I recently read the following quote: “Insecurity breeds quality.” Is that true? And no, not the kind of insecurity where you worry that your nostrils are bigger than everybody else’s (for example). The quote in question comes from Don Robinson, the editor of a small WWII infantry division newspaper, for whom “insecurity” meant the constant fear of the paper being shut down, which in turn pushed his work to the highest standard of quality. It really got me thinking. What is it that motivates us as illustrators to create and achieve great things with our art? There are undoubtedly countless causes for motivation—probably as many as there are illustrators. But I am one illustrator, and I can think of a few.
One good motivator is having a goal, a brass ring to reach for. My wife would very much
like to win the lottery. Which would be really great for me. I could finally put that animatronic jungle cruise in the backyard, and she could finally build those schools in Africa or whatever. But if I really think about it, a winning lottery ticket for me would look a bit different. For me, it would be walking into my local independent bookstore, and seeing a book I made, wrapped in a shiny, beautifully designed dust jacket, spread across the lap of mom and child as they lose themselves in the magic of storytelling. Eventually they buy 24 copies and pass them out to friends, family, grocery clerks, mail carriers and random motorists waiting at red lights. What does your winning lottery ticket look like? What is your brass ring?
Competition motivates. I look at art by Marla Frazee and Adam Rex and I see a level of intention and excellence that is so inspiring. So inspiring that it makes me want to run straight to my studio, close the door, tear my current work into confetti-sized pieces, toss it into the air and let it rain over me in a shower of ordinary. But just before I go in for such dramatics, I remember that if I want to make great art, my competition is the place to look for inspiration. There are vast amounts of talent among the throbbing mob of hopeful illustrators just waiting to be tested, dying to be published. And we can learn so much from each other. Though, I find it very motivating to turn to the illustrators at the top of the heap as well. These are the artists who are making amazing books, and theirs is the level of excellence I strive for in my art.
Closely tied to that sense of competition is the desire to improve, which is also a strong motivator. How many times have you completed a work of illustration and compared it to that first vision you had in our mind? How many times has that initial vision eluded you? When you realize that the only way to improve is to keep working, you can turn that into a kind of purpose. A working mantra.
Another catalyst for improvement is critique. I have found that the most valuable critiques come from the professionals in the industry. SCBWI conferences are obviously a great place to sit down with an art director, agent, or professional illustrator and say “Please look at the very embodiment of my naked soul which I have delivered onto page from the absolute furthest reaches of my ability and do please indicate in the most precise language possible, just how I have fallen short.” I have also come by great critiques by following Penguin Random House Executive Art Director, Giuseppe Castellano on twitter (@pinocastellano). Giusseppe will periodically offer twitter crits in 140 characters or less. I was happy for the benefit of his expertise on one particular piece I was working on. He pointed out to me that it could certainly use a splash or two of color throughout. I took his advice and I think the illustration is better for it.
Finally, it seems to me that there is one motivator that ensures all others—the need to create. We would not even be discussing these subtler instruments of motivation were it not for the very need we feel deep in our bones to make art! This is the same need that, when neglected, can make us feel cranky and out of sorts, kind of like skipping breakfast—only imagine breakfast contains all the essential soul-sustaining minerals and life-affirming vitamins a healthy body requires.
Whatever it is that motivates you to create, be it a brass ring, or simply an innate need, keep letting it push you to achieve greatness with your art. It may even lead to a winning lottery ticket—whatever that might look like to you.
Josh is 50% eraser shavings, 50% animal cookies and 50% Café Americano. Josh is also horrible at math but he loves to draw. Josh has been drawing professionally since 2004 and has done so for the nice folks at Scholastic, Hooked on Phonics, and singer-song writer Kenny Loggins. When he isn’t drawing he can be found enjoying beautiful Northern California with his wife and dog, traveling to a rainy European city, reading a book or doing any number of activities that don’t require math. He may also be busy writing his own stories, querying agents, or working on a new board book for Beacon Publishing.