“The field we love and live on is infected with thieves and peddlers. No new brush stroke can appear in any publication but some skillful craftsman in a studio can master it by the following noon. I am not opposed to these people because of their mastery of technique, but rather they are not provoked to perform out of an observation of humanity…Really it’s because they have observed and coveted the success of another. Should they ever look at the public, whom we must actually see in order to communicate, they would see nothing at all.”—
Austin Briggs, on American illustration in the 1950s-60s during a talk before the Minneapolis-St.Paul Association of Professional Artists, 1965.
From The Illustrator in America 1900-1960, compiled and edited by Walt Reed.
Hi! I see that you are a professor at MCA? I've been accepted into their Illustration program this fall. They've given me a generous scholarship and seem to be very interested in me. But I've looked online at the reviews and they just have me scared. What was your experience like teaching there? Do you personally think it's a good place to study? I've been accepted to SVA's illustration program as well. I would value your input on which school I should consider attending! Thanks much!
This might have been better suited as an e-mail, but I’ll answer it here. If you have further questions, please email me at john (at) johnleedraws.com.
I no longer teach at MCA, as I am about to pursue my Masters at, er, SVA. I actually received a very similar question earlier, which you can check out here. I’ll try and be as unbiased as possible; that means the good, the bad, the ugly.
A BFA is a very risky proposition for the money invested; you have to understand that going in. If you are OK with the risks (and depending on your background, the risks might be greater or less than others) then that’s how I would determine on where to go for undergrad. It becomes a value judgement on what you’re getting for your buck, I suppose.
SVA is, without a doubt, the superior school in terms of resources available to the individual student. It’s perennially regarded as one of the top art schools in the country, certainly for illustration. But is it the best value, especially if you have a hefty scholarship to MCA? I’m not so sure.
MCA is a much smaller school, and in a lot of ways is primarily aimed at the Mid-South. Just pulling numbers off the site; while the current student body comes from 25 states and 5 foreign countries, 60% come from the Mid-South. So if you grew up in the South, and it’d be easier for you to stay around here, that’s definitely a plus.
The reviews that you’ve read (from where?) are probably old and don’t reflect the entire situation from the past 3 years. The Illustration program, when I was teaching and when I left, was in the process of rebuilding. In 2012, there was a lot of shuffling around, and some tough decisions made in the wake of a hard financial shakeup. I would like to stress that this is not unique to MCA.
When a school has to dramatically restructure, I’m afraid one of the hardest hit areas is usually the academic quality, and those repercussions affect students the most. The other instructors and I tried to offset that as much as possible when I was teaching (to varying degrees of success on my part.)
Here’s the good news: recently, MCA read the writing on the wall, and decided to give a huge amount of institutional support towards illustration (and comics!) specifically. Once regarded as a red-headed step-child to drawing and painting, it’s now the largest department on campus, occupies a prominent amount of the school, and is headed by a new professor, Michele Noiset. Michele is absolutely awesome in all regards, and I couldn’t be happier that she took the reins.
Whatever the illustration department was, it is now better and getting better ever day. I’m hesitant to make any predictions, but I’d say that in a few years, if given the chance, it will be comparable to other regional schools in the area like KCAI and VCU.
It is, however, very small. You can’t go into it thinking that, say, Sam Weber and Yuko Shimizu are going to teach you how to paint and ink. But, you should go into art school (wherever you end up) willing to work hard regardless of who’s instructing you.
One last note: if you’re being heavily recruited by MCA, that means that they really want you. And because the school is so small that doesn’t stop once you get to campus. We teachers talk about y’all all the time and if you’re superlative, then everyone definitely takes notice.
So take all this for what it’s worth (a blog post on tumblr). Again, feel free to e-mail me if you have any additional questions.
So I am currently torn between the way I want to work and the way my work turns out , I usually work by inking a drawing and coloring in photoshop but sometimes I find it easier to skip the inking and just going straight to photoshop. I feel like this duality in my work is causing my work to look inconsistent. Do you have an advice on choosing a method in which to work?
I can’t really say either way without seeing your work. In the long term, I think you should actually continue to do both, because they both have advantages. Illustration has always been quick to take advantage of technological advances.
It used to be (oh man, I feel old) that the digitizers on tablets (read: Wacoms) weren’t so great and Photoshop couldn’t handle interpolating data for a mark when zoomed out. I distinctly remember using a 1 px round brush, zoomed in to 100%, to draw this image like 6 years ago:
Gross. Nowadays though, the gap is closed considerably in terms of having drawing “feel” the same. Photoshop CS5 and up have an improved brush engine, there are alternatives strictly for “inking” like Manga Studio, and there’s a host of naturalistic brush sets like Kyle Webster's or Ray Frenden’s— not to mention making your own.
That’s to say that it’s easier now to have your digital tools echo your analog ones. Some other things you can do are lay a piece of paper over your tablet, change to a harder nib on the stylus, or use a soft cotton glove with the fingers cut out so your hand doesn’t catch when you “cut” lines.
Doing sketches (not thumbs) and being able to erase and move things around definitely makes digital faster in some regards. Good to know when you have to chase those short deadlines.
However, the most advanced digital brush engine or most expensive tablet in the world can’t replace the physicality, sensitivity, and serendipity of pushing a medium around. Check out this drawing by Greg Ruth:
I think the biggest drawback with drawing digitally is that more often than not, you have to program and set up your tools to have a certain sensitivity or effect. You even have to input information for randomness. In terms of “feeling” it sometimes feels like drawing with one of those plastic kid’s baseball bats. You also don’t have an original to sell or show if you need to.
However, I think that the inconsistency that you’re perceiving is actually less about hardware and more about “software,” ie. how you draw. For example, take this video of freakin’ Moebius drawing on a cintiq in 2009. He was 70 years old at the time. And despite having never used a tablet before in his life, his drawing looks, well, just like a Moebius drawing should. I think there comes a point after drawing so much that your process becomes just a natural extension of yourself— regardless of medium.
Drawing is about sensitivity. I think it’s easier to cultivate a confident and free hand with analog materials, and then translating that to digital, rather than vice versa. I say that after observing students, as well as in my own experience.
In the end, it’s up to your own sensibilities however, and how that synchs up with your “voice.”
One last caveat, and I’m hesitant to put this out there: I’d be willing to bet that your analog drawings will still feel “fresh” 10, 20, even 50 years from now. That digital drawing that I posted at the top feels so, SO dated to me, and that was just 6 years ago.
I think the world has pretty much beaten the horse over the illustration vs. fine art argument, but what about decorative illustration vs. conceptual illustration? I always hear certain illustrators in podcasts and in groups of people I know talk about decorative illustration like it is less than the other sort, but sometimes I just generally like beautiful things and certainly not ALL illustration has to be conceptual. What do you think about it?
Ah, I hope you mean beaten the dead horse!
Personally, I don’t have any kind of hierarchy when it comes to types of illustration. I like all kinds of stuff. I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes the work that’s completely different from my own is the work that I find the most interesting—mostly because it offers such a different view on things.
I like different things for all sorts of different reasons too. An interesting conceptual solution makes my brain just as happy as one that is “simply” well-wrought.
I do think however, that you’re selling yourself short by dividing things into decorative or conceptual (or maybe other people are for framing it that way). Why can’t decorative illustration be conceptual as well?
For example, take patterns and design motifs in Islamic art. There are layers and layers of symbolism in the simplest shape, and their arrangement together reinforces tenants of the faith. A pattern then isn’t just decorative, but representative of an infinite, orderly, universal creation.
A beautiful idea right? And even the motifs that don’t have heavy symbolism have at the very least complex histories as to why.
So, I mean yes, it’s perfectly fine to just like beautiful things and want to make them. But I think you should frame it instead as something along the lines of “beauty is my concept.”
It’s more inclusive than exclusive, and I generally try to follow that precept whenever possible.
In my IPC class, which is more constructed towards a fine arts approach, an instructor said that our work needs to show an argument. In illustration, do you think it is best to show an argument? Or are illustrators just communicating a story?
I think this is mostly a semantical difference, and you’re probably over thinking it. If I want to show an “argument”, I’ll show an argument.
A couple of things:
Don’t trust anyone that says your personal work “needs” to show anything.
There is nothing “just” about telling stories. Especially your own.
I really enjoyed the post where you showed us how you go through an illustration from start to finish. Do you do a lot of thumbnails before you go to the finished piece? How many rounds do you do and how do you know when you are selecting the right one or ones to work on? I tend to make a bunch in round one, refine what is remaining, scrap some, refine them some more but then at the part where I want to choose one, I become a little unsure or it becomes harder to choose. suggestions?
This is one of my favorite things! Are you ready for a (car) crash course in composition?
Eventually settling on a composition for an illustration is a pretty personal choice. Our visual sensibilities, tastes, and vocabulary are all different, which is part of why illustration is so cool; two illustrators can tackle the same story, and come up with two radically different solutions.
For me, the composition that I eventually pick has to meet three criteria:
It shows the right story.
Its design supports the story.
Its formal qualities support the design.
Seems basic right? That’s because it is! Good composition is all about solid fundamentals; it might seem elementary, but it’s far from easy. The simplest things are often the most difficult.
Have you ever found it frustrating having to do something you don't want to (as in, doesn't tickle your fancy) but it helps pay the bills?
So, let me tell you a quick story:
My grandpa on my dad’s side came over from China when he was pretty young— grew up in Chicago. He was in high school when World War 2 broke out; he joined up, and was put in the 407th Air Service Squadron. It was part of the famed Flying Tigers fighter group, and one of the first all Chinese-American units in the military. He fixed planes. He also shot at them when they strafed the airfield. With a pistol.
He was there when the Japanese officially signed the surrender, and was honorably discharged soon after. The very first thing that he bought with his stashed up pay was a sterling silver bracelet with his serial number on it.
I keep it within sight of my desk at all times.
After the war, he went back to Chicago, but his father was already housing too many Chinese immigrant workers (up to this point, most Chinese immigrants were single men because of strict immigration laws and quotas), so he had to move to Detroit to live with an uncle and finish high school.
One of his high school teachers noted his artistic abilities, and recommended that he use his GI Bill to go to art school. Of course, his dad wouldn’t have it. So, he worked in laundromats, owned his own grocery, and later worked as an insurance salesman instead.
70 years later, I’m the graduate of an art school, and I’m taking a break from drawing to write this out.
I guess my point is this: the time that you use to pursue art has to come from somewhere. At some point, a sacrifice was made by you, or others, to allow you to have that time. Illustrators try to make a living in that intersection of art and commerce in an effort to lessen that sacrifice. There are some that are doing quite well at that. There are many, many more that are not.
Even those artists who we view as extremely successful have to sacrifice time. It just comes from other places: relationships, health, or family, etc. The real struggle then, is to find that balance on how you are spending your time.
If you know that a life spent making art is your ultimate goal, then doing things you don’t like aren’t really frustrations. They are necessities that must be done to give yourself time.
I think this is why I cringe every time I hear someone say that self-righteous creed of the “creative class”: “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That statement discounts all the hard work and sacrifices that you or others have made to be in that situation—what on Earth would entitle us to only work jobs that we love?
I don’t do this because I love it. I do it because I must.
Awesome answer to not being a perfectionist in sketchbooks! Now part of the question for me is what kind to use, and it always becomes so hard for me to find a brand and start. thanks you xx
Oh, this question is so, so old and has fermented in my inbox! My apologies.
I kind of don’t really care? Like, OK, I don’t necessarily defend one brand over another, and I’ll generally just use anything. I’ve used lots of soft and hard-backed books, leather-bound ones, some with fancy Fabriano paper, some with glorified bond paper. Remember, I tend to have a quantity over quality outlook on sketchbooks
That being said, I primarily just use these Moleskines nowadays, because for the life of me, I haven’t been able to make one fall apart. That can’t be said over some of the other books that I’ve used over the years. I know there was a big fiasco about them crowdsourcing their design work awhile ago, but dang it, they make solid books.
My books get dragged around all over, thrown on tables, drenched in beer and coffee, abused with wet media, torn, stuffed with receipts, etc. They don’t lead glorified lives.
I do have a couple of dedicated wet-media books, and those are generally whatever I can find at my trusty local art store. So Moleskine, Handbook, Pen & Ink, etc.
All of this came to mind because I saw this company, Baron Fig, floating around social media. Some of the copy makes my eyes roll around so hard in my head, that they’re doing de facto backflips:
The approach we take with our products is straightforward: we take the types of books and tools that we already use and are familiar with, and reimagine them from the top down to better suit our—and your—needs.
I get it. It’s a notebook. That lays flat.
But! Like I said, I’m willing to try anything. What else is out there? What do you guys use?
Did you ever have a problem starting projects? I want to draw things and make a million things but then, for a reason I don't understand, I just end up not doing them. Do you think it is laziness or perfectionism or fear or what? I think about art all the time, I love it so and I think my skills are at a decent level (I didn't use to have this problem, it just showed up one day). What do you think? Thanks
I think that everything we do is fraught with fear.
Like, I just tweeted that I’m afraid that my Photobooth is actually streaming when I’m taking awkward reference photos of myself. That’s dumb, but the underlying fear is that I’m a fraud who has somehow rolled down a hill fast enough to have some modicum of success and that my process, or lack thereof, will somehow reveal that.
I’m afraid of seeing my receipt at the pharmacy, because my health insurance sucks and it always costs more than I think it will. I’m afraid of undercooking meat. I’m afraid that I’ll get sideswiped by an 18-wheeler on the highway when it’s windy out and I can see the truck bed wobble. I’m afraid of my cat dying. For the most part, I’m afraid of asking girls out.
There are a million things that I’m afraid of. Some of them are legitimate, some of them are neurotic. Almost all of them aren’t really that bad, probably.
Making art is tricky, because it’s an unknown. We can’t say, “oh, it’ll be OK” because there is nothing to point to. Think about a full-sized sheet of crisp, pristinely white Rives BFK with no marks on it save the watermark. That makes me sweat just thinking about it.
The unknown is scary. It’s uncomfortable. It’d be much easier to do something else that’s a little less pathfinder-y, don’t you think? Like playing Final Fantasy on your Gameboy, or going to trivia night at the bar. Or nursing.
Most people seek comfort. If you’re asking this question however, then you’re not most people.
Bernini said, “Never have I felt an errant stroke.”At the Academy, Sterling Hundley said, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It’s uncomfortable trying new processes, or drawing new things, or taking risks with your finances, or putting your personal stories out there, or walking into a magazine’s office for a portfolio drop-off, or getting rejected, or botching a job. But every time you do them, and especially every time you fail, you get better. There’s always the next, and then the next.
Until there’s not. And that’s the greatest, most legitimate fear of all: not having enough time.
Chris Payne said, “time is the most important resource you have.” You can’t buy more of it, you can’t rent it, or whatever cliche you want to apply here. But hey, guess what:
You can control if you get up and make some damn art today.
Also, no one ever died from a bad drawing (yet). So there’s that.
I know that to be a great artist takes a lot of discipline, and I am worried that I am way way way too lazy right now. How can I make myself more disciplined? How much time do you spend a day on making things?
It’s funny that you ask this, because I’ve recently been playing around with this idea of “how can I make myself more disciplined.” Here’s what’s working for me.
I randomly stumbled across a time-management system (?) called the Pomodoro technique awhile ago, and decided to try it out. Normally, I’d roll my eyes at any “technique” that has a trademark after it, but this one was simple enough that it didn’t seem too affected. The basic idea is as follows:
- Give yourself 25 minutes of uninterrupted work time.
- After 25 mins, take a short break to stretch, do other tasks, assess.
- Every 4x 25min blocs, take a longer 15-30 minute break.
- Track all metrics, including: start times, tasks completed, times interrupted, break times, stop times.
Here’s an example of my absolutely incomprehensible metric tracking:
Every 25 min bloc, I make a line, eventually creating a box. So every Box on my chart is 4x 25min blocs (or 4 Pomodoros, I guess).
So what does this chart say: first off, I start off really late. 10:30 AM! I tend to wake up really slow, and do other things like run, eat too much breakfast, and dick around on the net.
Second, my peak productive hours are between 10:30AM-5PM, as I was actually increasing my rate of productivity (I started off taking 4x Pomodoros per piece, or two hours, but then as I worked, I cut it down to 3x, and even 2x right before dinner.)
Thirdly, right after my peak productive hours, I get distracted. Hence the one interruption, then failing to complete a Box and going straight to dinner. My productivity drops as well (I’m back to 4x Pomodoros per piece).
And this is just one day’s worth of data! I can compare this to other days to see if my assumptions really are patterns, AND most importantly, if I’m making progress.
The biggest thing for me though is the 25 minutes of uninterrupted work time. I got that timer above to solidify that as opposed to using a digital timer— I found that the tactile sensation of setting it and hearing it tick makes my brain go into “OK it’s work time” mode much easier. Make this time sacred: hide your phone, close your browser, pick music/podcasts ahead of time, gather all your supplies around you. Physically minimize your distractions when possible.
As far as time per day goes, I consider myself a full-time illustrator, so I put in at least a full days worth of work: 8 hours minimum. But as noted above, it’s not uncommon to put in 12. I think it is important to have designated START and STOP time though, just to help put boundaries on your life. Too much work is unhealthy. Health, family, and friends always come before work in my book.
Hope this helps! I think everyone probably has their own ways of doing things, but this is really working for me lately.
Creative concepts vs technical skills: which is more important?
"Pictures" he wrote to a friend, "are the creatures of the imagination and not of technical facility, and that…which art students need most is the cultivation of their imagination and its direction into practical and useful channels of creation— and I hold that this is exactly in line with all other kinds of professional education, whether of law, medicine, finance, or physics. I would not belittle the necessity of accurate technical training. I insist upon that in my own school even more strenuously than it is insisted upon in the great art schools of the country, but I subordinate that technical training entirely to the training of the imagination."
-Howard Pyle. From The Brandywine Tradition, by Henry C. Pitz.
I would like to be better educated in illustration, but unfortunately I am unable to attend an actual university or college because of financial reasons. Do you know of any other alternative programs that would ground me better in concept, etc? Thanks.
Can we back up for just a second and realize how terrible this sentence is?
"I want to learn about art, and making art, and making my art work for a living, but I can’t afford to."
That is so frustrating. The price of higher education (in the US), especially arts education, is completely out of touch with the market. And what’s even sadder is that it’s so antithetical to the history of American Illustration education.
You guys know about Howard Pyle’s “Brandywine School” right? And Harvey Dunn’s Leonia School?
Howard Pyle built his own school in Wilmington, Delaware, and held summer classes in Chadds Ford, PA, mostly for journeyman illustrators and art students. Of note: some of his classes were nearly 50% female, which was unheard of in the early 1900s. They were completely free, save for room, board, and supplies (which were sold at cost). And his school produced a generation of illustrators that would harken in the “Golden Age” of American illustration, and influence American art and culture for over a century.
One of Pyle’s many star pupils, Harvey Dunn, would later start his own school in Leonia, NJ, much in the same model as Pyle’s school. Not only was the tuition free, but Dunn would help students find part-time work in Leonia to help pay for room, board, and supplies.
As art schools become more bloated and top-heavy, I think that you’ll see a trend towards these smaller models again, especially those which have a tighter focus on a specific industry. I know that there are online programs like TAD, Schoolism, and smART, and probably a host of others. Some of these are a mentorship-type model, and some are more like a traditional classroom.
For my money, TAD comes closest to how I envision one would “fix” arts education. They are accredited, offer physical studio sites if you can swing it, and, most importantly, have some extremely high quality instruction, both in mentorships and classes. It’s still a significant financial investment, however.
There are tons of tutorials online as well, especially for working digitally. Places like ctrlpaint, conceptart.org, cghub.com, etc. These are mostly geared towards the entertainment industry.
Additionally, and I’m sure you’ve done this, but you could look at in-state tuition rates for local universities, and look under every rock for scholarship opportunities. See if there are any local arts groups near you that have meetings/classes.
And, I guess: yourself. Be a library brat, visit every museum and gallery you can. Draw and paint every day. Ask questions, like you are right now.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t get the “best” education right now. Everyone’s path is different, especially in art. And just because you don’t have some letters after your name, or some big clients under your belt, it doesn’t mean your voice is any less valid.
I am going to entering some pieces in a group show in which the theme is monsters. I was working on the first of a sequential series of images that tell a story about these twins that were born with one half a monster. Someone close to me saw the image as I was drawing it and told me that they didn't get it. They didn't understand what story I was trying to imply. Does this mean I fail as an illustrator? I'm not sure, now, I understand what illustration is. What is its purpose, really?
The only thing separating fine arts and illustration is usage.
Take any painting from art history, put it on a book cover accompanying some text, and suddenly it’s illustration. Steal a panel out of a comic book, blow it up, hang it in a gallery, and now it’s fine art. These lines are fluid, and an artwork can exist simultaneously in several categories (as you have shown by entering your illustration work into a show).
Illustration’s use is to convey a story, emotion, or concept. To wit, it “problem solves” while a similar image in a fine arts setting often “asks questions.”
I feel like most people’s confusion with what constitutes illustration comes from things like Juxtapoz, which used to label a lot of figurative/street-inspired art as “illustration.” Maybe this derives from the term “illustrative” being used as a derogatory term in most painting circles, to signify something that was trite (and usually representational), and therefore “illustration” denoted not only commercial work, but also that which was low-brow, populist, and eventually counter-cultural.
I, nor anyone I know that isn’t an ivory tower dwelling turpentine huffer, really gives a crap about those definitions nowadays though. A quick list, in case you were confused:
Is illustration art?: yes
Is all figurative/representational art illustration?: no
In terms of failing as an illustrator: yes, it is possible to fail to convey your story, emotion, or concept. This could be for a variety of reasons, some craft or design related, but it may even just be that you’re showing the wrong thing. As an illustrator, you need to be able to identify the bones of your subject matter. The devil isn’t in the details, it’s in whether your composition works or not when you squint at it.
Don’t get too discouraged about one person not reading the image correctly; in fact, use it to your advantage. Ask them why they weren’t able to get the story. Was it a design/craft issue? Was the subject unclear? Or was the subject matter too removed from them? (“I don’t know that story.”) Get their input, as well as others, make corrections if possible, and drive on. Even if this series is not as clear as you’d like it to be, if you learn from “failing” then you will be a better illustrator because of it.
Actual failure would be to quit because of one setback.
I have a problem with being a perfectionist. Even in my sketchbooks I try to be a perfectionist, and it keeps me from sketching. For example, it's like I need to have the perfect moleskine or each page needs to have ballpoint pen or pencil, or there should be no painting in moleskines etc. I can't stop this habit. Have any tips?
"Perfection is the enemy of good enough," says every self-help top-ten blog list, featuring stock imagery of a woman doing yoga.
In the last question, I touched on why it’s generally best to forego the urge to have beautiful, perfect sketchbooks because it’s counter-intuitive to how one might best use a sketchbook.
Now, you might be saying, “John, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You drank too much Nyquil because your voice sounds like Batman, and I shouldn’t have to listen to you.” And you’d be right, but that still doesn’t change the fact that one’s sketchbook needs to be place where anything goes. Because if it’s gotten to the point where you’re not even drawing at all because of fear of failing, well my friend, you might as well reach for the Nyquil too (kidding).
So here’s a pointer. I found myself saying this one a lot when I was teaching: physically change your situation to force yourself out of bad habits. It’s easier said than done, but it’s the only surefire way to change a habit that has its basis environmentally.
Usually, it was in the context of a student saying “I just can’t get any work done at home/studio,etc.” or “there’s too many distractions.” I would tell them to rearrange their studios, or come work in studio at the school, and physically remove themselves from that situation as to alter it. After all, it’s very, very, easy to fall into habits that have been reinforced over time.
So! I would say, ADD an additional sketchbook that you have designated as your experimental one, and keep your current pristine Moleskine as a “presentation” book that you can show off to babes. At a certain point in the summer, I was carrying 5 (!) different sketchbooks: one for painting, one for drawing, one tiny one for on-the-go, and two for note-taking and reference. That’s a bit extreme, but you get the point.
I guarantee that your “presentation” one will generally fall by the wayside, in terms of your day to day process. It might however, surprise you and turn into something really cool, (like an entire book of, say, nice botanical drawings, or pizzas, or the like.)
Hi John! I'm a recent graduate and the work that makes me happy in my sketchbook looks completely different than it did 8 months ago when I was in school. I have a better idea about my voice now, but I have no idea how to take these doodles and visual ideas and make them feel like "finals" anymore. Do you have any suggestions about how to take things out of your sketchbook and getting them to a professional level? As always, thanks for the wise words.
I forgot who said it at the Illustration Academy, but someone had offhandedly mentioned that James Jean ruined sketchbooks for everyone. We all laughed knowingly, candidly recognized that we too had gone through a “James Jean phase,” and then hid our ballpoint pens while no one was looking.
The point being James Jean’s sketchbooks are beautiful and wonderful, and we all want to have sketchbooks like that to show everyone and publish through Adhouse. However, the problem is that we are, shockingly, not all James Jean.
The majority of us have sketchbooks to help us figure things out. They’re probably not going to get published, and they probably don’t make a lot of sense to someone else thumbing through it. And that’s OK! That’s what they should be. As kind of backwards at it seems, think of your sketchbook as an additional computer. It’s ideal for:
Visual problem solving (thumbnailing, sketching.)
Making connections between the information that you input (writing, diagramming, juxtaposition, etc.)
Note that I don’t necessarily recommend going for more “finished” pieces, ala your instinct after thumbing through a Process Recess book. I think the strength of one’s sketchbook lies in its volume. Who do you think will have a more comprehensive knowledge of drawing? A guy who does 1 giant drawing, or a someone who does 100 small ones?
Now, what I think you’re really asking is: that’s great and all, but what constitutes a finished piece? I think my criterion for a final is if the piece “speaks for itself” (Again, stolen from the Illustration Academy.) Do the formal elements of the piece support what you’re trying to say? (Design) And is it executed in such a way so as none of those formal elements are lacking? (Craft)
For example, have you ever wondered why you love your sketches way more than the finals? How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, “I liked the sketch a lot better.”? If you placed the sketch next to final drawing and took a hard look at both, you’d probably see a few differences: perhaps the energy in the linework was more evocative in the sketch, or the value scheme you had planned fell apart, or maybe it’s just simply not as well drawn in the final! The point being is that they are separate drawings, with their own identities. If you (or others even) consider the final a failure, then somewhere in your process, there was a breakdown in either your craft or design.
So take a look at what you’ve got in your sketchbook. Take any of the little germinations of ideas, and ask those same questions: Do the formal elements of the piece support what you’re trying to say, and is it executed in such a way so as none of those formal elements are lacking?
If the design is good, but the craft is lacking, find the medium that fits the message. Maybe to make it representationally real, you need to paint and render the crap out of it. Or maybe to make it retain some looseness, you need to use a medium that forces you to lose control a bit, like monotype. If you’re not comfortable with any medium really, then use your sketchbook to do studies and practice!
If you feel pretty good about how you’re going to execute it, but the design is lacking, then you need to, you guessed it, use your sketchbook. Thumbnail, plan, research, and sketch until you get your composition working just the way you need it. And then be sure to retain your design throughout the execution (but you’re such a hotshot that you know how to do that, right?)
If neither is up to snuff, just go for it anyway. It’ll give you a benchmark from which to measure from. Remember: failure is your friend. He’s the friend you’re really embarrassed to know because he’s kind of loud and still wears cargo shorts, but he’s been there since like elementary school, and deep down you know he’s an important part of how you’ve turned out as a human being.
One last thing: for me, there is a pretty thin line between what constitutes a “sketch,” or an experiment, and a final piece. I’ll pull stuff from my sketchbook, and crank on it just to see what comes out pretty frequently (that last mouse piece, for example.) I think what really separates something like that from a final is intent. If my intent is to just mess around, then there are no real rules really; but if my intent is the conveyance of some specific information, emotion, narrative, etc. then I’m going to really need to work to find that sweet spot of craft and design so that my illustration can speak for itself.
Hi John, I've been reading up on a lot of advice from creatives about resolutions and reflections. Been a designer for about 8 yrs (the last 3 yrs professionally). I've had this urge to go into comics/illustration more frequently this past year probably due to the lack of creative projects (and seeing amazing work from different artistis). Lately, this year has been a huge disconnect with the work. Wondering if illustration is worth pursing at this point. Any advice would be welcome. Thanks!
I guess this is a fitting post for the end of the year.
Yes, illustration is worth pursuing at any point. Storytelling is worth pursuing always. But you know, so is design.
I’m not sure anyone gets into illustration for “the right reasons” but now is the time to do a gut check— boredom and seeing other people’s projects is one thing, but the only thing that’s going to see you through the lean times is a love for your craft. “Love” is kind of misleading, because there will be times that you’ll hate it; but you are so into it, and you know it’s important so you set against the yoke and keep going anyway.
I joke that I’m always the guy that tells people to quit their jobs and do what they love. There are some caveats to this:
Statistically, the odds are against you. If you just jump ship without really knowing what you’re doing, the chance of failure is higher. If possible, stick with what wins bread for now, while gradually transitioning to what you want to do.
If you’re like me, single, without any real obligations besides friends and family, then you get the green light from me. Freelancing is kind of a selfish lifestyle to be completely honest. If you have financial obligations, especially kids, they are your priority.
Know that you’re actually increasing your workload. The whole “if you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life” is kind of bullshit. We do work, and we work our butts off.
I’m not sure what other bits of advice I can give you without knowing more specifics about your situation. My advice comes from a pretty narrow field of a view, but one thing that I do know is that I think art is important, which is why I answer these the way that I do. We are all the beneficiaries of more and better art. So if you or anyone else has any more specific asks, feel free to fire away.
As far as resolutions, I’m keeping it simple. I’ve made a schedule for myself that I intend to keep, but in general there will be two things that I plan to abide by this year. I’m counting on you guys to keep me honest: