What happens when you’re “just doodling.”

The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my iPad and began doodling, with nothing in mind. At first I wasn’t feeling it and almost gave up for the evening, but the insomnia had kicked in by then, so I kept going.

Somehow I hit a zen moment where suddenly everything felt so easy and natural, and I wound up with a pile of cute little animal sketches.

They’ve received a warm reception from my online groups and various Facebook friends, all encouraging me to turn them into something. Nursery decor? Kid’s t-shirts? Fabric?

Great, right?

Yeah, not so much, because as mere sketches I created all of them at about 50% of the size I’d need in order to upload them to a POD site for production. I’m going to have to make them again from scratch at a bigger file size.

While playing, I got lost in all my fun brushes and textures, and have no idea what I used in order to create these pieces. I’m sure I can figure it out. That’s not what worries me, though; I’m dreading the loss of that zen feeling I had when I wasn’t “trying.” I dread ending up with a series of lifeless, wooden drawings, as so often happens when you switch from a study to a final piece.

ARRRGH.

Gonna do it anyway. 😌

Character design

I’ve been developing a character for the SVSLearn June contest—the brief asks for a furry mammal character, around the size of a 5-year-old, to be used in an animated children’s show, a picture book, as a plush toy, and, I dunno, a blockbuster Pixar movie, maybe? One can dream.

Here is my interpretation of the brief for Albert, the “kid” who comes to live with a human family and must learn a few manners along the way.

Bandwagon? Or Zeitgeist?

I’ve noticed lately there is a new illustration “trend,” for lack of a better term, that I’m seeing out in the world, mainly on Instagram. It may have more to do with the tools (Procreate on an iPad) than a zeitgeist or accidental copying or just, I dunno, that thing that happens among human beings where spaghetti and noodles both get created thousands of miles apart, or where people who can’t possibly have met are all exploring cubism simultaneously. There are numerous examples of this phenomenon, and I’m referring to historical instances, pre-Internet, pre-information age; even before we had cars or boats or any realistic way to transmit what was capturing everyone’s attention at any given time.

Collective unconscious? Is that the correct term? I’m not sure it explains how lithography, say, swept through Japan and also France at roughly the same time. How did every nationality invent a kind of dumpling? Why are there donuts and zeppole?

Getting back to the original topic, I find it somewhat distressing that I am seeing so much sameness on Instagram lately. It’s gotten to where I am now trying to guess who the artist is, and the correct answer could easily be any one of dozens of illustrators who, it would appear, are tripping over themselves to mimic each other. I mainly focus on kidlit art, so perhaps it’s not as widespread elsewhere, but in recent examples of picture book illustration, all the eyes are shaped the same way, the flowers are identical, the hand-lettering is ridiculously derivative and uninspired, even lazy. The brushes all look the same to me, in that greasy, goopy way that Procreate brushes can look if you don’t customize or enhance them. Remember when Photoshop took over illustration and suddenly everything looked Photoshoppy?

My recent attempts to bring back an organic feeling to my work are partly my own natural desire to hold onto traditional tools, partly a reaction to the Procreate-y Goopy Look I am seeing every day. I have a long way to go, but I crave that leaky pen, that drippy watercolor, those happy accidents that can’t happen digitally, and more to the point, using traditional tools forces you to slow down and be in the moment, carefully applying paint, waiting for things to dry, going fully zen. If you can just undo or erase a mistake—while essential when on a tight deadline—you lose some of that zen.

I don’t mean to suggest a return to Wite-Out. I absolutely love my iPad, and Procreate is a brilliant app. But it’s time to start pushing its boundaries, the same way we collectively pushed Photoshop and Illustrator’s boundaries these past thirty years. Bandwagon Style is a puzzling phenomenon to me generally, because I can’t imagine copying someone else and enjoying the process. I’m sure my influences can be spotted in my work (by others, not so much by me), we’ve all got those; I’m not talking about influences. I’m talking about a cynical ripping off for the purposes of selling the work. Is it art directors pushing this bandwagon thing? “I like it, but make the eyes look like So-and-So The Famous Illustrator’s eyes.” I ask this because it was my personal experience with a few ADs: “Make the colors more like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and we have a deal.”

As I’ve said previously, I attempted to do this, to “brighten” my palette at the behest of a Grande Fromage at A Big Name Publisher and the experience was such a disaster that I abandoned my book. That’s on me, of course. Not anyone else’s fault but my own, but I was much younger and so, so wanted to get published that I compromised my essence. It’s one thing to change a wombat into an otter, or tweak the copy, or even redo half your spreads. Compromising what is essential to your aesthetic, what makes you you? Never do that.

So I guess my original question stands: is it Zeitgeist? A bandwagon? Is a donut the same as a zeppole? They’re both delicious, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Color Palette Rehab

Made a terrific eggplant parm (sans tomato sauce) tonight, paired with arugula salad. Highly recommended. Recipe at bottom. But the bigger story is I spent the past few days working with a “found” palette—therefore a limited palette—and the results are in: TRY THIS.

Last week the sun was peeking in through the blinds, in one of those late-afternoon moments that I was lucky enough to capture with my phone, not really sure why I was doing it. Dappled light hit my open closet in such a way that my familiar jumble of everyday clothing suddenly took on an elevated appearance. A photo of my clothes? Not especially compelling, right?

I toyed with turning the photo into a graphic, and a few sketches went nowhere. But I couldn’t get those colors out of my head. Then it hit me, this was a found palette. I opened my iPad and used the eye dropper tool to grab 10-12 colors from the photo, and saved them as a new palette.

The results were extremely satisfying to my sensibilities, but now I wondered, is this a kid-friendly palette? I was reminded of the meeting I had with an art director at one of the top children’s publishers, where my portfolio was enthusiastically received and I was told I was “the next” somebody-or-other… IF I could “brighten up” my colors a bit.

So I dashed home and reworked everything in my portfolio, going against my natural attraction to subdued, desaturated tones. (My favorite coat as a child was a maroon and grey plaid number; I absolutely adored black and my favorite outfit was a black turtleneck and black leggings. It still is. I’m nothing if not consistent.)

The exercise left me miserable and demoralized, and ultimately frustrated to the point of inertia, I abandoned my dream of publishing a picture book, figuring I just wasn’t suited to the world of primary colors. Graphic design offered me far more opportunities to apply my desaturated palettes, and wear my black clothes.

Do kids really prefer primary colors? Must everything look like a bowl of Froot Loops or a Playskool dollhouse in order to sell? Well, let me just offer two words in response to this notion: Jon Klassen.

He’s doing pretty well.

I look at the success of, say, This Is Not My Hat (fantastic book, btw) and begin to wonder where I’d be now in my career if I’d ignored the “advice” that big shot art director gave me and stuck to my guns. Of course the industry has gone through enormous changes in the years since that meeting, but I wonder. I wonder.

So I’m taking myself to Color Palette Rehab and breaking the habit of using every color in the box, or sticking to what’s expected, of coloring the sky blue just because that’s the color it’s “supposed to be.” I can’t say enough good things about giving yourself some limitations. Maybe it’s the graphic designer in me, the problem solver who enjoys the constraints, but I recommend looking around your environs for a found palette that you’d love to apply to a work you feel is wanting in some way, or start fresh and see where it takes you.

Eggplant Parm with Garlic

1 large eggplant

6 T butter, melted

1 C bread crumbs or panko

1/4 C shredded Parmesan

1/4 t smoked paprika

4 cloves finely minced garlic or 1 t garlic powder

1 t each of finely minced fresh rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano or 1 t dried Italian seasoning

Wash, trim, peel eggplant. Slice into 1/2” disks. Place in a colander and “sweat” with kosher salt—sprinkle liberally over each disk. Allow to sit at least 30 min. until beads of water appear on the surface. Rinse the salt.

Mix crumbs, spices, garlic and cheese.

Dip each disk in the melted butter and then in the crumb mixture, turning and pressing to coat.

Bake at 400° for 15 minutes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Flip and bake an additional 7-10 minutes, until crispy.

Arugula Salad

One bunch arugula, 1/4 C olive oil, juice of 1/2 a fresh lemon, salt and pepper to taste, shaved Parmesan to garnish. Toss.