Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why I Don't Sign My Work, Why Illustrator's Aren't Famous, And What the SCBWI is Really For

Why Don't I Sign My Work? 

Some people have asked why I don't sign my work. It's not for lack of ego, and I do sign my gallery work, but I don't sign that work because I have more pride or regard for it. It's a question of venue. In work done for a gallery your work is recognized by your signature once it's purchased.

I don't sign my illustration work for two reasons. One: because as soon as I sign it I have to worry about how the signature works within the composition. Unavoidably it becomes a compositional element that can catch the eye, and if you don't put it in the right place it can be distracting. A lot of artists try to hide their signatures in the work, but leaving it out saves me the trouble, and since the illustration is for print, inevitably there will be some kind of artist's credit in the publication.

The credit is always there, but it's not always easy to find. Often in magazine or editorial work, if its not printed under the article, it's printed vertically close to the spine of the magazine. For the most part, only other illustrators and people who are, for whatever reason, really into illustration are looking for it, but it's usually there.

Illustrators Aren't Famous

Not really. Not like people seem to think. Often when I tell people I'm an illustrator, whether jokingly or otherwise, they'll say something like, "Once you're famous--" which suggests to me that maybe they don't quite know what illustration "fame" really amounts to.

Often people believe that anyone in any entertainment field receive a certain amount of notoriety, but in illustration, outside of certain media, this "fame" is mainly within the field and by students of the field, those few, as I mentioned, who are looking for those credits beside the spine. There are fields where illustrators and cartoonists are popular, like in comic books and children's books, but often only among die hard fans of comics, and parents who are seeking out books for their kids. The kids, for the most part, only tend to care about the names of picture book illustrators if it's a series they like, and when it comes down to it, most people can only name a handful of the most popular illustrators.

For those of you outside the field, how many illustrator's of children's books and young adult books can you name? There's Dr. Seuss of course, maybe Maurice Sendak, but how about the author/illustrator of Diary of a Wimpy Kid? it's one of the most popular illustrated books around, but who does it? How about Where's Waldo? Who did the original illustrations for Alice's Adventures in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz? Even books we're very well acquainted with are illustrated by people most people never heard of.

In prose fiction the authors have more of a public identity, but the people that make the pictures for other media often work in complete anonymity, especially when it comes to video games, advertising, and preproduction art for films. All those artists who design the imagery you see in games like Halo,  or Grand Theft Auto, or the Mario Brother's Franchise. Or how about your favorite fantasy and science fiction films? Or even period pieces where you see a lot of grand architecture? These are all done by digital matte painters, 3D artists and animators, not to mention all the hundreds of artists involved in animated films. This is what most illustrator's do. Some people may have a relative who's involved in these kinds of projects, but they work primarily in anonymity.

Not that I have a big problem with this. I don't have a need to be famous. But often people make this assumption, and sometimes it can be a little trying, because they may think I'm in active pursuit of fame, which they associate with ego, and people have a variety of judgements about what this means. Or they'll mention how I'm sure to accumulate a great deal of wealth.  Or maybe its completely innocent, and it's their way of supporting me, which I appreciate. But it's impractical to explain all this. Recently I've been defaulting, regardless of the perception, to simply saying something like, "I'll be looking forward to that."

The truth is, at best, the most successful illustrators can expect an income similar to the average income of any professional in a field that requires a great deal of skill. Many more struggle to make a living, and freelance illustrators, like freelancers in any field, have to survive in an environment of feast or famine.

Even small success is so difficult, that not only do you have to be skilled, but you have to be ridiculously stubborn, a little obsessed,  and maybe a little delusional. This isn't necessarily the healthiest behavior, and I don't recommend it. It will cause you a lot of grief. It will make you a little crazy.

The SCBWI and False Expectations

So to someone who works and works hard in the illustration field, or as children's and young adult authors, the suggestion that fame and fortune is just over the horizon can be frustrating. This assumption also instills false expectations in people who aspire to enter the field, and many of them attempt to get into the field for the wrong reasons. As much as I have benefitted from, and have regard for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (or SCBWI), one of the focuses is on getting published by a mainstream publisher. Workshop after workshop focuses on strategies directed towards this aim, and if this is your aspiration, these workshops can be invaluable.

The original intention of the society was as a place for children's authors, and eventually illustrators (originally is was just the SCBW) to have a chance to meet for the first time and discuss what they did. Pre-internet, this was the first chance that many of them had to do so. As more and more aspiring writers and illustrator's joined the field, the focus turned to how to help them get into print, which, I think, is a reasonable goal. Unfortunately this pursuit has in more recent years taken over, because aspiring writers and illustrators tend to dominate these conventions. High fees are necessary to pay to fly in high profile guests, successful authors, illustrators, agents and publishers to speak at these conventions. I think that the information these speakers have to offer make the conventions well worth the fee, but I still think there's this problem of false expectations. The intent of the conventions is to provide a resource, but only a small number can truly benefit from that resource when the focus is on the marketplace, since only a few will ever succeed. I met my agent at one of these conventions, and wouldn't be in the position that I'm currently without them. I've really enjoyed meeting so many professionals in the field who are not only knowledgable about the reality of the marketplace, but knowledgable about what makes a good book. These professionals know their stuff. They're responsible for many of the books I love.

But among the attendees, all of that hope, all of that desire to be published by a big publisher makes the environment, for me, a little tense, when you know that most people won't have the privilege.

How to Use The SCBWI to Your Best Advantage

Most people who write and make art want their work to be seen. Why wouldn't they do everything they can to achieve this? But still, you have to consider that the achievement of this goal, at least in the commercial market, for most people inevitably results in failure, and the pursuit of that goal can result in great expense. Am I suggesting that, if this is what you aspire to do, you should give up? Not at all. But I do suggest that you focus, first and foremost, on being the best artist and writer you can be.  Many of the workshops at these conventions do focus on this process, but the environment, fostered by both the conventions and attendees, tends to be on publishing.

So rather than focusing on selling and pitching your book, I would suggest focusing first on trying to be good. Spend as much time being the best writer or artist you can be. Writing groups, classes, are probably going to do you a lot more good than these conventions. Not that you shouldn't attend these conventions, but don't focus on them as the main source of your success. Think of success on its own terms, on simply writing a good story, making a good picture, and for the sake of book making, making good illustrations, which is a process that's distinct from simply making a good picture, because its in the service of storytelling. It's a specific skill, as different from traditional painting as poetry is from prose.

Know that your chances for traditional publication is going to be an uphill battle. Know that even if you've written a very good book, or become a skilled illustrator, there's no guarantee of publication. Commercial publishing, because it's a marketplace, is not a meritocracy. Publishing a book involves a lot of expense, and is always a risk for the publisher, and they're going to lean towards what they believe are projects that provide what, in their experience, is the least amount of risk, especially in a field that is, at the moment, like everything else in this economy, struggling.

So it's good to hone in on what your real goal is. Is it being published, or is it being good? Again, writers and illustrators want their work to be seen, and many of us want it to be seen by the greatest number of people we can. There's nothing wrong with this goal, and no matter how much you focus simply on being good, it's still hard not to have this aim be in the back of your mind. But the greater part of you has to put this away and focus on simply doing the best work you can, no matter what the result. Because you can't do this well unless you love it, and love it enough to work harder than you've ever worked before, and to make the sacrifices necessary to do it, even if you never achieve commercial success. Facing this reality is very hard. Through the internet, through friends, you can still share your work, even if it's not in a commercial venue, it is possible to still garner an audience, but if you intend to do good work, the work always has to come first. 


  1. This was a very interesting thing to read, and almost wholly disheartening. Is there any joy in this kind of work? Is it possible to be justly compensated for it? Your writing here leads me to believe that, inevitably, the answer is going to be no.

  2. Absolutely! Which is why you should do it first for the love of the craft. And yes, of course it's possible to make a living as a children's author, but it's a lot like trying to get on a professional sports team. Fortunately, however, you don't have to do it in your 20s. In fact, we tend to get better with age if we work at it. But doing it all only for the purpose of getting the brass ring is setting yourself up for disappointment. Just. Be. Good. The rest will come. Or it won't. But don't make it the point.

  3. Nobody wants to be discouraging, so this is the kind of thing professionals and teachers simply don't discuss, or if they do, they downplay it. I don't mean to be disheartening, but it's a reality you have to face if you're going to enter this field.