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Roaming in Rome: Illustrator Retreat with Birgitta Sif and InkyLarks

First time in Rome. First time on an illustrator's retreat (or any retreat for that matter!). First time saying Ciao to everyone I pass. First time gaining distance and making progress at the same time! Many firsts after my week in Rome, a week of utter joy, growth and chats filled to the brim with laughter and stories.

This strange city of ancient and beautiful statues, architecture and history, coloured by gritty graffiti and the smell of fresh spring Jasmin mixed with stale wine (or urine), but we all love it! No one wonder all the wayfinding signs in the airports are written in Chinese and German! We love the pasta, we love the buildings and my oh my, do we love the Vatican! ( Those queues! Never again!). Whilst all of these activities were on my list and boy and boy did I tick box my list, I went to Rome for the sole purpose to go on an Illustration Retreat with the amazing Illustrator and teacher, Birgitta Sif hosted and organized by Diletta from Inkylarks.

I was a bit skeptical about going on a retreat - how do I explain and justify this to my husband, family and peers, but I can honestly say that it was the best decision, and as creatives I think it's incredibly valuable to our practice to be removed from the day-to-day, to be surrounded by other creatives, to rest and to be challenged to work and think in a different way. Plus it's Rome - why not? All jokes aside though, I would highly recommend this retreat with Birgitta, and the concept of retreats for creatives!

I started off my trip, waiting for my lovely carefree airbnb host, who after some time, showed up to the flat ( as you can pick up, I'm not a very patient person but let's just say, I have learnt that things happen a bit slower in Italy - they've got Italian time). After visiting the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, and gazing at beautiful paintings and gilded frescoes, I treated myself to a gelato and stroll through the streets, finding the Spanish steps and Trevi Fountain, overflowed with tourists. Finally sitting down to a bowl of Cacio e pepe pasta at a little restaurant somewhere in Trastevere.

The next morning, I visited the Pantheon and admired this impressive building with the most incredible architecture, the first thing I thought of when I walked in, was - surely when it rains, the floor will become so wet and slippery ( note everything in Rome is marble), funnily enough, all my questions were answered, with the wise Roman's having had this same thought, they made small holes in the floor and a gradual slope of the floor, meaning the rain water slowly drains to the center - they were a wise bunch, weren't they?

That afternoon, I met up with Birgitta Sif and Diletta in the most amazing apartment - with beautiful windowsills with bright red geraniums, paintings and a shiny grand piano. Meeting the rest of the group, was a bit nerve-racking, after all we are a bunch of strangers. Well, this past week, those strangers became my friends, a group of illustrators who shared stories, cried and laughed till we cried! I can't quite explain the utter joy there was in that studio, or the excitement when someone asked what pencils you use or what sketchbooks you prefer. There is something quite amazing about spending time with people who are so passionate about the same thing, who are so keen to learn and eager to grow as creatives, it was such a joyous time, a week I will never forget and friendships I will treasure.

Illustrators Retreat, Birgitta Sif, InkyLarks, Rome

Each day, Birgitta took us through a short discussion/ lecture on a different aspect of picture book illustration, we looked at layout, discussed the relationship between text and image and argued which cover we'd prefer from different books editions. Learning so much from our discussions about the publishing industry, the process and the hours and hours of work it takes to get a picturebook made, only for additional changes to be made depending on the country it's being published in. And laughing at the strange requests made by art directors!

Each of us shared our picturebook story or pitch at the beginning of the week, and over the course of the week we would storyboard, adjusting, planning and reworking many, many, many times until it was just so! Of course, we had to make time for exploring the city, stopping for ice-cream, eating delicious food and admiring the small narrow, cobbled streets with interesting characters. It was so lovely to sit and sketch for a while with friends, chatting about plans, dreams and life really.

I really enjoyed the taught sessions, and Birgitta is an incredible teacher who cares so much, has buckets of advice and wisdom - guiding you carefully to think about your work in a different perceptive. There were so many lessons, I've learnt over the course of this week, but here some of my big ones:

  1. The relationship between image and text, sometimes it felt quite obvious to me but it's so so important to consider this relationship, what each word and image is saying to the reader, to each other or about each other. Having read about it is one thing, but looking through different examples and discussing it brings the concept to life, even as cliche as it sounds!

  2. Distance is key. I have a story to tell, and maybe one day I will tell it, because I want people to understand, because I want change, because I want justice - but for now, I needed the distance, and with that distance I was able to storyboard my picturebook, which helped me make distance in the long run.

  3. Our childhood, our stories make for the best stories. I know that my childhood is rich with imagination, rich with joy and stories - and I've never thought of it as a source I could easily tap into maybe a bit of fear, maybe a bit of sadness - but during this week I learnt just how unique and valuable that childhood is.

  4. Community is key. Finding people who you can chat to, laugh with and talk to about the most absurd but real things, is so important and it has filled my cup through and through! This is a lonely profession, and only once I started explaining and showing my work did I realize just how valuable it is to get input from others, to get a different perspective - for someone to point something out that was so obvious! Find a friend - go on an illustration retreat!

  5. Examine more picturebooks, I can easily purchase picturebooks and page through, admiring the illustrations, looking up the illustrator and publisher and then leaving it on my shelf for another day, but I've forgotten what it's like to have a book read out loud, to look for the little clues and stories on each page, I had forgotten to embrace my childlike reading, but I'm going to remedy this!

After a week of drawing, chatting, eating and days filled with laughter, we each got to read our stories to each other, it was such a wonderful experience. Seeing how far each one of us had come, and to be encouraged to continue working on it even as we set off back to reality of work and life.

Luckily, before returning home, I was able to tick a few more off my bucket list, I was able to visit the Borghese gallery, which was beautiful but I got sidetracked by a really amazing horse show in the park, and I must sadly admit that it was more entertaining to sit and admire the shiny horses and their trainers, and of course all the spectators dressed in white with boots. Still don't quite know how I got access to this show, let's just say I stumbled in....From there, I made my way to the Vatican Museum, which I must confess made me feel a bit like a cow being shuffled through gates and doors, I don't think there was a time where I wasn't surrounded by tourists, many just pushing to get to the Sistine Chapel, which was beautiful to witness and see in real life. I couldn't leave Rome without stopping by the beautiful markets, admiring the amazing abundance of fruit and of course treating myself to my final slice of pizza, I firmly believe that everything tastes better in Rome, and definitely the tomatoes.

I will miss the delicious food, the beautiful buildings and summer sun, red and shiny tomatoes, but I will miss my small group of friends even more, thank you for filling my bucket with inspiration, hope and an even stronger desire to learn and make picturebooks! Thank you- Birgitta and Diletta.

Till Bologna, and more vino and pasta!


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Awwww!!! Loved reading this! Missing our chats already! Such a memorable week in Rome we had!!! ❤️

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