How does one find one’s artistic style and voice as an artist? This is a question I am never asked. It doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue for folk where I live in Bradford, so I have never really thought about it…
Looking back on when I started, I feel that once I got going with my drawing, finding a visual style actually came quite naturally. It was getting to the point where I was working regularly that was less straight forward. You have to be drawing to have a style of drawing, and if you’re not doing that, then you can forget it.
In last week’s blog, I talked about how, after my studies, I got off to a blazing start in my illustration career by quitting art altogether. I bitterly regret the wasted time and ruined opportunities to learn and grow as a person at university. It should have been the ideal time to develop my artistic style. Instead, I let my personal hang ups about the corporate heavy content of the course get to me and dictate my inadequate responses to the design problems I was presented with. If I had a time machine, I would go back and slap myself. “You blithering idiot!” I’d bellow in the stupid, confused face of myself; “You can’t lose any personal dignity points here, because nothing you’re been asked to do is even real! So get the fuck over yourself and learn something! You absolute cunt-nugget” (I have thought a lot about what I’d say to myself. I await the invention of a time machine with baited breath)
So what was it, dear reader, that got me back in the game? After 3 years of full time work at the pub chain Wetherspoons, I simply realized one day that, deep down, I still really wanted to be an illustrator. Also, it was abundantly clear to me that I probably wouldn’t be able to get it going while I was still there. I didn’t find it to be the most creatively fulfilling environment to be in. There are no cultural happenings there, and seldom the need for a man of my skills round those parts. So, late in 2012 I made a sideways step into another bar, just up the road, a quirky live music venue called Delius. I did so fully aware that I’d be called upon to be the “art man” for all the venue’s arty-farty needs. I assumed that mainly would entail gig posters, but I went on to also produce work for the food and drink menus, flyers, chalkboards, fresh reworkings of the pub logo, website art, pub murals, staff t-shirts. A visual style, as I mentioned, came from these endeavors quite naturally. I was always working on something, and didn’t really have the time between bar shifts to think too deeply about how I did it. I feel like it wasn’t too dissimilar to how a person’s handwriting might develop. I just drew the way I felt comfortable drawing, which turned out to be in a cartoony way. I grew rather fussy with the detail, because I liked to draw things that made ordinary people, usually the pub’s punters who might not necessarily appreciate art, at least acknowledge my efforts. I didn’t have much time to muck about experimenting with mark making so I relied on the traditional pen for my line work, which was easy to replicate digitally using a tablet. Pens were the ideal tool for adding the detail I craved. I found I liked to draw with an imperfect line that varies in thickness, not too much to look totally nervous, but enough to notice.
I had my visual look! I felt empowered to start thinking about what I might produce as an artist, but the question of what to draw made me realize that I’d only answered half the question: I had the style, but what about the substance? I had long admired the work of Jeremyville, Gemma Correll, Mr Heggie and Joe Sacco. Each had a solidly established style and voice of their own. To view their work was both a joy and a torture for me. There were aspects of all their work that I dearly wished I had in mine. I will take them each in turn:
I loved this guy’s ‘free flowing’ style & how he was sometimes able to work directly on the canvas without sketching out his work first. His witty combinations of text and image was always a glorious thing, words and pictures filling the whole visible area, something new to grab your eye at every turn. His work seemed to me to be rich tapestries of comic art and observation. His art reveals him to be a thoroughly optimistic person.
I’m sure Gemma was probably on my radar at least as early as 2009, because I’ve followed her meteoric rise as a professional artist since we both graduated at a similar time. Her work is very heavy in it’s use of puns & pugs and never fails to make me smile. What I admired most though, was the candid way she includes her own personal neurosis in comics featuring herself. Her social anxiety is laid bare in what feels like a refreshingly honest account of one aspect of the human experience that most will relate to. Her minimalist drawing style is used to present jokes straight to the point and help reveal in a single viewing, the quirky personality behind the art.
I first became aware of this fellow through his work for the rapper Scroobius Pip. His striking black and white work oozes attitude and coolness on a level I never knew existed, regularly making references to popular culture in a deliciously subversive manner. Even just glimpsing his work makes me feel like I might be a dangerous rebel at heart. Since I might well be the most boring person on the planet, this is a remarkable achievement. I actually met him once in Leeds when B dolan and Scroobius Pip had a gig. He seemed nice and gave me some solid advice on designing work for t-shirt prints.
Joe Sacco is a journalist and cartoon person. I’ve been reading his work since I was ruining my art degree. His technical skill and evident patience in his work is mind boggling to behold. Added to that, the level of personal bravery and social skills he makes use of in the gathering of his stories is something I don’t presume to be able to reach in this lifetime. From him I learned that political thought can be presented in visually interesting and entertaining ways. The depth of his research, in combination with his sensitive handling of any subject matter, mean I am always totally absorbed in his work.
As I thought about my own voice as artist, these 4 were the main sources of inspiration for me in helping me figure out who I was and how I might best be able to project my own personality into my work. Jeremyville helped me to realise that I too, could be witty at times, but in contrast to his optimistic stance, I would need to highlight my own pessimism. Gemma Correll helped me embrace my own neurosis within, that doubts about yourself can be turned into wonderfully engaging work with which people can relate. Mr Heggie gave me the confidence to rebel, albeit, in my own way. (Healthy doses of attitude and general coolness are not my forte.) And finally, last but by no means least, Joe Sacco stands as a titan, reminding me that persistent hard work and careful sensitivity towards tough subject matter pays off.
Anyway, I should probably stop typing and get some more drawing done!