This year at the SCBWI Spring Spirit Conference, illustrator/writer/instructor, John Hendrix gave us permission to fail. In fact, he suggested we do our best to fail at least 10 times. It's actually a requirement in his Illustration and Communication Design classes at Washington University. I love that. I had a couple illustration teachers in college who taught that it wasn't okay to fail - even on an honest attempt at an assignment - especially if you were usually highly successful. I was one of the unfortunate students who presented early in the semester with pieces the teachers really liked. They sang their praises and it felt great.
I later learned that I would receive a rather personal wrath from those same instructors when I deviated from my successes to experiment with new ideas. That felt really bad and discouraged me from experimenting freely. I have been back on that uneasy ground for the past two years experimenting with new ideas and techniques. Last year I did 5 new pieces for my portfolio and I only feel that one was a success. It was hard to pull the failures from my portfolio after all the work I did, but I learned a lot in the process.
|Chicken Licken - before
For this conference, instead of rushing to create a new batch of illustrations, I decided to make what was staying in my portfolio even better. I took a cue from Eliza Wheeler, 2010 winner of an SCBWI LA Conference mentorship and 2011 winner of the LA Portfolio Showcase. Eliza blogged in 2011 about how she improved her portfolio based on feedback she received. The pieces I decided to keep in my portfolio were already ones that I really liked (that's important) and I had gotten feedback in critiques from art directors on how to make them better.
|Chicken Licken - after
In order to improve these pieces without touching the originals, I had to perform digital surgery - some of which involved (gasp) new techniques for me. I've been doing minor edits for years, but decided to branch out. And you know what? It worked! The faculty at the conference viewed our portfolios and put sticky notes on some of our illustrations. All of the notes I had were on pieces I improved and all were positive...except one. It looks like I'll be pulling another piece from my portfolio. I've been told to pull it before and I did, but I tried to save it one last time. Against my better judgement, I put it back into my portfolio after trying to resuscitate it. I find it really appropriate that it was John Hendrix who declared it a fail - but he also said one of my other pieces was "weird and charming" which is one of my favorite bits of feedback yet. "Weird and charming" was an experiment from a couple years ago and will be staying in my portfolio. I hope to add more weirdness and charm in years to come. In fact, I wouldn't mind in the least if people started describing my work...or me...as weird and charming.
On a side note, while improving my portfolio, I decided to redo my website (again!) to better reflect what I do. My offerings have been morphing too. I've been working hard to only do the work I love most, so I'm featuring book design and layout more prominently. Check out the new look of my website and my new children's illustration portfolio.
If you'd like to have a reminder that failure is okay - check out these mini Failure is Required sketchbook/journals by John Hendrix.