Why I changed my illustration style

January 20, 2018

(see the bottom for image descriptions)


Hi guys, welcome back (or just welcome if you're new!)


I've been thinking a lot about what I put out into the public sphere of illustration and artworks, and I'm deciding to make a change.


I'm ditching realism.





Not only that, but I'm ditching graphite-finished illustrations too. This is probably more to the point, because the amount of realism in my drawings has been diminishing for a while now, and yet in terms of my instagram, portfolio and other public platforms, as well as sending off some submission pieces, I've still worked with realism. Why? I guess maybe I still feel the need to show others that I can draw well, that maybe sheer drawing talent can get me somewhere. But this isn't true. I'm an illustrator, not a fine artist, and therefore it's about telling a story. It can be the worst drawing ever, but if it tells an awesome tale, it can be the best illustration ever.


So let's look at my reasons for quitting graphite as a finished medium.


Up until this point, most, if not all, of my drawings that I send out to agents, publishers, magazines and so forth have graphite in them. And yet when I do private commissions, as well as most of my etsy listings, they aren't graphite. What's with that?


Graphite for me as a medium has always been present. You get given a lead pencil, in case you need to rub out all those mistakes. I guess before that I would have worked with whatever kiddy things I was given; crayons, coloured pencils, textas, the whole bunch of art supplies that came in that black plastic suitcase thing (oh, the memories!) But when I was a bit older and drawing, I wanted to make myself better. I was always wanting to improve. Always. ALWAYS. So I would use a lead pencil, draw, rub parts out, make sure this was right, that was long enough, is that too round? And so on.


And it continued from there. I always used graphite. Framed artworks from when I was pre-teen, even if on a canvas board, where in graphite. A couple of years ago, my use of charcoal was at its greatest. Graphite didn't seem right for my fine artworks, so I was using charcoal to prevent that sheen and as much smudge. And I was realistic. Oh yeah. Sometimes I couldn't tell the reference photo from my artwork on my phone. (tiny scale helps too). I got to the point of "realism", which was what I was trying to make happen my whole life - no tracing or light-boxing, etc. Just me.


Yet I got bored. Since then, I've quit realism because its boring, it's copying, it's a "look how well I can replicate" instead of "look how well I can tell a story". Again, this may be fine as a fine artist, but not so much for illustration. I was restricted. I couldn't show silly little scribbles of my weird characters on instagram or start on a background because it would take two years to do. So most of my illustrations consisted of something plonked in the middle looking at the "camera". Often portraits.


I'm at the point now of not caring about realism. I didn't always care as a kid, and I've not cared for a while since achieving maximum realisticness, and have been drawing more cartoony/childrens' book/ fun drawings for quite a long time now, but I don't post them!! Same with mediums, I often don't use graphite but then professionally come back to it. I was scared of confusing people about what my style was if I posted various different things, realistic pet portrait to fun cartoony colour thing, because who would hire someone if they couldn't predict the style of work they would get?


So now we've talked about why I don't work realistically anymore, I guess what I'm saying is that these are the reasons why I've decided to stop being private about my non-realistic, non-graphite illustrations now, and move on professionally from graphite:


1. Lack of recognition

I've been sending out my stuff for quite a while now, and don't get as much interest or business as I would like. I get so many people at markets, online or family/friends that say "Oh my god you're so talented!" But that's not going to pay for my electricity. Most people who inquire about my realistic style of pet portraits don't follow through. Each time I do a round of agency submissions and don't receive a reply, I reflect on my work. Yes, it could just be that they have so many awesome illustrators on their books at the moment, but I don't have that ego, so I wonder what it is about my work that ended up with no reply. These days, it seems many agents (excluding children's book illustration agents) are not after traditional mediums. Traditional is ok if you can make it work, but digital is now the norm. Graphite meant my work was never going to be anything like these guys, with their clean lines and bright accents. Mine in comparison looked dull, which kind of brings me to my next point.


2. Restriction of colour and form

I found pretty quickly during my illustration diploma that you can colour over the top of graphite in photoshop. There was my answer. That's why I attended the course. But I was then becoming limited. Smudged or blended tones of grey don't look good with, say, bright yellow over the top. Firstly because it won't be bright (thanks to the graphite) and secondly because, just, eiw. So what if a creative director wants bright yellow? I've been trying so much to increase my use of colour in my illustrations, and had gotten to the point that whenever I scanned my "I guess that's good enough" graphite drawing (I was becoming used to the colour making it seemed finished, so without the colour I was never sure), I wouldn't want to colour. Sometimes I would draw


five works properly for a project before starting on the photoshop colouring. It also takes time. You've just spent hours, normally days, drawing this graphite thing, now you're going to add numerous colour layers, change the layer type, add a vector mask, make it black, change your brush, change your opacity, change the size, hardness, and so on, and etch out a bit, a bit more, too much undo, etc. for hours. It wasn't fun for me. I never wanted to add colour because I felt the graphite did enough, which is not to say I was happy with the graphite, but putting colour over the top didn't seem to help. So I became content with black and white, as my charcoal works of fine art were. In terms of illustrations, though, I looked at instagram and saw the colour used by other illustrators and thought wow, that's awesome, even if it was much simpler in form without much tone, I was able to connect with it.


3. Pigeonholing

My mum is my greatest sounding board, as I would assume is (or has) often been the case for creatives starting out. She would constantly say things like "why can't it be brighter" or suggest drawing a crazy fantasy illustration and I would say "I can't! That's not my style!" I had pigeonholed myself so much because, professionally, I had to draw things "properly". I was focused so much on working with graphite in this kind of realistic way that I wasn't moving on, I wasn't able to find myself and develop and grow, because I couldn't let go of the medium of graphite professionally and publicly. Don't pigeonhole yourself. Breathe, see where it goes, post it on instagram as an "experiment" or "just playing around" or "I just bought these paints, thought I'd check them out". I wasn't prepared to publicly show all this, and therefore the hiding outweighed the sharing. I'm now opting for a nice "mixed media" approach, because as the images in this article show I like to use lots of different art mediums!!



4. It's a draft.

I would post something quick and little to instagram, and look around at illustrators I follow who also do the same thing, but for them, it wasn't finished if it looked like that. It was just the pencil sketchbook or a draft version for when they would paint it, etc. Yet for me, the graphite was pretty much it. I may add some colour digitally, but hot damn, I'm done! But I kept then seeing my proper drawings as drafts. Using graphite will do that, seeings as most people do use graphite in the draft stage. 


5. Fun.

Ahh, the most important one. Ultimately, it wasn't fun for me anymore. And ultimately, that's the whole point of it for me. I don't want this to feel like a job, and it was starting to. I spent many years in another career trying to prove how capable I was, and I was doing the same thing in illustration with graphite and more realistic forms. So this is the most important part - I'm now doing it for the fun of it.


Image descriptions:

1. An illustration of Gemma Ward from over a year ago (Graphite with digital eye colour)

2. A graphite pet portrait

3. A watercolour phase from over a year ago

4. A digital phase from a year ago that I showed on an alternative instagram account before removing

5. Umbrella man, ink and digital colour I did from 2016

6. Detail of larger graphite work (before it was coloured), an example of a recent instagram post feeling like I was just posting drafts all the time.


Check out my instagram for what I've been working on lately, and hang around for some new updates soon!

instagram: @siobhan.mcvey


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