back on my beat

Last month, I was in Baguio for a week-long workshop: Room to Read’s Kwentong Musmos workshop for illustrating storybooks for beginning readers. It was my first time to attend an illustration workshop that extensive, where we had to focus on working on our characters, storyboards, and concepts in one run. We had great mentors, super helpful feedback from our publishers (thanks, Adarna, I love you), Room to Read’s team, and each other. There’s nothing like a bunch of illustrators with a deadline.

So.

I’ve been stuck in a rut for the longest time, and this affected my work this past year SO BADLY. My confidence level for most of this year is below the ground. A couple of big projects got killed and it was devastating. I felt like such a failure. I didn’t really get to produce a lot of work that I was truly proud of. A lot of different factors contributed to this in general because I was just physically tired all the time. I’m thankful that I get to do what I do, but it can get really difficult sometimes.

The workshop kind of jumpstarted me back to life a bit because I was forced to draw and produce good work in a short amount of time. It also felt so good to be a student again, to be in that safe place to ask questions and unlearn old habits to make space for new ways of working. When your hobby becomes a job, oftentimes there’s little to no margin for error so I’m always kind of on my toes and more inclined to playing it safe. That, or it’s just my anxiety problem. Anyway, I was honestly so relieved to be given the space (literally and mentally) to not feel stupid about working in a new way.

I’m mostly a self-taught illustrator. I didn’t get to do tons of foundation work in school and build good drawing skills early on in life, and my pursuit of a career in the creative field has always been looked down upon in my family given that it’s not as lucrative and money-making as other jobs, I guess. This has always been a great source of insecurity for me, like I have to work harder because a lot of people have a bigger headstart. I have to constantly try hard to see this mainly as a source of motivation to get better instead of letting it weigh me down and make me so anxious all the time.

When I started to learn how to become an illustrator, I didn’t know how to paint yet, so I worked mostly with ink in a very loose way, scratchy and lineart-focused. Then I started to teach myself how to use watercolors, and I struggled with it so much at first but I slowly got better. Most of my current portfolio is clean, watercolor drawings. I look at my body of work so far and I guess I can give myself a little pat on the back because I like a lot of the stuff I’ve made through the years.

However, I must say that somewhere down the road I think I got tired of how calculated my process for working that way was. Right now, I feel myself going back to scratchy pencil lines because I think I miss how natural my way of drawing was at the beginning. I really want to work towards combining that looseness with some of the painting techniques I’ve picked up along the way.

When I was learning how to illustrate with watercolors, I picked up things from Carson Ellis and Brecht Evens, clean flat shapes layered over each other, kind of like a transparent color-by-numbers type. I also liked Lisbeth Zwerger’s soft and poignant tone.

Now I’ve been studying how artists like Maira Kalman, Laura Carlin, Brian Wildsmith, and Beatrice Alemagna balance crude and naive forms, muted and limited palettes, and a wide mix of textures to make emotionally strong drawings. I’ve been looking at illustrations from Spain, Russia, and Japan for inspiration. I’ve also been inspired by Louise Bourgeois, Isabelle Arsenault, and some of the Bauhaus ladies like Anni Albers, Gunta Stolzl, and Hilma af Klimt for color and palette inspiration.

Something that stuck with me all throughout school back then was a quote from Kandinsky: “Every work of art is a child of its time.” Which is to say that every work produced by an illustrator such as myself, at any given time, is what I want to say at the moment, and how I want to say it. Like a voice of some sort, not really a style.

Thinking about this now makes me realize that maybe all the struggle this past year with my personal work is just me in a transition period. Maybe the things I want to say and show are different now, and I want to say and show them differently too. If this is so, then I’m happy, because they should be different. What I want to say and show should change, because I’m constantly changing and learning and seeing new things.

I used to worry that if I change things up and work differently, I would end up failing at this illustration thing. Now, I know I should be more worried if I don’t feel the need for any change in my work through time, because that would mean I’m not really learning new things. I’m only just beginning and I have so much to absorb. It’s scary and exciting at the same time, walking the tightrope between inspiration and despair.

TLDR: I’m happy that I feel happy drawing again. It’s really been a while since I felt like this. I’m also glad others like my new work. The validation, especially from the people that matter the most to me, makes me feel like I’m progressing.

Cheers to growth and birthing pains. Back to work.

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