Claire Alexander: How I created 'Creating Picture Books'

Author, illustrator and tutor Claire Alexander on why she created her popular short illustration courses - and what participants can expect to get out of them

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  • Claire Alexander
  • Education

When I decided I wanted to create picture books for a living, I looked into available short illustration course options, and attended several very good ones. However, there was a noticeable lack of courses that taught both illustration and writing.

Later, once my first three books had been published, I felt I'd learned enough to share with others, and set about designing a course to answer all the burning questions I'd had at the beginning. How do I create compelling characters and write suitable stories? How do I storyboard my ideas? What layouts and compositions should I use? What mediums work best? What kind of work are publishers interested in and what's the best way to approach them?

The result was a highly structured ten-week course which addresses all of the above, featuring exercises to inspire new ideas, along with plenty of support with one-to-one tuition and group feedback.

I have been running these courses - at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels - for a number of years in north London, with many students going on to be signed by agencies and publishers. However, when the House of Illustration opened it seemed like the perfect home to make these courses London-wide.

I ran the first beginners course there in April 2015. It attracted a broad demographic of students, ranging in artistic ability from those who haven't drawn or written since their school days to professional illustrators and authors looking to break into picture books.

I encouraged everyone to try their hand at both writing and illustrating, even if they ultimately wanted to specialise in one. People often end up surprising themselves with what they can achieve - and besides, text and image are so entwined in picture books, it's important to understand how they work together.

We began by reading some best-selling picture books and questioning why they might be popular. The group immediately bonded in discussion over their shared passion. Imaginations were sparked and week by week compelling stories and endearing characters emerged in sketch books. I taught some watercolour and acrylic techniques which helped enhance painting skills.

Many commented on how much fun they were having and how much they were learning. I brought in my own work and showed the process of creating my recent book Monkey and the Little One. Some were shocked at how much effort goes into making a simple picture book. This can be offputting to some, but the group were determined and went on to rough out some very promising storyboards. Some who were able to put in extra hours at home reached the book dummy stage.

The group were keen to build on the fantastic work they had done, and in September I ran an intermediate level short illustration course designed for students to continue developing characters, storyboards and book dummies. The course featured guest talks from publishers, agents and illustrators working in the business today.

We were very lucky to meet Suzie from Bright Group and Sam Arthur from Flying Eye Books who both gave excellent talks and feedback on students work. We were also privileged to meet the author and illustrator Emily Hughes when she visited to show us her brilliant work. She let us into her creative process and even graced our copies of her books with beautiful line drawings.

One of the brilliant advantages of being at the House of Illustration is that students benefit from free entry into their top class exhibitions. During a lesson on depicting children, for example, we took our sketchbooks into the superb Ladybird Books exhibition, with students producing some great images as a result.

I love teaching these courses and am constantly inspired by the talent and enthusiasm of my students. I'm always learning from them, and love it when someone brings in a book I haven't seen before or when they tell me about a website or an illustration tool they've discovered.

I hate it when a course ends, as I miss seeing everyone every week! I'm delighted to hear that my last group are going to be meeting up weekly to support each other along their continuing journey into the picture book world, and I wish them all the very best of luck!

Claire Alexander
Picture Books course leader

Claire's next short illustration course, her popular Introduction to Creating Picture Books, runs 5 January to 15 March 2016. Find out more and download the course outline here.