What is an Art Director Really Looking For? with Sarah Davis

Art Director of Walker Books, Sarah Davis, shared her wisdom in a very captivating way. Not only an amazing artist but a true storyteller (check out Sarah’s amazing art, here.) Sarah shared the key things an Art Director is looking for in a meaningful way, particularly for those of us who are still not sure of the difference between an illustrator and an artist. The answer?

Art Director Sarah Davis’ break out session for illustrators

Art Director Sarah Davis’ break out session for illustrators

What is an Art Director looking for?

Illustrators who are talented, professional and have the x-factor.

Sarah’s 7 key topics:


  • Become confident in your use of technique and mediums.

  • You need to be able to draw - observational, expressive

  • Understand the formal elements of art - light, tone, form, structure, mark-making etc.

  • Remember a beautiful artwork is not the same as a successful illustration.

  • Ask, how can I develop my Technical skills?

  • Lots of learning and doing

  • Lots of observational drawing

  • Take classes

  • Experiment with different media

  • Research other artists work. What works? What do you like? What don’t you like?


  • Can you help the reader connect and empathise with the characters?

  • Can you show mood or emotion?

  • Do your poses show expression?

  • Show interaction between characters - establishing clear relationships

  • Interesting personalities

  • Character consistency

  • How can I become better at creating a feeling towards the characters?

  • Lots of practice.

  • Observe and collect - draw lots of people in your life and around you

  • Learn from yourself - pose!

  • Be prepared to draw and redraw and redraw until you know your characters - once is not enough


  • Remember you must tell a good story, that has clarity and continuity

  • Can you create emotional punch?

  • Can you make the reader curious - What just happened? What might happen next? What’s at stake?


  • Make sure your work is appropriate for the genre, age group and publisher you are submitting to

  • Look at your competition. What makes you special/different/better?

  • Visit libraries, bookshops, publisher’s websites. Take note of the publisher on the imprint pages of books you love. Who is a good fit for your style?

  • Look at other artists on the internet eg: Behance, Pinterest, Instagram and look at the hashtags that they use. Try #australianillustrator and many others


  • Does your work have an energy, ideas, freshness?

  • Do you have an interesting use of media?

  • Maybe you show unusual concepts?

  • Is it expressive?

  • How can I create my own interesting voice?

  • Sometimes finding your voice can be tricky. Before we become lost in how to make art, focus on storytelling first - can you tell a good visual story?

  • Then work out what your other passion is and improve your skills in that area… eg:

  • Line and form?

  • Light?

  • Colour?

  • Pattern?

  • Media?

  • Character?

  • Setting?


  • Same as any other profession.

  • Can you deliver on time and to specifications?

  • Can you follow a brief?

  • Be professional and collaborative. Open and dependable and flexible.


  • Only show your strongest work

  • Does it show the above 6 topics? Does it show the depth of your capabilty?


There is no cookie cutter answer - we’ll know it when we see it!

Watch the above video for the main takeaway moments of this session.

I really appreciated Sarah’s insightful break down into topics that we could focus on. I also really appreciated the encouragement Sarah gave to us all - one of them being this wonderful statement ….


I love this. It elevates us from just making pictures. It lifts our gaze. It calls us to focus on story.

And the other statement…

…there is room for everyone.

This is so true. Just look at all the different art styles that shine in loved books all over the world.

As a fellow visual storyteller, growing, learning, trying to improve… I hope this report helps you grow and I wish you all the best!

Make the art that moves you

then make the visual stories

that move us all.

by Giuseppe Poli


SketchLook! September 2016

SketchLook is an ongoing feature of the SCBWI Blog. It is a glimpse into the working process of artists, how we experiment, think through our ideas, stretch our imagination and observe the world. This is a glimpse at current work in progress, free doodles, rough drawings, and sketches from life. CLICK HERE to participate in SketchLook.


Take a peek at the working drawings and sketchbooks of some of our members:

Nicky Johnston — When I am looking to buy a new hand bag, the deciding factor is whether or not it will accommodate my sketch book and pencil case!

A sketchbook is an essential accessory and I have one with me at all times. I use it every single day.

It is my visual diary, of things around me, children, places, feelings, events, moments that I need to capture. Nearly all of my initial book roughs begin in my sketch books. I store all my sketchbooks in my studio for easy access and I often use them for reference or inspiration.

Giuseppe Poli — The recent SCBWI Sydney conference was amazing. I received a huge amount of feedback, confirmed previous thoughts, learnt a lot of new things.

Biggest takeaways for me :
- regularly challenge myself
- find what I love and illustrate that.

One of the biggest challenges for me is keeping a regular art practice... too often I'm stifled by fear of making mistakes...so these pics show how I'm challenging myself.

Lots of real life drawing (didn't really do that before), lots of free form experimenting, trying different media, exploring different ideas, constantly creating.

I can't wait to see where this leads.

A call-out for the next selection will be sent out in good time but members of SCBWI Australia East & New Zealand are invited to submit images at any time. Work should be scans or snapshots of sketchbook pages featuring sketches, drawings from life or working drawings. Up to five images, Jpeg format, 72 dpi, 750px width maximum. Kindly avoid overlaying text on images and other digital manipulation. CLICK HERE to submit images for SketchLook.

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 http://www.paulozelinsky.com/, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/paulozelinsky.illustration/) and twitter (https://twitter.com/paulozelinsky)

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