What have I done?! Two decades into my art career and I go and completely change my style! Have I gone crazy?! Well, yes and no. Being an artist means constantly learning and growing at your craft so you don’t stagnate or burn out. Change is a necessary part of being an artist.

Yes Way Kid art SM JPG

My inspiration as an artist growing up came not from children’s books but from New Yorker cartoonists like B. Kliban, George Booth, Ronald Searle , Chas Addams, Roz Chast, and all the old Mad magazine artists like Jack Davis, Will Elder, Wally Wood, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, and Sergio Aragonés. And later on when I did political cartoons for a local newspaper, I loved cartoonists like Jeff MacNelly and Patrick Oliphant. But I was working in a kind of soft chalk pastel cartoon style for most of my children’s book career. I loved the art of Mary GrandPré, Peter de Sève, William Joyce, and Mark Teague. Their painterly styles were something that I thought I wanted to emulate. In a way I was so infatuated with their wonderful illustrations that I forgot to follow my heart and find my own artistic voice.

Fly sketch fb

So I struggled along with my art. I did well and my clients were happy, but when I looked at my portfolio I slowly realized that it just wasn’t me. And I wasn’t really happy when I was creating my art, either. There wasn’t much joy for me there anymore. I think I was choosing what I thought clients wanted to see over what I truly loved to draw and create.

Beep Beep Art 2

So I began playing around with my art and materials. One of the great things about working digitally is that you can experiment with different brushes, paints, and papers without it costing anything beyond the initial price of the program. For my artwork I use Corel Painter 2015, and it allows me to choose effortlessly between watercolors, gouache, oil paints, pastels, and chalks and inks. I can even overlay watercolor on top of oil, and mix any digital media just to see what would happen.

Dino Park zenfolio (2)

It took months of sitting in front of the computer and trying out every brush, paper, and paint in the program until, through trial and error, I sort of stumbled onto some brushes and paints that worked well for me and that I enjoyed using. This also changed the way I drew and thought about my art, and it made me eager to try out my new approach on a project. Best of all it felt right: This was a simplified version of the way I used to draw, and I could work faster doing it. I felt like this was the way I should have been doing my art all along. I found my artistic voice.

After doing some small sample pieces, I began posting them on Facebook and got an immediate positive response from other artists and editors. They saw that my art had more feeling in it and made an emotional connection with the viewer. Work picked up when an editor for a major publishing house saw my art on Facebook and messaged me that she loved the new art and even had an idea for a chapter book that included a character I had posted.

Girl and Brother

If you feel in a rut or unsatisfied with your artwork, I would encourage you to free up your imagination and break out of your routine by doing something different. If you don’t work digitally, you could start by experimenting with new brushes or pens, or playing around with a new medium like watercolors, gouache, or oils. Take life drawing or other art classes, or learn printmaking. Refresh your artistic soul by going to a museum, and try to associate with other artists as much as you can, either by joining a local art group or by finding them and friending them on Facebook or other social media. Most of all just sit and start to play around with your art. Find the joy you had when you when you were a child doing art just for the fun of it.

Be brave. And if people around you think you’ve lost your mind, then that’s probably a sign you’re doing the right thing.

1 Inktober Chair

Bob McMahon