I have been live sketching runway shows for a little over five years now. Above on the left is an early runway sketch, Jeremy Laing Spring 2008. On the right is a recent sketch, Jean Pierre Braganza Spring 2013. You can see the progress between these two examples by scrolling back through my archives – not that I would encourage that use of your time. To my eyes now, I think what I have developed over ten seasons of hustling my way into fashion shows in six cities and sketching what I see is a nascent sense of sophistication – an early iteration of elegance. After five years of trying, I’m just beginning to master this anachronistic art form.
A few weeks ago, I was revising my portfolio and looking through the work I’ve created over the past few years. I’m not the sort of person who looks backwards much – I prefer futurism to sentimentality – so this experience was both psychologically uncomfortable and eye-opening. I realized that it was only early this year – 2012 – that my work both as a writer and as an illustrator made a quantum leap. It may be barely perceptible to anyone else, but I felt that something profound had changed in the way I create, without me even being aware of it. Before that invisible transition, my work seems provincial and sophomoric, and yet of course, I didn’t realize it at the time I was doing it.
The shifting levels of ability and taste rarely match as you develop your craft. Usually as a young person, your ability will exceed your taste. You will create questionable work with naive facility, and be irrationally proud of it without recognizing its shortcomings. If you continue, an imperceptible reversal occurs, when your taste exceeds your ability. Education and experience will reveal to you where your lack of skills limit you. Everything you create will fail to satisfy you. This is the stage where you will be truly tested – discontent and discouragement will divide the dabblers from the dedicated.
I joked the other day about giving advice to struggling young creatives – “quit and get a real job, clear the field for stubborn perma-bohemians like me”. It is kind of mean and it is kind of true. We live in a time where the visual arts are saturated with young people who have been encouraged to pursue a creative career, all thrashing it out on the lower levels, resulting in all the ubiquitous internships and other forms of subsidized bohemia. Those who survive the economic necessity of mass attrition to become true professionals will only make it due to sheer persistence. Both the persistence to overcome the financial difficulty of getting through the beginning of a career, and the persistence to invest all the thousands of hours it takes to actually develop the taste, skill and intelligence to contribute something of cultural significance.
I just turned 30. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, even though I’m not as far ahead in my career as I thought I would be a decade ago. Back then, I vastly underestimated the challenges I would face and I overestimated my own talents and the modern viability of this specific niche. And yet, now that I have a much more nuanced understanding of what I’m attempting to do, I feel more determined than ever to continue, no matter how many years it takes.
When I investigate the masters of fashion illustration that I admire – especially the live runway illustrators like Joe Eula and Kenneth Paul Block – I notice that very few of them achieved acclaim until they had already banked decades of practice. Consistent elegance of line is a quality that the young do not have – barring the outlying cases of child prodigies – it is earned only with experience.
Mastering an art could be defined as that point where your abilities finally match your sense of taste. There’s only one way to get there.