I wanted to write a follow-up to my first ICON8 post—so here goes!
Delight, enthusiasm, surprise.
These were the lingering effects that really stuck with me post-ICON. From the changing narrative displays on the stage, to the little pauses and page turns for comedic effect in presentation, to learning that people you admire are just as awesome in person as you hoped, I was constantly feeling one of those above emotions. Which thus has made me want to do the same in my work for others and for myself. One of the tricky things I’ve found is making time for my own work when teaching and freelancing take up so much time, not to mention work-life balance. I’m not great at that balance, but I think I do need to make more time to play and let ideas develop on the page, or in my world. Saying no is something I have to continue to do so that I can invest in myself and my growth. Because as this sprint has grown into a marathon, and next spring marks my tenth anniversary as an illustrator (!) a lot of change and growth is going to need to happen to evolve into my next form. And it’s got me itching to explore a lot more narrative and conceptual things in my work. I have ideas for books, zines, animations. I’m excited for decade number two.
PS: going to ICON made me remember about grad school. I wish there were grad school patronages because now I really want to go back! Maybe one day; I’ll have to save up :)
Bringing people together.
One of those latent things I forgot I really enjoy doing, and one of the great end-results of ICON! It’s why I loved making Picture Book Report, why I was thrilled to bring so many artists I love together for Join Together last year at Land, and what is really fun for me about teaching. I’m sure if you were there and I talked to you, you might have noticed after a while I really had a lot of fun smooshing people together and ask ‘hey, do you know this person?’ It feels great to grow the connections between people, and I was especially happy to get my shy students to meet the people they’ve admired. Being bold and just raising your hand, not being afraid to look silly is a great skill to build.(It also helped for closing night when I danced like a fool across the Crystal Ballroom!)
Seriously though, bringing people together was what really drew me to Portland, and it’s underlined how I want to have a group studio and bring people together both in the work and the occasional drawing club. Beyond that I really want to curate another project. Picture Book Report gave me so much and I loved what my contributors made; what that next project could be though I wonder! I’ll let that brew for now.
I heard authenticity brought up a lot. Tell your story, share yourself both in the studio and out, bring your creativity into your life in a playful way. In short: be real! Which I wondered if that was a pushback against something— were people being false in a previous generation? Maybe it’s a pushback against the sense that you are your work. This seems to be encouraged by the perfectly manicured, curated life we are able to show online— you can see the work, and you can often think it was created in one graceful fell swoop with no struggles or gnashing of teeth. You can share a photo of a perfectly organized studio space, nothing out of order and everything carefully curated to show a version of yourself. But that doesn’t really tell me who you are, just what your taste is. If so, I’m all for the pushback of real authenticity of who you are— that creativity takes hard work, a sort of scrappiness, that sometimes it’s going to be a mess of art supplies and papers and scribbles. This is more of what I like about living in Portland vs. the beautifully hewn wood slabs and Edison bulb aesthetic. It’s pretty but it’s a shorthand, and as a creative who loves creatives I want to learn the true language. Maybe I just want to see more of how the sausage is made. I think I’m a process junkie; I’d rather see those little steps and tease little details rather than keep a secret and unveil a project. I am bad at keeping my own secrets and admittedly I’m bad at the minimalist curation (although I feel the pressure to do it all the time); so if this is what’s meant by authenticity than I am all for it!
So in terms of authenticity I loved seeing those mistakes surface in presentations, or those explosions of process, or that sense of personality shine through. I wish I saw even more! It’s why I am always so excited to see a presentation by Kate Bingaman-Burt, and why I loved seeing Jennifer Daniel speak. The humor and personality shows through their life, and their work. Even when things go awry or you’re hit with a big challenge, it’s way more interesting to see how you roll with the punches and grow from it rather than just show 100% success all the time.
Everything that went on during ICON was super inspirational! But sometimes I want to dig my teeth in deeper. It would be cool to continue to see more cross-disciplinary speakers like they did this year, more discussions with art buyers, art directors, etc. It would be really interesting to talk deeper about problems and growing pains our industry might be facing as it’s evolving and growing new limbs, as illustrators start designing, animating, sculpting, concepting, whatever! I’ve had many a talk with my rep Scott Hull about who’s actually buying illustration these days, especially when you get past editorial or publishing. And how do you share your value to clients when you might actually being hired by someone who isn’t so creative? How do you navigate budgets being slashed as more things are being made for the web? How do you learn to edit, market and art direct yourself on entrepreneurial projects when there’s so many possibilities and platforms now? It’s an exciting time and I would love to hear more dialogue about issues people are facing, and even more discussion between people at different stages of their career and where we can learn from each other.
I had a lot of fun at my Light Grey Art Lab workshop a couple of years ago and one thing I really enjoyed was the roundtable we did on day 2. Getting to talk with those lovely people about all sorts of issues both tangible and intangible they are working through was so beneficial! And even though I led it, I learned a lot too (always the best!) Sometimes I know that in my own practice, I like hashing out things and talking about the trials and successes of things, which might be why I find the whole curated online realm frustrating sometimes. It’s hard to know if talking realistically or digging deeper comes off as complaining, but I think the more we own the struggles and discuss it more in our field the stronger we get and the less we’ll be willing to put up with bad practices.
Things I would love to see for ICON9:
- A continued focus on education. I really enjoyed the workshops and educators papers quite a bit and I wonder how many regular attendees got to see this. Sometimes it was tough to pick between the two, and I could also see potentially integrating workshops into the main event to break things up and let us process. This could be tricky, but one thing I noticed on day two of the conference itself was that there was almost an information oversaturation point for me; even if there was a longer lunch break to draw and absorb I think that might’ve helped, as my brain was filled with lessons and faces and experiences galore!
- Piggybacking on point 1, I think if education is an important part of ICON that documentation is also a key part of that. I appreciated the use of social networks to share snippets, but I think video documentation would’ve been a great thing to implement if possible. Even if it were only shared internally and shared to attendees later on when they might’ve forgotten the many things they learned at the event), or to use as an education tool for students, or even used to help promote and improve future ICONs, it’s a valuable tool. If cost were an issue, I suspect the partner school would be happy to lend services/tools (I know PNCA would’ve!).
- One thing I noticed was that for the most part people grouped together with similar age groups or peer groups. Which is pretty natural, but I would’ve loved to see more interaction across generations. It happened a bit during workshops but it’s too easy to stick with your known groups! I’m happy that my background has allowed me to mix between groups; from students to people my age to those ahead of me; in a way not going to one of the big art schools made it a little easier for me to cross groups. I wish I did it even more though, but next time!
- Even more diversity of attendees and speakers. I appreciated the number of female illustrators and designers at the event but I would love to see even more diversity of opinions and backgrounds— the more we see this in our field the better it gets for everyone. I really appreciated that the speakers for ICON8 weren’t all in the editorial and publishing field— subjects I would ordinarily not gravitate towards were my favorites, and it helped me remember how varied our creative field can be.
- I’m also hoping ICON9 is set in Minneapolis, and I want Light Grey Art Lab to host an amazing gallery/book/project event :)
As a last takeaway, I wanted to make a list of various little takeaways I jotted down from ICON8. Hopefully it might give a glimpse into the event and give those who didn’t attend a little snippet of inspiration! If I get to go to ICON9, I’m really curious what I’ll learn there….
- Illustration is now a multi-faceted beast. So what is its or my true identity?
- "You have no control over what becomes iconic….push back against something [in your world and in your work.]… growth happens the most in your 20s…you don’t need to know how to do it, just WHO knows how to do it."—Paula Scher
- Art should exist in life, not just in the work.
- Non-drawing activities are really great in unexpected ways.
- Sketching is vital.
- Put the passion into your surroundings, stoke the creative fires- it will feed you. (Often in ways you can’t expect.)
- "If you can defend your work you can get people to sit with it."— Jennifer Daniel
- "Keep it blurry….You [first] build your chair and sit in it… but you are constantly reimagining your world." — Souther Salazar
- Play first, edit later.
- Illustrate the metaphysical.
- "Passion shows new perspectives no one else sees."— Cassie Zhang
- "People buy your joy… put your voice in the work."— Lilla Rogers
- "You should write so that the illustrations have a job."— Mac Barnett
- "Everyone changes and one changes throughout a lifetime."— Vivienne Flesher
- Work will inspire future work. Each piece gets you one step closer, but of course we don’t exactly know where it will take us.
I’ve been meaning to do a write up on my experiences at ICON8 (the illustration conference) that was held recently in Portland. I got sick a few days after the event wrapped up and my mind was a bit of a blur post-ICON— with hundreds of attendees to meet and dozens of inspiring talks and workshops, it was a lot to process!
1. What’s the current state of illustration? Are there any trends that are coming about?
There are a lot of illustrators out there, and the quality level coming right out the gate is really high! I had the privilege of knowing a lot of the student volunteers (a lot of them were my students!) and meeting many of them; I’m equal parts inspired and intimidated by the talent level both out there currently and coming soon. I won’t say that there are any trends I noticed that are brand new, more that they’ve been steadily developing over the past few years. I noticed a lot of animals, a lot of hand lettering, a lot of people incorporating color and pattern into their work. Lots of illustrations of forests and characters, and a steady dose of humor threaded throughout.
I think for me personally, I’ve learned an important lesson to step outside of the illustration world for inspiration; everything is so visible all the time that the visual language could get easily diluted. But the bigger thing outside of visual trends that I was encouraged by was the sheer number of illustrators (especially at the Roadshow) with a story to tell, or an entrepreneurial spirit. Their interests, loves are on full display, which leads me to #2:
2. Don’t discount your point of view— making things you are excited by is contagious and can develop an audience.
The theme of ICON8 was work and play, and through its myriad speakers, a recurring anthem of ‘do what you love’ came through. Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done— how do you do that when you’re just starting out or struggling? It takes a lot of grit and a near-quixotic determination to bust down those windmills of self-doubt, that’s for sure.
The talks that stuck with me most were:
There were takeaways from each talk of course, but these ones stuck out the most. So what did I take away from these?
- Spotlight Stories, where Jan Pinkava talked about Google’s new storytelling form focusing on smartphones.
- Nelson Lowry’s talk about his work both for Laika and in his spare time, and how the personal work (robots! paintings!) feeds both exploits.
- Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence project at Art Center was something I’d never heard of and probably would’ve glossed over but was one of the most emotionally impactful projects. Geared to children through books, trying to solve the problem of gun violence being so invasive in culture without being preachy or condescending to its audience.
- Carson Ellis, because she’s a delight— but also because you can see her life is creative, both in the work and in the way she spends her time. Seeing her pull lessons from gardening or quilting and applying it to her work, finding no distinction between her creative practice and her life really engaged me.
- Calef Brown’s talk about his work because his work is so playful, is thoughtful but doesn’t take himself seriously, and wouldn’t let up with the humor. The strength of his personality and spirit shone through the work.
- Souther Salazar’s talk about how play informs his work, and how little things can inspire big projects.
- Robynne Raye (of Modern Dog) talking about the struggles and victories of fighting for your work, even against a giant like Disney.
- Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen about their exploits collaborating on two books together. Really taught me a lot about the power of the page turn and where you can surprise and delight your audience.
Of course, this doesn’t just mean ‘follow your bliss!’ because frankly a lot of those sort of statements are pithy and useless. I read something earlier this year that talked about how following your passion doesn’t mean ‘what you’re interested in’ but rather ‘what are you willing to suffer with?’ Which is a funny statement to correlate with making room for play in your work— but you’re always going to struggle a bit with playing feeling too self-indulgent (aka the "BUT WHAT IS IT FOR??!?!" crisis), and you might suffer through some ugly results but it’s better to take those risks than just turning creativity into a 100% business. You won’t benefit from that, your clients won’t benefit from it, and your audience won’t benefit from it.
- You can take your practice seriously but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously.
- Every project has a problem to solve and an audience to impact in some way.
- Whether projects were spurred out of a need to heal or an outburst of joy, you can see the pleasure of making and discovering something important in someone’s work. Work and play feeds us and the result feeds our audience.
- Although I’ve heard you should make a separation between your work and yourself, many of the speakers seem to have blurred the lines even further. But this leads me to my next point:
- It’s important to nourish yourself with playful endeavors that aren’t WORK. This can be creative, but if you spend your creative time only making things that feel portfolio-ready, there’s no opportunity to make mistakes and learn and grow from them. And these things can lead to new processes and ideas as opposed to just repeating yourself.
3. Who’s your tribe?
I heard the term tribe bandied about a handful of times (guess who’s read Seth Godin?) and while sometimes I think it’s a little bit overused, I get the point. We are in an age of audience, and forgetting our audience can sometimes be a detriment (although trying to please your audience too much might not be good either). One thing I kind of wanted to hear more at ICON8 was 'how do you really connect with this audience?' beyond ‘oh post to Instagram! Post to a personal Facebook page! And have an outside life! But show that online. Etc.’ Because it’s amazing to have so many people following your work but keeping up with it is exhausting and honestly a lot of the time leads me chasing a weird dopamine high that a little heart or retweet can provide. And sometimes it just feels like I’m oversharing. I feel like we need a more soulful social network. One of the things I’ve thought the most about Twitter is that I miss what it was when I first joined— a little water-cooler to talk with people about things. Now I hunger for conversation and deeper connection— two things I found a lot during ICON8 but don’t find as much on social networks. Or maybe it just takes more time online and I don’t have time for that noise.
And beyond that, the big question I had: how do you actually find a way to slow the stream? Because there are so many people on so many social networks, so many creatives sharing what they make and so many consuming and moving onto the next shiny thing. Which okay, this is how we are now; but I want to find ways to slow down with the things I enjoy, ask questions and also stir dialogue. And I want to encourage my audience to connect deeper and slow down.
So who is my tribe? I know that there’s over 130k people following me on any number of social networks (as one of them, I can’t thank you enough!). But that’s not really enough of a metric, because I only really connect with a sliver of them. Or maybe that’s enough? One thing that I found interesting was talking about Kickstarter with a friend of mine; I’ve always shied away from it because I usually just think ‘it has to be good enough, something really important’ or ‘I could just save up and fund it myself.’ But I also realized in that platform, your audience can find joy in supporting something they connect with and help bring it to life. Instead of just being a set of eyes glancing on something they get to be a part of the birth of something new. The audience gets to invest their interest and money into the creative. Which was kind of neat to think about and made me wonder about that as a possibility at some point.
4. You need to make time for play in your work, and you need to continue learning and trying new things in order to trust your point of view.
Hard lessons for me to learn but really vital. In the past few years as a teacher, I’ve gotten really good about encouraging others to push their point of view and explore their passions but I’ve lost faith in mine a bit. The whole ‘but is it ________ enough?’ complex— which is a deadly game to play. I have started so many projects and given up before the concepting stage was complete because it didn’t seem to be enough; so many lost little ideas. I don’t regret this because it’s made new attempts stronger, but I am remorseful. So in my own personal practice I am trying silly ideas (more on that in a future post) just because I can, researching things I’m fascinated by that have nothing to do with my field, writing more to develop ideas and stories, trying to draw things I have no idea how to draw well, and pursuing little personal and collaborative projects to refill the creative well. I’m learning a lot. All the meanwhile trying to shush the ‘is it enough?’ voice. I’m not sure these exploits will ever turn into a freelance project officially, but right now I am satisfied enough that I’m doing something that will feed something else somewhere down the line. The thing I wrote down in my sketchbook twice: this is a planting time.
I have more insights to share (including things I would’ve loved to see at ICON8 and what I’d love to see at ICON9!), but I’ll save that for a post on Friday.
Click here to see some truly shocking transformations.
If you are in chrome and hold down the S key and right click an image it does a reverse Google image search.
You can sometimes find where other people may be posting your work.
it’s so fast
I streamed an hour or so of Gotham Academy drawing last night! Here’s the recorded video for those of you who didn’t tune in live.
Audio was on but I’m not talking during this - next time I’ll remember to turn on the Q&A and field questions and chat as I go.
Those Photoshop brushsets are created and shared by professionals and are free to use :
credit goes to creators and pandemonium art
(there are even more brushsets on the list)