On creativity, instinct, and being killed…with a touch of Yoda

When I was studying at Syracuse one of the things I remember my professors saying to me was to never take a job that you didn’t feel comfortable doing because you won’t do your best work. I have also added to that, never take a job in which you can’t insert yourself. Since Bird I have been blessed to have many manuscript offers pass my way, and, for the most part I have been pretty smart about accepting some and passing on others.

Recently I worked on a book that was killed at the end. I approached it my usual fashion—gather inspiration, rough dummy, reference, and finals. I worked for months from 9AM until 11PM or later (most times later). With all of the work that went into it, everyone involved decided that the work wasn’t WOW material. Heartbroken was I.

What went wrong?

Was the work bad? No, not bad, but not up to snuff with my other work either. For this project (which was HUGE btw), I was really excited about trying a new medium. I envisioned the art being a series of hand painted (or digitally colored) etchings. I also envisioned the setting as being a charming old country schoolhouse. When I had my first meeting with the publisher and art director they were really excited about the work I did in BIRD and was hoping for more of that. They also pictured a modern classroom instead of my country schoolhouse.

Now, knowing what I know now, I should have stood up for my vision or given them a sample based on that vision. I did have one etching that I had finished, but it wasn’t hand painted and it wasn’t generated from the text. Problem was, I didn’t have a whole lotta time to experiment and I don’t do finished samples. When I work on  a book, the whole thing evolves at once. Not one piece at a time. Against my instinct, I tried to give them what I thought they wanted.

I did a few finishes and my art director felt they were a bit too dark (in tone). So I switched to a color palette similar to BIRD. There were other comments along the way to nudge me more in the direction of BIRD. In the end, I wasn’t confident in working, but I continued to plug away and try and pull my best out in the time I had.

With every project that I have worked on, there has been something that excited me…something that made me want to get up and spend all day in my studio. Usually it has been generated from an idea in the text. There’s a technique I’d wanted to try or a concept in the narrative that I was excited about. Experimentation is the fun part and a necessity in my process. Because of this, I have become used to doing pieces many many times before I have gotten them where I want them. Notice I did not say “right”. There is no right or wrong, but I am after certain visceral reactions in my work. If I don’t “feel something” when I finish a piece, I know it’s not where it needs to be, though the previous passes may have been perfectly “adequate”. So, I prepare myself to fail over and over until I get it right. It’s just paper after all. When I was at SVA Thomas Woodruff, when talking about his latest series of paintings, said to us that there was no use in being timid in the studio. It was one of the best pieces of advice I’d heard from an artist.

Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” ―Yoda

For example, I painted BIRD’s rooftop scene eight times before I “got it right”. When I finished the final spread that went to print, I hung it, stepped back, and applauded the muse that helped guide me to it. I called my friend Tae over to see the progress and when she gasped at the sight of that spread. I couldn’t have been more elated. None of this was ego. In working that hard for a finish, at the end, you are so grateful that it finally came out of you that you separate yourself from the work. I know my hands, and though they are trained to do certain things with pencil and paint, they generally are clumsy and often times hesitant. To get to an emotive finish requires a certain amount of grace and surrender.

So what did I learn?

One, to trust my gut. If I’m not happy with the work, no one else will be.

Two, be strong enough to walk away. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to say “no thank you”.

Three, understand exactly what the client wants and be honest about my ability and/or desire to deliver. It’s not always about talent. The projects that I have been successful on were because the vision for the book has worked with the text and my ability as an artist. Successful art is rarely about painting a pretty picture. That picture has to deepen the reader’s experience with the story. It has to be able to stand on it’s own as a work of art, but when paired with text expand the feeling, meaning, and magic of the story.

After speaking with the publisher and author and offering my sincerest apologies that things didn’t work out, we all walked away with there being no hard feelings and looking to the future to join forces on another project that will be more on my own terms. I’m looking forward to it~

Lesson learned, and as Jay-Z said, “on to the next one”.

Humility endless is.” ―Yoda