“Your image reminds me of Maurice Sendak.”
“That character is very Peanuts-like.”
“The way you draw reminds me of another artist, I forget who…”
“Have you seen Jarrett Krosoczka’s work? Your work kind of reminds me of his.”
I used to cringe when I heard these words. Not because they seemed uncomplimentary, because clearly, people were comparing my work to great illustrators! But because I thought it meant my illustrations had no discernible, individual style. This made me anxious. If my work looked too much like another illustrator’s, I worried that I was doing something wrong, or not doing something enough, and that I was borrowing too heavily from other artists.
Years ago, I received great advice from a professor: “Just do your work. You will develop a way of drawing things that is uniquely yours.” I’ve used this idea over the years, hoping that my “style” would come, trying to dodge or neutralize any comparisons people made of my work to other illustrators.
But recently, I read a speech by YA author John Green that somehow both eased these fears and put this notion of style and “borrowing” into a different light. My takeaway from his talk was that, as authors and illustrators, we (our books, our images) are in a constant conversation with not only the books and images that came before, but the ones out there now. Novels are based on hundreds of previous novels. Picture books are based on hundreds of previous picture books. IT’S OKAY, it’s supposed to be this way. It’s even integral to the creation of them.
This notion suddenly widened and softened my point of view on style. Many people say that art and writing is a solitary pursuit, but John Green says that we are all having conversations with each other through our work all the time. We are creating a cultural conversation. We are part of it. We don’t have to be separate from it and strive to be something outlandishly different. We just have to, as Jane Yolen, Kelly Light, and almost anyone who is giving great creative advice would say, put your Butt In Chair and Do Your Work. If it has some Dr. Seussy/Virginia Lee Burton/Robert McCloskey stuff going on, it’s okay.
Not to get too mushy, but this idea reminded me of a folk song/spoken song by Utah Phillips that I have always liked.
“Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
― Utah Phillips
I’ve always thought of that quote in relation to family and culture and getting through life’s struggles, but never consciously related it to art or children’s books. John Green’s speech made these two ideas come together for me.
While I was thinking about this Borrowing Style topic for this month’s post, the Boston Globe made this stunning tribute to a Dr. Seuss book. In an article about overfishing the Gulf of Maine. On the front page.
Even people outside the book world want in on the conversation!
People borrow all the time, they use what is in our culture to create new images and stories for our culture. They use what has come before as a language to make a new story more understandable.
While you develop your own illustration and writing style, let it pay tribute to the work that came before, don’t panic about resemblances to other work, and have faith that it will be adding something of you, your time, your life, and (dare I say) your soul to a conversation already in full swing.