Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Illustration Master Class

It doesn't matter where you are in your career, practice level, or mindset, there is truly something for every artist to take away from the IMC. This was only my second year in attendance at the Master Class, and even though it went very differently for me than last time, it was just as magical and brilliant. The faculty outdid themselves with more incredibly informative lectures, demos, and priceless one-on-one assistance with students' paintings. And being surrounded by so many creative and beautiful people for a week left me feeling super-inspired, yet again.

Now that I'm almost back into the real-life routines of doing my own laundry and cooking my own meals, I've jotted down my top 5 lessons from this year's Class:

1. No matter how good you get, you will always face challenges. After my last post talking about the creation process of my Tarzan painting, I got a fair number of responses from people who were glad to hear that I had to overcome doubt and other obstacles to make it happen, because my struggles validated theirs. It's tough to imagine people you look up to struggling, but would you believe that Greg Manchess doesn't just make a great painting every single time, either? The IMC faculty members were each generous in sharing their personal stories of triumphing over stuck points in their work. I think it's good to have heroes, but also to remember that no one is immune to the same challenges you're facing.

2. Story comes first. This is a point I've ignored too often in the past, and I know many others are guilty as well. The temptation to just paint pretty shiny things has sometimes taken priority over storytelling, and I haven't spent adequate time thinking about what my characters are doing, what they want, what they need, who they are, etc. If you want to do more than simple character portraits forever, you're going to need to tackle this one, and tackle it hard. If you're illustrating for a book, read the whole story if it's available. Act out what your characters are doing. Get involved in the story. I really pushed this with the Tarzan assignment, and as a bonus, I finally understand that if your concept is great, people will forgive an errant brush stroke or technical misstep here and there.

3. You don't need to tell the whole story on the cover. One of my favorite quotes from this year came from art director Irene Gallo (Tor Books). She posed the question to students, "If the whole story is on the cover, why would anyone want to read the book?" What this means is that when we're illustrating covers, we need to choose one good moment to paint, not try to cram too many characters or actions into one picture. I think a good editorial test might be to explain to an imaginary person what's going on in your scene; if you're compelled to say and-then-this-happened too often, you might want to take something out.

4. Don't rush. I made little easel cards bearing this slogan, as a reminder to myself and others to take care and have patience with the paint. "But Cynthia, what about deadlines?!" Yes, if you're a freelance artist, there will be times when you have to pull all-nighters or work more expeditiously than others. But the rest of the time, step back and assess your work for a few minutes. Savor it. Take care with it. Speed is a nice skill to have, but craftsmanship is almost always more important than production time.

5. Make art for you. Wait, wasn't this lesson #5 from last year? Yes! But it's a great lesson and bears repeating. It's taken a whole year to start sinking in for me. While it would be nice to be able to paint whatever we want all the time, most of us working illustrators will need to split our time between commercial jobs and personal pieces. "Commissions will pay the bills. Personal projects will give you a career." While that may be true, the more you can make ALL of your work personal, even the commercial stuff, the better off you'll be in terms of feeding your soul and having a great portfolio. If you don't love your work, it shows. It's so important to connect to everything you paint, whether that means inserting a specific theme you enjoy into every piece, or using someone you like as a model, or using your favorite medium. Figure out what works for you, and do that.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to everyone involved in making the event happen! Happy painting, everyone.

Read last year's list: Lessons from the 2011 Illustration Master Class


  1. Worthwhile overview of some very valid reminders from IMC. I appreciate the time you have taken to share these, as well as your process with the public. When I read lesson #1, I remember when both Greg, Dan, and Donato bravely showed us their first attempts at drawing and painting. (I think Greg's was an oil he had done of Ohio). There was nothing in their portfolio that indicated any great talent. They were all typically adequate for their age level. It's been their passion and tremendous work ethic that have determined their respected and well-deserved status among the best fantasy artists out there. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from attending IMC. It gives me fuel when I get discouraged. Thanks again for the great report.

  2. Well put Cyhtina. Thank you for taking the time to put this post together. An excellent reminder.

  3. Cynthia, thank you for all of the wonderful posts on this blog. I first discovered your work through IFX, and have been watching closely ever since. The IMC sounds amazing, and I am planning to attend next year. Do you have any advice for someone who has never attended before? Anything I should prepare for or be certain to bring along?