"Finished not perfect", ok....but when is "finished" finished?

  • Pro SVS OG

    I know already this is going to be a philosophical rambling, but maybe the great SVS faculty can tune in. I am feeling pulled in different directions - and a part of me knows that one of these forces is holding me back, but I feel uncomfortable letting it go. The force pulling me back is the urge to polish and render my work according to principles of dimensionality and “realism”.
    I came out of school proud of my rendering abilities. I learnt to render water, fur, metal, glass, you name it. I learnt 3D software to be able to refine my drawing and rendering even better. I was (am) also in love with complex illustrations - the ones with lots of characters, objects, environments, the kitchen sink…modelled more on animation than illustration,

    Then I signed with my agent and the pull in the other direction started.
    Here is how she reacted to my first dummy:
    A: "Can you draw rougher than this?"
    Me: ".....what do you mean?"
    A: "Like this. This is perfect!" (she points to a small sketchbook I had open beside me, with some doodles I did during a seminar)
    Me: "Well yes....I guess I can stop at the first drawing pass"
    A: "Yes, do that"

    Three dummies later, I finally had the level of “roughness” she wanted - it was barely better than thumbnails and she loved it and took it on and is showing it to the world.
    In the course of the months I have been working with her, I started to realise that I really do not know when to stop working on an illustration. When is enough work done on a piece? When it's finished? Is it possible that all I have learned about rendering is standing in the way of a successful style? Can I combine my love for rendering with a more design-driven approach? How can some rough work look lively, beautiful and highly professional and other rough work just look unfinished? How can I tell the difference?. I know @Lee-White has been trough this transition. I am struggling with it and I have the feeling there is something I do not know or understand.

    My wonderful, coaching agent says she wanted to work with me because it was clear I have the fundamentals in place - drawing, perspective, anatomy, light, color, character, etc...but she shuns all the illustrations I consider the best showcase of this in my portfolio and she calls me up with requests like:
    A: "You posted "x" on instagram recently. I would like to send it to art directors in the next mailer, can you send me a copy?"
    Me: "What do you mean? It's just a color sketch, it's not a finished illustration..."
    A: "It's great. They'll love it".
    And so it goes on. And uncannily, the pieces she likes and picks up are the ones that get the most resonance on social media. I find myself rejoicing when I see her "liking" a post, because I know already it will fare better than any other.
    But still I do not get what it is. She sends me samples from other illustrators to look at that are sooo different from what I do that I do not know what to do with them. At the beginning I was puzzled and I was starting to believe we were not a good match. But her instinct has proved right again and again, and now I am more ready to doubt myself. She pushed me to experiment and my style has evolved in what I think is a good direction. I feel good about the last pieces I made for Alice in Wonderland - they bring in some of the design approach I admire in Tomm Moore and Charley Harper, have nearly no rendering and do not strive for realism in any way. Still, I could carry over some of the sense of volume from my previous work. Yet I still feel very uncertain in this new territory and not sure where to go from here.
    When I start a piece today, I have no idea how am I going to bring it to finish - it’s quite uncomfortable.

    Yesterday, I started a sketch in front of the TV, as I often do on Friday nights. This morning I opened it again with the intention to finish it for posting on social media, and I had a dialogue with myself
    Brave, scary voice: “Don’t touch it anymore. Leave it like that. It’s finished.”
    Rational voice, who has had too much art training: “Don’t be silly. It’s barely a color pass. There is still hours of work to be done.”
    Brave, scary voice: “No. That will ruin it. It’s practically finished.”
    Rational voice: “Come on. At least some more work on the face and hands and at the border. And I have to remove all those pencil lines.”
    Brave, scary voice: The pencil lines look good. Don’t do anything”
    Rational voice: “Just a tiny tiny bit of polish?…”

    And so I found myself unable to work on it for the time being.

    So what do I want with all this dramatised rambling? I guess just start a discussion, seeing if anyone has something to add that helps me plod out of this or some piece of insight about when to know when things are finished - your experiences with evolving your style and what considerations have helped you on the way. Even if I do not know where I am going, I love the journey!

    Here is the little sketch (finished illustration?) that triggered this post:


  • SVS OG

    This is kind of funny. Because just the other day I was commenting to my wife that it seems like the worse I draw the more people like my stuff. In my eyes stuff is less finished, rough, wobbly lined, or color just thrown on...and somehow it's better than if I spend 40 hours on a piece. So I figure I must be losing something in the rendering process.

  • SVS OG

    This is really interesting. Going to follow this thread to hear what other people say. I have almost no formal art training at all. I soak up what I can from SVS and YouTube and studying the work of artists I love etc... I would never call myself “self-taught” but my education has been rocky. I still get a little of what you are talking about. More in the sense that the things I feel really good about, get a sort of unenthusiastic response. But those quick little sketches, the ones I put up when I feel like I havent posted on Instagram and while, those get so much more attention... sometimes even get reposted. I can’t figure it out. I really love your Alice in Wonderland pieces though. That cat! 👌🏼👌🏼👌🏼

  • What has more charm, a drawing which has its wobbles and stray marks, indicating the person behind it, or one which is technically perfect with not a line out of place? If the drawing were instead a person, which would you more easily connect with? Art is a form of connection.

  • SVS OG

    @smceccarelli I think a glib response might be "it is a nice problem to have" - to me it seems that you are able to honestly make a choice to hold back and simplify having already built the skill set to do what you like - i think when we simplify out of a lack of other options that it really shows and does not read as anything other than amateurish - because of your hard work, when simplifying, you can chose to have an economy of marks because they are in the right places and describe the important things and this is sometimes enough and can be called "done" - i think another thing that you have is good mark making...something we don't talk about much - there are marks that are nice to look at - for me i usually like lines that do not curve back on themselves or lines that are heaver in weight at the beginning of the stroke and diminish - or a well placed brush stroke that is clearly a brush stroke but it is also exactly a cheekbone or the bridge of a nose - confident lines and placement - i love how Stephen Silver never traces - "never trace" is one of his many refrains - he will draw over a rough sketch with quick lively marks until the drawing comes to life and is perfect in it's simplification...redrawing a line over and over if he has to to get the perfect line - i'm probably reminded of the sculptor Gerhard Marcks because of my last statement but he is a good example of perfect placement of landmarks and simplification born of mastery - i think what i'm saying very obliquely is that Your rough work is not rough and speaks very clearly of the skill set behind it. Anyways thats my two cents 🙂

  • Pro SVS OG

    @kevin-longueil Thank you! This is really helpful - and I think you have nailed the difference between rough-looking-good and rough-looking-unfinished. It´s the intentional quality of the marks. I think it does make a difference if you work on a piece with the intention of going all the way to a super-polished render or if you work on a piece with the intention of letting the marks show. When I was learning oil-paining I had a reverential admiration for Gregory Manchess (still have!), who can do exactly what you say: setting a single brush stroke with the exact shape and color or a cheeckbone or a nose. This is a very helpful pointer!
    Believe it or not, I am feeling a bit lost right now - but I am taking it as a good sign. There must be some important knowledge that I need to dig out now....

  • SVS OG

    The more I learn the less I like my work. The joy comes out of it. Fast doodles are fun but when I try to do a "good" piece I feel like I see so many flaws. I am not as polished and talented as you are, Simona. I LOVE your work. I would like to be happy with my progress and move forward. I have not yet finised my book because I keep getting critiques and finding more wrong with it. When can I just go forward and let it be so I can move on? I have finished it imperfectly several times...and I'm not even doing it for money! I'm horrible at the business end of things. I'll do anything for free but I feel that I can't do art for money because I am embarrassed to ask someone to spend money for my work and then be disappointed in it. Kind of crazy.

    I have asked myself so many times, that question...when is it finished because it will never be perfect? and I could spend my entire life on one project trying to perfect it but I want to do other things. I was recently inking my Uncle Carl book for what hoped was the last time but as I was finisheing up and looking at all the lumply ink lines and little blobs I thought, it would look so much better if i just did quick, loose sketches. When I am done with my classes this semester I am going to try one more time on this book and if it doesn't feel done, I'm going to finish it anyway. Just to be done. I really wrote too much but you struck a chord with me. I wonder so many times why I keep doing this and spending so many hours...for what? I'm 60 years old! My husband is retiring. Why does it matter if I'm good at it or not? In fact, he has asked me that question himself a couple of times. "Why are you doing this?" I have a lot of art that will just be tossed away when I die. Sorry, if that sounds negative but, I have really been wondering. Maybe I should be spending my time doing something that is more beneficial to others and get out of my studio and interact with others in a way that is more helpful and purposeful. I'm so sorry if I have been too negative in this post. I sometimes get that way.

  • @smceccarelli , I can so relate to this. I am not as accomplished as you by a long shot, but I have really struggled with finding the balance in my work--and in my case, maybe it's still a matter of finding my voice and style. I find myself drawn to rougher and less realistic work, but then I am super critical of my own stuff because it looks wrong. I have been working on improving my drawing, but then I wonder about that--does it need to improve so I can draw stuff that isn't realistic? I love other people's work that is stylized and abstract, but I look at mine and I think it just looks wrong and then I over work the piece and wreck it (I work in traditional media, but am learning digital). And actually, @Kevin-Longueil 's comments may have provided some insight there.

  • @Marsha-Kay-Ottum-Owen, I hear you! I can remember when doing art felt like play, and was fun and made me happy. I'm wanting to get back to that. Perfectionism just sucks the joy right out of the process and it's really sad. Be kinder to yourself. Your work is fine, and you are your worst critic. All of us have room for improvement in our work, or we wouldn't be here! I hope you can find joy in your art again.

  • SVS OG

    @eli Thanks. I'm working on it. I just need to do some doodling that doesn't matter sometimes 🙂

  • Yep. There with this one. But oddly some people want more detail, others less. Scribbles are most popular, but working with people they often want more. It’s all over the place.
    From experience, my suggestion is stop when they love it, but make sure you’re still producing the ultra refined stuff. Not for glory, or even for portfolio, or the desire to be what you wish you were doing. But rather for a couple of years I was just producing the rough stuff and when someone asked for more refined it took a lot of work to get the old muscle memory back. And I mean months. And I got really worried I couldn’t do it anymore.

    It also means that when fads change you’ve got the skills still there to flex and change. IMHO if course 😉

  • Pro SVS OG

    @andyg Thank you! This is a very pragmatic approach and it makes a lot of sense - and on top of that it would make me feel much more comfortable with myself: knowing that I can still play with surfaces and rendering and materials and light to my heart´s delight and let my style evolve in whatever organic direction projects take me.

  • Pro SVS OG

    @marsha-kay-ottum-owen I know your feelings, and I am sorry that you are going through a phase like this. Believe me, anybody who takes the craft seriously goes through this at times - many times over. The answer to "why are you doing this", however, should always be "to be true to myself". Any other answer is ephemeral. There are hundreds of other ways to make money that are easier than art - I guess we all know that. There are many impactful ways to contribute to society that do not involve mastering a perspective grid or learning to tame watercolors. Growing your skills in image-making is part of your personal expression, it's what drives you and what frustrates you - in that sense, I think we are all in the same boat here.
    My advice is to finish your book - the very last version of it and let it be. If it's taking more energy than it's giving you, it's time to move on anyhow.
    BTW: At 60 years old, you still have a whole lot of life ahead of you: do not underestimate what you can achieve! Maybe you should read about film director Leni Riefenstahl. Regardless of her culpable youth, it is remarkable what she achieved as a "mature" lady. She published a last book at age 89 and released her last documentary film in 2002, on her 100th Birthday.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    hmmm, this is a tricky one. I have been LOVING the work you are doing lately. So I am not a big fan of changing it unless you are unhappy with it. Try some smaller pieces if you want to bring in some of your previous styles. The Alice images are so complex I wouldn't mess with those.

    But it sounds like you are ok with it, but your agent isn't. So that is where the dialog should start. There needs to be a conversation with your agent where you say "Help me understand why you are asking me to make this rougher or less finished."

    I have an idea for you. pick a fairly simple sketch and finish it in a number of different ways. Totally rendered style, flat style, and any other way you can think of. Then look at the images and compare them. Make a few more images based on what you find out. Don't look for the perfect answer, look for things that will guide you. You should get that "right" feeling from one of them. If not, keep tweaking it until you do. Then analyze what it is that made you have that feeling.

    An assignent like this will do two things: 1. It will lock down exactly where you want to go and 2. It will show different levels of finish so you and your agent can have an intelligent discussion about it.

    Hope that makes sense. Let me know if you have any questions, etc. : )

    Keep on going! you are doing great!

  • Pro SVS OG

    @lee-white Thank you Lee - I really really appreciate your answer. And any positive feedback on my work coming from you is a big boost!
    I think I will do exactly what you suggest - it would definitely help to clarify my feelings about what it is that I am not getting and/or where I really want to go.
    I am bit scared of what I will find out though - I have been liking too much minimalistic illustration recently. I am working with several editorial illustrators for my agency work recently, and seeing their process is fascinating...it's amazing how much meaning you can pack in so "little" illustration. (Here is one that made me cry this morning. It's by a Russian illustrator named Daria Kirpach:


  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    One thing that can help you is being comfortable with change and accepting the new as part of the process. I used to think it was a big deal if I changed my work. The truth is no one actually cares if you do something the way you did before (except your agent! haha). When I want to change I just go ahead and do it. I'm not worried about if it's my "style" or what I did before. Most of the time people respond positively. And if they don't, that is ok too.

    I do know that once you start appreciating simplicity, it's hard to go back. I rarely (if ever) see anyone start simple and then get more complex in terms of design. Kinda funny like that..

  • SVS OG

    @smceccarelli Thank you. You're right..I'm not dead yet! 🙂 Ha! I am going to finish my book and I'm going to try and enjoy what I do whether it is perfect or not. I will look for that book. Wow! So wonderful. I appeciate you and your encoragement and reminders. If I live to be 100 I still have 40 years! Maybe I have only 1 year but.....I might as well make the most of whatever time I have. I am a creative person and I need to be doing something creative...just need to switch things up a bit now and then and have fun in between the hard stuff, right? 🙂

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