WHAT?! is Drooly Dog’s Advice Column for the Creative and Perplexed. In which I answer burning questions about the creative process and what might be holding up that brain of yours. Send your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Drooly Dog: I am an artist and illustrator. I put a ton of work into the characters I create. I design their costumes, write their backstories, and above all I keep them original. I’m very proud of that.
A few years ago, though, I was working on my technique and I used Spider-Man as my model. I created a really good rendering and made a few prints of it.
Now, when I go to art shows or cons, this stupid Spider-Man print grabs all the attention. That’s what brings people to my table, not the many hours of original work covering the rest of the display.
On top of that, it seems like the people who make the best living selling art are the ones who can draw characters everybody already knows. Shoot, at one show there was this 12-year-old kid drawing Batman or something, and people acted like he was some kind of prodigy. For drawing something he didn’t create!
Drooly Dog, how do I keep myself motivated to make new material and new characters, when it seems like all anybody wants is the old stuff and the retreads? I’ve gotta make a living!
– Sincerely, Original and Irrelevant
The human brain is great and just so dumb all at the same time. We love stories, and characters, but we also love things we recognize. In fact, recognition is a huge cognitive deal. People who invent new things for a living often refer to the principle of MAYA, coined originally by the designer Raymond Loewy (look that dude up.) It means, “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” In other words, new stuff often (or: always) reaches that place on the shoulders of old stuff. Star Wars as a space version of an adventure serial. Cirque du Soleil blending acrobatics and drama. Uh, hello, Hamilton.
Please, please continue to make original work. Commit to it. But also: take a little journey into the land of where your characters came from. The things in your past, that you loved, that inspired you. Maybe it was a painter, or a story, or whatever. But the truth is, you, like everyone around you, are a mashup. You mash up genes from your parents and ideas from your environment. And they come out of you as something entirely new.
And then: Tell your audience! Share with them what inspires you. Make those connections for them. Your work will still be original, don’t be afraid. But humans trying to sort a new thing look for a point of reference. So give them one. My scifi adventure novels are “The Incredibles plus Twin Peaks with shape shifting and time travel.”
Your particular style will not abandon you if you do this. But you will have a great way to start a conversation with someone who is trying to get a feel for your work. And then, launch into what you uniquely have done with all this goodness. That’s what is most exciting.
It is a myth and unfair to try to exist like you didn’t come from anywhere. Honor your creative heritage and fall in love with that process, and people who also appreciate those things will have whole new reasons to fall in love with your unique work. Because humans love to recognize things, but they love a new twist even more.
Love, Drooly Dog
Drooly Dog offers creative advice only. Nothing legal or medical, please follow of your own accord. It’s up to you, man.
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