Saturday, January 7, 2012


I have been trying for what feels like years to get some pithy sentences together about what it is I actually do, or want to do. What makes me different from other illustrators? What makes me worthy of an art directors (or, most importantly, a reader’s) attention?

I feel differences, and I see them, but it’s very, very difficult for me to say them.

Specifically, I want to know what to say to people when they ask me what I do. They often ask me this when I’m drawing in an enormous sketchpad in a public place. What do you do?. Why, this right here! That makes it easier. It’s not finished products, but they can at least get a sense of style. But how about when I’m out in the world? If I have paint all over my fingers and the middle-aged cashier at the grocery store asks me what I do?

I’m an illustrator I’ll tell her. And the next question is always, always, always:
Oh really? What does your stuff look like?

And that’s the kicker. That’s what I’m struggling with most. When someone who has no Art Words asks you to describe your work. (And let’s face it, Art Words are not necessarily universal, and therefore I don’t think we can rely on them.) I’m always at such a loss. Everything you say sends them off in the wrong direction. You say “watercolor” and they think of pale seaside landscapes. You say “abstraction” and they think Picasso. You say “surreal” and they think of Dali. You edge towards something a bit more descriptive -- “blocks of color and linework” -- and they feel alienated. Though I don’t necessarily want to pigeon-hole myself I have gone as far as, “remember those illustrations in the old Golden Books books? Scruffy the Tugboat, that kind of thing?” and people have looked at me blankly and said, “no”.

I have to be honest and say that sometimes I just say to people, if I could describe my work than I’d be a WRITER, not an illustrator. But that’s a fairly anti-social answer. I need to come up with something. You need to get them within the ballpark. Illustration is so vast. People don’t know if you mean Norman Rockwell or Blueberries for Sal or those vectored atrocities accompanying the PSAs our bus lines have up right now. It’s all illustration, and it’s all really different from what I do.


Of course I am thinking of all this again because I am trying to psyche myself up to go to AIGA Portland’s meet-and-greet next week -- another thing I’ve been trying to do for what feels like years. I get a bit nervous when it comes to meet-and-greets, particularly if I don’t think I’ll know anyone. I am very capable of being open and chatty and social, I just tend to prefer to be at home, working.

But that IS work, part of me says, getting to know people in your field is really important.

And it’s more than that. I have been really hungering for other illustrators to talk to. I have a few artist friends -- a sculptor, a writer, a video artist and most notably a painter -- and we can talk about process. Catching whiffs of muses, getting in a groove, getting in stride, hitting roadblocks, the freedom we find in having rigidity elsewhere, balances. Technical things about the mental process of making things. But as yet I don't have someone to talk to about abstraction, simplifying, subjective perspective, color-mood, the relative merits of light and shadow in a given picture. And what the hell do they do with that darn “what do you do?” question.

Maybe that will be my ice breaker on Wednesday.

Every once in a while I’ll sit and brood over this “what do you do?” question. I’ll open up my enormous “what do you do?” file on the computer, open every document. Trying and condense some and make more in the process, write new lists on paper, make tons of sentences, try to string them together. At the end of the day, surrounded by stubs of smudgy writing, terribly assumptive words, stilted ideas, I always come back to some of the artists I admire.

Did Eric Carle write out an elevator pitch or a mission statement? Did Maurice Sendak or Tomie DePaula or Ezra Jack Keats? Of course not. They just went for it. They made little brochures, made samples, and made a go of it.

Or at least, that’s how I envision things for them. I envision them struggling but in the way we artists are supposed to -- with our pictures, not with words.