What does it mean to be ‘self-taught’? ‘Taught’ implies a teacher or master who passes on knowledge to a student. There are always aspects of reinforcing what is taught through some form of self-directed homework—be it practicing a piece of music unaided or conjugating verbs between classes—but this does not constitute teaching.
I have taught myself much about languages. This is easy to explain—others with teacherly skills have put together language courses in book form, and I have dutifully worked through these books with some amount of success. The ‘teach yourself’ style books (indeed, Teach Yourself is a series I am currently dabbling in) simply form a papery bridge between me and a distant teacher. The ‘self-taught’ aspect simply hinges on my own dedication to working through the exercises.
I begin to really teach myself, though, when I devise other ways of learning. I supplement these structured exercises with reading novels in German, and with writing little stories in German based on vocabulary lists, and with writing German emails to my German-speaking friends. In these instances, I am the teacher, because I devise the tasks and seek out the things I need to know, rather than accept them directly from someone else. The line blurs when others are involved, and others will always be involved—I may initiate a conversation with a German friend, but they will correct me as we talk, and they will assume the role of teacher, saving me a rummage through my dictionary. But the knowledge we gain from others is not always given to us; it must sometimes be uncovered through extra work on our part.
I am a self-taught illustrator. By this I firstly mean that I have not studied illustration at university or at an arts college, making it a handy and positive response to questions about where I gained my qualifications. But having established that I did not attend SVA or ECA, the phrase warrants a little more explanation.
Yes, I do simply draw and paint all the time. As often as I can, for as long as I can. My ragged sketchbook has been on many adventures, I’ve seen lots of naked people posing for three, five and ten minutes, and I’ve had to replenish my gouache set. In simply doing something repeatedly, there is plenty of opportunity for experiment, refinement of technique and improvement. But I started to ask myself, how will I learn something I don’t already know if I continue to do things the way I always have? Trying a new medium forced me to experiment with techniques, but I worried that I might grow comfortable in this new space and be unable to discover things I would otherwise excel at if I were taught.
Advice I frequently encounter is: ‘don’t look at other illustrators’ work.’ It’s usually nestled in a section on ‘how to get through dark periods.’* In this context, I am sure this is important advice, so long as the reason you are in a dark place is that you think everyone else is better than you. If the dark place was brought on by a lack of ideas, I’d argue the stimulation of the work of others might just be the inspiration needed. The advice generally boils down to: Learn to love your own work and not rank it against the work of others. I think this is a very shallow way to approach the work of others, which is so rich in information.
I say: look, and look critically. This isn’t the shallow kind of ‘hit or shit’ critique, or spot-the-mistake. Sure, if an illustration isn’t working, think about why, dissect it harshly if there is anything to be learned from this. I’m not going to point any fingers, but a brief visit to Illustration Friday will show you a truckload of illustrations that miss the point of the exercise, which is to depict a word (often a complex concept) each week. A cringe-worthy example is the week of the word ‘intention,’ for which I saw many entries that boiled down to: ‘I intended to submit something for this week’s Illustration Friday, but instead I drew a picture of my cat.’ I learned from this that I want my image to convey as much meaning as possible, without needing some convoluted back-story or funny caption to get it over the line. Similarly, I see a lot of complexity in imagery (which can be a very beautiful thing), where many elements are needed to explain the concept. I realised quickly that it’s effective to distil the image to one simple focal point. Learning from the mistakes of others, then, can be very useful, but is ultimately a precautionary kind of learning. It’s like a map that alerts you to potholes but omits the castles and beaches you’d like to visit. (Castles if you’re in Europe; beaches if you’re in Australia).
No, you can look critically in another, more edifying, sense, and here I return to a method of self-teaching I previously referred to as analysis and imitation. The work of Baltimore-based, Russian-born illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova is pure magic to me. There’s something soothing and gentle about it, yet it is bold and self-assured, and though it seems a simplification of life, it explodes with detail—of everyday objects, wildlife, plants, astronomy and fashion. Here is what I realised: it is possible to look at something, and look at it often, and not be able to articulate why you like it, or what makes it so fascinating, or how it was constructed. And so, I set out to determine these things by doing. I chose a favourite piece—Peaches—pencilled it out (this took some time) and began to paint it.
Some concrete, practical things I have learned about Yelena’s method are that she defines three distinct dimensions in her work, and each plane receives a flat but distinct colour treatment. White borders edge many objects, like rugs or pictures. Unifying tones are crucial—the same brown applies to all wooden furniture, the same pink features in textiles and wallpaper. A limited colour palette–here, pink, red, green and brown–is stylish and effective. It flattens the image, when the world is a very colourful place, but also stops the image overwhelming the eye with disconnected details. And it takes a very long time to draw each and every book, tile and floral pattern.
Part of me felt a little shady undertaking this exercise, and then I came across this advice from Austin Kleon: ‘Steal like an artist.’ Maria Popova cites him when discussing her idea of combinatorial creativity. In attempting to achieve what Yelena has already achieved, I am unpacking the knowledge and skills and thought processes she has put into creating the piece. In doing so, I gain some of these skills and can apply them in new ways to my own work. I gain a deeper appreciation of how Yelena works, and I learn a new way of approaching my work. I will not adopt her style as my own, but will cite her as an influence on my own artistic path. As Maria Popova argues, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of ideation.’
* Holly DeWolf, for example, makes this suggestion in Breaking into freelance illustration. (2009; How Books: Cincinnati).
** Cash, Lucie. 2012. Fairytale Food. Preface: London.