Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter To the Sketchbook Circles

When I was in high school, a buddy of mine used to sit at the lab tables (which were in the back of the classroom) instead of the desks in my Advanced Biology Class.  Our teacher, Dr. Freeman, would hold the class at bay waiting for him to seat himself at a desk rather than a lab table, all the while inviting him to “join us.”  It took a bit of coaxing, but he’d eventually come around and sit with the rest of the class. 

Now, to the sketchbook circles at conventions I offer the same invitation: Join us.

While sketchbook circles are something that may have existed at conventions long before I came into the picture, I personally have only recently run into them, myself.  Basically, a sketchbook circle tends to consist of a bunch of young artists and illustrators who, rather than socialize and hang out with the older, more seasoned professionals, choose instead to stick their heads in their sketchbooks, often sitting in a circle with seemingly little socialization even with their neighbors.  At least, that’s how it seems.

While I am usually of the opinion that an artist should draw, then draw some more, and when they’re finally tired of drawing should continue to do the same, there is a time and place for everything.  The way I see it, the seasoned professionals at these conventions are a valuable resource, and not engaging them, listening to their stories, and generally getting to know them is a waste.

Join us.

It has been my experience that the fantasy and science fiction genre of illustration is full of the most open and generous artists I’ve ever met.  They’ve been willing to teach me all manner of things, critique my work and give me advice.  Some have even become friends.  This didn’t happen because I sat on a hotel lobby floor hunched over my sketchbook.  This happened because I put myself out there, asked questions, solicited their thoughts, and had a laugh or two with them. Put simply, we got to know each other.

While I appreciate that drawing is vital to the betterment of your artistic abilities, you just paid good money to attend a convention and sit at on a hotel lobby floor and draw —something you could have done at home for free.  You know what you can’t do at home?  You can’t talk to the likes of Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or any other artists of their ilk that may be at your disposal at said event.

Join us.

Seriously.  There are folks out there who would love to get to know you, but aren’t going to engage you while you’ve got your back turned with your nose in your sketchbook.  Opportunities to talk with a lot of these folks are fleeting.  To not drink deeply from this well is a shame — not just because of what you’ll miss, but because of what some of the illustrators standing around and chatting might miss, as well: you.

I will grant you that what I ask can be very intimidating.  It took a long time for me to get the guts to even say word one to some of the folks I mention above.  In fact, there are certain illustrators that I STILL have difficulty talking to after many years of knowing them.  I still stutter, hem and haw.  After all, what does one say to their heroes?  But I’m asking for the difficult — not the impossible.

Understand, also, that I’m not suggesting that you completely abandon your drawing circle nor your friends and acquaintances therein.  Bring them along, in fact!  Have a laugh, try to press the flesh, share a drink, and listen to a tale or two.  Tell a tale or two yourselves, even!  Engage these folks — even if you’re nothing more than a wallflower at first, as I once was.  You may hear a horror story that you can learn from, or a funny story that has you howling…or you may be bored to tears.  But, you won’t know if you don’t give it a try.

Again, it was quite difficult for me at first, but the effort I put into getting over my fears and talking to folks with more experience under their belt has resulted in benefits beyond what I could have imagined.  So, next convention put your sketchbooks down for a night.  Talk to a couple people.  Get to know someone.  Sit back, have a laugh, and

Join us.


  1. Notes (because the article wasn’t long enough to begin with):

    1) Some may take issue with my characterization of the drawing circles, and I apologize if I offend. My conclusion is drawn purely from observation. If there is a great deal of socialization among the drawing circle’s participants, it is certainly done in a more subtle way than I, myself, am capable of or am capable of detecting. To be sure, I don’t want anyone to think that I am calling those in the circles rude. I merely think it a shame that they are so segregated, and I’d like to believe that this segregation is not due to their being made to feel unwelcome by loud, obnoxious chatterboxes such as myself.

    2) I freely admit that it’s difficult as an outsider to break into a wall of folks who know each other and are chatting away, oblivious to the goings on around them. While the internet has made keeping up with our fellow illustrators that much easier, there is still an urge to hang out with compatriots that we may not have seen or talked to in person in months or possibly years. This, of course, only adds to the intimidation factor and can also make it frustratingly difficult to get your foot in the door conversationally. Take heart, however, in the knowledge that many of us were outsiders once but somehow managed to weasel our way into some semblance of social familiarity.

  2. Well said, Steve! Professional artists are a most unselfish breed. We all know what it was like to be "on the outside", and know how hard it is to get started. With very very few exceptions, every hero of mine has been gracious and generous when I've approached them.

  3. I have to admit, I attended IlluXcon this year and definitely had to deal with this fear myself. There were a lot of artists I didn't get around to talking to as much as I'd like to or at all even. But whenever I did speak with someone they were always very welcoming, helpful and seemed to enjoy speaking with me. I really wanted to talk to more artists at the con, but I find myself reluctant because I'm not the best at initiating conversation. It's good to read this post, even though I have been told this stuff just goes to show it's true. I'll be sure to be much more sociable next year.

  4. @Chris - Thanks! I have to say that if it weren't for my fellow illustrators I would not be where I am today, nor would my work be as serviceable as it is.

    @Mike - Glad to hear your experience was so positive. And, you're right — it can be really difficult to initiate the conversation (especially when you don't have a very outgoing personality). My advice is to think of a question and start with that. Gathering information is always a good excuse to talk. Also, don't be afraid to just listen in. I've learned a ton about technique and how to deal with specific art directors and clients by just listening in from the sidelines. I wouldn't have gotten any of that from my sketchbook, I assure you!

  5. I love reading reading your blog and your brothers? who posted about WHY do this. I have met you and you were very encouraging and a true professional. Its funny as I read your blog yesterday so today I commented on another artist's blog about how much i liked his work and looked fwd to seeing him as a con guest.So he deleted it. The truely professional artists are so much more open, I think its weird that up and coming seem to be more rude to those that are ..less? newer? non usuable? to them. In the blog he mentions going to Illuxcon etc and seeing the greats. I had asked about a commission at the last con I saw him at and he runs a card/comic store that my sons spends about 100-300 a month on those products. so he lost a customer and doesnt know it. This happened a few years back with an artist who had the most delicate watercolors and I was estatic to meet him. My younger friend was 18 and a budding artist, at the time I had pieces in 3 galleries locally but wildlife art more so than fantasy. But a nobody in fantasy I understand that. i had just done a panel at Dragoncon a month earlier. So anyway- we went up to this artist and just asked what time his demo was to be, as it was TBA, he was alone and looking at a painting in our art show. Literally before we could finish the question, he puts his hand up in my face and indicates "be quiet". So i stop talking and we wait about 10 mins, and he never turns back around. So we wander off, shot down. I was embarrassed as I was so excited about this guest and we were blew off like star struck tweens. I see his work and love it but will never buy it as all I can remember was that burning embarrassment. My point is, that 80% of the fantasy artists are great, but some really are caustic. They cost themselves business by hurting peoples feelings. I am weird anyway as my local con i dont like to display at as its mostly my friends who dont know me like that....thats my fun con lol. I worked for a few gaming companies so it was gaming time for years. Your blog is great and people if people like todd Lockwood and Donato can take the time to write and be personalable...then thats golden. Since I am nobody, just a customer, I do think twice about asking artists questions when they arent behind a table or forum, as some seem imposed on and it burns to be rejected by those you admire or try to be encouraging too.You are so right, this industry more than any breaks the stereotypes of the snobby artist in most ways....Yourself included! you can erase this, maybe I am not good with words, when i try to encourage or show support it gets deleted anyway lol

  6. Dyann,

    Thanks for the comment. I honestly can't account for any other artists' actions regarding other artists or fans. It is true that some are surlier than others, and some can be a bit socially inept. I can only account for my own experience which has been filled with a great deal of artistic generosity. All the same, I'm sorry to hear that things didn't go quite so well with a certain few. It is good to hear, however, that you've found the majority to be good folks.



I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.