Why I don’t draw other people’s ideas.
It's not you, it's me.
This is a Reflection letter of The (Im)posture — the newsletter from Julien Posture. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
You’re at your desk and you hear the “ting!” notifying you from an incoming email. It’s the designer of a publishing house and they’d “love to work with you”
or with a cheaper option they emailed at the same time on a book cover. Great ! After a few back and forth, negotiating schedule and budget, you got yourself a deal. Then the designer sends you the complete brief along with some “ideas”, things they think could work well conceptually, even “a little sketch” they did on lunch time to visualize their idea. They assure you though they’d “love to see what you come up with”. You spend a few days working on sketches and out of politeness you include one of their ideas in the batch. Quickly after, they come back and let you know everyone “loved your ideas” but they’re “ gonna go with [insert their idea]”. You are now contractually bound to draw someone else’s idea.
This situation has been a familiar one for me over the years, and it took a while to realize why I felt uncomfortable about it. I found that it’s never about the ideas, then what is it about ?
Undermining illustrators’ expertise
While it might seem like a nice gesture, “half the work done for me”, asking me to draw other people’s ideas makes me feel like we’re not on the same page regarding the nature of my work, and the value of my contribution. In the worst cases, I’m being clearly stripped of my expertise and being asked to merely make nice drawings. And boy do we know the idea of an illustrator being an expert already barely hangs on by a thread in our industry. Tight deadlines and tighter budgets already took a blow at how much space does an illustrator have to experiment, have a voice, take risks and ultimately create powerful and original work.
This results in half baked ideas produced in silo by people thinking they can whip up “illustration ideas” in the vacuum of a meeting room. Illustrators are then left with the awkward task to explain that these ideas don’t work and would make for at best, terribly boring images, at worst actually offensive representations (true story). Additionally, every time I did agree to draw someone else’s ideas, I never felt comfortable adding the piece to my portfolio. If this happened regularly, my ability to represent myself as an artist through my work would be greatly affected. My website would be empty or full of work I’m not fully connected to and ultimately nobody would be able to recognize my voice, my expertise.
Collaboration in a land of power
As an illustrator, having to draw other people’s ideas is a reminder of the covert power dynamic present in the creative industry. While the term “creative” encompass all sorts of actors, it also makes possible the erasure of power asymmetries inherent to the industry. A designer at an advertising agency can be (and often is) a “fellow creative”, yet we are different in many significant ways. I’m a precarious freelance worker, which means I have to deal myself with the creative, economic and legal aspects of my work, which in turn become entangled with my sense of self worth and my public presence as an artist (healthy mix). The people hiring us, no matter how creative and well-intentioned, do not share this reality. In this context, asking an illustrator to draw someone else’s ideas is never a neutral input within a creative collaboration, it’s a power move. American illustrator Norman Rockwell writes about this in his autobiography, The Adventure of An Illustrator :
“Gradually, however, they [art director] began to overdirect. They usurped the role of the artist. Nowadays many illustrators use the art director’s ideas rather than their own. And illustrators who are given ideas won’t do as good work ; they won’t feel the pictures they are painting [...]”
Rockwell’s book is a fascinating read because it’s one of the only autobiography written by an illustrator from a position of authority. From up there, he offers an uncompromising account of his relationship with the industry, not hesitating to criticize overtly the work of some art directors, etc. As someone who became an illustrator reading stuff like “5 tips to woo art directors” or “10 Mistakes illustrators should avoid if they want to be graced with work”, reading this was a shock. His words, though from a bygone era, open a window into a world where illustrators are indeed experts, equals to other “creatives” and get to define how we work in our own terms. As an industry, we need to acknowledge how power dynamics shape creative work in everyday interactions.
The illustration process is greater than the sum of its parts
Power is one important things, but maybe more important I think is our common understanding of illustration as creatives. How do different actors in the creative industry understand what we do, what illustration is or can be ? Sometimes I feel the definition of illustration is a contested territory. Here, Rockwell’s quote points to what we could call the “integrity” of illustrative work. His sense of “feeling the picture” means that illustration is not a “pick and choose” your flavour kind of thing. Illustration is a whole and needs to be respected as such. The ideas of an illustrator are intrinsically intertwined with the visual forms they take, their “style”. [Illustration = ideas + drawing] is an outsider’s understanding of it. To be poetic about it, you can’t put salt in water and call it the ocean. You can’t throw in random ideas into a random visual form and call it illustration.
When I work on an illustration, I write ideas, I sketch, I write again, I experiment, I rephrase things, I look at things, I use shapes as much as words to the point where there’s no difference between both. Illustrating is rarely a predictable linear process.
Whether it’s about our expertise, about the power dynamics, or about the very nature of illustration, I think it’s worth talking about why we are being asked to draw other people’s ideas and why it rarely feels great. Sometimes I get lucky and people reach out at the very beginning of a project, they want to collaborate, really collaborate. They understand that the way I think can solve problems in a particular way, they know that there is something inexpressible in the creative process of illustration that needs to happen within illustration. Some other times, we are not so lucky, and as Michaela Coel brilliantly put it, as an artist at the end of a long food chain, the only power you have is saying no.
So I say no, I don’t draw other people’s ideas. Not because I think other people’s ideas are crap, but because I don’t draw ideas, my drawings are ideas.
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I think clients are actually quite open to you pushing back when they give you sketches. I have done this a few times and been successful. Also if they agree to letting you do their thing, I think it helps to see what they think is the most important idea. I try to find the positive but it can be a sign of a client to avoid. One of my first jobs was a nightmare because of this.
Yes. It’s refreshing to read these insights which are very familiar but so concisely made.