Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old Year Reflections

Last year was a funny kind of year for me, a good year in many ways but different than I had envisioned it. It was the first year in my life I achieved my dream of making a living by selling my art and teaching. It will take me a little longer to be more comfortable financially, but I count myself pretty lucky for making it through the year without having to get another part-time job, which I did consider several times (I even applied for a job but didn't get it - thank goodness!) Not that there is anything wrong with having a part-time job, but as the year progressed I realized that I can now make more money doing what truly interests me than working other jobs. This has never been true for me before in my life, so I am very happy about that!

Looking back, I see 2015 as a year of "sinking in." The year started off very slowly for me. I went into heavy hibernation mode in the beginning of the year. I ate a lot of grits with cheese and watched a lot of movies. The winter was harsh in Richmond and throughout the United States. I wanted to be more productive with my art, but I felt so unmotivated. I felt guilty and frustrated because now that I had more time than ever to work on my art, I wasn't taking advantage of it in the way I thought I should. Periodically I took art classes in handlettering, mixed-media, screenprinting, and ceramics to help me get into the flow of making stuff again. While I enjoyed the classes, doing so many different things made me feel a bit disjointed. I never had a steady flow of creativity, it was always in fits and starts.

Sgraffito bowls I made in my ceramics class.

Through the year I thought about children's book illustration, listened to Let's Get Busy podcasts (now called All the Wonders) for inspiration, and tried to define my style by doing many experiments but didn't hit on a "solution." In October I attended my regional Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators conference. After receiving a portfolio critique from a creative director, I was shaken up. I wanted him to tell me I was ready to illustrate children's books, even though the hodge-podge of illustration in my portfolio said otherwise. Looking back, he gave me some helpful suggestions that I will definitely use, but I decided I will not attend another conference or get a professional critique until I have done some major work on my visual storytelling abilities. I need to put the emphasis on learning and practice rather than results and praise. I will be ready when I am ready. Through the conference, I met and joined a small critique group with a couple of illustrators who live in my area, so now I have a great support system to keep me motivated!

In my fine art world, while I had periods of intense art productivity, I mostly floated through the year. 2014 was intense with starting my notecard wholesale business, but in 2015 I just didn't have the energy to push myself. I got sick four times during the year, which is unusual for me. My body kept sending me the message that it didn't want to be pushed hard at all, in fact it wanted to be nurtured. My hands and body were stiff all the time and I didn't know why. I worried that I was getting some kind of precursor to arthritis in my hands. My body gets a little more cranky in the winter, but usually when warm weather hits I am fine. I tried to do more yoga, but the stiffness persisted even through the warm months. Then, for my birthday in June, my aunt sent me the best gift ever: a set of Zumba dance fitness dvds.

And so I discovered DANCE. I'm not kidding when I say that it changed my life. 
As this was my first year being a full-time artist, at first I didn't notice how little I was moving around. I have never felt very graceful or coordinated (and I'm extremely shy about dancing in public), but doing Zumba makes me laugh, shake, and feel alive. It's a great reprieve from sitting all day working on art, and I come back from dancing feeling happy and ready to work again. It made me appreciate movement and the many ways the body can express itself. With the addition of drinking fresh ginger tea (which has lots of antioxidants and health benefits), my body felt so much better. I also started bicycling again.

One thing I did do a lot of last year was travel. 

In May I went to New York City to walk the National Stationery Show with my parents and aunt (who own a fabulous gift shop in Rochester, NY called Archimage). As I wrote about in previous posts, starting in 2014 I worked to wholesale my notecards to shops around the country. While I had some success with it, I was very small-potatoes. It was exciting but ultimately exhausting contacting store owners and trying to get sales, to the point that I felt burnt out and wasn't sure if I wanted to run my card business anymore. I didn't know whether I should try to grow or scale back, and it weighed heavily on my mind for many months. My family suggested that I walk the Stationery Show with them to see what the card industry is all about. 

That's my dad, mom, and aunt in the far left.

After walking the show, I observed that while there were some excellent stand-out booths and the cards were of great quality, many looked very similar to me. The art on my cards was much more unique in comparison to most of what I saw, which surprised me. I decided that I don't want to do what everyone else is doing just to make more sales. I want to do what I enjoy and what works for me. I am happy being small-time and niche, and I don't want to get too big because it will take over everything else that I enjoy doing. So it turned out that I am doing just fine after all!

I traveled for a lot of craft shows/vacations last year, including Buffalo and Rochester, NY; Trenton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Louisville, KY; and Raleigh, NC; as well as doing a lot of shows locally in Richmond. A few of those shows really sucked for me in terms of sales, which caused me to re-think how many out-of-state shows I want to do in the future. But I beat my all-time sales record three times last year! And the funny thing is that I only made four new prints to sell.

Visiting the glorious mosaics of Isaiah Zagar at Magic Gardens in Philadelphia.

I was able to visit my family in Rochester, NY twice. I usually only visit my family around Christmas. They own a gift store, so holidays are exhausting for them and I am also burnt out from holiday sales. It was wonderful to visit them in August when things are less stressful for everyone and we had more time to hang out.

At beautiful Watkins Glen in upstate NY with my family.

The merry-go-round at Charlotte Beach. Such amazingly-painted creatures!

In late October I traveled to Mexico City to visit my best friend and witness Dia de los Muertos, a holiday that celebrates and honors family and friends who have passed away. It was an awesome trip, and I plan to make a zine about it. I saw so much and it gave me perspective on another culture and myself in unique ways that I am grateful for.

Just one of the many ofrendas, or altars, created by Mexican citizens to honor their deceased loved ones.

In spite of not doing a ton of artwork, I did manage to do a few commissions and donations for others:

I, along with several other local artists,  painted bicycle frames to raise money for the Richmond Cycling Corps and Art 180. It was fun working on a 3-dimensional object. The words on the bike are a poem I wrote called "Ode to Oregon Hill," and they wrap around the bike on both sides.

I created a beer label for Hardywood Brewery. The ale was created and brewed by Justin Anderson. I enjoyed collaborating with Justin and graphic designer DeeDee Hamad to create label imagery that fit the taste and feel of the ale.

A painting I created for a calendar for my parents store, Archimage. Every year they give out a free calendar to their customers and this is the first year they had one custom-designed! I chose the theme of monkeys because 2016 is the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese calendar year. I worked really hard on the painting -going to the zoo and watching videos to draw monkeys, and doing color tests and sketches before even starting the final. 

And I did manage to make a new zine!

So to wrap it all up, when I say that 2015 was all about "sinking in," this is what I mean:
- resting and rejuvenating from the previous year
- learning how to balance myself emotionally and physically as a full-time artist
- learning what my working rhythms are and how to time things
- analyzing my previous accomplishments and building on that infrastructure
- learning how to be happy just doing "enough"

My anxiety level dropped from the previous year and I was able to feel hopeful for myself and not quite as worried as usual (though my normal worried is generally extreme). I let go of many projects I had planned and I made very little new artwork, yet I was still able to support myself. The only downside is that now my head is so crammed full of ideas from last year that I am going crazy wanting to express myself!

I can't say for sure what 2016 will bring, but I know that my energy is different than it was this same time last year. I feel more confident about living as a working artist. I am making a conscious decision not to travel as much this year so I can root myself in creating new work and have a less disruptive schedule. But I will leave a little room for adventures. I mostly want to get the ideas out of my head and into the real world through zines, prints, children's illustration, writing, and whatever comes up. I plan to launch myself into my artwork and follow my bliss, so the word for this year is: EXCITEMENT!

Dear Readers, can you sum up the theme of your last year in a word or two, or a phrase? What do you think 2016 will mean for you? 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inspirations and Frustrations - Finding My Illustration Voice

Yesterday, after a day of drawing and painting, I felt intensely frustrated with myself. In January I started some sketchbook experiments in search of my "illustration voice," a medium and style I can use in my children's book illustration. While printmaking is the medium I work with most often, I wanted to find a more direct approach to my children's illustration, such as drawing, painting, collage, and/or mixed media. This active search for a new voice began in 2013 after taking Joy Chu's online "Illustrating Books for Children" course. I had completed a few visual story sequences, including a dummy (you can see some spreads here), and I realized that I didn't know how to execute the finished illustrations. In particular, I felt unsure of how to translate my black and white pen sketches into full-color pieces.

This has been a problem for me. I feel comfortable working in printmaking, particularly linocut, but I don't want to feel obligated to work in this medium all the time. Each particular medium has its own unique quality that has a certain look and mood. Because linocuts are carved from linoleum and printed, they often produce a highly graphic look. The way that you carve into a linocut or woodcut requires a conscious use of value, contrast, and negative and positive shapes. It can be great for well-defined compositions, pronounced linework, and shapes that stand as bold silhouettes or patterned forms. While linocuts can be very colorful, often linocuts will have a limited color palette because a lot of work goes into creating each separate color layer.

My line work tends to be the strongest and most distinctive element of my artwork. Here are some examples of linocuts I made which I think are successful:
Call to Morning, linocut, 2014

April Mouse, linocut, 2012

I Went Hunting, linocut, 2010

The Greedy Bird, linocut, 2010

I also feel confident in my pen/ink/brush work in black and white:

Here are some examples of mostly published children's illustrators who have successfully and gorgeously used linocut or woodcut in their book illustration:

From The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes and written by Susan Marie Swanson. This was actually executed in scratchboard, but the look is very similar to linocut. This won a Caldecott!

From Tiny's Big Adventure, illustrated by John Lawrence and written by Martin Waddell

From Dark Emperor, illustrated by Rick Allen and written by Joyce Sidman

Unpublished (as far as I know) linocuts by Olga Ezova-Denisova. The last image shows her carved linocut plates.

From Beastly Verse, illustrated by JooHee Yoon, poetry by various authors. I'm not sure if this was actually a print, but the colors are layered like one.

While I love linocut, there are downsides to using the medium for illustration. It can be laborious and time-consuming to plan and execute a print. Because I'm working indirectly, I first have to carve all the plates (usually one plate per color), and then I have to mix my ink colors and print the plates. It can be tricky to find a harmonious blend of colors, even if I've planned out color sketches beforehand. It's also hard to use many colors in one piece, unless I want to hand-color the print afterwards with watercolor or carve out a zillion plates or stamps, one for each color. Though as I'm learning with my recent painting/drawing experiments, it's probably a good thing for me to limit my color because my work can get lost and muddled when I use too many colors. The other drawback to using linocut is that it's difficult to make it look spontaneous in the way that a loose watercolor or crayon scribble can. I want to find a style to work in that uses drawing and painting, rather than printmaking, so that I can work more directly.

As I look at children's illustrators that I admire, I start to see some patterns. Aside from the printmakers whose work I enjoy, I am drawn to certain visual devices. I tend to like a pared-down color palette. In fact, often I like work with a lot of grays and blacks, with no more than a few main colors. 

From Jane, the Fox, and Me by Isabelle Arsenault

 I also love textural, patterned, and/or detailed linework. Joanna Concejo illustrates these qualities masterfully, along with a limited palette. Her work is truly some of the most amazing I've seen!

Illustrations by Joanna Concejo (first two images from Little Red Riding Hood)

I love the ethereal mark-making and use of color in Laura Carlin's illustrations for The Promise, written by Nicola Davies.

Peter Sis makes me marvel with his fantastic use of color and teeny-tiny mark ink marks in this spread from Conference of the Birds. He is one of my favorite illustrators.

I just discovered the illustrator Signe Kjaer. I love the loose freshness of her paintings.

And Henrik Drescher really shakes things up with his sketchy organic lines and bright pops of color. The first image is from his book Simon's Book.

When I look at these artists, I can see how my painting work does not look like theirs. Through drawing, painting, and mixed media, they have complete mastery over their visuals and storytelling, even in images that look simplistic or child-like. They have captured a freshness, a seemingly untamed spontaneity, with their work. There is something that goes beyond the isolated elements that I like, though. Something about the artist's content, their style, mood, medium, and composition that adds up to a magical sum. This is the artist's voice - something they're born with and that they develop throughout their lives. I know that finding and using one's artistic voice doesn't happen automatically. There is usually a lot of experimentation, practice, and muddling along the way, yet it's also innate in each of us. This uniqueness, how do we find it?

This leads me to a few questions:

What makes a picture interesting? 

Seems like a simple question. I could try to replicate someone else's style exactly, but somehow it wouldn't look as good or feel the same. And it just wouldn't be as interesting as what that specific artist came up with through their own unique art processes and life experiences.

How shall I go about finding my voice in children's book illustration? 

I've thought of some possibilities, some suggested by other artist friends. 

- Look through all my previous work and isolate the specific elements that make a piece successful. Emphasize those elements in the different media.

- Work on strengthening weak points. Take a painting class, do more observational drawing, practice the skills I need.

- Write and work on my own story that is more personal to me. Perhaps just doing random experiments won't yield the results I seek as much as working on a specific story that has its own logic and set of problems which require specific visual solutions.

- Start with an illustration style using the medium I am most comfortable with first before trying something more difficult. For me that's printmaking. And after all, I haven't done much with linocut specifically for children's book illustration, maybe I will find that it will be more of a challenge than I thought painting was!

- Mix and match mediums. Experiment with ways of incorporating printmaking with mixed media in a way that can combine the graphically-defined look of linocut with the looseness of painting.

- Don't try to make my work look like anything specific. Don't aim to be like the artists I like. Experiment with extremes of style, medium, and content and my painting voice may reveal itself in an organic, rambling way.

- Work in a totally new medium (not necessarily visual art) to refresh my soul and gain a new perspective, then go back to what I was working on before.

What if I'll never be good enough? 

Art-making is the thing I am perhaps most confident about in my life. Yet I know there are thousands (millions?) of artists better than me. And it's in the eye of the beholder anyway, so I know it's not sensible to compare. But if I'm going to make art as my living - as something I share with others that they look at or purchase or find some solace in - I want it to be GOOD. I want it to say something with visuals that only I can say in my own particular artist's voice. If someone could say it better or more uniquely, than I don't see the point of doing it myself. I know I have a unique voice, because every person is unique. But can it be unique, and good, and interesting at the same time?

Maybe after awhile I will hit upon something interesting in drawing/painting/whatever, but there is also the possibility that I will never be as good at painting as I am at printmaking. Maybe what makes me distinct can best be translated through the medium of printmaking. I don't know how I feel about that.

And now, on to a peek in my sketchbooks. I can't say I'm proud of all of these works. I like some much more than others. And some I think are downright boring or crappy. But they're just experiments and stepping stones towards something I hope I will like a lot. I don't know how long it will take me to get there. I want to find a process that I enjoy creating with, while broadening my understanding of how to use color successfully. For me, the hardest part of working with color is establishing a strong value structure and contrast. I can get lost in the possibilities of color and my work loses strength. Also, I just don't "get" painting the way I get printmaking. I think in black and white before thinking in color. But I do love color, so it's worth the effort to work on it! 

Pen and ink with watercolor (A portrait of my fat lil' cat.)

Acrylic paint.

Acrylic paint with pen and ink.

Acrylic paint, collage, and the goose comes from one of my linocuts. I was seeing if I could create the "look" of linocut in paint with this dog.

Acrylic paint and collage with pen and ink.

Watercolor, colored ink, and cut paper collage.

Watercolor with pencil, charcoal pencil, and pen and ink.

Watercolor, pencil, and sumi ink.

Watercolor on one of my linocuts.

Again, trying to translate the look of linocuts with pen and ink and watercolor.

Acrylic paint. I was pretty pleased with how she came out. I feel like I chose the colors just right for this one.

The same image, this time translated into a 4-layer screenprint. (Soon to be listed for purchase in my Etsy Shop, Sprout Head).

My sketches from yesterday. Colored pencil, some with watercolor wash laid over or under the pencil. I was excited about these drawings because I was able to get a loose, spontaneous-looking texture with the colored pencil.

I then tried to translate the watercolor/colored pencil technique to these girls, but they just don't have much life. This may partly have to do with the fact that I don't really love drawing people, I'd much rather draw animals or creatures instead.

Again, trying colored pencil and watercolor on the same subject. I like how the cat turned out with just colored pencil, and I think the bottom two girls have more life, but I still don't think they look as interesting as the cat does.

Brush and sumi ink.

Tried to recreate the top image but inject a bit more color into a small portion of the drawing.

As I work on my drawing and painting experiments, I wonder if my work will ever possess the qualities of illustrators that I admire. I realized something that works against me in painting: with linocut, even if a line is simple it takes longer to carve. I spend a long time on my linocuts, but painting can be so fast. I wonder if I need that element of time and slow care for my work to have that special quality. Some artists are great at dashing off a quick, spontaneous-looking piece of art and it's so full of personality, like the artist Quentin Blake. I know that fast does not equate with easy. When I do it, it just looks kind of careless, in my opinion. I want to create work that you can get lost in and feels fully realized.

I know I shouldn't put so much pressure on myself to figure this out right away. I can look at it as a fun challenge, a way to keep evolving as an artist. It's funny how sometimes I'll take it for granted that I'm good at something, and then realize there are loads of things I've still yet to master! But I suppose life would be boring if it all came so easy. Who knows, I may discover a new way of working that I'd never even considered before.

Dear Readers: Is there anything that you long to be good at, but feel daunted by?