Questions from a Student

From time to time I get questions from art and design students for their assignments. Benya Wutthipongchaikij—a Communication Design student at KMUTT in Bangkok, Thailand asks:

When did you make up your mind to work as an illustrator?

I always liked making artwork.

Most of my life I didn’t know what illustration was as a career. What made artwork interesting or boring? I couldn't have explained it. Even though I'd feel it. I loved books, comics, movies, cartoons. "Maybe I could have some part in helping make those." I thought. We went to a Disney animation studio, I'd read James Cameron screenplays.

So I my plan was to do classical animation followed by computer animation at Sheridan College. They've had many Oscar winning artists graduates. While I was in the foundation year at Sheridan, I saw the work the students in Illustration were doing. I began to prefer it over animation so took illustration instead. The thing that made it more appealing was that people were free to develop their own personal vision.

What happened then?

I worked hard for 4 years at Sheridan and another year doing a Master's Degree later. Understanding the craft within it’s larger business context took awhile after graduating. It's a way of helping people bring their stories to life. Even though that seems kind of mystical somehow, it’s actually empowering for people. People who make good quality things are rarely able to tell their story well in pictures.

There’s a misconception that great products and companies don’t have to sell. The idea is that great stuff sells on it's own. Sure it helps, but it's not entirely true. People can think "if you have to try to sell something, you’re dishonest." But that's not true. How will anyone really know about what you do if they don't hear about it from somewhere? It’s the responsibility of a good company to make sure everything they do is great.

Part of that means telling the truth. Artwork can be a tool to help. I see a lot of artists are confused about this kind of thing and so end up focusing on personal work. (Video game concepts or whatever they understand.) But corporations are just legal structures made of people. The best ones want to have honest connections with others.

Please summarize your design concept. What has contributed to your current style?

In school, I was encouraged to experiment and explore. We had great teachers who pushed us too. We learned what the difference is between an interesting, strong concept and the mundane. Striving for quality, detail, simplicity and beauty are my main ingredients. I believe they get attention and boost effectiveness.

Where do you usually find the inspirations for your works? In other words, what do you usually do in the stage of design?

Usually within the content itself, the client’s story, their audience’s aspirations or my own imagination. Of course I keep an eye on trends, but their influence is small. Sketching by hand on paper I find to be the best way to unearth ideas. It’s like there is a cool dinosaur skeleton buried and I just have to mine it out.

Describe the relationship between artistic value and commercial value of illustration?

That's a great question. It probably depends on context. Let’s say someone only wants to draw a specific kind of dog, but in a horrifying way. It’s difficult to find a market for that. (Horror movies? Heavy metal bands?) Let’s say someone else draws happy dogs beautifully. They could approach the dog food brands and their ad agencies and find work. They might have a solid commercial career doing only that. They’d probably be considered as a technician more than an artist, but that’s ok.

Some artists have interesting stories and characters inside them—they are real authors. It would be a tragedy if that kind of artist became a technician. Imagine if JK Rowling only wrote dog food packaging copy. Or if Quentin Blake only drew airbrushed fruit for juice ads. The world would be a poorer place. Rowling faced tons of rejection for Potter but persisted and did get a publisher. She has a deep understanding of myth too—so she had a solid foundation. It wasn’t just a narcissistic self assessment of her talents.

The commercial value of artwork is not always self evident. Designers often need to see something directly relevant to their needs. Some have a harder time imagining what could be. They look at portfolios like they’re a kind of style catalogue. Designers also for their own work often “mock it up” or show the work in as real a context as they can. A physical brochure is more impressive and “real” than a screen grab from a pdf.

There’s a book by Margaret Atwood on this topic called “Negotiating with the Dead.” it’s a series of lectures she gave on this topic at Cambridge. Though it’s literature, the principles are the same. Chekov, a brilliant playwright was motivated to work primarily to feed his family. Yet that humble motivation does not make his art less important. Atwood does a great job of killing a lot of the self imposed worry and stigma artists can place on themselves.

Have you found any conflict between drawing for your own fun and doing a commissioning work? How do you think the commercial operation has promoted this artistic creation?

They both have different purposes. I’m free do do my own thing whenever I want. But I prefer helping people solve a real problem. Sometimes I’ve used my private work as a kind of therapy. I made images for myself. I knew they were meaningful, even though it took a long time to understand what they meant. They helped me process a kind of chaos I’d encountered in my life.

The commercial challenges keep me sharp. At one point I bid on about 6 projects in a row and lost every one. I had to carefully reassess what perceptions I was creating for clients to not value my work. I adjusted some things. Exploring marketing in even greater depth. If everything feels easy always, you don’t grow.

Yet I also came to realize that I was expecting too high a closing ratio for myself. Even the firms I look up to might only "win" or take on one of ten incoming projects. So if I'd gotten one out of seven, that was not bad actually.

Nowadays, how can an illustrator be successful both in the artistic sense and the commercial sense? Do you have any experiences to share?

Just do the best you can. Work hard. Tell the truth. Know when to quit, be open to other stuff. Maybe I’ll go to silicon valley and end up working with VC backed startups for a season in my life.

The question could be asked also about work/life balance, family and so on. Be balanced. Be healthy in your attitudes and spirit. Rest. Recharge. Take time to “sharpen the saw,” so it doesn’t get dull.

As an illustrator, how do you interpret the role you are playing?

Helping guide someone over a creative chasm.

What’s your icon in the artistic arena? What is the ultimate artist ideal to you?

Courage, integrity, love, expertise, imagination.

Jesus. Ai Wei Wei. Marina Abramovic. Olafur Arnalds. Olafur Eliasson. Janet Cardiff. Frank Gehry. Pete Doctor. Winston Churchill. Alexander the Great. Lee Clow. Sarah Thornton. Dan Wieden. Wolf Olins. Madethought. Spin. Underline Studio. Gllbert Li. Howard Schultz. Elon Musk. Warren Buffett.

In what way do you think the illustration industry has changed? What do you think of the future trends in this industry?

Editorial continues to contract since it’s peak in the 1920’s. Social media works best when tied into old school physical meetups. People do more and last longer when they’re part of a healthy team than when they’re isolated. There is a huge amount of mystery in the universe which we have yet to begin learning about.