The Missing "It" factor...

  • A question that has perplexed me recently after listening to the 3-Point perspective blog (My work is Good, why am I not getting hired) is how to create work that connects with people. I deal with this all the time when I teach my classes. Some kids draw extremely well but their work lacks emotional draw. ( We call it pathos) Others slop through something but the connection is real and everyone reacts to it positively. I struggle with this in my own work. I drew a portrait recently of a friend of mine's deceased brother. It really moved me and I got tons of positive reviews and expressions of how they loved the work. The next one I did was technically just as good but it generated a sound "meh." (Even from me). I see that I am somehow missing the "it factor" from my own entries into the monthly contests. They are drawn well (at least a couple of them maybe?) but they don't really connect with anyone. What can I do to develop that elusive pathos? Are there ways to build this into people? I would love to be able to put into words.

    I am being vulnerable here not only because I need the help, but because it is something I discuss with my colleague quite a bit when we evaluate student work. I think this might be a useful topic for any new artist to think about. So you can shred my posted work to teach me or use your own experiences with this. Thanks in advance to any who offer their wisdom.

  • Pro

    That's a big question you're asking! The "it" factor is so hard to explain or describe, that's why we say just "it" to describe it isn't it? In French we say a "je ne sais quoi" qhich literally translates to a "I don't know what".

    To me it just means you capture the emotional essence, personality or atmostphere of what you're drawing. I think it's so hard to explain because it's different from piece to piece! Let's say you're drawing a house on a random street. Maybe you'll draw it very technically, clinically. To you, it's just a random house. The drawing will likely end up pretty boring... But let's say the owner draws his own house, well he may add.. a cat snoozing in the window, or maybe a child's toy forgotten on the lawn, or whatever little detail that makes it a home to him. Suddenly, the drawing has something more to it, it has the it factor!

    For portraits it's the same thing, if you know the person or their story, you may interject something of that in their expression, or maybe even subconsciously in the colors or shading that will suggest something subtly different. I will wager that's what happened in the portrait of your friend's deceased brother. Maybe the drawing had a aura of sadness, or melancholic happiness, or something. Without that something, it's just the portrait of a guy right?

    This it factor tend to be captured most successfully when people draw something they know, something close to their heart, because they can capture just what it is about it that makes it special. Even realistic drawing isn't exactly like photography, and in each of the choices you make you're attempting to show something. Maybe the photography of a house you find creepy would look to someone else like a perfectly normal looking house, but your drawing of it might subtly show that creepy vibe that YOU are feeling when you look at it...

    That's my take on it anyway!

  • Hi Chris. First, I think that while some people will already have a leg up on the "it" factor when they first start art, I think a very big chunk of artists develop it as they put in the hours making art. I also think it's important to note that even with artists who have great acclaim, they also have varying success and emotional reactions between their different pieces. I've heard quite a number of artists on different podcasts, youtube videos, and articles comment on how people will go crazy for certain images they make, and other images they make won't get that much of a response, even if they are expecting it to. So this seems to be a general artist problem.

    Addressing the different reactions between your two portraits- my guess is that the lighting of your reference photo and the expressions of your subjects had a lot to do with the different responses. It being a tribute to a deceased loved one, might also have been an important factor in the response. If you made many many more of these portraits, some would get better responses than others. The same would be for the best portrait artist in the world.

    Now addressing your work in general, what I see from your work is someone who likes to jump around with different styles, subject matters, and mediums, but does not spend a lot of time with anything specific. (I tend to do the same thing 🙂 ) As a result maybe you haven't put in the hours and focused thought that a lot of people with the "it" factor have. They may have started off playing with different things, maybe even for a long time, but at some point they shifted into buckling down and narrowing their playing field and they started tons of more focused work, a lot that they might not even show anyone. Lot's and lot's of sketches and/or finished piece. Tons. They really hash out ideas, subjects, and mediums. They probably have made a lot of not so great art in that process. Yes they may explore with different things and may not exclusively stick to the same things, but they have put in the hours to know how to manipulate their work in certain ways, and can focus more on emotional impact.

    Just from your instagram, I think I identify 10 different mediums you use (watercolor, marker, pastels, charcoal, graphite, oils or acrylics, colored pencils, digital, mixed media, ink). You use them in different styles and in different ways. Since everything seems so spread out between subject, styles, and mediums, I wonder how much time you've actually spent on any given one. I think if you did a 100 challenge and limit your subject matter and medium it would teach you a lot.

    I hope that wasn't too harsh, but you seemed to be looking for honesty. I could be totally off base, as I don't know your history or how much focused art you've actually produced. Interested to hear what others have to say. It's an interesting subject for sure.

  • @tessaw I really appreciate the honesty. I know that I have Art ADD. Part of that stems from being an art teacher who models many of the techniques I am introducing to my kids. Part of that is that I love it all. How can I say yes to just one medium? Sigh. But I agree. That is why I am going to focus on ink this next month. It was an early love of mine (I actually had a rapidograph set as a teenager). I do think you make a good point that we don't see all the "bad" or so so art that the pros turn out. We see their best pieces.
    Another question is, does subject matter, matter? I am a big fan of comic art and maybe that is just not going to play well with children's illustrators. Or will a powerful piece be powerful no matter the genre?

  • Its hard to know when you're gonna make a piece that just has it. I think we have to give up just a little bit of wanting EVERY piece to have "it" and just go for volume--keep making pieces, and some of them will have it and some won't. See what the "it" pieces have in common and try doing more of that. But thats as much as you can really do.

    I love the Ira Glass quote about having good taste and creating a large volume of work until you can make good that satisfies your good taste. I watch it every now and then as a reminder. Give it a watch if you haven't seen it 😉

  • SVS OG

    I am reading Norman Rockwell’s autobiography (thank you @davidhohn) and he talks about a cover illustration that he did in which he put a lot of care and personal emotion and was surprised when it generated a lot of negative responses. He concludes by commenting that he just could never tell which of his illustrations would touch a chord with people and which would not. I suspect this is the danger of any creative endeavor: I’ve been preaching for 35 years and have yet to figure out why some sermons really touch people and others, even ones I love, fail to garner much of a response. I think audiences bring a lot of their own selves to the viewing/listening and if one piece gets a more general positive response maybe it’s because that piece hit on a more universally held emotion.

    The way I’ve dealt with the unpredictability of knowing whether people will respond to my sermons (which I think of as painting illustrations with words) is to make sure I’m preaching something that means something to me so that even if it means nothing to anyone else, I will have benefited from it! Of course, I have a captive audience and don’t have to try to sell my work so it’s a much tougher situation if you are an artist.

  • Yes, @demotlj I encounter this a lot with my work. Pieces that I LOVE, that I am sure are going to be a big hit will sometimes just get a lukewarm reception. Then there are pieces that I am not as crazy about, that I am not sure are even entirely successful and I'm reluctant to put them out there, and they'll generate all kinds of positive response.

  • Pro

    Sometimes it works out differently though! I once spent a whole month on a painting (that was the time I used to do acrylics) with a very personal subject matter, and whereas my usual work didn't garner much response this one went on to win a daily deviation (that was the time I use to be on deviantart lol). Over the years I've noticed that most pieces that people don't respond to are the ones that I crank out without much thought, and all my most popular ones are pieces I put a lot of thought and effort into or I had particular fun making.. But I've heard a lot of artists say that sometimes a huge piece garners no interest, and then a 5 minutes sketches gets tons of likes! It's quite mysterious!

  • Pro SVS OG

    Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite writers of all time) said something that fits to this conversation.
    “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself...That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”

    I highly recommend watching his commencement speech at UArts:

    Neil Gaiman Speech 2012

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