Friday, January 22, 2021

Why I don't do competitions.

~ New York Society of Illustrators Awards, 2008 (two prizes) ~

I'm at the tail end - seeing the 'light at the end of the tunnel' - of making a brand new website, starting totally from scratch and focussing on all the things that are currently missing from the current one. 

I've been meaning to do it for a couple of years, and much as I adore social media for sharing and enjoying each other's work, there's nothing like an online Mothership for telling the world who you are and what you like to make; a central place where I can put everything that's 'me'.
In the course of doing this, I chose to re-visit my FAQ section and where necessary (which as it turns out was 100% of all of it) write my thoughts afresh. After all, the types of questions I get asked have changed in nature, and mostly now come increasingly via Instagram messages and Twitter messages rather than via email, as they used to.

FAQs feel a little 'noughties', but they remain useful: it's still the case that most of the things I get asked are similar in nature and are thus given a similar answer. Though I'll endeavour to answer EVERY query I receive, as soon as I can, there's still an argument for having a 'first line of defence' which provides the answers to the most commonly-asked questions, so that the enquirer can check there first and if necessary, compose a more granular question to fire my way.

One of the answers that remained pretty much the same was this one. I expand on it here as it's something I've been meaning to elaborate on for a while. This is that 'elaborated' version.


Q: I don’t see any awards or gongs on your website, why’s that?

A: I do have some, but they’re not on the site. I honestly don’t think they’re that important, or would influence whether a client thinks I’m suitable for a job. A client will look at the style of my work, the colours, maybe the medium; they'll look at my profile in terms of whether I've created work of this nature before, and if I haven't, they'll ask whether the work on show suggests I could take a run at the project they have in mind. Finally, we'll talk, and they'll assess my availability, process and timescales, and finally-finally decide whether I should do the job (or, it might be me that makes that decision).

Never in my working life of 27 years have I been asked by a client, or any of my agents, whether I've won competitions, or whether I have prizes or awards. Yes, there's a lot more to committing to a creative vocation, as it can be more than 'just' your profession, job or trade, and a client or agent asking this question is not the only set of circumstances in which competitions might be relevant to that vocation. In an educational setting, for example, doing well in awards might be part of a wider landscape of professional achievements being sought out, alongside qualifications and experience, especially where an institution has a policy of putting students into competitive settings.

But I don't feel they've ever played a part in my myriad clients' decisions to hire me for jobs, nor do I feel they should.

Of course, I'm not saying NO-ONE should enter competitions, or that they shouldn't exist. Not at all; that's up to the individual. But I know that from the very beginning - starting in the second year of university - the pressure was on to compete: with each other, and with total strangers, by entering competitions, and with ourselves. The latter I had no problem with - putting pressure and high expectations on myself is something I've carried about in my 'holster of burdens' all my life - but the first two, competing with my peers, friends and colleagues or people I'd never met - always felt a little off, and distracted from the main focus of being in the educational environment: to experiment, play, evolve, develop, and learn.

That's not to say our course wasn't abso-fucking-lutely hardcore. It was. 9-5, 5 days a week, with stuff to get done at weekends and every single holiday; 26 fully completed, handed-in projects in the first 11-week term alone; crits every week and a ball-breaking amount of written work to go alongside it all. The pressure from that was enough, without a tutor arriving with a pile of photocopied competition briefs ready to add their name to the winner's certificate as 'supervising member of staff'.

The weird thing is I had a love-hate relationship with competitions. I hated the pressure, and my friend and I would quite literally break into a run in the opposite direction from a tutor striding down the corridor with what was so obviously going to be another competiton for us to enter. But I also loved the challenge. I hated pitching myself against my colleagues, but I loved the thrill of everyone disappearing to their rooms every night and scheming on a solution, knowing we were all doing it at the same time and to the same deadline: what would Simon's work be like? How would Mel answer this one? Is Michelle going to go for gouache, or try something else?

And I won things. I entered competitions and I won them, or got runner up places, or some other kind of recognition because of them. And obviously, I loved that, too. 

But alongside those positive feelings was the uneasy awareness of an inflated sense of security, the success feeding the erroneous notion that I might have 'made it', before I'd barely begun. In fact, the 'success' I was having generally on the course and via competitions caused me to have the closest thing I think I've ever had to a little breakdown, coming home one Christmas and declaring that I was spent, all my ideas were gone, I'd done all my best work and how on earth was I going to be able to carry on from here?

It was silly of course and, as my Mum very quickly realised, I was just exhausted and a bit emotional at being home. TV, sleep, tinsel and good food quickly sorted out my terrible twenties angst.

But competitions entered later on, as a working professional, continued to make me anxious with a big dose of self-doubt if I didn’t get anywhere, and when I did do well, I could feel the outcome giving me that same inflated sense of security and maybe a little internal gung-ho. Perhaps, I thought, success in competitions meant I didn't need to try so hard, all the time, because a group of people I've never met have decided my work ticks a set of boxes, or it's been passed in front of the subjective opinions of five different people. And if I entered and got nowhere: the opposite: maybe I'm a fraud. Why am I even trying. Why do I bother. Am I actually a failure and everyone else can see this but me.

Note those were statements, not questions: all those evil, niggling little dialogues spoke up because I'd thrown my work into an unknown vat of work by a hundred or thousand other people, which didn't scratch the particular itch of whatever the judges were feeling on the day.

I continued to enter competitions, but over time I started to become totally ambivalent about them. Those tended to be ones I'd paid to enter - and that scenario made me uncomfortable, too. WHY was I ambivalent? If I didn't care about the outcome, why was I bothering to enter? I realised it was out of a sense of duty, and very much born from the notion that 'that's what professional illustrators do'. And we don't, not all of us, just some of us. Competition gongs are most robustly not a signpost that you're a working, professional, busy illustrator: they're just a sign you like entering competitions.

Coupling all those realisations with the fact that I was paying hard-earned quids to enter, knowing that in some cases thousands of people would be paying the not-terribly-modest entry fees (with winners paying additional fees to display work on top), and my decision came into focus: just don't bother. The time I would spend choosing work, formatting and uploading it and filling forms online could very much be spent doing something more productive - something with a definite, positive, guaranteed outcome, like a piece of work, or doing some admin, or cooking something tasty, or reading the book I'd allowed to get dusty through repeated late nights working, even if just for the hour it took to enter that comp. (And where were all the fees going?)

Even during my many fun hours spent being a competition judge, I would struggle to reach a decision and, channelling my early-career experiences as a lecturer, I wanted to write to every single entrant and tell them something positive about their work, along with a suggestion or two on how they might improve. But I had to pick a first, a second, a third. I loved the process of looking at all the wonderful work, and I'd do it again, but I felt mindful of all the entrants' reactions whether I were to award them or not. So I finally made the decision to stop entering competitions myself a few years ago. If I was happy with a piece of work, and my client was happy with it, then it ended there.

And that was that.

Some people love entering competitions every year, but not me. I get the round-robin emails of this competition opening and that deadline looming, and I don't feel tempted to yield. Years after deciding to ease back from them, I have chilled a little, and instead of a blanket ban have narrowed it down to one illustration competition I’m happy to enter now, which is the V&A Illustration Awards, run by one the UK’s oldest institutions. I don't make myself enter every year, my policy being only to enter something when I feel it would sit well in the setting of the organisation, and alongside company that that competition attracts. The process of surveying a year's work and identifying something to fit the brief is a useful and contemplative exercise, whether I win anything or not, and allows me an opportunity to ponder my trajectory, the historical world of illustration, and my place within it now, and in future. 

And of course, despite my decision-making, I totally reserve the right to enter anything I feel like, at a moment's notice - but only after I've run the full-body diagnostic of 'why' - what's compelling me to enter, and can those needs be met by an alternative course of action? I heck myself for signs that I might be being tempted by the dangled carrot of an ego boost, or a need for some professional reassurance, and think about what it is I’m really after.

Nice as competitions can feel, making a living as a freelance illustrator is competitive enough. It took me a while to realise I don't need a list of prizes to tell the world how much I've invested in the profession I love, and how much of my soul is already, in fact, shaped like a little yellow pencil.

A very, very old home-made website page! Back when I was a super-keen Dreamweaver.



~ Illustrations are mostly shown in this blog in their original pen-and-ink form ~

 SPACEY! Published this week is this energetic new book by Abby Harrison aka @astronautabbyofficial, co-founder of The Mars Generation, called DREAM BIG! 

Illustrating this book occupied eight months or so of my 2020, begun and ended in different lockdowns, with over 30 black and white pen-and-ink illustrations to help guide its young readers through the process of not just envisioning a goal, but making it a reality. Not through wishing and hoping and throwing cosmic orders out there, but via the only method that works: planning, small steps, staying focussed and good old fashioned hard work!

Abby’s manuscript was utterly charming but pulled no punches either: if there’s something you want, you have to work for it. There truly is no such thing as ‘overnight success’ - what appears to be that is usually, just like an iceberg, the suddenly-visible tip of years and years of hard work. Abby’s narrative cheerfully breaks down the methods and steps involved in taking the vague and sometimes intimidating blob of an ambition or goal and breaking it down into do-able, realistic small steps. Because one step at a time is all we can actually take - even if ultimately, the step we most want to take is the one onto Mars!

I came up with the idea of creating a cast of characters for this book, who would be there to represent as many kinds of people as possible. Each character has a chapter of their own, and although their names aren’t mentioned in the book, you’ll meet Tina (named after a go-getting, opportunity-loving friend of ours), Zafeera (whose name means ‘always successful’), André (named after musical innovator and entrepreneur Dr Dre), Charlie (named for my energetic nephew who always throws everything into every challenge he’s given!), Georgia (my niece, who’s shaping up to be a real character and probably will one day be reaching for the moon),  and Chlöe, whose name simply fitted the character as soon as I’d drawn her.

It was important to me that this little group of friends was as representative as possible. I’d need more characters to fully encapsulate all the shapes and sizes and colours that human beings come in, of course - there’ be no room left for Abby’s words - but ‘reaching for your stars’ does not refer just to those wildly glamorous or seemingly unattainable goal types such as becoming an astronaut or a professional spy or an adventurer. It applies as equally to the lad who wants to be the best hairdresser in the world as it does to the girl who wants to be a a writer, a boxer or a Mum. They’re all goals, and they all take series of steps and some planning to get to them. And our little Dream Big people needed to be physically suggestive of exactly that enormous spectrum of possibility!

Happily, publishers Philomel embraced that idea, and as well as representing a nice spectrum of young humans, it also provided us with a useful system of referring to the characters, what they were doing, who they were interacting with, and in which chapter. 

The book also threw me some unexpected challenges. Two of the chapters deal with the idea of mentors - people we not not only look up to but might choose to engage and correspond with on our journey to the goal we’re moving laser-like towards. This required me to draw Real People, and not just any old Real People. So I went from inventing ambitious children doing imaginary things to capturing the likenesses of Malala, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama - gulp - not exactly faces you want to get wrong!

Fortunately I’d had a little practise with a previous chapter, drawing three female ‘disruptors’. Disruptors are people who, simply by following their dream, perhaps in an area not traditionally open to them or populated by people of their particular gender or background, or entering it from a different field, move to significant positions within that field and from within it make radical and long-lasting changes to it.  Perhaps, for example, they were not the first person to do something, but they did it in a way that had never been done before. Those ‘disruptors’ were Elaine Welteroth, ex-editor in chief of Teen Vogue; Emma Gonzalez, who survived a shooting at her school and became a spokesperson and advocate for gun control, and one of my own role models, the beautiful and dramatic architect Zaha Hadid. Drawing each was a challenge, but because their stories were so vivid and moving, it was easy to channel their achievement and strength into each of their wonderful faces.

So it was with Malala, Serena, Jonathan Van Ness and Michelle O. Such well-known and beloved faces were a joy to draw since their characteristics are richly evident on them. I wouldn’t say it was *easy* - but they did kind of flow, amazingly, in one take (apart from Serena who had to be drawn twice, as she was judged to just looked TOO determined and fierce in the first sketch - shown here!)

This book gave me the opportunity to draw the same characters over and over again in different scenarios and with the gamut of facial expressions from nervous to scared, to cheeky to laughing and joy. Over the course of the many months I was working on the book, Tina, Chlöe, Charlie, Georgia, André and Zafeera resided on some part of my desk at all times, and it was with some sadness that I drew the final scene and realised I’d have to put them all away.

Some of my favourite bits are the tiniest of details - André's cat, whose name has significance for Abby; people in the background, facial expressions, clothing details.

I’m grateful to Lindsey Andrews, Dream Big's art director, for giving me the opportunity to be the pictures to Abby’s words, and to Abby for cheerleading as those pictures were being created. The Philomel team were joy to work with during this long and sometimes tricky project, especially as all of us were working through lockdowns and associated Covid anxiety in our different corners of there world, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to work with them, and Abby, again! The book made me reflect on my own career; whether and how I’d taken some of the steps in the book myself - consciously or otherwise - and got me thinking about whether I could possibly have set the bar a little higher for myself. What the book did make me think about the most, though, is that you don’t stop once you’ve got to a certain place…and dreams continue to evolve and develop in unexpected ways, as long as you still love what you’re doing and want to stay active within in.

So DREAM BIG people. And if Dreaming Big scares you - well, dream small. All dreams are important, regardless of their shape and size. And they’re all worth chasing!

“Fun and helpful…appeals to both STEM-oriented fans of the author as well as those whose interest lie in other areas.” 


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