The most important question illustrators need to answer

Posted by on Feb 1, 2013 in Inspiration, Journal, Portfolio, Process | No Comments
The most important question illustrators need to answer

My fascination with Alice continues, this time in her encounter with the caterpillar. He asks her the famous question, “Who are you?” I believe this question is the very heart of Lewis Carroll‘s brilliance. It is his confrontation with Alice’s escapism, as if holding up a mirror to his own character. (Is it a coincidence that the second volume is entitled “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”?) An interrogative dialogue ensues, leaving Alice flustered, unable to explain herself. Fed up, she tries to leave, embracing escapism again. The caterpillar bids her to return, this time with a command, “Keep you temper.” We don’t blame her for loosing her temper, we identify with Alice. It isn’t easy and is often unpleasant to examine what lies in the mirror.

Alice and the caterpillar, Alice Ratterree

“Keep Your Temper” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

When we were children, people asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When we meet someone for the first time, inevitably the question arises, “What do you do?” When we look to higher education, we must ponder what interests us, what talent we harbor, what we want to study. The pattern here? “What,” “What,” and still more “What”… “What?” is a fine and necessary question to consider and define, but it’s the “Who are you?” questions that need our real time and efforts as illustrators. I myself will always be going back to this question, digging for the answers, which needs a life’s work of tending to grow and refine. And in the meantime, I also try to keep my temper.

My universe aligned again this week when I attended the annual F.I.R.E. Session hosted by Brains on Fire. The opening talk was given by Jackie Huba, author of the upcoming book, Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers into Fanatics. Bet you didn’t think you’d find anything out there that went from Alice in Wonderland to Lady Gaga, but bear with me. I must admit, I’m not a follower of Lady Gaga, and no fanatic, so I can’t officially call myself a “Little Monster” but I do find brilliance in her ability to connect with her fan base, which is what I learned from Jackie this week. And it is in this quest to connect with her fan base, which is value-driven, that Lady Gaga has defined a core group of identity questions, thus enabling her success as an artist. Jackie revealed to us a concept created by Simon Sinek called the Golden Circle that succinctly sums it up:

GoldenCircle_diagram

So here are the three questions, that if well-defined, embody a successful product: What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it? Seems simple enough, right? Start trying to really answer these questions about yourself. The “what” is the easy part. It’s your product, plain and simple. So what is Lay Gaga’s “what”? Her “what” is basic: she writes and performs catchy pop songs. But is that really the sum of it all that “Little Monsters” would say when asked “Who is Lady Gaga?” There are plenty of singer/songwriters out there writing and performing catchy pop songs. So what makes her different? The answer lies deeper. Next question: How does Lady Gaga do it? This is what puts her at the top of talking trends today in social media circles. She lives her life as performance art. Think Andy Warhol. Do only the images of his artwork come to mind? No, it is his entire identity. His life style. Go further and you get to the “Why?” Lady Gaga has a platform based on a clear set of values. She is passionate about transforming culture to embrace differences and celebrate individuality, and has created the Born This Way Foundation to promote this value system.

So let’s apply this to illustration work:
WHAT do you do? Illustrate (and for some of us, write also) books for children and youth. This question does not require much introspection and is not highly individualized.
HOW do you do it? This can be defined as your style, ie: the treatment of characters and composition, and the choices that are made in the process. Do you employ realism or are your illustrations whimsical, comic or graphic? Maybe somewhere in between? Are the materials you use an integral part of this unique style? How does this flow into your life style and image? Does social media play a role?
WHY do you do it? This is where it gets purely individual. It is the core, a set of clear values that you harbor and is linked to a larger message you want to impress upon our viewer. Think back to what drove you to pick up that pencil, pen, brush, in the first place. So reflect carefully on the reason you wish to connect with children today and what you want them to see in your work. Because in the end, that is what it is all about. Connecting with our audience – children.

Clear definitive separation of “What” “How” and “Why” is the key. And “Why” is the engine that must fuel and drive the “How” and the “What.” So why do so many of us only stop and focus on “What?” It seems to be a little backwards, right? We start with “What”, then move to “How” then try to fit “Why” in there somewhere. Maybe if we start with “Why” and work outward, then we will finally be able to face that caterpillar when he asks “Who are you?”

About Alice Ratterree

After a professional career as an accomplished coloratura soprano, Alice became a freelance illustrator working in the children’s book publishing market.

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