By Ned Bustard
Since 2010, Hutchmoot has convened annually in Nashville, Tennessee, for a weekend of food, music, and conversation “centered on art, faith, and the telling of great stories across a range of mediums.” This year’s keynote speaker was CIVA’s good friend W. David Taylor. Among the seminars offered, “The Art of Patience: Pursuing Creativity through Failure, Struggle, and Endurance,” in which a group of talented visual artists discussed the process of learning through frustration, churned many animated conversations in its wake, one of which focused on practice, the theme of our upcoming SEEN Journal. The conversation recounted below included children’s book illustrators Joe Sutphin, John Hendrix, Ben Schipper, and Ned Bustard.
NB: By way of introduction, let’s each share a favorite children’s books we have had the opportunity to create. For me it’s Crossway Books’ Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation—from A to Z, written by my friend Stephen J. Nichols, who serves as president of the Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. I drew each of the saints represented and was responsible for the book’s layout/design.
JH: My most recent book is Abrams Books’ Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus (2016). I was happy with the many good reviews, including one in The New York Times. My upcoming book is a long-form graphic novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler.
JS: I am really excited about my next book, to be released in February 2018, Raffie On The Run by Jaqueline Resnick. It’s a middle grade novel about a Brooklyn subway rat who loses his little brother and sets off across Manhattan to find him and bring him home. My ink illustrations are present in each chapter. My wonderful editor, Katherine Jacobs, has billed the book as “The Cricket In Times Square meets Finding Nemo.” Being such a huge fan of the work of Garth Williams, I am always eager to take on a new rodent adventure and leave my mark on that classic genre of kid lit.
BS: The book project that I’m most proud of to date is Henry and the Chalk Dragon (Rabbit Room Press) by author Jennifer Trafton. The publisher really let me have free rein on illustrations and design. I think it’s very cohesive and appealing as a result.
NB: Joe, during the “Art of Patience” session, you said, “Fear is the opposite of faith.” How do you see that idea worked out in your practice of artmaking?
JS: I believe fear is kind of an evil twin to faith. Whereas faith is the evidence of things unseen and the substance of things hoped for, fear is also the evidence of things unseen, but the substance of things not hoped for. When I put stock and energy into either, I reap its crop. A lot of artists find that creating art is a step of faith. The first strokes of a pencil or pen are an act of faith. If you don’t create your art regularly, each opportunity to make it can become so precious that a blank page can paralyze you with the fear of failure. I encourage artists not to set themselves up for failure. If drawing or writing are not a part of your daily routine, and you desire to make it so, you might go out and purchase the nicest sketchbook you can find and the really cool fountain pen or pencils you saw a guy using on Instagram, and now you’ve spent a bunch of money purchasing really beautiful supplies that you feel will inspire you to finally do art. Then, maybe you get a thirty-minute lunch break or an hour at home after the kids are in bed, and you sit down with all your shiny new supplies. You open up to a blank page and a time constraint. You may have set yourself up for failure because of the fear of putting something unworthy on that blank page in that gorgeous sketchbook. One thing I like to encourage artists to do is to purchase cheaper journals and sketchpads, use cheaper tools, and keep those items with you whenever possible to draw or journal whenever the thoughts arise. That way you become familiar with addressing the blank page and reduce your fear of failure and the need for each drawing to be a masterpiece. I’ve heard it said that you can’t make good art until you’ve made a lot of bad art. If you have to draw something five times to be happier with the result, so be it. You grow less attached to the product and more attached to the process.
NB: Ben, speaking of failure and bad art, you said during that same session in passing, “I’m just one step ahead of the Art Police.” It made me laugh because I feel like that all the time. How does that feeling impact your work?
BS: It makes me want to find a long-term solution to my aesthetic thievery. Specifically for me, the Art Police aren’t convinced that I’ve found my “voice” and that I’ve been stealing others and masquerading around in different aesthetics in order to stay in the business. Possibly riding trend waves is another way to put it. But I suppose that’s the truth of an early career. I have to try a lot of different things in order to grow. I like to quote John over here when he says, “Don’t be afraid to let people see you try.” Today we all like to have finished, polished stuff to show. It’s a mark of shame sometimes when we start something and can’t finish it, but that’s what trying is.
NB: The ogre of Perfectionism, with his pristine posts on Behance and Instagram, regularly pummels the life out of artists. In defiance to that Beast, John, you said, “You cannot make art without dissatisfaction.” How do you keep moving ahead in your practice of book illustration in the midst of that tension?
JH: Being unhappy with your work is, strangely enough, proof that you are truly engaging with your craft. This sounds counter-intuitive, but we all have a hunger for a certain vision, the hopes of what a piece of art might be. We can never make something perfect. But most of us would settle for something ALMOST as good as that initial idea we fell in love with. Living in that difference between almost and perfection is part of a long life of art making. Every book I make goes through the same cycle. I’m enthralled with the idea, the vision, the beautiful possibility of what could be. Then I start to make choices, and the theoretical becomes the actual. It is a kind of loss that happens during this stage. The project always hits this low point, and then it begins to climb out, slowly, one drawing at a time. Ultimately, if you are going to be happy with the final art, the project must change into something you didn’t expect. As I patiently and faithfully work from that place, the depths of disillusionment, THAT is when I’m most likely to make my best work. The stark truth is that I can’t work without the heartache.
NB: In your session at Hutchmoot, there was a great deal of helpful discussion on failure. But let’s flip that around and wrap things up with each of you sharing some advice you’ve found that helps you create art that you don’t hate. What artistic practices do you encourage other artists to adopt?
JS: The first bit of advice I would give to artists pertaining to creating art you don’t hate is to draw what you are interested in. If you need to, keep lists of things you love to draw. John’s book Drawing Is Magic is full of this kind of practice. I would encourage an artist to sketch more than they draw—meaning, draw loosely for practice more than to take a drawing seriously. Maybe consider filling a sketchbook or journal as an act of complete work, then start on the next one. Sketch things you observe around you, and pack that data into your mind, but when you create original imagery, try putting your references away and recalling all of that stored info in your mind. This helps to keep your art feeling fresh and less like a study of something. Also, the more often you sketch and draw in your chosen media, the more you train your muscle memory. You begin to find your own lines over time, and those lines and strokes are ever-evolving, always becoming more a part of who you are as an artist. Try new materials, tools and papers, but put a limit on your search for new materials. Find something that works for you and perfect it. I searched for the right materials for a long time, and finally asked myself, “When did I enjoy drawing the most in life?” My answer was, “In school, on the margins of dittos, with a #2 pencil.” That’s when I loved drawing the most. So I started sketching and drawing on printer paper with #2 pencils, and I loved it.
BS: I hate creating art that I will hate. Too many times I’ve tasted the bitter regret of putting time into something that I know didn’t have a good foundation or was worth putting my time into. If I can’t muster up enough energy and excitement to do my best work then I won’t take the project on if I can afford to say no. On the practical side though, energy and excitement don’t flow through me even after I’ve drunk coffee. I set aside time, slow down, and devote my mind toward the project ahead. I research and try to design a best approach and method to execute the project. Typically that method will include one thing, if not more, I’m extremely excited to try, whether that’s working with a different subject matter or aesthetic choice that’s new to me. Patience is key because if you rush ahead without due diligence you’ll be unsatisfied with what comes out and you’ll regret and hate your work.
JH: One artistic practice I encourage other artists to adopt is to do your initial brainstorms in pen. This forces me to just focus on creating and not editing. Creating is always harder than editing. Push the editing process off as long as possible. Draw fast and make as many different ideas as possible. Also, I like to set an egg timer (NOT on your phone, a physical egg timer) and set it for 30 minutes for creating thumbnails. I’ve found after that amount of time, I’m repeating myself. Finally, my best ideas are rarely formed in my head first, and then I transmit them to the paper. Most of my ideas come from the action of drawing itself. Just start drawing, don’t prepare…MAKE!
JH: Failure is learning in disguise. So, I’ve got a question for everyone, can you give us one example of how failure taught you something very valuable to your practice today?
JS: This is slightly to the contrary, but I think that my practice has taught me something valuable about failure. In my practice of making art for a living, there will always be more art to be made, and art that fails at first still needs to be completed. So I have learned that failure is not the end of the process. It’s a part of the process at times, one that we learn and move on from, and in the end it makes for some fun stories to tell.
NB: I agree. I see fear of failure in my kids’ lives and in my life as a great wall that keeps us safe from doing anything new or imaginative. The thing to do is just keep going on. In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul wrote, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” If our spiritual life requires that kind of persistence, should we be surprised that we need fortitude in our artmaking? As to failures teaching me in a backhanded way, I’ve found that my illustration failures remind me to hold on loosely to my concepts for a piece. My work tends to lean towards visual constipation. But when I’m open to whimsy and chance and screw-ups that need to be resolved, I find there is more life in what I make.
BS: I’m starting to reach a point in my career and life that I don’t consider any of my final art a failure. I honestly don’t complete a final piece of art these days without knowing it’s the best that I can do at that moment. I suppose I’m letting myself off the hook or lowering the bar, or maybe just being realistic. For instance, the level of showmanship these days is invading our sketchbooks. This isn’t to pick on John’s and other artists amazing finalized sketchbook art! What I’m saying is that when I expect myself to have everything done perfectly on the first try, well, it’s not trying at that point; it’s doing perfectly, or to a level of perfection I’ve already assumed I can reach. For me, something that’s been extremely valuable to my practice is tracing paper. I trace over loose forms repeatedly until I get something that I want. The final tracing looks effortless, clean, “perfect” without the expense of morale that comes with the pressure of trying to make that first drawing perfect. To put it in terms already mentioned by John, that’s my editing process, and I know it has to exist, so up until that point, I play around in my sketchbook freely, only then deciding what goes on to the editing phase.
NB: Thank you, friends, for taking the time to share with the CIVA community these thoughts on the practice of illustration.
About the Artists:
Joe Sutphin is a writer and an illustrator of children’s literature, including James Patterson’s NYT Bestseller Word Of Mouse. When he is not drawing and writing stories, Joe spends as much time in nature as possible, catching critters. He lives with his multi-talented wife and their two cats in a red barn in Ohio (and is quite possibly addicted to donuts and ginger ale).
John Hendrix is a New York Times Bestselling illustrator and author of many children’s books, as well as Chair of Design in the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis. He has served as a Ruling Elder at Grace & Peace Fellowship and lives in St. Louis, with his beautiful bride Andrea, son Jack and daughter Annie.
Benjamin Schipper is an illustrator working in children’s books, advertising, video games, and comics. He lives in Manhattan, New York, with his wife Karen and their little black dog Willow. He is currently working for the Jim Henson Company on The Storyteller comic as well as a personal comic Joe Death and the Graven Image.
Ned Bustard is CIVA’s graphic designer, creative director of Square Halo Books, and a printmaker. He has served as a Ruling Elder at Wheatland Presbyterian Church and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his wife Leslie. They have three daughters and own a silly amount of picture books. www.WorldsEndImages.