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sidestepping obstacles

31 Oct

Build upon strengths, and weaknesses will gradually take care of themselves. ~ Joyce C. Lock

Illustration is a tough business. Super-duper. When I teach illustrators who are about to graduate and face the real world — students who have had years to explore, practice, and hone a style — I ask them to assess their portfolios, and list their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Everybody excels here and struggles there, but not everyone is equally self-aware. Self-awareness is a sign of maturity. In a tough marketplace, it is essential for survival.

When you are honest about your strengths and weaknesses as an artist, you can become your best self.

Life coaches and business experts often instruct us to identify our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them. I prefer to spend time strengthening my strengths. It’s not that I’m lazy. It’s just that I know who I am, and who I am not.

We are creative people, Class. Let’s find clever ways around our personal obstacles.

I’ve already confessed my lack of skill when it comes to color. The easy way around this obstacle is to use existing palettes created by people whose color sense is better than my own. When I use a proven palette, there is no struggle evident in my work. I learn as I go, and make fewer lackluster illustrations in the process.

Nathalie Dion told a similar story to my class via Skype several years ago; she has kindly given permission for me to retell it here.

When she was a student, Nathalie struggled with perspective drawing. As a result she all but eliminated perspective from her artwork, a decision that impacted her style in a profound way. Mme Dion found a path around her obstacle, a decision which went on to pay big dividends.

In both cases — my struggle with color and Nathalie’s, with perspective — we imposed style rules on our work. When I add color to a drawing, I force myself to stay within the palette I have chosen. This can be challenging, but the results are exciting, because the limitation forces me to make choices that wouldn’t even occur to me otherwise. The same is true for my sweet friend Nathalie, whose self-imposed challenge forces her to find interesting and clever ways to suggest depth, with limited use of perspective.

Know your weak areas and use them for good. Some obstacles are put in your way to make the path you travel more interesting.


The Big Breakup (above), by Nathalie Dion. Nathalie is represented by Anna Goodson Management, Inc. See her entire portfolio on Anna’s site by clicking here.

{ l e g a l } THIEVING

23 Oct

“Of course, I subscribe to Graphis, Communication Arts and Print, and whenever I see something I like, I steal with both hands.” ~ David Lance Goines, 1992 (from a personal letter)

As visual people, we can’t help but be influenced by the art and design that we love. If you want to be a successful illustrator with a lasting career, you have to stay on top of color and style trends, and adapt as the culture’s taste changes. Artists are always learning, always growing, and are always influenced by their environment. Therefore, we had better monitor the environments in which we put ourselves!

Some of us have to be more careful about this than others, because we are like tofu.

Tofu  has no inherent flavor; rather, it takes on the flavors of the other ingredients in the recipe. Throw in some curry, and the tofu tastes like curry; saute tofu with bell pepper, and it tastes like bell pepper.

Many art students are like tofu simply because they haven’t had time to develop yet, artistically. If you suspect you may be the tofu-type, my advice is to stop looking at other illustrators for inspiration. Assailing your brain non-stop with illustration can be confusing, and can even cause unintentional plagiarism.

Instead, look at fine art and graphic design. Spend an afternoon at the botanical garden, or flipping through the latest issue of Elle Decor. Steal a color palette from a pair of designer high-tops, or a roll of wrapping paper. Be influenced by good design, without bombarding yourself with images made by your illustration heroes.

This will help your work improve as you become uniquely you.

I stole the color palette from the crazy shower curtain in our upstairs bathroom (see photo above) for this holiday image. Many artists struggle with color, and I am no different. I have learned not to trust myself when it comes to color. As a rule, I always “steal” an existing palette designed by a professional colorist. It’s a good trick, and falls under the heading of LEGAL THIEVING.


15 Oct


… and the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, p. 199

Writers talk a lot about finding their voice; we illustrators use the term STYLE, but it’s all the same, really.

Each of us has a unique speaking voice. We can’t help it; it’s in our DNA. The problem is, while other people love and appreciate our voices, we often do not. For me, this could not be more true. My voice may be the sweetest sound on earth to my son, but when I hear the outgoing message on my phone, my blood runs cold.

The same principle applies to the art we make, doesn’t it? Many of us — dare I say, most — are hard on ourselves. We pine over the work of our peers, and by contrast we feel our work is lacking. Why should I even bother? Look at her awesome portfolio! I may as well go dig a hole in the backyard and jump in. Sound familiar? Trust me. Even those of us who have achieved a certain level of success suffer bouts of self-doubt.

Quite regularly.

We really do.

Now, Class. While it is true that there is always room for improvement, we need to remember that each of us has a unique voice. And that’s a good thing. So… shout, sing, chat it up! Earth is big enough to accommodate every voice, every portfolio, every style. Appreciate the art that other people make, rather than using it as a measuring stick with which to whack yourself over the head. (Age helps with this, by the way. Take it from old Auntie Violet, whose skull is scarred from decades of self-inflicted lumps.)

Learn from other voices, but meanwhile, get comfortable being you.

Style is what happens when you stop trying. ~ James McMullan

The Components of Style

26 Sep

There are many facets to the gem that is an ILLUSTRATION STYLE. An illustrator is known by his or her typical palette, compositional tendencies, and concepting habits. (Does she tend toward change of scale, or is she more of an anthropomorphism kind of girl?) Primarily, however, the way an illustrator draws and the materials she uses define her style.

Is it possible for one portfolio to contain works created in a variety of media? Your professors will probably tell you, “No.” End of story. My personal experience, however, supports a different answer.

The way an illustrator DRAWS seems to transcend CHOICE OF MEDIA. Gary Taxali is Gary Taxali, whether he’s printing on an old leather book cover or painting oils on masonite.

I’ve changed my  technique several times during my career. During those transitional phases, after getting a sketch approved I sent samples of older work done in technique ‘A’ along with newer ones in technique ‘B’. “Which do you prefer?” I asked. More often than not my A.D. would send back a handful from each category with a brief note: “I like these.” As if — get this — the medium in which I chose to work didn’t matter. Sometimes I wondered, Can he even tell a difference?

What matters, class, is that you concoct super smart ideas and execute them well. Hone your drawing style and keep it consistent; then you can paint every once in a while—or stitch a needlepoint, like Helen Dardik—instead of clicking away on your laptop every day for the rest of your professional lives.