Non-Stop Curiousity


“To all the young students watching, and listening, I want to emphasise that feeding one’s imagination is an ongoing task – a journey of curiousity and discovery can never stop. There is no arrival. It is a process, and perhaps the most significant player in it, is time.

Critical thinking, creativity and collaboration are the three tenants on which I have built my entire understanding of being an artist.”

-Shahzia Sikander, 10/16 Gail Silver Memorial Lecture, RISD 



I was recently interviewed for the Drawing Attention column on the Urban Sketchers Blog.

Overcoming Challenges

by Brenda Murray


When USk Instructor Fred Lynch, from Winchester, Massachusetts, was a junior in college he took a simple test and found out that he is color-blind. Of course this was a surprising turn of events especially for a young arts student studying illustration.

Fred says he still sees colors but he’s just less sensitive to colors—he misidentifies colors. For example, green traffic signals sometimes look off white. Khaki and tan are confusing.

Fred’s condition made painting difficult. It was very difficult to mix and match colors. Watercolor in the tin looked different than on the paper. Wet ink looks different than dry ink.

So Fred switched to drawing in black and white with a ball point pen. It made it easier to communicate what was in front of him. Then Fred picked up Winsor & Newton nut brown ink. In fact, sepia ink was used historically in the drawing of Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain and Corot for example, so he was referencing the masters.

“Deficiency in one area can become a strength in another area,” Fred explained. “For example, Django Reinhardt the great jazz musician who played guitar with a deformed hand. I once met an artist who had a hand-tremor. The result was the she had wonderful loose sketches. She made it into her strength”.

Fred’s strength is in looking at values, and light and dark. How does light hit things and bounce around?

“I learned to appreciate other things [like value] while others were appreciating color”.

But Fred’s commercial art is in full color—how does he manage that?

“I have the opportunity to create color as opposed to matching colors. My colors are always bright, bold and, to be self-critical, unsurprising,” he explained. “I can make things up. But I look at lights and darks more than anything else. I’m attuned to what I like as opposed to what others like”.

One in twelve men are color-blind while only one in two hundred women. Very few art students will admit that they’re color-blind.

“This is my struggle”, Fred admits. “We all have an issue. Accept it and move on. All of our work is a way of overcoming our issues and as a result you could end up with a much better piece”.

Considering Vignettes

This summer at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Manchester, England, I’ll be teaching a workshop entitled, Hunting and Gathering: Sketching Vignettes and Lists, and I’m so anxious to get started, that thought I’d share one of the lessons to a wider audience.

In a nutshell, my workshop will address alternatives to the most common drawing approach of drawing to the edge of a page. 

When we work on site we select what we draw; we don’t draw everything before us. What choose to draw is a decision – a selection. By selection I mean the “cutting out entire” from the great panorama spread out before you just that portion which appeals to you and which you want to have appeal to your fellow men.” That’s how F. Hopkinson Smith described it in his “Outdoor Sketching” talks given in 1914 at the Art Institute of Chicago (which I recommend and can be found free online). The result of our carving out from whats before us often results in what’s called a “vignette.” We see vignettes all the time, and create them often. But I think we take them for granted. Talking about the shapes of images can seem very subjective. But success comes from intent – conscious design decisions.

drawing by Fred Lynch

vignette is an irregularly shaped image on a page – one that doesn’t extend to the edge of the paper. Vignettes isolate and focus attention on a particular subject that’s before us. The word dates back to the time of illuminated manuscripts, when it descibed the drawings in the margins. The word comes from the french word for vines. We still see vignettes in books and magazines all the time, but how do we learn to design them well? I say, think of them as letterforms. 

Although these English alphabet landscape prints from the 1800’s were not drawn from life, they are ideal for teaching what vignettes are. The same rules of design apply to on-site drawings, as seen in these works from my students. They are not literally letters, but the shapes of the drawings act like them.

drawing by Karen JY Sung
drawing by Jia Sung

So, when creating vignettes, follow these principles for their successful design.

Vignettes do not extend to the borders of the page.

Vignettes are irregularly shaped.

Vignettes use the white of the page (the negative space) as an important design factor.

Vignettes are designed to sit with stability and balance on the page.

Vignettes end on all sides in a definitive way, and don’t just fade away in every direction.

In other words, vignettes are like letterforms.

Carving out scenes into pleasing vignettes is one of the things we’ll do in my workshop in Manchester. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

A Technique for Producing Ideas


Creativity talk is hot right now. There are lots of speeches, workshops and books dedicated to it. I’ve taught a couple of creativity workshops myself, centered around Design Thinking which is most famously espoused by IDEO and Stanford University. But creativity itself isn’t new.

Recently, I came across the attractive little book, A Technique for Producing Ideas at a library sale, written by James Webb Young, back in 1940. It looked so simple, short, and sweet, that I bought it for use as a prop in my office – an amusing relic of simpler times. Much later, I took the time to read it, but with the confidence that the subject is both too complicated and too mysterious to be codified in such a teeny text. However, it didn’t work out that way.

James Young Webb was an advertising guy and his book grew out of a speech he gave to students at the School of Business at the University of Chicago. It was such a hit, he turned it into a book and it’s been in print ever since.

James Webb Young’s focus here is on the steps of coming up with new ideas that solve problems. Problem-solving is in illustrator’s primary job. It’s not drawing or painting or self expression that makes us valuable, it’s the creation of visual communication concepts. Drawing, painting and expression serve the ideas.

So, to take a tiny book and make it even smaller, here are the general points:
Webb starts off by describing creative people as speculative. Refering to Italian sociologist (Vilfredo) Pareto’s theory: to be speculative is to be preoccupied with new combinations of things. It’s Webb’s belief that new ideas really boil down to new combinations of old elements. And, the key to creative success is the ability to find valuable relationships in those new combinations.
Therefore, the job is not where to look for ideas, but how to look for ideas.


Five Steps for Producing Ideas

(These are my titles, with Webb’s quotes in italics and my explanations below them.)
Gather raw materials- both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.
Inform yourself for the task at hand as much as possible, but also be a student of the world around you, so as to  connect effectively to the broader population.
Work over the new materials in your mind.
Sketch, write, brainstorm for a new idea. Combine things to create new ideas. Work to create possibilities further in the process.
Don’t Work
The incubation stage, where you let something besides the conscious mind do the synthesis.
Take a break. Sleep on it. Get away from the problem at hand.
The actual birth of the Idea- the “Eureka! I have it!” stage.
That’s when an idea pops into your head at a surprising time – of in the “don’t work” phase. Or when you realize that you have some pretty good ideas worth revisiting upon getting back to work.
Fix It
The final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.
After getting the idea, you need to get the idea right. Shaping the proper solution takes an extra level of thinking- even with the best ideas.
Webb admits that steps are seemingly simple. He writes, “…the formula is so simple to state that few who read it really believe in it.” And, “while it’s simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all that accept it to use it… “thus, I broadcast this formula with no real fear of glutting the market (with great thinkers)”
As for me, I recommend both the steps and the book – available online in different forms.
It’s a practical book for the practical art of producing ideas.

Calling All Concepts


Recently, I came across this ad in the back of a 1964 Society of Illustrators Annual. It prompted me to think back to all of the art directors that I met when I first started out as an illustrator. Before the internet, that was how illustration careers were started – by appointments and portfolio drop-offs.

The Golden Age of Illustration usually refers to the era of Howard Pyle, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. But I wonder when was the golden age of art direction? That too, should be looked back on in fondness and admiration. After all, it takes a visionary to open their minds doors to new possibilities. And it takes intelligence as well as courage, to seek artists who present more than decoration to the page – ones who bring new ideas and sensibilities.

Imagine what a different publication Cosmopolitan was back when Anthony La Sala was the art director. This image is so artful and sophisticated. It’s quite a contrast from what’s in “Cosmo” on the newsstand today. And, Mr. La Sala was apparently being aspirational in this advertisement. Not one illustration from Cosmopolitan Magazine won recognition that year from the Society of Illustrators. He wanted to change things for next year, I presume.

In the 1964 annual there are many publications that are gone now, such as The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Show Magazine, Rogue Magazine, Holiday, McCalls and Nugget Magazine. But others remain, and most, like Cosmopolitan, are living in different art direction times now: Fortune Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, Boy’s Life, Good Housekeeping, Time, Sports Illustrated, Redbook, Reader’s Digest and Seventeen Magazine.

The Society of Illustrators books are much bigger than they were back in 1964. Illustration lives on thanks to the next generation of art directors. Hopefully, like Anthony La Scala, they are “anxious to see new concepts.” No doubt there are some; I have many terrific art director – ex-students.





Goethe: Show, Don’t Tell


Grave of Theron, Italy, by Geothe

“We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally should like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic Nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future – all these are momentous signatures.

A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or the spoken word altogether. The more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and he silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the desolation of ancient hills.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)