Things I Think About While Biking To The Studio: Focus & Style & My Work
I'm fascinated by artists that seem to have obvious and deep obsessions in their work, and a style that they carry for YEARS. I've had difficulty with this. I do get bored eventually. Outside of illustration, I suppose this is partly why I've never applied for a grant... How can I name what I'll be doing in a year? The answer to that is, well, I COULD name it. I am resistant. Part of my love of being an illustrator is that I really like to be able to immediately respond to how I see something in the moment. I hate the idea of being pinned down—like to be able to change my mind. In a backwards way of looking at it, it's like when someone sees something you used to do, style-wise, and wants that. It's impossible. You've moved on! And for that matter, how do you know where you'll BE, a year or so from now?
*Image above and right: An early piece in my career.
This is an evolution of my initial style, allowing me to expand to play with colour, bringing in circles. That lasted a while.
I had a great deal of trouble having a consistent style when I first started. So I started playing a game with my work to help get some focus - I would make rules for every piece of work I did - it must have a limited colour palette of a certain yellow, red and green. Then circles had to be involved. (See image at top of this post.) It worked. It made my work seem consistent. Later, I made further constraints for particular jobs, like full colour editorial newspaper work... It was to save time (many jobs I had were a one day turnaround) and to make it worthwhile (for me) for the budgets available. I used cardboard and acrylic paints in a pinkish-flesh colour, red, black and white. Again consistency. And art directors at magazines began to request I work this way. Eventually, as it usually does, A GREAT BOREDOM ENSUED. So I eventually let this way of working dwindle off.
Cardboard, with a limited acrylic palette for full colour editorial newspaper work.
That's the way it goes for me. Those rules I set in the past have didn't get to live a long and happy life. I get bored, I move on. I still have some "rules" for editorial work. Luckily they are loose enough to allow me to move around and play. They get to stay. I still see so much that I could do with it. But I know that will eventually change. It can seem easy to fake it, to make those rules. And not at all. I suppose the key is going deeper than the materials. The materials just tag along and you shine through. That's my hope anyhow. I think if you look at my work though, those older ways of working are still present. They just manifest themselves in a slightly different way. I would also say that creating work for myself, or for commissions outside of my commercial jobs helps me push, explore and take risks that I can bring into upcoming gigs.
What I think about a lot in the last five years is - what do I know for sure about myself? I remember hearing Marshall Arisman say something along those lines years ago, in reference to his own adventures in trying to get his work noticed. So, I could make a long list, but the short one is; people, their quirks, the way we relate, life issues. I'm naturally empathetic and it comes through in my work. It's what I'm attracted to in film, books, music, my friends.
When it comes to what or who visually inspires me, it's created somewhat of a problem to say that I'm inspired by many and everything... It's partially intentional because I worry about settling too long on one pretty flower - that I will mimic too closely what I love. And partly because I'm keeping my eyes open.
I hate to say it, but I need at least a pinch of the "rules" - a bit of focus leads to opportunity. It helps when people know what to expect of you - your style and the way you visually problem solve. Incremental changes. Hard to have patience for it sometimes.
Emma: A beautiful girl, lots of smiles and loves loves loves cats, but will not be able to have one until she's much older.
When I initially placed a dollhouse in the lower left (because I was certain she had one), she was not pleased. "Only boring kids like dolls and dollhouses!" So, when asked what would be a better replacement, she replied "A beautiful block tower." and her mother Ellen sent me a photo of what she had built for me to use as reference. A photo of math she was working on was included.
Emma takes after her mother in many ways - she loses herself in making things - doing embroidery, drawing, creating independantly every day. Ellen works at a book distribution company, and writes craft books for kids. She has an immense and beautiful collection of children's books, lots of classic illustration hanging on her walls... So this is what inspired this portrait of Emma here, in a little story of her own.
(The two rabbits in the frame also represent Ellen and Emma.)
The thumbnail to the above right is one of the shots I took of Emma's face along the way... I liked it, but she looked a little younger than she is and the shape of her eyes was not exactly right.
The entrance into the French Building of the NHIA campus.
Jim Burke recently had me and my pal, illustrator Carl Wiens, down to visit his illustration students at the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA). Lots of fun - Mr. Burke certainly knows how to roll out the red carpet. Carl and I had a blast while we there, hanging out with Jim, John Dykes and Ryan O'Rourke - a few pints were shared while talking about illustration and school, amongst other things.
We DID go down there to do some work! The first day there, we each gave a workshop... Carl digitally created an image of a snowflake, and later on in the day I took an existing painted sketch/study of Hannah, and changed her hair, her expression, the direction she was looking and brought in some colour with oils. I spoke to the students about how I welcome disruption in my work, the way I like uncertainty and risk - and doing that to an old sketch was actually pretty hysterical and nerve wracking! Fighting that blue/black was fairly difficult. I was pretty quiet for a while, scrambling to make something come about. I'll send an "after" shot if I can get a hold of one. I didn't think to take a picture.
That same day we hung out with the students, talking to them about what they were working on, and that continued the next day, after we had done talking about ourselves and the different paths our work has taken us. As to the slideshow I took them through, I focused on the different stages my work has gone through, from the time I quit school at 16, before I found my way as an illustration student at Sheridan College, to after I graduated and where my path took me to where I am now. The idea was to show the students that your career is a work-in-progress that has many stages, learning curves and triumphs.
I was impressed with the school, the students - with Jim Burke - and how he's cultivating the NHIA illustration program. The students have an impressive amount of resources and industry at their fingertips! Made me want to go back to school... ;)
We took a detour after that, and went downhill skiing about an hour outside of Manchester NH, at the Mount Sunapee Resort. I've always wanted to try downhill skiing. What little skiing I have done has been cross-country. Carl took off to the diamond routes and I had a two hour lesson on wee training hills. I think I love downhill skiing now!
We headed back to Boston, to hang out for our last day with some illustration friends at the Museum of Fine Art. Rob Dunlavey, Polly Becker and Scott Bakal. Pictured below, we're all drooling, flipping through one of Rob's countless sketchbooks. Oh, in fact, Scott has recently posted a short film about Mr. Dunlavey and his work, here.
Lastly, here's one of the more inspiring images I saw at the museum that day. A small James Abbott McNeill Whistler, titled "Harmony In Flesh Colour and Red"...