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?


  1. Aijung, I've read and looked at all your work, here and the links also, and I empathize with you and your longing to 'find' your inner voice' as an artist. I am doing the same. One thing that stands out to me is your strength in black and white, and especially your lino cuts. I especially like "The Greedy Bird". It is so strong in composition (main character, the bird) and the background is very good, not overpowering the bird, and the color is spot on (in my opinion). "I went hunting is my second favorite, and then the 2012 April Mouse.
    I like the 'spot' of color, with most of the line work in black and white. I hope you continue to work on what you love, but from what I see here, I feel you have such a strength in lino cuts, and maybe you could develop a story around "The Greedy Bird" (you've got the title here) and check out Coralie Bickford-Smith and her book "The Fox and The Star". Maybe you will see how good you are and that you are going in the right direction. Don't think of 'speed' with your art. You have a wonderful style and can so beautifully show simplicity and detail in your lino cuts. Don't be so hard on yourself (as I tell myself that every day) and now I'm going to work on a 'dummy spread' for a potential book I've written, but not knowing which style I am destined for. I will keep drawing for the moment. Thank you for you sharing here. I found it very inspiring to all of us out here still 'wondering' which way to go. Just keep going, you will find your way. You're close. Your work speaks to it.

    1. Hi Virginia, thank you for your kind words of encouragement! I will be sure to check out that book you recommended. I actually do have a story idea for The Greedy Bird, but I need to work on it more (among several other stories I have not finished!) From the feedback I've gotten from this post and from friends, it seems that linocut is the way to go, though it is a bit daunting to think of illustrating an entire book in linocut. But you're right, I can think about using spot color and in the meantime work on strengthening my color work in linocut and other media. I do love black and white, but worry about the work looking too dark or not kid-friendly enough. Though as I've even demonstrated with other artists' work in this post, there are lots of books out there that don't use a ton of color!

      I wish you luck on your dummy. It sounds exciting. Do you have an online portfolio where I can see your work? I know you will find your way as well, no matter how many twists and turns it may take.

      Thank you, Aijung

    2. Hi Aijung, Glad you will pursue that love of black and white and lino. Think of "Millions of Cats" by Wanda Gag, back in the 40's. That is one of the most beloved books of all time, all black and white. And "Caps for Sale" - great books. My website is horribly thrown together, and I need to seriously get it cleaned up. Anyway, it is Let me know what you think my strength lies in. Thanks and looking forward to seeing each other's work in this class, Smart Dummies. Hope I can keep up.

    3. Hi Virginia! Millions of Cats is one of my favorite children's books! By the way, I think you forgot to leave your website address, but I'll google your name and see if it comes up. I'm looking forward to the Smart Dummies challenge, but really don't know how far I'll get either. I don't have much time to work on a dummy this month, but maybe I can at least get it started.

  2. Great blog article, really inspired. sometimes one is already where one wants to be but stands too close to see it. the aliveness in your lino is wonderful and full of story telling qualities

    1. Hi Luna, thank you for your wise words. I think I need to forge ahead with lino, while developing my drawing/painting skills at my own slow pace. I was looking through your blog and I like how you used collage and painting to develop your print ideas. Maybe that is something I can incorporate more as well, to work out the kinks with painting but execute the finished piece in linocut. Thanks for the idea!

  3. I'm here through Kidlit411. I love you work! I love printmaking and we like many of the same things--I love many of the images you posted. I think you're doing the right thing--experimenting and seeing what you like and don't like. I'm doing the same thing, it can be really frustrating! But we just have to keep moving forward to get to the other side of our experiments to see what works. I really like your experiment where you used watercolor over your linocut, that strikes me as a happy medium--still using linocut, but enhancing it with painting. But maybe you will ultimately find another process that suits you best. Best of luck!


    1. Hi Sarah, thank you for your comment! I really enjoy your work as well! Some of your pieces had a graphic novel feel to them - I love comics and the ability to tell an epic story. It's nice to hear that someone is going through a similar process of art investigation. I think I do need to experiment more with linocut and hand painting together. I guess there will always be a part of me that wants to do something totally different than what I'm used to, so I will continue my experiments and hopefully find something that can either add to my printmaking work or be its own thing altogether. Thanks and Good luck with your experiments!

  4. Aijung, I could have written what you have written, but with different examples of work. I think we all struggle with finding a voice and a style we are happy with. For me, I reslize I have to do a lot more experimenting and trying different things. It's also a matter of getting proficient in a new medium. Your link its are so strong because you have been doing them for so long. If you really enjoy another medium you will get enough practice to make those really strong too.

    1. I second what Sylvia just said entirely! I began earlier this year fully convinced that I needed to work in watercolor but because of challenging myself, I discovered I really love colored pencils.
      I love your print work and your line work. Perhaps you can try to find a middle ground by experimenting with other media, colored inks and dyes or even ink and acrylic. But it needs to be something that excites YOU.

    2. Thank you, Sylvia and Mishka for your feedback! You're both right, I will only get better with practice, but I also have to be excited about it.

  5. What an awesome, straight-from-the-heart post! I second what Sylvia said about your strengths and how to get better at another medium.

    The things I want to be good at but find daunting fills such a long list I can't possibly list them here. ;)

    Thanks for a great analysis of what illustrations seem to work and why. I want to take Joy's online class. It sounds like a really helpful one!

  6. I also agree with what Sylvia said, practice is the key to improving. Thanks for sharing your learning process, it is inspiring to watch another artist on their journey! I also enjoyed viewing the other artist's work that you shared, they are beautiful examples to learn from. I think you are well on your way to success!