Hi John, great blog! I was wondering how you get pumped up enough to start new projects. During projects I can work steadily and easily without too much pain, but as it gets to be finished I start to dread it because that means that I will need to start a new project and for some reason, for two or three days before I can get into the work I find myself procrastinating and goofing off. Once I finally make myself sit down and work it is ok, but what do you usually do between projects? Thanks
Man, I uh, pretty much do the same thing. I think it’s not so much starting up on a new project, it’s mostly ramping down after I finish one.
The day after I finish a project, unless there’s another deadline bearing down on me, I don’t do anything illustration related at all. I usually go run, dick around on the net, catch up on other stuff, and then grab a bite/drink with a friend in the evening.
I wish I had more continuity and could flow from project to project more efficiently, but like you said, for some reason I just don’t. This will probably change when I go back to school in the fall, as I won’t have any choice then.
So like, I answer most of these to the best of my ability, and I think the overall picture that’s conveyed is that I’m this illustrator dude who has answers. But, I have things that I struggle with and definite gaps in my process just like everyone. One of the great thing about all these asks is that I have to sit down and put it all down in writing.
"Whatever changes have occurred are merely reflections of society in general. A little more sex and violence; a lot less mom and apple pie. As documented in this Annual, we are in the business of showing the world what it’s about. We all like to believe we are marching to a different drum, when, in point of fact, we just stumble differently."
Tomer Hanuka, 40, talks about the dream of every illustrator, how to tell a story in a picture and what made him decide to return to Israel after 17 years in New York.
“So why this obsession to illustrate? I think it’s because I’m afraid to grow up to be the person I think I was supposed to be. Or at least what the army personnel officer and most of my high-school teachers promised I would be: no one.”
You say that we should express our personal voice rather than focusing on style. How do you feel about experimentation with people's technique/style? I don't want to limit myself to my own comfortable way of working, but at the same time, I wouldn't want to mimic theirs, but I would want to reach the levels of people who are succeeding in the field.
Top- James Montgomery Flagg. Bottom- Charles Dana Gibson
I have no problem with imitating other people’s styles initially. How many of us started drawing in earnest because we wanted to replicate a comic book, or an animated show? I remember some of my very first drawings were trying to redraw the Battle of Endor or Samus Aran’s spaceship. When I first got out of school, I ripped off James Jean on a daily basis.
I’d posit that this manner of investigation is not wholly separate from distinguishing yourself through your voice though. Copying other people’s styles is a great way to get inside their head and figure out not only how they solve problems design-wise, but also how they execute it technically. It’s why art schools around the world assign master copies as homework. It gets you out of your own skin for a bit, and is a good way to get more “tools in your toolbox” technically.
What it will never do though, is give you “success.” I think this quote from Austin Briggs is especially relevant here. Even if you were able to expertly recreate every stroke, every line, every nuance of someone else’s style, you will always be, by definition, a second-rate copy of them. You cannot BE them, and therefore you can never replicate their motivations, ideas, and inspirations. And even worse than that: you are ignoring your own.
James Montgomery Flagg was one of several artists who made a living undercutting Charles Dana Gibson’s distinctive pen and ink style in the early 1900s. He did it for years; as Gibson’s popularity soared, so did his prices, and Flagg filled a lower-tier niche.
Does that in any way affect Gibson’s legacy as one of the most influential American illustrators of the early 20th century? Absolutely not. Would it have affected Flagg’s legacy if that’s all he did with his career? You bet. Lucky for us, and for Flagg, he was talented and driven enough to eventually do his own thing, which resulted in one of the most iconic images in American history.
Learn what you can from others and be happy when they do well. But at the end of the day, you are your own person. Success is an illusion, and it almost never means what you think it means.
Hi John, I love your blog and your candor in answering questions. I was wondering if you could maybe talk a bit about any drawbacks in getting a BFA from a good visual arts program in a liberal arts university. Would you be able to have the opportunities that art schools provide in terms of industry connections or internships? Thanks in advance!
Just as an aside, I noticed that my tone for answering asks changes depending on my mood a lot. If I answer one of these and I’m all “GRAA!! Change the worldddd!!!” just know that it’s seriously me, not you.
One thing that I’m constantly surprised with on tumblr is the amount of good work coming out of what seems like everywhere. I think that’s wonderful, and honestly it’s a bit unexpected. Sometimes I check a blog and the about page is all “I’m a 3rd year at Tralalalaleeday U studying biological basis of behavior and a minor in drawing.” And then I check the work and I’m like, shit they’re better than I am.
So, of course, the work always comes first. Good work will open more doors more than anything else.
That being said, yeahhh sometimes going to a less specialized school can potentially lessen the amount of networking or exposure you get to other artists, industry professionals, etc. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. For example, at SVA, they have over 50 instructors in the illustration department alone, and they’re all practicing professionals in their respective fields. Over 50! At MCA we had 5 if the administration was feeling especially frisky.
For Nathan Fox’s new Visual Narrative MFA program at SVA, they will literally fly folks in to meet you, or vice versa, in order to learn more about any given industry. (I’m using SVA as an example because I know the most about it. I suspect any decent program with substantial institutional support will be comparable.)
That being said, there’s nothing preventing you from going to programs outside of your school like the Illustration Academy (at MCA you could receive studio credit for attending.) You can volunteer at ICON, enter work into the SOI student competition etc. The larger art schools like SVA, Ringling, RISD, all make a good showing at these because the student body is generally more aware of these opportunities, and often participating in them is part of the curriculum.
Also, not to get all Sun Tzu on you, but think about leveraging your program’s perceived weaknesses as a strength. What does your university offer that an art school doesn’t, and how can that help your work? For example, at KCAI, I learned way more about being an artist in my creative writing classes than in any of my studio courses.
Finally, even if you did attend an art school and they were literally dangling an internship in front of your face, it’s still up to you to take it. You still have to network, meet people, show and talk about your work, and “go get it.” No matter where you go to school, it never hurts to “say hi a lot” as my friend Derrick says.
How did you learn how to look critically at your own work and say, "this is the direction I want to go?" When I look at the things I am making, I feel that it is all ok, but I can't pinpoint the one thing that I can really run with so it all ends up feeling mediocre. How did you learn to edit? Thank you for answering these asks and thank you for showing us your awesome artwork.
Hi! Hmm, that’s a good question.
First off, I think looking critically at your own work can be a pretty difficult thing to do. Like, I was constantly surprised by students who would get really defensive in critique over things that weren’t really debatable (“You’re trying to make this appear real, but the perspective is wrong.”) Because our work tends to be so personal, it’s easy to fall into either:
A) Call the Guggenheim. This is freaking awesome, because I did it.
B) This is the worst thing ever in the history of art, because I did it.
It’s most certainly neither of those, I assure you. I think in general though, the more art you look at, and the more you understand how images and stories work, the more articulate your critical eye will be. It’s kind of like how being a voracious reader makes you a better writer.
Now, what you’re dealing with though is a matter of intent, I believe. Most of the time when we look critically at our work, it’s measuring what we’ve done vs. what we were intending to do. Intent can be multifaceted, and range from “is this concept art professional enough for a AAA video game title” to “does this feel like growing up in the 90’s.”
My advice would not edit your work per se, but back off a little bit and do some writing to figure out what your intent is for any given body of work. Give yourself a mark to measure against, if that makes sense.
What you end up doing is compartmentalizing. For example, last summer I would do 2 days a week where my only goal was to experiment with process. Another 2 days, I would dedicate to investigating personal subject matter; either drawing, writing, visiting museums, doing interviews, etc. What eventually happened was that I found a process that kind of made sense for me, and then I applied it to what I was learning in the personal investigations and stories that I was stockpiling.
I’m still going with it, and I don’t think that process really ever ends, but it definitely has led me to a place that makes sense right now. More than I can say for a year ago, at least.
The key is writing though, it really is. Get everything down on the page and just keep going: what you’re interested in, what’s sacred to you, what pisses you off, what stories you can’t let go of. Eventually patterns will emerge, and the signal to noise ratio will increase.
First off, your artwork is amazing! Second, I was referred to you by Sean Dockery and I asked him a question, I am not sure if you have answered this already but what is the best way to get your artwork out there into the world? I am in my final year of undergrad college in drawing wanting to be an illustrator and I was hoping for some trade secrets or tips? Thank you for your time!!
"But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do -the actual act of writing- turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Great, great book on writing/making stuff. Substitute “writing” with art, illustration, design, etc.
First off, thanks for the kind words. I think in Sean’s post, he linked to that chart that’s been going around since Spectrum. In terms of the nuts and bolts of getting work, that’s a pretty straightforward, solid way to approach things.
I’ll add this: screw getting your artwork out into the world. Make it a part of the world. Make the world come to you. Make good, honest, work; make it undeniable. And when opportunities arise, like I’ve said many times before: Bruce tells it best.
I know, I know. I know students kind of bristle when people say “focus on the work.” But you’re seriously poisoning the well if you think that promotion, or even getting work and awards, are anywhere close to being the most important thing.
Not sending out a promotional e-mail doesn’t keep me up at night. What keeps me up is: what do I have to say, and how can I say it best?
Hey John! I love your blog. Your work is gorgeous and I really appreciate all of your thoughtful advice. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how illustrators determine how much to charge for a project. What factors should go into that? Are there "standard" rates or does it depend more on experience/demand/etc.? Thanks! You're great!
Thank you! I really appreciate the kind words!
This is actually a pretty complex question, because there are a lot of factors that go into it. I’ll try and talk about it in a general sense from a freelancer’s perspective:
How do you feel about digital versus traditional? I know digital is quicker and I'm more comfortable and better with oils than photoshop. But I know in the future I need to work quicker because I'm too slow in oils. I went to Spectrum and I saw Dos Santos, Manchess, and Giancola and was impressed. But I'm also fascinated by digital artists Sam Spratt and Stanko who are very painterly but quick. Does the medium matter?
After Winslow Homer for Harper’s, “The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty” 1862, wood engraving
Winslow Homer, “The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter On Picket Duty” 1862, oil
One of the things that I like about illustration is that it’s really more about what’s being said than what it (the art object) actually is. I think there’s something wonderfully democratic about that idea. Illustrations are meant to tell stories, and stories are disseminated best when told often and widely. The original object then is most important as an image to be reproduced. Its function as an art object is secondary.
To that end, illustration has always embraced technology quickly, especially if that means truer fidelity to the intended image. Above are two versions of one of Winslow Homer’s reportage illustrations during the Civil War. The bottom one is the original illustration, however the top wood engraving is what thousands of people actually saw when it was printed in Harper’s.
Ironically, it was advances in photography which allowed illustrators to have more control over their images. Color separations via photograph, halftone engraving, and offset lithography replaced relief printmaking, and cut the middlemen of engravers completely out of the publishing process.
Digital tools are pretty similar; they allow us to create a huge range of visuals and share them with the entire world instantly, cutting publishers out of the equation. I bet Homer would much prefer painting digitally than handing a piece over to an engraver.
So that’s the “industry” answer. Use what’s best for the job. If you’re working in concept art, vis dev, and other short-turnaround, high volume industries, then you’re expected to work digitally. Most of my finished illustration work is either 100% or mostly digital.
There’s a flip-side of course. I’ve been showing a lot more, and I’ve found that once you cross over into a more fine-arts context (and remember, as an illustrator you’ll exist in all of these worlds simultaneously) then the object becomes important again. For example, this Rockwell cover just sold for $22.5 million. I can convince an audience that my images are no less valid because I used PS to paint them, but I can’t necessarily fight a market that says that the actual print is only worth $50.
Finally, I just like drawing with analog materials more. I like screwing around with stuff, making messes, and stumbling on accidents. If working “traditionally” is a big part of who you are as an illustrator, man more power to you. There are plenty of people doing it and making it work.
When illustrating a story, should I illustrate a scene that is right before the climax? Or should I illustrate the climax? For instance, the story goes as follows: a group of teens surround a tied up boy, anticipating to kill him. However, this girl who was spying the whole time pops out of nowhere and yells them to stop. I don't know if I should depict her because I don't know if it would spoil the scene for readers. But it is the most exciting scene and interesting.
Duel between Onegin and Lenski, Ilya Repin 1899
The Duel, Ilya Repin 1901
Good question! And really the answer is up to you and your narrative instincts. Keep in mind a few things though:
- In this post, I suggested that one of the first things you should do compositionally is figure out the “right” story. Which characters does it make sense to show? Is it written from the girl’s perspective or the boys’? Is the scene spoiled by having prior knowledge of the girl being there?
- I think you’ve picked the right event in the narrative, however in this particular case it sounds more like a matter of working with the text to convey the right mood. From the details you’ve provided, it seems like most of the narrative tension comes from “anticipation” and “spying” and less from the actual action. These words will then dictate your design decisions. For example: maybe the girl is hidden in the foliage in a dark foreground, coiled at the bottom of the composition, and peeking out at the ring of teens in a brighter middle ground.
- Remember your context: if this were a children’s book, I would perhaps lean more on the side of a simpler exposition (showing her jumping out). Also, if possible, know where the illustration will be placed; if that particular illustration is placed before the actual event in the text, then you have your answer.
Hey man, love your stuff <3 So I've dropped out of university twice because I kept trying to convince myself I'd enjoy anything but art. Third time and I'm finally where I want to be in regards to my future. But there's been one thing that's been nagging at the back of my mind for the past few years: can you ever get into the industry too late? I mean, I'm 22 and all my peers are into their 4th/final years whereas I'm finally realizing what I want to do. Is there ever a 'right' age to get in?
22? You are a (figurative) baby; don’t worry about age. Don’t be too concerned about what your peers are doing either. The “race” is long.
So no, age isn’t a big deal if the mindset is there. The work is what matters.
That being said, age isn’t entirely a non-factor. As you get older, you tend to have more responsibilities that might weigh on your career decisions. You might be married, have a family, etc. which makes managing your time more complicated, especially when it comes to freelancing. A freelancer’s life can easily be a very selfish one (ask me how I know).
Also, as you get older pulling an all-nighter is absolutely terrible.
Long story short: there will always be someone better and younger, so don’t sweat it.
So, I'm in the process of becoming a self-taught illustrator. Do you have an advice about how I could design an art self-study program to be a better artist, or could you tell me about your process in becoming a better artist? Also, how do I get out of the rut of just sketching in my sketchbook. I never actually *create* anything, because I think I suck, so I just sketch in my sketchbooks. Sorry for the lengthy ask, but I see you as such an inspiration and would love to hear what you have to say
Here’s the stock answer: work hard every day, and eventually you’ll become better. Draw some hands in the morning. Do master copies. Do mock editorial assignments, etc. Be a good diligent craftsman, and one day you’ll be rewarded by this kind of weird creative force that circles the globe looking for conduits.
That’s not a wrong answer, but it’s also not the whole answer. I can’t tell you the whole answer because I don’t know what kind of artist you are, or what kind of artist you want to become. I’m also just a guy still figuring it out myself; I’m far from some kind of authority.
But here’s my advice based on what you’ve told me: embrace the suck.
Do you ever feel stuck? like you want to say something awesome, but it gets stuck somewhere inside of you and it makes you a little miserable?
- from Gabriel García Márquez by Stephen M. Hart.
There’s a really great Radiolab segment about this subject, and how various people deal with it. For example, neurologist Oliver Sacks made a deal with himself to finish his book within 10 days or commit suicide (I do not recommend this.) Elizabeth Gilbert has long extensive conversations with her potential projects, setting terms and boundaries, and telling it to come back in April.
I suspect that you will be miserable about this for some time, until you finally get this thing done. Really, there are only a couple ways to deal with it:
Get good enough, and then do it.
Do it anyway.
Before the Charlie Brown Christmas song starts up, here’s the good news: at least the source of your misery is something that you think is worth saying. We’re constantly drowning in a sea of drivel, lies, and clickbait; inundated with crap that is definitely not worth saying.
For our sake, get your butt at your desk every day, and give this thing what it deserves.
“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?