I went to ICON 10 in Detroit. It ran from July 11 through 14, and like the last one, it was full-on from start to finish. I find that when I go to these things I have very little time to properly reflect, or even sleep or work or keep in touch with my family for that matter.
After the conference, I zipped over to Toronto where I spent another couple weeks taking in one of my favourite cities with my wife and kids. Perhaps I can reflect on the Toronto trip another time, but today I would like to summarize what I learned in Detroit. There of course were so many amazing things about it, including meeting and re-meeting amazing illustrators in person, seeing a new city, and hearing from today’s foremost creators on the mainstage. But somehow I need to summarize what ICON 10 was about for me, what I got from it, and how I think it will affect me now that I’m back home.
The unspoken theme of ICON, for me, was the Sketchbook. It seems that so many of the speakers spoke about how working ideas out in their private sketchbooks, safely outside the anxieties of likes and comments, was key to fuelling them creatively out of stagnation and into new territory. For instance, Dadu Shin spoke about how working in his sketchbook leads to looser, freer, more creative work. His older editorial work was formulaic, and at a certain point he felt like he was just pumping out work but not really enjoying it along the way. Illustrating became rote for him. Through creative exploration that started in his sketchbook, Shin learned to put himself in situations where he didn’t know what was going to happen, and for him, that mystery, that adventure, was what he needed to reconnect with his work. I have always felt this way to some degree, that there must be some element of uncharted territory in our work. If we know what the outcome will be, there is no true growth or discovery in the process, and for me, this is everything. I love making things more than the things I make. If I have been creating only with the thing itself as the goal, it’s no wonder I have become unhappy with the process!
Joheen Yoon was another speaker who shared about working in her sketchbook. I think for her it was different from Dadu’s story, where he was using his sketchbook as a catalyst for breaking out of old paradigms. For Yoon, whose main theme was about keeping a travelogue (a sketchbook diary of her travels), the sketchbook is about slowing down and taking in her surroundings. It’s also about being spontaneous and experimental. She showed us some pages from her book and also a recording of her drawing the view outside her Brooklyn apartment. On the point of staying spontaneous, she tries to use a coloured crayon she cannot erase and just work with and build from her mistakes. Her work is beautifully free and joyful, and it is clearly her un-self-critical approach that comes through in this way. SInce June, I have started keeping a sketchbook more diligently and carrying it around wherever I go. My resolution has been to be “the guy with the sketchbook”. In this way, I will get used to being observed as I draw in public. Joohee Yoon’s talk really encouraged me to continue in this and provided me with some insights on how to best position myself to sketch from everyday life. One such insight was to find a place where people are standing particularly still, such as a post office or museum, if drawing people in public is my goal. Another insight (or reminder) is that drawing buildings, rather than people, is a lot easier and more enjoyable, since they don’t move.
If you’re interested in seeing pages from my sketchbook, I post some of these in a separate Instagram account called Drawing Is Important.
While I do not wish to be negative or bash any of the speakers by name, there was one talk that, unfortunately, failed to deliver a cohesive message or sense of purpose. If you were there, you know exactly which one I mean. It was like a sketch out of Portlandia, two performance artists being a parody of themselves, but totally un-ironically. I looked around to see if anyone else was as lost as I was. A lot of us were just distracting ourselves by sketching in our notebooks. The entire thing was absurd and inaccessible, if not completely incoherent. The speaker read from a script, word for word, without making eye contact, without addressing the actual audience in the room. I'm rarely this critical of conference speakers, as I know these things take a lot of preparation and you can't please everyone. But who knows, maybe this talk could have been redeemed by a less scripted delivery.
There is no reason for me to bring up the above except that when Nathaniel Russel started his talk by reading from his own notes, in a similarly dry tone, and with the threat of intellectual inaccessibility (he’s smart), I was afraid that I was in for another 20 minutes of indecipherable artspeak. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Russel quickly converted me as he began to talk about the difficulty of simplicity. While at first, it seemed that his talk would be an ode to his own laziness, it ended up being a carefully crafted treatise on “why keeping it simple can be the most powerful way to communicate.” His talk was a brilliant articulation of something that I constantly struggle with — when creating an image, how much is enough? How can I add just the right amount of detail without overworking a piece? He broke down his recipe for perfect simplicity as a balance between Mystery and Economy (I drew it as a Venn diagram in my sketchbook). Russel kind of had a double-edged effect on me. On the down-side, it made me fear that in my own work I have lost that sense of both economy and mystery. Perhaps I have tried to create a process that is too spelled out the whole way through. Perhaps my work is becoming too laden with details compared to my earlier work (even if it is more skilled and crafted than before). But on the up-side, it recalibrated my focus on the “enoughness” of my images and each element therein. I will be more consciously bringing this sense of economy to my images, not by leaving them undeveloped, but aiming for a more economical way of expressing an idea. On the mystery side, I am encouraged to leave more out of the image and leave it to the viewer to finish it in their own mind. Again, this is something I have long held as an ideal, not being so direct and literal, and having something for the viewer to figure out. It need not be as abstract and minimal as a Rorschach ink blot. Maybe there’s economy in a scene, where fewer clues are given as to what is happening. Or maybe there’s mystery in unexpected, spontaneous, illogical twists and turns in how the image is constructed.
So these are my most notable observations from the conference, at least in terms of what was delivered on stage. There were so many amazing interactions and experiences offstage too, and perhaps I can talk about these next time.
Did you go to ICON, whether this year or previously? What was your experience? I’d love to know what you got from it in the comments! Maybe you can tell me what you thought was going on in that Portlandia skit.