As a person who draws a lot I fill in a lot of sketchbooks and sometimes it takes me about 50 or more bad sketches to get to a good one. I view my sketchbooks and sketches as very intimate objects as they are so unpolished and have many flaws, and until recently I only rarely showed my sketchbooks to anyone for fear of judgement (nobody wants to look bad). I am one of my toughest critics as I imagine many artists are and I have in mind that if a sketch is not good enough for me it is certainly not good enough for the rest of the world!
However, my attitude towards showing my sketchbooks changed a little a few months ago after I met a fellow illustrator at the London Book Fair.
We started writing to each other and she told me that once a month, her and some illustrator friends of hers met in a cafe to share their latest work and their progress with each other, and she kindly invited me to tag along if I wanted to. I was thrilled, of course, but imagine showing your work to experienced illustrators who live off their art. A bit scary, isn’t it? My mind started a self-doubt process along the lines of “what if they think that what I do is rubbish and that I shouldn’t call myself an illustrator?”, that I quickly shut up by telling myself “thanks for your comment, now if you don’t mind I’m gonna go and see what I can learn”. I went to this first meeting with all the courage I could gather and my portfolio (i.e. my best pieces). And I ended up having a lovely chat with three really nice people, and left refreshed and inspired. On the following meeting I brought work in progress with me. Again it was very interesting hearing what people had to say about my work and to see how they were reacting to it. Again, I got some very useful tips, suggestions, and support. For the meeting after that – I didn’t have much to show as I had just come back from a holiday and was still working on the same projects as before – I brought some ‘lonely sketches’ (by that I mean sketches that I drew on separate sheets of paper) and two sketchbooks. And again, something magical happened when my turn to present my work came: I got a lot of enthusiastic reactions to my sketches. That’s right, the quick, rough, sometimes ugly doodles that I was talking about earlier. Ideas started being fired at me, suggestions started being made. They were seeing things in my sketches that I didn’t necessarily see myself since, as the artist, I was too close to them. For example, I know that I have a personal style but sometimes I draw without thinking and I don’t necessarily know whether what I am drawing enters the same ‘style category’ or a different one. It is a bit like looking at your work through a magnifying glass: you see the specifics but you’re too close to see it as a whole. You can always try to get some perspective by leaving your drawings for a while, then coming back to them and trying to look at them with objective eyes. But showing your sketches to different people can help you get the objectivity and the distance that you lack.
Sharing your work: a great way to get better at what you do and get support
When you look at your own work there’s only so much you can notice. By showing your ‘private work’ (sketches, recipes, prototypes, etc.) to other people you give yourself a chance to get feedback on what you do and directions that you could take to improve your work and develop your style.
My advice to you, whether you are drawing, baking, sewing, dancing, etc. is to find a group of people sharing the same interest and passion, and to organise regular meetings. It doesn’t matter whether it is online or in person (although I personally prefer the latter).
Choosing the right people for you
It is important that you feel comfortable with the people you choose to meet with since you will be talking about things that really matter to you and you want to be able to speak openly and feel supported.
Support alone is not enough though. It is better accompanied with some advice aiming at helping you to get better at what you do.
When giving criticism it is good to be honest and to explain why you like or dislike another person’s work as it helps them understand the reason behind your comment and maybe adjust if they feel they should.
Not everyone responds to criticism the same way and it is also important to take the person’s feelings into account and to communicate with the right amount of diplomacy. You want to help the person improve and succeed, not crush them. It might take the time to get to know the person a little for you to know how to adjust the way you give criticism to that person. But generally: always be honest (but polite) and explain why you think the way you do.
When receiving criticism, make an effort to put your ego on the side. Sometimes you will get positive criticism, and sometimes it won’t be as good to hear/read. Keep in mind that any criticism – positive or negative – given on your work is subjective and specific to the person who gives it to you. You have the right to disagree with what someone tells you; at the end of the day, you are the creator and what matters is that you enjoy doing what you do. If you disagree with what someone is saying about your work, don’t be too defensive about it. Listen to the person (it is always good to know what other people think of what you do, good or bad), thank them for sharing their opinion (you might disagree with them but at least they were honest) and move on.
Generally remember this: criticism alone is not good without advice as it will make you (or someone else if you’re the one giving criticism) feel down just as support alone, as nice as it is, won’t help you to get better at what you do.
Giving each other goals
Finally, a great thing to keep each other motivated and to encourage improvement is to be positive and set goals together for your next meeting. While support really helps boosting confidence and gets you excited about what you do, setting goals gives you something to work towards and focus on. For example, as an illustrator there are many, many things that I want to try (techniques, subject matters, media, etc.) and I sometimes get a bit ‘lost’ trying them. As one of my illustrator friends once told me: it is good to try new things but it is also important to keep developing and improving one’s own style; otherwise, your portfolio ends up being confusing. Here is my next point: setting goals for each other is like being given homework. Yes, you do have to make them fit around all the other things you have to do – and if you are like me, that means a LOT of other things to do – but on the plus side, it gives you a chance to make some time for practice (and as we know, “practice makes perfect”). You may as well end up with a new piece to add to your portfolio! And it is always nice to have that follow-up and show each other how you approached the tasks you set during the previous meeting.
How about you? Do you have a group of friends or people with whom you meet on a regular basis to share your work (whatever that work is, on line or in person)?