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I've had a lot of response about how helpful this idea has been, so I introduced the exercise to my seniors. With their permission I'm posting some their lists, they are both hysterical and prophetic. It is easy to see how a person's visual interests line up with what kinds of ideas they are drawn to, literally, in their work. Having this list in your studio is a way to remind you to connect your point of view conceptually to an object you enjoy creating.
Take a look and enjoy these lists from Maya Tatsukawa, Cord Luhrman, Ariella Elovic, Gretchen Oldelm, Chris Hohl, Miki Bird and Susie Kim.
An image for Entertainment Weekly on new Bible epics being filmed currently, Steven Spielberg is doing a Moses film, Will Smith is directing a movie about Cain and Able, Brad Pitt is portraying Pontius Pilate and Russel Crowe is filming a version of Noah's Ark. Did I get the call for this because I read the Bible? You decide.
Tonight I'll be speaking at Society of Illustrators with Aaron Duffy, a former student I had the pleasure to teach during my first year at Washington University. You can see much of his touching and moving work here. When I met him, he was a very stubborn and driven student, with distinct (if not totally clear) stories that he wanted, or indeed, had to tell. Today, Aaron's work shines for its singularity and heart, in a field where clear voices are often diluted in risk-adverse corporate advertising. He is an example of the kind of student that I love to teach. He was never afraid to take the risk of solving a problem in his own language. Ultimately, even when given limitations, Aaron created the problems he wanted to solve. Tonight, through our recent work, Aaron and I will be talking about these two questions.
From a student: How do I find my voice?
From a professor: How do I teach others to find their voice?
As someone who has experienced both sides of this equation, let me share a few thoughts about searching, discovering and knowing when you've found your own voice in your work.
Illustrators and commercial artists often make the mistake of being too good at solving the problem. Meaning they let the limitations of the project overly influence how they solve the problem. When I give my student's an assignment I always tell them the same thing. "At any point in this assignment, if you are unhappy with what you are drawing, it is your fault. Not mine." Illustrators, not art directors, are in charge of designing content that they will love to create. You can start simply: make a list of things you like drawing. My list looks something like this...
Foxes having tea
Goofy hats and beards
WW I gear
Animals with swords
Old presidents and kings
19th Century misunderstood abolitionists
on and on...
Make a list that has 100 things on it- and pin it up in your studio. Make a habit of inserting these subjects into your drawings and, even better, into your illustration solutions. Learning to solve a project in a world that you enjoy is a huge part of finding your voice. The reason why is so simple it almost escapes notice: When we make things we enjoy, our work gets better.
Marshall Arisman has spoke about this at length for years, including at ICON7 last June, and I will echo his wisdom. His MFA program at The School of Visual Arts was founded on teaching illustrators to no longer define themselves by their assignments. Illustrators from the 60's and 70's (the golden age of agency illustration) languished in the late 80's and 90's because they were not trained to be authors of their own material. These illustrators had become great craftsmen and great thinkers as well, but when there were no assignments given anymore, they grew bitter and unable to generate work without a client's prompting.
I teach my students to be, ultimately, what I call First-Order-Creatives. Now, before I clarify this statement, let me say that this structure has nothing to do with inherent value or skill sets required for each.
Third Order Creatives:Manifesting Content
A visual creation that is only concerned with forms. The artist is hired to deliver art and nothing beyond the created objects.
• Rendering fur/textures on an animated film
• Drawing a castle for an advertisement
• Illustrating a picture book in the style of another artist/ character set
Second Order Creatives:Framing Content
The artist is both visual creator and conceptual developer. Though they don't define the problem, the artist brings both form and content to the solution.
• Concept artist for video game or feature film
• Illustrating an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times
• Illustrating a children's book written by another author
First Order Creatives:Authoring Content
The artist is not only drawing the forms, and delivering the concept, but authoring the problem they eventually solve.
• Artist created comics/ Graphic Novels
• Visual Reportage
• Writing and illustrating books for children
• Auteur short films/animations
Let me say again, every artist who wakes in the morning with the privilege of drawing for a living should be grateful. This structure isn't about who is better or higher paid, it is to clarify thinking about how a career in the commercial arts can be lasting and adaptable. The higher you reside, IMHO, the better chance you have of creating a flexible and rewarding career in the commercial arts (that doesn't end in bitterness). Teaching students to author their own content is tricky, as you need the skills of the order below to be the best at the one above.
Simply put, don't wait for people to call you. Make drawings and make stories and make ideas that are yours alone.
As mentioned above, it is so easy during art school and professional training to forget that you started drawing because you enjoyed it. No matter what age that was, I guarantee that you weren't forced into drawing. In fact, you probably stopped merely enjoying it and began to love it. But, at some point, it is easy to assume "becoming a professional artist" is a very different goal than "enjoying oneself." Finding your visual voice has so much to do with finding joy in your work.
I hate when students talk about "style" - even though I fully empathize with the crisis. "What is my style? What is the best style? Do I just have to pick a style? Can I have more than one?"These questions are sincere and of course VERY critical to each and every artist who has ever thought it. But, in my experience, so very rarely are these questions linked to enjoyment. Usually what someone wants to be told is what he or she is "best at." Meaning that what they want or are passionate about doing has very little to do with finding what will give them professional success. Your voice is yours alone. Finding it can only come by following your own interests, influences, passions and personal longings. This is very different than finding something that is 'marketable.'
I spent 7 years in art school education, trying to make myself as marketable as I possibly could, and I've spent the last 10 years as a professional trying to undo the process and get back to the core of where I started. Joy in making.
Just because I love to keep a sketchbook doesn't mean that you will. In fact, I can think of many amazing and successful artists that don't keep sketchbooks. But here is what I will say about a sketchbook, whether it is a passion or a discipline, it will teach you things you can find nowhere else.
A sketchbook can teach you to connect the habits of making to the creation of ideas. The discipline of daily drawing is vital to this connection. It is important to leave the screen and enter the pages of sketchbook for the very realization that drawing is hard. The “Command-Z” culture of screen-based design can turn lifelong drawers into tentative image-makers - weary of putting down a line that isn't perfect (and in PEN!?).
Start drawing every day what emerges three months later is an invaluable logbook of ideas, ruminations and explorations. This collection of drawings often presents a much more integrated picture of a student’s visual interests and ideas than they had realized. A sketchbook isn’t just “drawing homework,” but an opportunity to discover the core of what makes you an artist. What is a sketchbook, really? Is it just a portable drawing surface, or a less polished version of an artist’s vision? Or is it something completely different? Stop seeing your sketchbook as shorthand- and see it as a playground. The privilege of making pictures for a living carries with it the risk of turning your drawings into mercenaries. We must remember to play.
“Our best successes come from projects that teeter on the edge of failure” -Aaron Duffy
My students struggle with failure, mostly because many of them have never seen it as valuable data. But, lets be honest, we all hate failing. We all hate when a risk we took doesn't work out. But, if you are looking for your visual voice, then you can't be cautious. You have to make stuff all the time, and be unafraid of when it goes bad. In fact, getting it right the first time is not normal. Early, fast success that isn't tied to an iterative process can actually hinder growth later in your career. Good work will seem like it came from magic/luck, not from hard work/process driven thinking and refinement. Seeing failure as merely the remnants of a bad choice is undermining the value of iteration. Process depends on iteration, and iteration must have failure for us to find the best solutions.
This stuff is not new. But it helped my students, so I hope it can be encouraging to you.
I was looking through some of my older tear sheets last week, and was overcome with a sense of gratitude for my career. Flipping through published failure after published failure, it felt as though I've made a career out of smoke and mirrors. So much of that work was amateurish and blind to it's own limitations! But the moral of the story is that I just kept making, I just kept drawing and ultimately my ability caught up with my desire. Truly, I'm living proof that talent is over-rated... hard work and desire trump all.
Hope to see you at the lecture tonight. 6:30pm at Society of Illustrators, New York. 128 E. 63rd St.
I found this great War deck in some things I had collected from my grandmother's farm house, and played a game with my son the other day. This is the very deck I spent hours playing with as a child, and really was struck by how great the illustrations are. Great colors and weird choices made all around. They are of a certain era to be sure, but I think they are really great.
It has been a very busy season- closing a new kids book along with a hectic semester of teaching. But before this is a distant memory, I wanted to share some thoughts on a profound distinct honor I experienced this year, chairing the Society of Illustrator's 55th Annual Show.
The very first time I learned of the world of Professional Illustration, (outside of a Norman Rockwell calendar in my 5th grade classroom), it was in the form of the Society of Illustrators annual, specifically Illustrators 38. I was a sophomore in college and I still remember it had this amazing Brad Holland on the cover.
Other than wanting to make drawings every single day, I had no exact idea of what I wanted to do with my life as an artist. Comics seemed plausible, but then... there was this book. Given to me by my professor at the University of Kansas, Barry Fitzgerald, this volume changed the course my life.
Holding it in my hand, it was like the Rosetta Stone. Immediately it began to translate all of my interests and passions into a clear language. I poured over each page and wrote down names - a few weeks later I gave up my uni-ball micro pens and started dry-brush painting, just like Brad.
That annual, and the ones that followed it year after year, opened endless visual doors to new work, new artists and, more importantly, new kinds of ideas.
I spent several years admiring illustration from the distant golden shores of the midwestern wheat fields before I moved to New York for graduate school in 2001. The very first time I went to the Society of Illustrators building, was for my inaugural class with Marshall Arisman in the MFA Illustration program at School of Visual Arts in New York. As you can imagine, this experience, to me, felt like being give a tour of St. Peters by the Pope himself.
As I left that building that night, totally amazed by the images just casually hanging on the walls in every nook of the place (is that a Cornwell in the corner over there!?), I remember thinking to myself, "If I can hang an image in this place just once, I'll be proud of my career." Based on everything on those walls, and in those annuals, it seemed a remote and distant notion at best. But, on the way home, I walked down 5th avenue and I wasn't discouraged, my passion for illustration felt so alive.
I entered the show for years, seven years in fact, including the student competition, before I got into Annual 46. I won my first medal in Annual 48. Now, Annual 55 represents my 10th straight year I've had work in the Society of Illustrator's Annual Show. I'm so grateful for that place and that I've been able to be a part of it in some small way over the years. If possible, I feel more humbled by the work on the walls than on my first visit. The magical experience of becoming a successful working illustrator has given me such admiration for the greats both past, present and future (in the case of some young illo-stars out there). There is much to look forward to in the next ten SI Annuals.
This year, I'm thrilled to have eight drawings in the show, posted below. (If you're wondering, the chair does NOT get to vote on what gets into the show, all selections are made by the jury. If I had any sway, I'd have 25 pieces in the show.)
The first show is opening January 4th, 2013 at The Society of Illustrators. Hope to see you then.
Thanks to SooJin Buzelli for calling me for this project, which will run in Plan Sponsor magazine. I finished this project back in August, but it is just hitting the newsstands now. This article is about the benefits of mutual funds paying out in a steady stream of income, rather than in a single lump sum.
Sometimes I'll set arbitrary limitations on my ideas, just for fun and variety, so for my sketches this time I constrained the variables by only sending ideas that had animals in them. SooJin picked my favorite!
A few details of the big salmon- every good illustrator should love drawing fish.
The Moving Image category was created several years ago at The Society of Illustrators Annual Show, and I'm pumped to have something to enter into it this year. If it gets in, I'm going to do a live performance of beer bottle drawing at the opening.
I had the great chance to do the cover of Fortune Magazine this week.- with a small exception. They killed it for a different version of the art. But, Fortune keeps a blog full of their rejected art. Great stuff that never made the final print.
They hire three illustrators to do final covers and then the editor picks the one that fits the news and attitudes of the piece. This may seem draconian, but there are several high-profile timely newsweeklies that use a similar process.
To visually demonstrate being rich in America, we had great fun taking J.M. Flagg's classic Uncle Sam and crossing him with Gordon Gekko from Wall Street- then crank up the bling.
Beyond the concept, it was an enjoyable formal challenge to draw jeweled and diamond studded clothing and accessories. I'm going to send this to the Romney campaign and see if they are interested.
For all you Saint Louis readers, I've got two events coming up in the next few weeks. I'm going to be showing my work and talking about illustration at The St. Louis Artist's Guild next week, Tuesday August 14th, 7pm.
A new drawing from American Cowboy magazine (yes, that exists).
So, what is the greatest bar fight in western movie history you ask? The jury comes back with the epic 10 minute brawl from SHANE (1953) starring Alan Ladd and Ben Johnson.
After watching the movie again, I took some shots of the fight, which moves from one-on-one, to five-on-one, to two-on-twelve! One great tongue-in-cheek moment is the directors have a kid watching the fight, casually eating a candy cane. Just before the decisive blow, the action cuts away to the kid biting his candy cane, mirroring the crunch of the bad guy's cheek bone being pulverized. Amazing.
This is one of those images that I got right with my first tiny sketch thumbnail. (Don't tell my students that this happens sometimes). I did other sketches, but this time, the first one was the best.
Scholastic Books contacted me with a great project, illustrating a book jacket for a young adult novel called The Path of Names. The plot is spooky and fun, a young girl goes to summer camp and finds a trail of ghosts and secrets that lead her into a scary labyrinth in the woods.
I've said it before, but my favorite projects are book jackets. The collision of narrative, type and image is such an exciting challenge. How to tell a story (but not give anything away) and deliver the author and book title clearly to a passerby in less than a second? I think I'd pick this book up.
I made this image last summer for the Best Piece of Advice Ever Show, finally opening this weekend in New York, and in London later in June. It was in response to the advice "Inspiration can come from anywhere, and usually when you least expect it." - Tom Brunner
I was asked to participate in a group show celebratingCartoon Network's 20th Anniversary, curated by Mark Murphy. A great list of artists have participated, and I had the pleasure of working on a tribute to one of my favorite CN shows, "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends"
It is an unusual challenge to draw characters that were designed by another artist, while still keeping some of your own personal voice. I'm selling prints of this image in my store, and the original will be for sale at Comic Con this summer. It will also hang in the Cartoon Network headquarters in Atlanta.
Finally back from the incredible experience of planning, running and sort-of attending, The Illustration Conference in Providence, Rhode Island... June 13-16th. As the President of the conference, I had the great honor to start the entire conference with an address. I've heard so many wonderful comments from folks who wanted to share it with others who weren't there. Anytime you have a chance to start a conversation with your entire industry, it is exciting, but I had not anticipated the overwhelming response to my thoughts on the nature of illustration and the future of our fate as image-makers. So, below is a transcript of my opening address, with some of the visuals I used as well. But first, a thanks to all who came to ICON7 and those who were so encouraging about the work the entire board put into it to make it an amazing experience. _________________________________________
President's Address: June 14th, 2012
ICON7- Providence, Rhode Island
Illustrators, let me ask you this, when you are at a party, and someone asks you: “So, what do you do for a living?” What do you say?
“I’m a freelance artist.” actual translation: He’s unemployed. or you say,
“I make drawings for newspapers and magazines.” actual translation: She’s an editorial cartoonist. or you try,
“I’m a commercial artist.” actual translation: He’s in advertising. or what about,
“I make picture books for children.” actual translation: She went to art school, now she’s a Kindergarden teacher. or maybe,
“I make graphic images for the web and print.” actual translation: He’s into porn. or if you say
My friend and fellow board member, Kyle T. Webster and I had the fun job of coming up with some short interstitial videos for ICON7. Kyle came up with the simple concept of seeing an interaction through an email window between art directors and illustrators. Based on his first test (which made me laugh out loud), I wrote some scripts. We had such a blast putting the final versions together a few days before the conference. In the board room, WE thought they were hilarious. Jaime Zollars thought they we're "ok."
I have the great job of drawing for NPR's Peter Sagal when he writes his Road Scholar column for Runner's World. This month's column is about a Beer Race, which is exactly like it sounds. You drink beer, then run a lot, and drink more beer. It didn't end so well for Peter (not to mention you're disqualified if you yak up the booze.)
Inside baseball: For the drawing above, I wanted to see what would happen when I drew final art with a bic pen instead of my normal inking tools. Always trying to get closer to the energy found in my sketchbook. I missed the dark black I get out of india and microns... but still fun.