Illustrators owe it to themselves to be dissatisfied, to be unhappy with their work, their situation, their direction. It’s the constant burden all artists must face if they want to push forward their creativity. Never be complacent, always have something to gripe about. Creativity is galvanized by being unhappy with the way things are, for discomfort leads to change.
This line of thought was prompted by a recent Campaign blog post by Steve Henry “Safe isn’t Safe” which emphasises that producing comfortably acceptable work is the death of genius, being merely okey at something condemns your work to obscurity. There’s nothing worse than living in a comfortable groove and staying there in a creative cul-de-sac. There’s a logical cycle to creativity. You get inspired, you have ideas, you explore them until they run out of steam, you take stock, scream with boredom, which pushes you on to the next wave of creativity and the cycle starts again. It’s a naturally intuitive way for artists to develop. Unfortunately for illustrators though, their art and direction is often controlled by outside forces – changing fashion, expectations of the market, clients, which can handicap the natural creative process. Illustrators can find themselves stuck in a repeating groove, being led by the market rather than leading it, burdened by their past output and unable, or unwilling, to move forward.
I experienced exactly this when working in advertising in the mid-1990’s in Tokyo. Having made a big splash on the commercial illustration scene at the beginning of the decade I was lucky enough to become inundated with ad work, much of it asking me to repeat my first hits, as art directors based their pitches around my previous work. This resulted in a dangerous loop, whereby I’d end up doing pastiche’s of my own work, constantly recycling the same themes. The first version, usually commissioned by a talented AD (Mr.Ideas), would be an exciting and creative exercise, guided by a designer who knows how to encourage an illustrator on a project, the teamwork would lead to something fresh and exciting. Then I’d be asked to do a similar version of the same job by AD No2 (Mr.Lazy), who’d seen the first image and used it to sell his pitch with few ideas of his own. The task for me in this situation would be how much could I change the brief to make the artwork unique and interesting, usually AD no2 would have very little input in the creative process.
The worst would come at stage 3 though, when AD No3 (Mr.Clueless) would see version 2, completely misunderstand what made the image successful in the first place and throw some cruddy cut-and-paste comp at me. So for example, an idea developed in a poster for a Tokyo fashion dept store, would spark a commission to do similar for a somewhat less fashionable supermarket in the provinces, which would in turn open the the door to cruddy “cartoon” commissions for instantly forgetable DM leaflets etc. By the second half of the ’90’s I realised I was dealing more and more with Mr.Lazy and Mr.Clueless and less and less with Mr.Ideas. I was pigeonholed and getting very stale. I became miserable, dissatisfied with everything I did, I hated my entire ad output. Fortunately (in a way) this coincided with a lot of major changes in my life, not least the crash of the bubble economy in Japan, so as the advertising market cut back I had plenty of time to take stock and re-order my output. My dissatisfaction galvanized me into new areas, new directions, and new work. Some of the projects led nowhere, others revitalised my existing output. This sense of being in a creative rut and being forced to move on led to inspiration. The late nineties and early noughties were a very experimental time for me. I never forgot the lesson, now I actively encourage myself to be aware of ruts and seize any kind of job that gives creative freedom to move forward. In that sense my work matured, I’m much more in control of my creative output, though like all illustrators still at the mercy of the market. You don’t have to be avant-garde to do this, much of my work is very “traditional” by today’s standards, but I challenge myself to approach things with a fresh eye whenever I can.
Illustrators must thus have a strong constitution to continue in this business long-term, for they’re not only dealing with the changes and vagaries of the market, but also the negative, gnawing self-analysis that comes as part and parcel of their talents.
So are we condemned to be moaning minnies, always griping about our work? No of course not. Self-awareness is crucial, but too much self-analysis can be a big handicap to change. The key is not to analyse the past and become morose, but to look forward, to nurture the intuitive inquisitiveness of your creative spirit. Those who take the easy way out and become complacent about their work will always end up in the loop above.
As an illustrator friend once told me, there comes a point where you’ve got to stop thinking and just get on with things. Get out your pencils and draw. Be hungry, but don’t analyse your hunger, feed it.