Thursday, January 03, 2013

How To Find Your Voice

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... 

Bridges collapsing
Foxes having tea
Goofy hats and beards
Ray guns
Cute robots
Ugly robots
Boats sinking
WW I gear
Animals with swords
Magic fish
Unmanicured trees
Holy things
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.  
Some examples:
• 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. 
Some examples:
• 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. 
Some examples:
• 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.


  1. Great advice, John. How did the lecture go?



  2. Great advice, John. How did the lecture go?

  3. I just printed this and put it on my wall.

  4. great article to share with us! totally agree with what you wrote here! In my opinion, artists will be happy if they eventually find their way of communication in their art.

  5. As an illustration student about to graduate, I really appreciate this post. You have a lot of valuable insight, and it reminds me to get back to the basics and have fun again. Thank you thank you thank you!

  6. Ed- it went great, no booing!
    Kyle- I'm flattered... thanks man.
    Nicholas and Miranda- glad it was helpful.

  7. Thanks for putting this together John, I've been following your blog and work for a few months now.

    I'd say always keep a sketchbook and/or a pocket camera at hand. The iPhone camera has been really helpful tool for me in terms of storing reference images.

    Talking about sketchbooks, I have a question for you, Do you make your church sketches during the sermon or once you get home!? : )

    Thanks for your advice, I may write the 'things I like to draw' on post-it notes and put them on one of my studio's walls.

  8. Oliver- I make the drawings during the sermon, and color them (or finish them up) at home. I'd say each spread is about 2-3 hours of work, if they get much beyond that, then they stop being immediate and fun. Thanks for following my work...

  9. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Thank you, that was a pleasure to read and be inspired by.

  10. Two Moiras agree. Thanks, John

  11. This is wonderful, John, and exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you! Happy Drawing!

  12. I love this and it is well timed in my life. Thank you, sir.

  13. Glad to hear it Deanna...

  14. Two things:
    1. I need to sign up for your Blog- wise words that only experience can teach.
    2. Fear of failure. Spot on! You could probably devote a whole article to that alone. Today's culture has no room for it in this, "ROI" mindset. (Return On Investment)- or in other words, deliver or else. And we wonder why we get burned out or stagnant. Thanks for the inspiration!

  15. This blog post was just what I needed, just when I needed it. Thank you for such an eloquent, inspiring piece of writing. I'm sure the lecture was excellent!

  16. I found this to be a truly inspiring and practical article. Thank you so much!

  17. Being reminded of true things makes me feel courageous.

  18. Really inspirational. Thank you for sharing this, John. It's a must-read for all designers / artists. I've passed this link on to many friends and students.

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  20. Oooh haaaa I'm glad I read this now... gonna' work on that list so that I can actually enjoy my last year as an art student. Hopefully I'll be able to rediscover my love of art. Thanks for this n_n