Listening in on critiques at the Illustration Master Class, a short exchange stuck in my head. Several instructors were reviewing a student’s sketches and they were having a hard time drilling down to the core idea of his intended piece. Finally, one asked the student what he wanted for people to feel when they looked at the final painting. He answered (as best I can remember) “I want people to think ‘this guy is an amazing painter’”

I’ve been thinking about that answer quite a bit because I really appreciated the honesty of it. Back when I was a student in a Fine Arts program, nobody would dare say something like that out loud. And the truth is, what I really wanted for much of my career was for people to think I was an amazing painter too.

It’s possible this attitude best suites an aspiring illustrator. It’s a job that demands chops balanced with the ability to compromise. To develop that skill level, you need to be dedicated to craft for years before it will gel. And at the same time, you are striking out on a path where that skill is used to execute other people’s ideas and build other people’s visions. Of course, there is a range of how involved the client is in any given job and I think most of us prefer artistic freedom to being just a pair of hands. We like the jobs that provide a problem to solve rather than just a solution to execute. And understanding how to solve complex visual problems is it’s own skill, and the artists who excel at it tend to get hired for the more outside the box assignments that require it.

A still from the short film “Carlin” by Brent Green. The raw emotion of this performance has stayed with me for years

Down at it’s root, having a voice as any type of artist is about having a point of view. Style and technique are not enough. They are the delivery system, but the point of view is the payload. If strong technique catches the viewer’s eye, a strong message engages them emotionally. It is what sticks with you, without which an image is forgettable. And it took me too many years to realize that messaging is it’s own skill set. Learning how to mature it, sharpen it, apply it all takes extensive practice which is separate from practicing technique.

It seems to me that I got away with undervaluing deeper substance for a good bit of my early career. My theory is that this wasn’t a major issue, particularly in genre art, because I grew up in and then emerged into an increasingly cynical cultural landscape. In my formative years, plenty of my interests were being seduced by a flash-over-story business model, from the 90s comics boom to the mutation of the genre blockbuster into… whatever is largely driving the film industry today. It’s possible this was just one facet of a trend in the broader popular culture to dismiss sentiment and embraced cynicism. The cultural current of the 90s and 2000s was an ever increasing mandate to not be a sap.

A few years back, I read an essay that introduced me to the concept of post-irony (though you can find any number of similar pieces if curious). The central thread is that irony became a shield which people use to protect against being seen as naive. It started as a tool to attack and mock the status quo, and then it became the status quo. The eventual result is a sort of low level Nihilism which I have to assume most of us see and feel strongly permeating the culture. A jaded, snarky suit of armor that says “I’m too smart to take anything seriously,” with the implication clear that being vulnerable means you deserve to get hurt.

As the week at IMC was wrapping up, the subject of sincerity, emotion, and deeper purpose had come up again and again in both lectures and conversations. It’s a topic I’ve certainly been more interested in recently. I expect some of it is just artistic growth, though I also wonder if it’s a larger reaction to the fatigue so many of us are feeling from the current social and political climate: a hunger for art which is meaningful, vulnerable, and true. Along those lines, the emptiness of heavily commercialized franchises and post-ironic entertainment feels increasingly like… nothing. And it all comes together to remind me how damn important heart is in any creation. How important a genuine point of view is.

Daniel Tiger was practically weaponized vulnerability

The best word that describes what is largely missing for me is poetry. A quality which says things between the lines, because to actually say them would ruin them. This came to me while watching the new Mr. Roger’s documentary where twice, TWICE, there was a clip from the show that knocked the emotional wind out of me in a split second. I was watching the movie and then I was welling up with tears in a SECOND. You can’t dictate an emotional response like that to someone, you have to sneak it to them. And it brought me to thinking about other shows, movies, and songs which have had a similar effect on me. I remember a movie that I had been told would make me cry, but I felt no big emotional connection through the entire thing. And then, in a matter of seconds right at the end, it sprung the trap and it got me. And I mean ugly crying for 20 minutes got me, and I had someplace I needed to be and I was just walking down the street sobbing.

How does that happen? It’s something between the lines. It’s something bigger than the box it came in. It’s a shortcut past our defenses straight to the heart. And I think many of use have collectively retreated from it, and I think we all desperately need it.

On-the-nose work is the opposite of poetic. Along these lines, I’ve always had a strong distaste for artist’s statements because I thought they demanded that every feeling and symbol be planned and spelled out. If the best stuff is between the lines, how can you verbally articulate it? But of course, an artist’s statement about a poetic piece won’t make you feel the work, it just gives context for what the work will hopefully make you feel. The main reasons that I always struggled with writing a statement was an implied pressure to articulate something really specific and important. I never figured out how to verbalize my personal “why,” because it never felt good enough.

The lovers, the dreamers, and me…

For so many years, my honest answer would also have been “to be an amazing painter.” But to get there means going deeper, because amazing paintings are far more than just technical achievement. That answer doesn’t satisfy me anymore. It’s too incomplete. But I’m starting to see a bigger picture. I’ve generally aimed to steer myself towards making work that I would find captivating. The hard question is, what is it in the work of others that cuts right through me? Heart. Truth. Connection. Poetry. A refusal to bow to lazy knee-jerk cyincism. These qualities can and should exist whether the work is personal or commercial.

I realize of course that I’m more than fashionably late to this party. And I certainly don’t want this to read as any disrespect to the student mentioned in the opening story. I came to this field as a fan who wanted to prove that I could earn a seat at the table. So this is a kind of letter to myself, and hopefully there are some folks who might also relate. Creating great work needs more than just style. It needs soul.