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:
seven years and three days ago, i spent christmas in an emergency room in florida. food poisoning. we went to make sure i’d be okay to fly and ended up there most of the day waiting out the real tragedies and injuries. my wife, her great aunt, and an endless loop on CNN about the death of James…
Back in 2006-ish, I did an internship with Kelly Sue checking translations on manga. This was when she was writing her first 30 Days of Night story. Matt had just finished Five Fists of Science, and was starting Casanova.
So a couple times a week, Kelly Sue would set me up on their dining room table with a spare laptop, and load me up with food before we started checking pages. I ate better that semester than at any other point in college.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure why I did the internship. This was before I decided to get into illustration or whatever— I guess I liked comics? And I took Japanese in high school, so checking translations wasn’t too out there.
But now, I’m really glad I did it anyway; not because I’m now translating things for a living or something, or working in comics even, but because it ended up that Matt and Kelly Sue are two of the most unapologetically honest people on the planet, and I hope that I can be half as genuine as them someday.
I'm an MCA student and I want to participate in the AICAD mobility program where I can spend a semester at a different art school. Do you have any recommendations on which art school I should go to for illustration?
Pretty sure almost everything is fair game in the AICAD fam. I don’t know what you want to do, and I’m unsure of each particular school’s program regarding mobility students, but my recommendations would be SVA, Ringling, or MICA.
Why is drawing so important for an illustrator? What about paintings? I see mostly illustrations in color. Is there a certain phase illustrators go through, like master drawing and then master color?
I like this question a lot. Mostly because it makes me think “well, why IS drawing so important?” I like drawing, and I’ve drawn almost every day since I was like 6, so I’m biased. But here’s what I think:
Drawing is the most immediate way to visually manifest ideas. Everyone from architects, to UX/UI designers, to jewelry makers, etc. utilizes drawing at the beginning of their processes. It’s that whole “scribble on a napkin” idea. Get it out of your brain and onto the page. I get a kick out of all of these apps that somehow think they’re aiding productivity by adding a step.
As illustrators, your primary job is to manifest things visually; and not just a building, or a website or whatever, but everything and non-thing under (and beyond) the sun.
Dean Cornwell said “The measure of an illustrator is his ability to take a subject in which he may have neither interest nor information, tackle it with everything he’s got, and make the finished picture look like the consummation of his life’s one ambition.”
While I personally don’t think that’s the only measure of an illustrator, I get what he’s saying. Illustrators have to convey information in a way that is representationally or emotionally convincing in order to be effective.
That’s probably 75% of the reason that I am constantly drawing. At a minimum, I always have one of those small Field Notes (seen above) in my back pocket, and a pen. For me, to draw something is to understand it. I can look at a photo that I took a few years ago, and completely forget everything about the circumstances under which it was taken. I can look at a drawing that I did in the same time frame, and remember everything from smells, to who I was with, to temperature, or conversations that I had. The other 25% is to maintain my drawing skill set. Art making knowledge is experiential, but it also dulls without use.
However, I think primarily what you’re asking is why drawing is so important to the final image.
Your brain processes value (or tone) separately from color. Physiologically, the way we understand depth and space is linked to our processing of tonal values, not color—which is important when we’re trying to create a simulacrum of a space within our image area, right? Additionally, our brains process information in large chunks rather than constant chains, so it’s important not to overload your viewer with too much information. This is why large shapes and abstractions are so important in your basic compositions.
Ideally, your drawing should address all of these things, as well as any specifics like perspective, proportion, visual specificity, etc, BEFORE you slap that first coat of paint down (I slap paint down because well, I can’t paint.) Sargent said, “…you can’t go on indefinitely until you have solved a problem.”
Now, that’s not to say that color is any less important to an image than the drawing/value statement. I just think of it as a house (which, I know nothing about load bearing walls so this is probably a stupid analogy). A good image needs all of these elements (for our purposes here, composition/placement, value, and color) working in conjunction with each other in order to stand.
One more caveat: please don’t think that this is THE only way to illustrate. I’ve said early and often, that “voice” is so important to your identity as an illustrator. How you end up doing things may be radically different than how I do things. Take guys like Chris Sickels, or Eric Carle (one of my favorites) for example.
But no matter what you end up doing, I think you’ll find that drawing will be an important component, for any number of the reasons above.
How long did it take you to find your style? Was the process wrought with pain and agony or did it come accidentally and like a warm summer breeze? Did you have to get feedback from others to start to go in the right direction? Or, I guess what I want to ask is were you the one to recognize the direction you wanted to go and how did you know that that was the right choice? Thank you for all of your advice. You rock.
Dude, everything I do is easy like a warm summer breeze. You nailed it.
Style is one of those words that has a bad reputation nowadays. “Voice" is really how we differentiate illustrators from one another. It’s mostly semantics, but there are some important distinctions:
“Style" being the outward aesthetic appearance of a work. This can be mimicked, and often is.
"Voice" is the seamless integration of aesthetic and personal content. This cannot be mimicked.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Bruce Lee absolutely said it best. With his fists. On other people’s faces. Watch from 2:00-7:50. It’s mostly snippets from this interview on the Pierre Burton show in 1971.
Did you watch Bruce snap kick people in the face while talking about self-expression? OK. Let’s continue:
"We need emotional content…It’s like a finger pointing to the moon. Focus on the finger and you miss all that heavenly glory."
Style and technique without content is just that, nothing more.
"We all have two hands and two legs."
There are fundamentals to image making that will continue to be true, regardless of style. Things like: value is how our brains understand depth, cools recede and warms advance, large shapes are more immediate than smaller ones, etc. These will always be the foundation of your images.
"You have to keep your reflexes…when you want it, it’s there. When you want to move, you’re moving. And when you move, you’re determined to move."
You have to continuously train and learn about the fundamentals, so that they become second nature to you in your process. In this way, you spend less time struggling with your work trying to get it to say what you want.
"Style is crystallization…(you want) a process of continuing growth."
Styles lock you into a perception of what something “should” look like. It leaves no room for you to express yourself, or let the image have a say. In terms of careers, getting locked into a style kills your work, as you will no longer grow as an artist if you’re constantly reproducing earlier images.
"And when there’s an opportunity: I do not hit. It hits all by itself."
I just love this quote because it’s badass. I dunno, no real point I guess.
OK. So to sum it all up and answer your questions.
I have not found my “style” and I am constantly trying to find my “voice.” And I honestly hope that this process will take the rest of my life.
Feedback is important to develop your fundamentals, as well as to get out of your own head. Smarter people than you or I can point you to a nearly unlimited amount of inspiration. However…
…they cannot point you in the right direction. The right direction is up to you to define through your own understanding and perception. Like Bruce said, we’re all made differently.
The direction you take will always be the right direction if you are trying to express yourself honestly, and not lying to yourself.
Be like Bruce. Kick butt and take names, your own way.
Hi John, I found your lovely blog a few weeks ago and from what I've gathered you were an instructor at one point! Recently, I've been in quite the slump. I'm a 3rd yr art student and I'm not as excited as I used to be. I find myself working on projects I've no interest in and in turn, it feels like I'm not drawing what I want for myself anymore but for the way the instructor wants it and it dulls the spark-I see it in some peers as well. Do you think art college can harm as much as it helps?
To answer your question (I’m doing this first because I tend to not answer these questions in these “answers”): Probably not? Like, in the grand scheme of things, you’re a better artist then when you walked into the school three years ago (hopefully.) Neurologically, I think we tend to fixate on the bad more than the good, so maybe just take a deep breath and back up a second.
There are maybe three main approaches to post-secondary arts education. There’s the master (or system)/apprentice approach, in which you learn THE way to do a certain technique; these are your Florence Atelier, Repin Academy, etc. There’s the industry-geared track that heavily emphasizes specific skill sets, while simultaneously providing connections; I’m thinking of something like CalArts’ Character Animation program, for example. And then there’s the “incubator” approach, which tries to give the student the most diverse and stimulating environment as possible, with the hopes that this will eventually create a more well-rounded artist. This method originated with the Bauhaus, and is the primary model for art schools today.
I brought this up because I think some people respond better to certain approaches than others. Some people really dig learning the systematic approach and then diverging later, while others love to experiment and try everything before focusing down. You obviously are probably the latter, and you are probably in a school that allows you to do so. And when an instructor comes along that throws a wrench in that, you lose momentum and hit a slump.
Here’s the thing though: in post-secondary school, education is a two-way street. This isn’t primary school where you’re just receiving information; college is a place where you can debate, dissect, and explore concepts with just about anyone, your instructors included. You’re as responsible for your education as the school is, ie: you get what you put in. If you feel like something is off, just bring it up (politely, of course!) Just know that if you’re being forced to draw or work in a certain way, depending on the context of the class, it’s probably for a specific reason.
That being said, I read this quote (forgot where) about teaching recently: “Average teachers present information. Good teachers demonstrate. Great teachers inspire.” As an instructor, I genuinely strove to be the last one. And while the most inspiring thing that I’ve probably done as a teacher was to bring donuts to critique, if I knew a student was feeling like they were turning into ME as an artist (and unhappy about it, imagine that), that would really disturb me and I’d try to work it out with them.
However, you’ve already acknowledged that this is a potential problem, and guess what? G.I. Joe was right, Knowing Really Is Half the Battle. Now you just need to right the ship. Sit down and redo your schedule: for every hour you spend on work that you hate, spend at least one hour on stuff that you love. I got this from my friend, the awesome Jeffrey Alan Love, as well as John English at the Illustration Academy. Jeff adopted this schedule to make sure that his then shitty part-time job didn’t ever become a priority over his art. John would use it whenever he was stuck during an illustration assignment; he’d just drop whatever he was doing and paint for himself, even on deadline.
Because here’s the awful truth: there is no “spark.” You’re going to slump on and off for the rest of your life, especially outside of school, and you need to figure out how to deal with it now (lord knows it’s taking me a long time). One way is to prioritize and schedule. Another (additional) way is to surround yourself with people that you respect and who ARE making lots of work. Remember what I said about teachers inspiring? You want to know why there aren’t more great teachers? Because inspiration can’t be taught. Mindset is cultivated and infectious, but it isn’t something you can force anyone else to internalize. Inspiration, real, actual, holy-cow-is-this-happening, inspiration only really happens when you’ve got a bunch of people and they’re all firing on all cylinders, together. Get your classmates together and decide together that you’re going to kick ass.
Steinbeck wrote “The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental.” Mindset is absolute. It’s the one thing you can control, and fortunately for you, it’s the only thing that matters.
Hi! I love everything you've posted here. The atmosphere in your images is just the best thing. I have a question though, you've spoken a lot about putting truth into your work or making images that are as truthful as possible. What do you mean by truth exactly? I think I understand, but could you clarify? Thank you!
Man, I wrote a ridiculously long answer to this when I realized that it was just too much. So for brevity’s sake, here’s what I usually mean when I say “truthful” work:
- Work that is personal to you.
- Work that isn’t trying to rip someone or some other thing off.
- Something that’s genuine in its intention (no BS. You guys know it when you see/hear it.)
- Work that is emotionally real (as opposed to just representationally real).
- Work that is your absolute best effort at this specific time, given your abilities and knowledge.
I found this great quote yesterday from a Paris Review interview of Robert Giroux in 2000 that sums it all up:
“It is the writer’s job, if he cannot write a masterpiece, at least to avoid writing junk.”
3) What should I expect to encounter after graduation and how will that change after a few years of working after graduating?
The most immediate change that you’ll encounter is that no one is forcing you to make work now. There are no grades, or classes to attend, or projects to work around that aren’t your own. You alone are responsible for your continuing growth as an artist/illustrator, and this fact will cull over 75% of your classmates from their respective fields, post-graduation.
Most likely, you’ll also find yourself without a studio environment, away from like-minded people. You’ll have to work hard to keep that sense of community and belonging, while simultaneously dealing with feelings of extreme isolation as you scrawl away at your desk. It will be easy to feel like it’s only you vs. the world, and you’ll feel like giving up a lot. You’ll have panic attacks while opening loan payment letters from Sallie Mae, or when you spend all week working on a promotional push and don’t ever hear back from a single potential client. Not a one.
You’ll belly-ache at the bar over a $1 beer, and say that your mom was right, that you should have gone into nursing. You might take a part-time job making pumpkin-shaped brownies on a stick in the basement of a grocery store. You’ll “like” all of the cool projects that bigger-name illustrators are posting on the regular, all the while pushing down feelings of inadequacy.
And yet, every day, you’ll draw a little something. Just a small something, maybe just a dude at the coffee shop. As you get bored with that, you’ll gravitate towards things that really matter to you, and start drawing those. You keep drawing that stuff, and pretty soon you have a bunch of drawings that aren’t half bad. You put them online, and much to your surprise, you get a couple of small jobs from them.
Those jobs lead to more jobs, and your drawings lead to more drawings, and pretty soon you feel like you’re being jilted on the number of hours in the day. You’re making work, and finally some of it is good, and some of it not so much. But one day, a complete stranger will see a drawing of yours and say “wow,” and you’ll get the sense that there isn’t anything you’d rather be doing with your life right now.