Friday, March 22, 2019

I want to do illustration. I don't know how to draw and I'm past my mid 20's. What should I do?

I answered this question for a Quora member yesterday. I'm posting it again here, as the response to my answer has been overwhelmingly positive.

First of all I would chuck aside ANY anxiety about being in your mid 20s. This is irrelevant. Professional colleagues of mine have started in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties; after a whole career; after two careers. This part doesn’t matter one bit. A client couldn’t care less how old you are - just whether your work fits what they’re looking for.
Secondly I would look hard at what being an illustrator means. In a nutshell, it means to Someone who makes images to help sell, embellish, explain, decorate, highlight or communicate an idea, a text, story, product, song or concept. You’ll be working as what used to be called ‘a commercial artist’ - that is, your work will first and foremost be ‘doing a job’. The job of your illustration might be to decorate an eyeshadow box or whisky bottle. It might be to sit on the front of a greetings card. It might to explain a difficult idea - one that photography wouldn’t work very well for, for example - in a scientific magazine. It might be to draw readers into a short story in a magazine. Or it might be on a book cover, to get people to pick up that book and buy it, while giving juicy clues about the novel inside.
While you will most probably always be doing personal work - that is to say, work that isn’t for a client, but for your own amusement or development, ‘off the clock’ if you like - as an illustrator you’ll be be spending the majority of your time working for someone, usually within a company. As a freelancer, this can be for many people at once (my record is 18 projects simultaneously - this means 18 different ‘bosses’!) or, if you want to be employed, for example within a greetings card company, you’ll have one boss, but you’ll still enjoy a variety and breadth of work. So it’s worth thinking about how you like to work. Are you reasonably well organised? Can you keep track of projects and meet deadlines? Are you OK with lots of communication happening at once?
What you’ll need to be good at is ideas, and visual problem solving. A good drawing is a good drawing, and a love for and knack for drawing is still, in my opinion, extremely important to an illustrator. But an illustration is usually much more than that; it exists to communicate an idea or a concept, or create a mood, or tell a story. For that reason, the ability to draw is important, but not an absolute dealbreaker. It goes without saying if you ‘can’t draw’ you may struggle to get the broad range of work you might otherwise get if you CAN draw, and it will certainly strength and inform your work - but the likes of David Shrigley and Paul Davis, extremely successful illustrators, may suggest otherwise. (Note that there is an art to looking like you can’t draw very well - the folk-art look or ‘naïve art’ vibe often belies some serious skill with pencil; think of Les Dawson, one of whose most famous TV gimmicks was playing the piano appallingly badly. He was in fact an extremely skilled pianist, and needed to be in order to mimic the bad playing with conviction. If you don’t know who Les Dawson is, he’s worth looking up!)
One of the very best ways ‘in’ is to go out and absorb as many examples of illustration ‘in the wild’ as you can. Get off Instagram and delve into the shelves of magazines - which of them is using illustration, and how are they using it? - look at book covers; study album covers, the classic illustrators; look at how the rows and rows of pretty wine bottles in the supermarket are using illustration, the chocolate boxes, notice whenever illustration’s being used on TV in adverts. Ask whether you can see yourself fitting into that world. If you’re building up work while you do this, you’re starting to sow the seeds of a portfolio, and you’ll need a really strong one of those before you can show potential clients. If it’s not client ready, it doesn’t matter - if it’s feedback you want, Instagram IS a good place to get this, as long as you’re OK with getting some frank replies, and you’re honest about where you are on your journey! Follow the illustrators you like on Insta - but don’t think you have to compare yourself to them. You’re not them, and they have probably had YEARS of practice leading up to the work you’re seeing now.
If it’s just learning to draw that you want to do, then Sharon (who was another contributor to the thread, who offered some pretty granular step-by-step tips on learning to draw) in her previous answer gives some excellent advice. But to become an illustrator, you’ll need to combine this with idea generation, problem-solving, tenacity and a competitive spirit - along with good business skills. None of this is easy, but it isn’t horribly difficult either - as Sharon says, all of it is practice, practice, practice.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

4 years later, I still can't get over this one.

Having covers rejected is a normal part of working on book covers. In my experience I'm happy to say that rejections have been rare, and if they happen it's only usually at the rough stage, when your first ideas need whittling down to the strongest ones. Out of hundreds of covers, I can count on one hand those sad little covers that were not used at all in the end and remain in the dark of my archive, never to see the light of day unless I write about them in a blog like this.
(Note, illustrators: you should always be paid for the work you've done to get them to that stage!) 

This one, however, has burned gently away at me as a miscarriage of justice; an error of judgement, a possibly panicky reaction, and an art director bending to the opinions of an author. Traditionally, authors get very little input on their covers; this is not out of any sort of meanness or desire to cut them out, but because a team comprised of experienced editor, marketing team, designer, illustrator and art director will have a far stronger collective experience of creating 'covers that sell' than the author, particularly a first-time author. And an author wants their book to sell! Writers have been known to hate their finished cover at first glance, because they've lived with their version of scenes, characters, atmosphere and even colours and shapes during the writing process, only to fall in love with it after spending some time with it and unfurling its relationship to the story. This isn't to say authors' comments aren't integrated into their final covers - they often are, just further along the creative process.

I try to build a relationship with 'my' authors from the moment I'm commissioned; social media has made this easier, but dropping an email off to the person whose Magnus Opus you're about to try and interpret with pens feels only polite. I admire them all, for their tenacity and creativity in getting a book written in the first place, and for having the balls required to get it to a publisher and see the process through. Brave, creative people. Some of my authors want to know nothing about the cover process at all, preferring to wait for a surprise; others are keen to see work in progress (not always possible) and others chip in with an idea here and there. More often than not, though, they put their trust in the experience of their art director, and in turn, me. What I've done on occasion, long after publication, is share with an author what 'their cover could have looked like', when the conversation is there and the opportunity feels right. Most are enthralled, have never been shown them before, and are a little sad that they couldn't use EVERY cover that was created for them!

This one was fascinating.

The Girl With The Ghost Eyes is about Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist and a young widow burdened with 'yin eyes' - the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father, and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford. Set in 'a Chinatown caught between tradition and modernity', it's packed with non-stop martial arts action, ancient spirits, gangsters, soul-stealers and sorcerers, with Li-Lin's sidekick being a wisecracking eyeball who lives in her pocket.

Enough to go on? You bet. The brief contained very specific direction not only about these wild characters and the setting but about Li-Lin's origin too, her look, her very particular eyes, and their unique power. I was most excited to create a strong character for this cover, and the rich ingredients of the location and the magical aspects were all there to be integrated into it. 

After a few ink-washy ideas in a sketchbook, sent really for context, I started sketching a character-led cover. For this bold YA novel with such a magnetic lead character, it felt like no other approach would be quite as strong. I'd been working with collage and layered, inked papers, a way of working that's continued since and appeared on several covers. I sketched out my Li-Lin with careful reference to her geographical and ethnic origin, but gave her an intense, warning stare and riveting eyes. Young and slim, her pencil-straight hair became a fierce frame, and the no-nonsense title state within her pale throat. Her outfit featured strong, stylised shoulder pads made of folded and cut, ink-washed paper.


Finally, flanked by golden dragons, smoke and stars, she was ready to submit. I was thrilled with the cover even at rough stage - and maybe I'm guilty of getting too attached, as I'm experienced enough to know that when you feel like this about a cover, it can spell trouble.

I couldn't have predicted the response that came back. Rather than a request to go ahead and work it up a bit more, or make the tweaks to colour or titling or that I'd expected, there came the response that the author thought my illustration was 'racially insensitive'. I distinctly remember blinking at the screen, thinking I'd misunderstood something. Me? Racially insensitive? It was absurd. I'd paid so much attention to the character's origin, as directed by the author himself, that I couldn't see what on earth he was talking about. She was Chinese, I'd used a big pile of photographic references, and observed his notes, and those of the art director. She was stylised, yes, but she wasn't a caricature - I'm terrible at those - and she wasn't doing anything cheesy or stereotypical. Just...breaking the fourth wall, with those eyes that had the power to see spirits.

I protested, of course. I was aghast - and a bit cross, if I'm to be honest - and asked for the comment to be expanded on. The art director told me the author's wife was Chinese, but I'm unsure whether or how this played a part in his reaction. I knew his life had been spent immersed in Chinese culture, so I removed the author's name and sent the cover to a few colleagues I trusted - two of whom were Chinese too - and ran the feedback past them, keeping the publishing company's name out of it. They unanimously expressed bewilderment, and laughed gently at the accusation of racial insensitivity - one in particular telling me how many times she and a Japanese chum in the same trade swapped examples of terrible unintentional caricaturing - reassuring me that this was robustly not that.

But the author wouldn't budge, and the art director was beholden to his comments. A first-time author, and a highly-knowledgable, vastly well-read expert on Chinese culture with a degree in Mandarin and Chinese Buddhism, I was hardly going to argue (even though I felt I had the equivalent knowledge when it came to book covers!) so I let it be. I still did the final cover, but it was a pale shadow (literally) of the ones I'd created before it. You can see the red cover it was published with below. 

In addition to the covers, I'd also created an illustration of an inky night-time Chinese street to be used inside the book; this I loved making, and regretted that it wasn't incorporated into the pages. Having said that, maybe it was - I never did receive a copy of this one.

As I was recently collating all my books for a report I had to submit earlier in the year, this one came to mind again and I still wonder whether I'd have been the centre of a career-ruining Twitterstorm had the cover been published, or whether it would have been the roaring success I hoped it would and the book would have sold three times as many copies. We'll never know. The author has written another book since, for which I didn't do the cover, and I note Ghost Eyes has been re-covered with a photographic/digi-collage approach. 


Sometimes you have to fight for a creative idea, sometimes you have to let go. Despite all your creative instinct telling you something is right, when it comes to commercial publishing, that instinct sometimes has to be pushed aside. It's painful to do it, and one day all of my Lost Covers will be the subject of their own little show somewhere. But for now, in my archive they lurk; original art in the plan chest, final files on the backup drive, awaiting their moment in the sun.

What do you think? Was I so pleased with my collage that I overlooked something obvious? I've remained curious about what others' reactions might be, and part of me hardly dares to ask. Either way, I've done a great many covers since, including some for the same publisher, so I chalk this one up to experience. I bear neither the author nor the AD any ill will, of course - it's just business, after all - but my Li-Lin will return, as another character in another form, on a a future cover...

Read a review of the book here.


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