Getting feedback on illustration work
September 11, 2017 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm an aspiring self-taught children's illustrator working in something of a vacuum. I'm wondering how I could get feedback on whether my work is any good/whether it's worth continuing, etc.

Some things I've already thought of:

Posting work to DeviantArt/ConceptArt forums (decided against as the former seems very manga-focused and the latter very fine-arts focused, though I could be persuaded otherwise).

Hiring a local art teacher for private lessons and feedback

Joining the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (I plan to do that in a month or two when I have more time)

Posting stuff to social media (though this seems like at best it would garner a collection of likes rather than honest feedback?)

Paying several hundred dollars to join an online critique course such as this one.

The problem is that my art is very cartoony and somewhat naive, and this doesn't seem to fit into any pre-existing sorts of feedback forums. Is there something out there I'm not thinking of?

I'm not linking my art to this question or my profile because I'd like to keep it separate from my online presence here, but if any Mefites feel qualified to judge I would be willing to share via email/Memail.

Finally, my ultimate goal is to decide whether to continue to pour hours of blood, sweat and tears into this work if I simply lack the raw talent to make it work. I've been working on a project in the last month or so that has me in tears quite frequently. I'm feeling that objectively I'm not very good, and am very discouraged. So if anyone has advice on this aspect of the work I'd love to hear that too.

Thank you.
posted by whistle pig to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You mention the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I am an aspiring children's book writer, and I went to the recent SCBWI conference in LA. I found it immensely helpful and I strongly encourage you to join the organization asap, read "The Book" (the organization's everything-you-need-to-know PDF about the current state of the industry), and attend the next conference, which I think is in NYC in a few months. I've found the members and speakers to be more helpful than I ever thought they would be. Through them, you can join a local SCBWI chapter and participate in feedback groups, which might be helpful to you.

Attending the conference was especially eye-opening for me.

More generally, I'd encourage you to be patient! I went to the conference all jazzed and ready to pitch my book -- but that's not what happens at these conferences. You go to soak up information and expertise, and to learn about the current state of the industry. After the conference, I reconfigured my entire approach to the book I'm writing, and am very glad for the perspective I now have.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:05 AM on September 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Illustrate a children's story and print the book on decent card-stock and take it to your local library to ask if you can read it to the kids during part of their children's program. You don't want to bind it, as it is easier and cheaper to read by holding up one card at a time.

Be aware that children's books is one of the most competitive fields around. Many people write very short stories, or make whimsical illustrations, so there are a lot of people who think that starting a writing or book career in children's books is a good start - however children's illustrated full colour picture books are the most expensive type of book to produce. They require good paper, good colour print, and have a high cost to produce/per book ratio that means that the publisher would have to print many more to cover the cost of a full colour illustrated short book rather than a long, softcover, text only book with no illustrations.

Deviant Art is a good idea. So is your local writer's group, the one that probably meets at the library for free or around $2 per person, per session, as they are likely to be interested, if focused on text, rather than pictures. On the other hand writers' groups can range from the highly toxic to the incredibly seminal.

Cartoony and naive is not a bad thing - Cartoony can be economies of line and naive may mean spare and evocative. Consider Mary Engelbreit who has work that could also be described that way, but has managed a lucrative career with magazines, calendars, note cards etc.

Also consider trying to illustrate a graphic novel instead of a children's book for you next project, as that is an audience that is much easier and much less expensive to reach, with much less competition. This is not that you should switch to being a graphic novel illustrator, but that it is a good place to practice where feedback is easy to get, and an audience is easy to get, and a fine place to work on those 10,000 bad drawings. Nothing says you can't do childrens' books after or as well. Furries are cartoony and naive - and although the field is often an adult or R rated one, there is nothing to stop you drawing child furries have perfectly adorable G rated adventures that could later be parlayed into children's books. Of course your stye may not lend itself to graphic novels, or furry art work, but if it does that is possible.

Notecards or postcards are also a poor bet in terms of making sales or being visible, since the market has completely dropped out of correspondence stationery. - people do not write letters on note card anymore unless they are very traditional. A lot of people have a draw half full of stationery and have stopped buying it in 1990, or whenever they got e-mail. That said you might try finding a group that sends each other postcards and showing or marketing your work to them.

The one thing you need to do is keep working. It's the old 10,000 bad drawings rule. Yo have 10,000 bad drawings in you, so get them out of the way as soon as you can. Draw more bad drawings. That will make you less upset when you draw imperfect ones. Every time you do a drawing that is not good enough, challenge yourself to do another five bad drawings, where you don't try to meet that standard. When developing your art more is better than more perfect. Your bad drawings will soon surpass your good ones, but without the tears.

There are many more people wanting people to look at and admire their work than their are people who don't write/draw/create, so in order to find creative types who will give feedback you will need to give good critical feedback yourself. Even posting creative work on line has the understanding that if you get feedback you are getting a bigger gift than you are giving by sharing your work. If someone who writes a short note saying, "i luved yourwork could you make a story about a dinosor that goes for an airlpane ride next?" is considered to have done you a bigger favour and deserve a thank you note for the feedback, despite the fact that they might just be a bot checking if you have a valid e-mail.

Could you post it under a new -email/ alias as a Metafilter Project?
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:12 AM on September 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Raw talent is helpful, but becoming a successful artist is about hard work and luck. If you have a good eye and a passion for what you're doing, then keep going. It's natural to be self-critical and compare yourself to artists who inspire you, but the myth of artistic genius is worth jettisoning if you don't want to burn out.

It sounds like you would like to feel more confident about your technical skills, even though you have an unconventional style. The city near me has sketching meetups on for local artists and graphic novelists that welcome all skill levels, as well as affordable drawing and painting classes at the local art council - perhaps you could find similar opportunities.

Finally, give yourself permission to experiment and not worry so much about creating a marketable final product. It's good to finish projects, but failures are as valuable as successes.
posted by toastedcheese at 10:23 AM on September 11, 2017

I'm a children's book writer, not an illustrator, but my experience may be helpful.

I made my first attempt at writing a picture book text in late 2008. Nobody wanted to publish it. I joined the SCBWI and started going to local talks, which taught me a huge amount about both the business and the craft of children's books. Through the SCBWI, I joined a picturebook critique group. It wasn't quite the right fit for me, but I clicked with one of the other members, and she ended up inviting me to join a different critique group, which was a perfect fit for me.

I kept getting better and better. I still kept getting rejections. Eventually, in 2015 -- six and a half years after I started -- I sold my first picture book. (How I did it is a complicated story, but it started with a connection I made at the SCBWI LA conference.)

I'm telling you this because you ask three questions: whether your work is any good; whether you lack the raw talent to make it; and whether it's worth continuing. It's easy to think those are all the same questions, but they are actually very different ones.

If I had asked myself those questions when I started, the answers would have been:

No, I wasn't very good. If you're just starting, you probably aren't very good either. And when your absolute favorite illustrator started off, they probably weren't very good, either. Nobody is very good at anything when they first start doing it!

No, I didn't lack raw talent. In fact, I'm not sure talent event exists. A better question to ask is, was I willing to work hard to get better? For me, the answer was "yes," and it sounds like it is for you, too.

Yes, it was worth the blood, sweat, and tears, because this is something that is deeply meaningful to me, and even if I had never sold a book, I would have felt I was letting myself down by not trying. Is it worth it for you? I don't know! That's a question only you can answer for yourself. It's a really hard business, and most people who try to break in don't succeed. If you try for years and it never happens, will you regret that more or less than if you had never tried at all?

In practical terms, no matter how much hard work you put in on your own, it is very hard to improve without getting feedback from somebody who knows the field. To that end, I would strongly encourage you to join the SCBWI, find a critique group that suits you (which may take a few tries), and start going to local SCBWI events. Like Dr. Wu, I think the SCBWI conference is an amazing experience, but depending on where you live, it can be expensive to go there. If it will be a financial hardship, I would probably put off going for a year (or two or three or six) while you work with your local SCBWI chapter to improve your craft, and save the conference for when you feel like you've plateaued and you need a boost to get to the next level.

I would also personally not spend hundreds of dollars for that online critique course. I don't know anything about it and for all I know it's great -- but just based on my general positive impression of the SCBWI, and my general skepticism about most online courses, I would probably start with the SCBWI and see how that goes.

The other options you mention (DeviantArt, social media, art lessons from somebody who doesn't specialize in children's books) are all great if you find them fun and/or meaningful and/or encouraging, and they may well help you with general artistic skills. However, children's illustration is a specialized skill, and I think you'll get the most helpful feedback from people with an understanding of the field. If you have limited time, I would probably focus on SCBWI events and critique groups. From there, you'll probably get a sense of what you need to work on, and whether those other options would be helpful.
posted by yankeefog at 1:33 PM on September 11, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a children's book illustrator. My work definitely used to suck.

Nthing SCBWI; they are a great educational resource. I agree about finding your local chapter. Someone once said to me that the national events are great for inspiration but the local events are better for learning.

Also nthing finding a critique group composed of children's book illustrators, or at least picture book people in general.

Posting work to DeviantArt/ConceptArt forums

This crowd doesn't know much about children's books.

Hiring a local art teacher for private lessons and feedback

Illustration ≠ art. They are separate disciplines that share some skills. Studying art can be good for developing your chops (figure drawing classes are great!), but it won't teach you much about illustration, let alone children's book illustration. Children's books are a very specific art form and subdiscipline of illustration.

I think a group class would be better anyway. You learn so much from other students.

my art is very cartoony and somewhat naive, and this doesn't seem to fit into any pre-existing sorts of feedback forums

Children's book illustrators work in a huge range of styles. (Consider Lauren Castillo vs. Chris Raschka vs. Arnold Lobel vs. Tana Hoban vs. David Ezra Stein vs. Patricia Polacco, etc etc.) What they share is how the pictures interact with the text and the (usually) 32-page book format. In other words, you want to seek out people who know about picture book illustration, or at least illustration in general—and, if they are illustrators, their style may or may not resemble yours.

Illustrate a children's story and print the book on decent card-stock and take it to your local library to ask if you can read it to the kids during part of their children's program. You don't want to bind it, as it is easier and cheaper to read by holding up one card at a time.

This will not result in useful feedback. Kids are your audience, not your teachers. I happen to really like cheese, but I am in no position to show anyone how to make it.


Here's one thing you can do right away, and it's free:

Go to your local library and take a great big pile of picture books off the shelf. Read them all. Read them slowly and try to notice how they work, especially the illustrations. Try to read some of them aloud to someone (doesn't have to be a kid; could be an adult or your cat). Read read read.

Anyone who wants to make picture books needs to read picture books. This may seem obvious, but there are so many aspiring picture book creators who don't! If you need ideas, you can always look at the Caldecott awards list.

Feel free to Memail me.
posted by the_blizz at 2:54 PM on September 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thank you all for your suggestions. I've been working at this for years, hence my growing discouragement. I will definitely be joining SCBWI.
posted by whistle pig at 3:07 PM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think social media could be quite useful in getting your work exposed to people in the area who are familiar with that stuff - for e.g. on Instagram I follow a number of artists who do a very specific style and it's obvious that they are part of a community. If you use the right hashtags it could be an easy way of getting your work noticed by people in the know.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:09 AM on September 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've been working at this for years, hence my growing discouragement.

Then I'll add one thing: given that (as you say) you've been working in a vacuum, don't beat yourself up over the fact that you're not as advanced as you'd like.

A lot of people have heard of the 10,000 hour rule, which supposedly states you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. But Anders Ericsson (the researcher who is credited with the idea) says the reality is more complicated, and that in order to improve, people usually need coaching from somebody who can help you pinpoint your weaknesses and figure out how to improve on them.

Of course, there are no guarantees, but if you can find a good critique group (through SCBWI or elsewhere), you may find yourself making more progress in the next few years than you have in previous years.

PS: I think Anders Ericsson's book "Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise" is really helpful and inspirational for anybody who is trying to improve a skill. It's also very encouraging in that, having spent years studying successful people, he has come to believe that inherent talent is much less important than most people think. It doesn't say anything specific about illustration but if you're interested in the general theory of how people improve, it's definitely worth reading.
posted by yankeefog at 8:26 AM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

« Older A Basic Client Database and Conditionally Sending...   |   Will they or won't they? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.