Finding home and the perils of seeking a 'style'
And also, my shop is open!
If you’re here to know that my shop is open! You can jump straight there now :) Otherwise, read on for quite the ramble into my explorations of struggling to discover how to make my best work.
We’ve just moved to a new apartment in Edinburgh - another one bedroom flat in a lovely neighbourhood, much leafier then where we’ve been. I wish it had a room that looked just like the one I drew above. But alas, it does not :). I will have to continue to dream.
This is the fourth year Dave and I have lived without our belongings, none of our own furniture or kitchenware or rugs or books or vases or cups or artwork on the wall - instead just living with what already exists in the furnished places we are renting. We love our freedom, but this is one of freedom’s downsides. And I must say, we are both missing the chance to feel properly ‘at home’ as we do when a space reflects a little of who we are - or is at least dotted with things we’ve gathered through our lives, little reminders of places we’ve visited and countries lived in, gifts from loved ones, things found in charity shops or at weird auction house sales. We are missing our ‘things’ and what they bring with them, a reminder of self and perhaps, a sense of being ‘home’.
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I have bought a few handmade cups during these last years so the ‘suitcases’ we have been living out of as we have moved around the UK have grown a little bigger - a perfect mug for my small coffees from the wonderful Nichole Ceramics, a larger one for tea from Sophia McEvoy and another wonderful one form Bowbeer design because I couldn’t help it and I was also gifted a beautiful spotted one from a friend in Australia. I have also bought prints from artists whose work I love, but I haven’t yet managed to work out how to display/hang them in this temporary life with other people’s image choices already on the walls.
I think the feeling of ‘being at home’ in a place for me is about recognising myself in my surroundings, some kind of visual and textural and sensory reassurance of who I am and that this is good or okay somehow. It is something that evolves as I do and that I can edit, and build upon. I am sensitive to this. I have one friend I talk about this with often - we are both really affected by our surrounds. My sense of happiness is so much higher when I have things I find beautiful nearby. And I can really sink low when I find my surroundings too ugly. I think for me, there is something similar about that feeling of ‘being at home’ in a room, a house, a city, a landscape, that exists also in my artwork - when I have a moment of really liking what I’ve made. And I realised recently that maybe it is this ‘finding home’ when we’re making that is meant when we are encouraged as illustrators to find a ‘style’ or ‘put ourselves into our work’.
People talk all the time of style. Of that unique look that certain people’s creative work has that is a mark all of their own. The look that when people see it, they know immediately who made it. And lots of emerging illustrators go looking for style, or so the story goes. I’m actually not sure this is true. I don’t think I ever went ‘looking for my style’ like I might do if I was shopping for a couch. I think I always knew it was something already there (for good or bad) to be refined through experience and practice and lots and lots of work, but the “how to find your style” myth is prominent and enduring and brings quite the challenge.
Lots of fabulous short courses and advice I’ve received from illustration professionals, have noted the fallacy of searching for style or perhaps the problems with going ‘shopping’ for it as though it is something you can go out there, identify and then get. I found instead, the best advice from those I have learnt from was a combination of two things:
to work out a way to get into habits that mean you make a whole lot of work. Like drawing every single day, filling sketchbooks, finding what helps you get in these habits; and
rather than go for a particular ‘style’ just make sure “you put yourself into your work”.
I think I always understood the first one and believed it. I knew that to get ‘good’ whatever that is, or to keep getting better, closer to things I could cope with looking at again - I had to do lots of work (if you haven’t watched the wonderful Ira Glass discuss The Gap do so now!). The second one was much harder for me - making sure I put myself into my work. This made sense to me but I didn’t know what it meant or how to actually ‘do’ it, until very recently.
When I did the wonderful Orange Beak Studio picture book retreat in 2019, I learned so much. I credit this week for so much of where I am now. One of the things we had to do before arriving was make a pinterest board, or gather together somehow, a collection of things that inspire us (see a glimpse of mine below).
I loved making this and I think taking time to reflect was useful, but I really had no idea what to do with it at all. I didn’t know how to ‘add these things’ to my work when they weren’t mine. Nor was I sure how knowing I liked these was supposed to help me ‘put myself into my work’. Similarly, when I did The Good Ship Illustration Fly your Freak flag Course, our first task was to revisit earlier bits of life and gather together all the things that inspire us, things we loved as children, things we were afraid of, illustrators and artists and musicians and eras and topics that we loved now.
I felt motivated by collecting memories and collating the work of my image making heroes but also quite perplexed. I remember wonderful Ness and Maisie and Pam all looking at my children’s book portfolio at the time and saying it was fine, and maybe I’d get work with it, but I “need to put more of myself into my work”.
“Be the illustrator only you can be”, “don’t be generic”. “Instead of any old trousers on your character, put in a pair of your own”. “Instead of that bag you’ve just invented, base it one one you’ve owned and loved, or one your grandma had”. This all made sense, but I think at the start, I felt like I was shopping to furnish a home all in one go - where you just add objects to otherwise generic scenes. A step, perhaps, in the right direction, but it didn’t feel like it had much depth.
My breakthrough in thinking came with this year’s Folktale Week. This wonderful instagram event is ran by a group of illustrators who every year share seven prompts, from which illustrators, and this year other artists and poets and authors, create a piece based on a prompt and share it each day for a week. The work can be entirely invented, or you can illustrator or work from an existing real life folktake from somewhere in the world.
I wasn’t sure if I would participate, or exactly what I would do, but then when I read the prompts something came to me. I remembered an amazing sheep that used to live on an empty piece of land amidst normal housing and buildings in Williamstown in Melbourne. He was an incredible sheep, with unruly long hair and huge horns. I had no idea how he was there - he looked so out of place in the city. And I knew I wanted to make a story about this unlikely urban character. My folktale would be set in a city and would have a sheep at its heart.
Before I was an illustrator, I was a human geographer. I love understanding the way people and animals and objects and rivers and doorways and history and politics all collide together to create the places we all call home. I love thinking about a city being as much a fox’s home as a humans.
As I made these images I realised I was very much ‘coming home’ in my work. I was making a story that truly, deeply had ‘me’ in it. I didn’t stop to worry that “a folktale’ should be in the country or a forest. I didn’t care whether it was appropriate for a folktale to have a hotdog van as a key feature in the story. I briefly stopped trying to do anything in particular and second guessing my instincts and out came some things I really love and that I think only I could have made. Yet, I could never have ‘pinned my sheep’ to a pinterest board and wouldn’t have really known how to include this in a list.
I think what I learned was that all those teaching me were so very right - it is sooooo important to work out how to put yourself into your work, how to make the work only you can make and all those similar sentiments. But at the same time, I think these things actually inherently always happen every single moment that I get taken away with an idea and make images or stories that are driven not by any shoulds, or any worries about whether or not I’m doing it ‘right’, but by my own instincts. When I trust my ideas and stop second guessing them, this happens. When I stop worrying about whether or not what I am doing is right or trendy enough or appropriate for children. When I just draw and make and paint based on what I have seen and see and what I have learnt and what I think about and what I worry about, images come out that are definitely my better work and definitely do all those things that I used to not know how to do.
There is a whole other layer to voice or style or a whole other depth to putting myself into my work that is more about ensuring life experience, and ways of seeing and thinking, points of view and feelings, are visible in the pieces I make. The things left out matter as much as those put in. So do the decisions about where to set an image, whether it is night or day, who is present, who is not, and the angle experienced by the viewer. The why’s behind the making are a vital part of how an image gets its style. I think it is only this that I am realising now, and this makes me feel such a greater trust in my work.
As I don’t have a home filled with a slowly gathered collection of treasured things filled with meaning, and I am writing this in a lounge room of our new Edinburgh apartment with curtains I find quite awful and walls of a colour I would never choose I am comforted by this and have realised that I just need to trust myself and run with it. Perhaps the sense of longing that not having these things brings me informs my images as much as the choices of the actual objects I put it them. It has taken me so long to realise that my work is filled with me, every single time I stop trying or worrying or overthinking. Whenever I trust in my instincts and can find an angle that naturally suits me, suddenly my work works. Whenever I doubt and think I’m doing it wrong, I start to flail.
I am sure it will always be a struggle - one of the delights of making is that struggle never goes away. But I definitely feel like I jus thad one of those moments where I suddenly actually felt what all my teachers had been telling me. Rather than just believing them, I suddenly actually believed I was one step closer to understanding how to make work I like, work that is just inherently me, a way to feel at home in it.
And finally, my shop is open! It is only open briefly… closing again Sunday 26th February. So if you would love any of my drawings on your wall do pop over and have a look. I only open it sometimes as it takes a lot of organisation… and time and organisation is not my greatest strength. But the joy I get from knowing and seeing my work, all made with such struggle and love, on your walls and making your homes, is one of the greatest. So please, all those who have been requesting the change to buy a print please enjoy! And please get in touch if you have any questions!
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