Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Perfectionism and Storytelling

I have been hard at work on a large personal project of mine lately. Yes, one that has been in the making for years *cough.* Today as I was painting I had a breakthrough of sorts. This post is to make a serchable note of it to myself and in the off chance that it helps others who work like I do (or that some will find it interesting).

So, I've been doing much thinking on the idea that illustration is about communicating an idea, not about getting the execution "perfect." In fact, the more time I spend trying to make the image/text perfect the more likely I am to get sidetracked and stymied in the energy flow of the project as a whole. There is a big difference between major edits for communication and endless fiddling around.

Also, I've been working against myself by thinking "oh, well I have to finish and perfectly polish this one part before I proceed." When I do that I ignore that I tell a story -in my mind- in as sequence of visual images and text. Without the space and energy to springboard one to the other I run into a roadblock and out of steam on either and let that temporarily table the project. It also tends to yield many polished segments that are suppose to be parts of a cohesive whole, yet, because they were labored over in isolation and to the inth degree, don't fit well with the greater story. And the kicker is that by the time I get back to the other side of the storytelling, writing or art or vice versa, I often have changed things up so much that I render this former "polished gem of an image" (or segment of text) irrelevant or in need of sweeping changes anyway.

A good example of this is the way I "tell" stories to myself as I am working on a painting about what is going on there. And I often find that I will re-order or sometimes completely "re-write" parts of the tale based on my time with the image. Painting is a meditation to me, but not so much in the general sense, as in the interest of space to muse on the project and story at hand in a visual way. It also feels more open and less heavy-handed somehow than when I am sitting down to write, likely because these thoughts while painting tend to bounce around far longer in my head before working their way into the story. When I do this method properly, it feels like my text is as equally in service to my art as the other way around. It's a nice balance.

I should too remind myself that the essence and story of a piece of artwork is NOT derived from how pretty each of the brush strokes is or how smooth and perfect every surface is rendered or even about exact anatomy of the characters. It's about the read and gist of the piece. The more useful question is "is this conveying what it needs to?" because at a fundamental level, at a beginning-to-end level that is what matters in telling the story. I would say, when a piece is "working" that the first 80% of it, the gist of it, comes far sooner and with far more energy and ease than the last 20% which tends to be the laborious polishing of every pixel.

And, lastly, I want to make a note for myself that it is only right to give my intended audience (primarily 8-12 children) credit for possessing their own brilliant imaginations. I don't need to be perfect or fill in all the gaps (literal or metaphorical) their minds will. Just as I did (and do) when I am in contact with a text and visual work that is really speaking to me. The most concrete example I can think of here is the way I "read" Polar Express when I was a 3rd grader vs. the ways I can read it now. Because when I was younger I didn't have that level of criticality about art or text that I do now and responded purely on a level of imagination. I could feel the magic of the tale through the page. Not to say that I don't regard it as a brilliant book today, but that I can't look at it through the eyes of a child quite the same way grown-up brain is always wanting to dissect things down to the line or shading or word. So I should really be asking myself "what would my 9-year-old self get from this image (or text)?"


Petra said...

Aw on that last paragraph:
I'm busy with a picture book at the moment and after sending sketching (this is a private client, not a publisher) she changed the text a bit so that it fits the picture.
While, you shouldn't always be exactly the same :|.

Unknown said...

Petra, I've had authors do that too =) (I think the real danger comes in when one is both the author AND illustrator of a project ...with the power to make changes to both indefinitely =P)