Sunday, July 1, 2012

A new long-term improvement project

Starting today, I will be drawing for a minimum of an hour a day, every day, for the next six months.

Let's all chorus: well, duh. I'm a recently graduated illustrator with a portfolio full of student work to purge - of course I should be working an hour a day minimum (really, more like six hours minimum), I damn well better be working every day if I ever want to get paid, and six months? Try the rest of my life.

While that's all true, this is something different, and it's tied to finding and honing my voice.
It occurred to me recently (at the IMC, of course) that, over the past year, I sort of lost touch with what made me fall in love with art in the first place. Not that it invalidates the huge technical strides I made, not to say that I hated what I was doing - but, well. Let's take a look at the illustrations that touched me long before I was thinking about art at all:

Sabriel by Leo and Diane Dillon was literally the first piece of art that caught me deep down and pulled. I think I was nine or ten, and I can still remember seeing it across the room at my local library and checking it out on the strength of that image alone. (That the book itself became one of my favorites was icing on the cake.)
Tower at Stony Wood by Kinuko Craft is here both as itself, as the first piece of hers that I ever saw and an enduring favorite, and as a sort of representative for all of the covers she did for Patricia McKillip's books.

These were the two artists who I found early and who stayed with me through the years, and those are two pieces of art that began a foundation for me. Others came after - John Jude Palencar and Rebecca Guay and Donato and Mucha and Waterhouse and van Gogh and Caravaggio and Rackham and too many more to count - but given those two founding influences, it shouldn't be surprising that this is what I was doing during my junior year (when I wasn't battering myself bloody over my thesis):

These paintings have a whole lot going wrong in them, but what makes them landmarks for me is how happy they both make me - and not just back when I painted them, almost two years ago, but even now. There's a reason I went through two solid revisions on The Narwhal Woman, and why I plan to redo Saint Pangaea (with a different title please god). Something about them clicks with me in a way I can't really explain, and it's that something I lost touch with.

Look at the difference between these two paintings and the two previous. The new ones are better, clearly, but they're missing that spark that's there for me in the first two. There are one or two paintings from this year that went back in that direction, but neither of them pushed it far enough, something that was pointed out to me when Rebecca Guay did her tracing paper critique on my IMC drawing.

The difference between the Isolde figure in my original drawing and the Isolde figure in the post-Rebecca-crit version is huge. It was like a switch was flipped: not only was the new drawing simply better - it was a joy to work on and look at, deep down.

Two things served to drive this lesson home: my portfolio review with David Palumbo, and a conversation with Iain McCaig. 

David showed me how almost all of my newest pieces - paintings that in school had been received as impressive improvements over my previous work - weren't doing anything, while the oldest piece - The Narwhal Woman - was the strongest to his art director's eye. He asked who my influences were, and I was a bit taken aback when he was honestly surprised by my mention of Kinuko Craft, until I realized - oh, of course, nothing in my portfolio had anything to do with that aesthetic. He told me to look at the artists I was most drawn to and analyze exactly why I loved their art, see what they were doing that I didn't like, and then take that knowledge with me back to my own art.

What Iain told me can be boiled down to a very simple core: I needed to figure out the things I loved to draw and then draw them

It's from him that this project comes from. At the end of six months, I will have spent 184 days drawing the specific things I love, analyzing what they are and why they appeal to me, and integrating them into my art. I'll be working on my own illustrations at the same time, and hopefully the growth will be clear.

I will not be posting what I've done every single day - I'll probably limit myself to once a week, with maybe some standalone posts if I'm especially proud of what I've done. Let's see how this goes!


  1. Nice post Jenna! Those are some valuable insights for all artists. I'm eager to see your development over the next few months. I should spend some time deciphering what exactly I love to create as well. As sad as this is, I'm not sure I could select one particular artist that really grabbed me at some point. I've taken in so much great art over the years that it's all become a blur of aesthetic in my head. Maybe it's time for me to figure these things out as well.

    1. Thank you! This is me thinking aloud, so it's absolute icing on the cake if other people find it useful!

      About being able to be so specific, though... I think part of it, for me, is that even the founding influences are only about a decade in the past, and until around five years ago there wasn't much else coming in, in terms of art. It's an interesting thing to try to pick apart and analyze!

      As for the project itself: after a week and a half without a computer, I'm finally able to start uploading progress shots.

  2. This is a great post Jenna! It has inspired me. After talking with Iain I also decided to draw what I like an hour a day. But some days are so busy that I end up not doing a full hour. It needs to become a habit! Must do at least an hour! And doing studies from influencing Artists is a great idea - I'm going to try that! Looking forward to seeing you progress and hopefully if we meet again at IMC we'll be very improved in our drawings! :)

    1. Thank you so much Michelle - it means a lot that my talking about this has inspired you during the same project!

      The hour was really, really tough when I was in the process of moving and starting my new job, but as it becomes more of a habit, it's been getting a little easier. The artist studies have been really interesting to do, though, because I try to be conscious of the decisions I'm making, and what attracted me to them in the first place.

      Absolutely! Here's to improvement!