When I tell people I work as an illustrator I usually get three kinds of reaction.
- “Do you make comics?”
- “Ok, wow, you’re a disegnatrice” (I can’t find the perfect English translation of this word, it literally means “someone who draws”)
- “Graphics, right?”
None of these.
I used to get quite disappointed, at first. The fact that people didn’t know what my job was made me feel indignant – how could they don’t know? – and embarrassed at the same time because I, too, didn’t really know how to explain it. I would end up making examples, summarizing at the end with an inglorious “I draw things and get paid for it”. It took me more than two years to come up with a better – yet longer – explanation.
Certainly, I don’t do comics – I tried but it’s not for me, at least for now. I work with graphics sometimes but in a different – and most of the time messier – way than a classic graphic designer. If you come to me for a logo I will probably start drawing, using colored pencils, painting. And the result will have my own style. Am I “someone who draws” then? Yes, I am, but not just that.
I think – and here I would love to hear your opinion – an illustrator is a person who tells something with images using a unique style. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a drawing, a paper-cut, whether it’s a figurative or an abstract work. What matters is it says something and that everybody can understand it.
Maybe you didn’t need this distinction in order to work well, but I did. I struggled so much and for such a long time to stop focusing on the technique – or the style – I was using rather than on what I wanted to say. I was so concentrated on making a “pretty drawing” that I almost lost track of what it really meant being an illustrator for me.
When four years ago I enrolled in an illustration school in Rome I felt partly the urge to learn how to express myself in a satisfying way – I was unhappy with my job as a journalist – and partly the will to develop my artistic skills – if I had any. I spent the following three years focusing on the latter goal, trying to make up all the technical skills as fastest as I could. It turned out it was impossible. I learned the basis, became good in what I liked most – pencils, graphite, botanical drawing – failed at a lot of other things. That’s why I say I’m not good at drawing. What I mean is I’m not “academically” good. But I understood, at last, that that doesn’t mean I can’t be an illustrator.
It’s now been some months I have allowed myself not to be technically great at everything. Admitting my limits has actually been the first step to enjoy what I’m doing and to focus on the other goal: expressing myself. As a student who’s always got top grades in every subject, it feels relieving to know I can live with my gaps. I start thinking they might transform into strengths. This is where I am at right now.
A few notes:
- the images of this post are from the book “Little Blue and Little Yellow” by Italian author Leo Lionni, in my opinion one of the best examples that illustrating doesn’t necessarily mean drawing (photos are mine);
- the first person I heard saying she transformed her limits into strength is Olimpia Zagnoli;
- speaking of unique style check Brian Rea‘s website, a hymn to non-academical drawing and joyful freedom of expression.