ICON8 Talk - The 17 Secret Herbs & Spices of Illustration

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Earlier this month I had the honor of doing a short talk at ICON8, an illustration conference (which was amazing).

I love doing talks. My creative struggling feels less in vain when I can share it with others, and if it helps other's in their struggles, then all the better!

Since my talk was so short, I've decided to write longer versions of my points, to elaborate the points further, for your reading pleasure.

17. Find Mentors!

I think we are at a crossroads in our culture on this point. Things are changing so much, that I think we often think, everything's changed. It hasn't. Yes, things are different, but that doesn't mean that the previous generation's wisdom is void.

Mentors have this unique ability to speak words into your life, that are impossible to find elsewhere. Often in a moment of confusion I would go to a mentor, and what they told me gave me clarity I could never have imagined was possible. 

I think the best attitude is to look for informal mentors, nothing fancy.

For instance, for a lot of my career I've been geographically isolated, so a lot of my mentorship came through asking for feedback through email.

16. Be Nice

We all need to be defending our industry. Helping the mainstream culture understand its value. We are always going to be defending attacks on "drawing for a living".

Attacking ourselves, or other illustrators, seems so unproductive to me. I think we should be helping educate new comers, not cutting them down publicly for their mistakes.

That person you publicly shamed for 'ripping your style', was the same fan of your work who in 5 years would be the art director that would give you your dream job...but now they won't...because they hate you.

They probably spread venom throughout the industry about you now. Instead of being a fan out there sharing your work, and being your cheerleader, they are rallying people against you.

When I find a youngster ripping me off, if it's a really really bad case, I send them an encouraging email. I give them all the tips I've learned over the years on finding a more unique voice.

An attitude of abundance will bring you more than a attitude of scarcity.

15. Don't Rush

As you mature, you realize the value of doing things the right way, and not taking shortcuts.

Recently I was playing Super Mario 3 for the first time since I was a kid. When I was a kid I'd always use all the cheats to skip as many levels as possible.

But now that I'm a big boy, I don't want to use any whistles to skip levels. I actually want to enjoy each stage, like the actual playing of the game is the point, not beating it.

Alright, that video game analogy shows you how immature I really am, but I think it's a good point.

Trying to skip levels in illustration is the wrong attitude. When you do this, you will pay for it.

I'll speak more on this when I get to the 'enjoy now' portion.

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14. Write Your Own Roles

Jason Segel said that Judd Apatow told him during the making of Freaks and Geeks that no one was going to give him lead roles in movies because he wasn't the typical lead role guy, and if he wanted to make it, he needed to write his own movies and star in them.

If you want to be an editorial illustrator, write your own articles to illustrate.

If you want to get into advertising illustration, make up your own products to advertise or advertise yourself with illustration.

If you prove you can do something, people won't feel like it's a risk to hire you.

Pick yourself.

13. Look for Inspiration Outside of Illustration

Illustration inspired by illustration about illustration for other illustrators can be a pretty sterile thing.

If you want your illustration to have depth, it should be about more than the medium, it should be about life.

Instead of doing a floral piece inspired by floral illustration work...take a walk in the woods and see some real flowers.

I'm not one of those illustrators who thinks you can't be inspired by other illustrators...but I do think that if you want to make a career of this thing, you need to look beyond the industry.

When your work becomes about life, it will appeal to people who don't even care about illustration. This is how you become something that reaches beyond our little niche, and into the real world.

12. Make Friends

Your wife doesn't care about your major breakthrough and how you're never drawing noses the same way again!

You need illustrator friends. First and foremost so you don't go crazy.

You also need friends so you have a place to put all those thoughts that you don't realize you're storing up in your head from analyzing your practice and the illustration industry 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There's this really eloquent quote I want to insert here...but I can't because I don't remember it!

The basis of this quote however is that discoveries are made in the speaking and writing of thoughts.

While all this is stuck in your head it's not really helping you, but when you talk to another illustrator that really gets what you do,  you're going to have the breakthroughs in your work.

11. Know the Why of Illustration

In illustration we talk a lot about the 'what' of illustration, like if it's conceptual or decorative, etc.

We talk a lot about the 'how' aka the style of illustration.

BUT we rarely talk about the 'why', like why do we need illustration in the first place.

Why does the world need illustration? The further I've tried to answer this, the better my work has become.

Some people need the general principle of why to do something, before they can actually do a decent job of doing it.

Like trying to learn guitar.

Would you care to learn chords if you didn't know why you were learning them? If you didn't know they were the building blocks to playing your favorite song?

The how and the what can be hard to embrace when you don't know the why.

Here's why I think we need illustration: it's an engaging visual way to help things click in people's minds.

Pictures are the perfect way to instantly communicate what something is about, interesting or beautiful pictures are a way of making sure people look at these pictures.

When I started to think more about this principle, my ideas and style just got better. Understanding why, helped me enhance my how and my what.

This is all Simon Sinek stuff, it comes from his book "Start with Why".

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10. Play First Edit Later

I don't remember when I first heard this, but it was about how trying to write and edit yourself as you go, gets in the way of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls your 'flow'.

Flow is the place where you are freely playing, creating, without a critical voice, challenging yourself slightly and experiencing that euphoric feeling of being in your zone.

The greatest athletes all talk about this 'flow' state.

Michael Jordan could never get into the zone if he had to ref the game at the same time.

You best work lies in your ability to get into the zone.

Just make stuff, worry about whether it;s any good afterward.

9. Keep a Sketchbook

Saying you want to be an illustrator but you don't want to keep a sketchbook is like saying you want to be a bodybuilder but you're not into lifting weights.

It took me a few years to get into sketchbooking, but now it's one of the most valuable assets in my practice.

I don't think you either are or aren't a sketchbook person. Yeah, some people find it more natural than others but for most people it's a learned discipline.

I'll go out on a limb and say it: nothing is more important for an illustrator than keeping sketchbooks.

Nothing has been more valuable for honing my drawing skills and developing my style than time 'wasted' in my sketchbook.

8. Listen to Boyz II Men


This is more of a confession than a tip.

7. Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper

This isn't about copying. Direct copying of people's work is obviously wrong, but if you are always in a huff about people ripping off other people, you're probably not that great of an artist yet.

George Lucas, Bowie, Picasso, Paul Rand, Shepherd Fairey and Austin Kleon and Kirby Ferguson all kind of massively disagree with you.

No, this is about jealously. Looking at what other artists are accomplishing and getting jealous can often derail you from your own path.

Comparing your career to other people's can get you off on the wrong tangent, and you'll find yourself down on a side road you never should have been on in the first place.

6. Enjoy Now

I was once going through my studio room and found an old magazine interview I had done early in my career.

There was a question about what I'd wanted to accomplish, and I realized I'd since accomplished all the things from my answer. They were all really small things, but even so.

I never had the euphoria I thought I would have had from accomplishing these things.

Like in point 15. about not rushing, enjoying now is about learning to enjoy playing the game, instead of believing the illusion that the enjoyment will come from beating the game.

You will work so hard accomplishing that thing you are working on that it will feel more like a paycheck than winning the lottery.

5. Achieve 'Self-Awareness'

This is something I completed many many years ago.

Haha, just kidding.

Obviously this is something you never fully do, you're always changing and growing, but I do think you have this core to who you are, that never really changes.

I've always seen this strong parallel between stand up comedians and illustrators.

They both are these people charting their own territory, trying to develop their own unique creative voice.

Comedians become successful when they find their point of view, and their core approach. This comes from knowing who you are.

I think one good step is taking the myers briggs personality test.

Another great step is getting feedback from others on who they think you are.

Lastly I think what you like and 'who you are' are closely related. Taking an in depth account on what really moves you can be pretty enlightening.

4. Get a Life!

The debut album is always better than the sophomore album because it was created on the back of living life, whereas the sophomore album is on the back of sitting in a studio for a year only thinking about making music.

When you find your passion in life, sometimes it consumes you.

If you truly love illustration, it's sometimes hard to think about much else.

The best thing you can do though, I believe, is intentionally pour into other areas of your life, like friends, family and unrelated hobbies.

If you don't have a life, your work will lifeless. It won't breathe.

Drawing from life experience, like those seemingly unrelated hobbies and relationships, is the best fodder for powerful illustration.

3. Challenge Yourself (A Bit)

Challenging yourself to be much much better than you are today can be unrealistic and demotivating.

I try to make every piece I make a little bit better in some way than my last.

Looking back over the years I'm shocked on how far this "small tweaking" and "slight optimizing" has taken my work.

2. Illustrate the Metaphysical

This sounds like some pretty heavy stuf...but it's not.

It's just that sometimes the most technically perfect drawing can be the most boring.

One easy way to break out of this is to scrap the notion that illustration is about drawing nouns.

You don't just have to draw real things, people, places and things.

Lately, I've been trying to draw smells, feelings, vibes and the spiritual realms in my drawings.

It's just more interesting.

1. Believe in Our Work

Most of the time when I ask illustrators why they do what they do they just say because they love to do it.

I think often when you love to do something, it's an internal clue that you should be doing that thing.

So it's not a bad answer, I just feel it's incomplete, and sometimes it's hard to stay motivated solely on the back of this feeling.

Along the way if you keep your eyes peeled you'll see the reason it's important for you to be doing this thing, and this external meaning can transcend and enhance the slightly selfish motive of 'just because I love to".

The world has never been more inundated with chaotic information, with so many conflicting internet articles out there, it can be hard to know what to believe.

Actually though, if we believe in our work as illustrators, we can take this mess of information out there and give it real life, give it actual form, and help it click in people's minds...and maybe that will help them believe something too.

I think that's something that's pretty easy to believe in.