning children’s author. She commissiona and writes in a wide variety of genres including picture books, chapter books, novels, series in both fiction and non fiction in trade, commercial, educational and licensed material such as Dance Academy and Bindi

Master Classes – Wednesday 16th July

9am to noon:
Connie Hsu—Diversity in All Types of Books
Bruce Whatley—Crafting the Picture Book
Meredith Costain—Hooks to Keep Readers Turning Pages

1pm to 4pm:
Connie Hsu—Hands On Picture Book Intensive
Bruce Whatley—Advanced Techniques

Cost: $95—3 hour session—Bookings have been opened up for all SCBWI Members but only a few places remain in each class so Book Now!

More Portfolio Critiques—by Popular Demand!

As a special option for Illustrators who are attending the Sydney Conference 2014, Bruce Whatley and Stephen Axelsen are providing an opportunity for delegates to have a top professional critique of their work. By popular demand we have opened up additional time slots but places are limited so Book Now!

Bruce Whatley


Bruce Whatley spent the earlier part of his working life in advertising as an art director and illustrator but since 1992 he has written and/or illustrated over 60 children’s picture books published both in Australia and overseas. The award winning titles include The Ugliest Dog in the World, Looking for Crabs, Detective Donut and the Wild Goose Chase, Diary of a Wombat and Baby Wombat’s Week which took out the Australian Book Industry Award in 2010Flood and The Little Refugee both were CBCA Honour books in 2012 and Nog and the Land of Noses a Notable book. His main inspiration has been his family, who feature in several of his earlier picture books. He uses a variety of illustration medium including gouache, pen and ink, pencil, oils, watercolour and more recently CGI software. He aims to entertain and surprise the reader with illustration styles that vary considerably depending on the text and the age group of the audience.

Stephen Axelsen

Stephen Axelsen was born in Sydney, Australia. He grew a lot of hair and went to university where he drew cartoons on folder dividers and earned a degree in Social Sciences. After university he fell into books and publishing more or less by accident. His first book was published in 1975 and he has worked in children’s book publishing ever since. He lives with his wife Jennifer, Waldo the dog, and Pippi the budgie. He used to have babies but they grew into great big people and went away. Stephen mostly writes and illustrates humour because he is a moderately funny person, in a serious sort of way.