I’ve always been a big fan of the series Mad Men. Since the show’s release in 2007, audiences (including myself for approximately 6 full viewings) have been enraptured by the glamour and swish of Donald Drapers New York Ad Agency. And, throughout the six years the show ran for, spanning a full decade in diegetic time, the Agency takes no less than four official forms. But, most tellingly, each agency functions nearly identically, despite the changing of names on doors.
Before entering in to this year of professional experience, this was about my take on the ‘design agency’ world – juniors reporting to mid-levels reporting to seniors reporting to directors reporting to clients who might maybe decide that some work can be done eventually. And honestly, I was okay with being a cog in that fantastical machine. I still am, it seems quite exciting. But that is most assuredly not the experience the first six months of the DPS year have brought me, and as each day passes in the midst of a global crisis, I become more and more convinced that things will not be this way for quite some time.
Like many people in 2020, I currently work full time from home at a placement with a small company based in South London. Having never met a member of the team in person, and communicating with my boss around twice a week through Slack and Skype, it’s been a little isolating to say the least. Around the four month mark, at which point I’d been working on an illustrated map of London (fig. 1) for around six weeks with no end in sight, I began to question whether I even wanted to be pursuing illustration as a career. As an illustrator in this climate, so much of your work is solitary with pointers from clients and commissioners, and if you miss a deadline because you couldn’t motivate yourself, that’s on you. Most of the time, once you finish a piece you’ve been staring at it for so long you don’t even know if it’s good anymore, and in the age of Zoom you can’t ask your colleagues for their input. The anxiety surrounding this isolated style of working, of having to trust your own abilities without the bubble of academia or working community to support you is terrifying, and I imagine would be even if we didn’t have to do this from our bedrooms. However, once I allowed myself to actually accept that this is just the way the world is right now and there’s nothing you can do to change it, things got a little easier.
This point of realising that everything isn’t perfect but also doesn’t have to be, hit me the most during a work day for my placement. However, it has since become a critical understanding of my practice that I have used to reflect and move forward whenever I appear to be up against a wall.
In the last month, I entered the Observer / Johnathon Cape short graphic story competition, with my four page comic ‘The Monster Under my Bed’. I had originally intended this comic to be in full, rendered colour, and a certain degree of realism like much of my other comics work. (fig. 2) In the style frames I completed prior to beginning illustration, I was aware that this was achievable but would be difficult within the month long time frame I had given myself. But I was prepared, excited, and ready to go.
Three very difficult weeks later, I surfaced from a barrage of personal issues and remembered I had a comic to layout, illustrate, and letter. And now I had to do it in nine days.
Six months ago, I simply would have written the project off as impossible. Life conspired against me, I had no choice in it, there’s no way it could be done – all very real issues that have caused me to miss deadlines in the past. However, the complete madness of this year, everything that has been thrown at all of us – something about it made me want to dig my heels in and actually do it, as much for myself as for entering the competition. With my planned illustration style this would quite literally be impossible – there simply aren’t the hours in the day. To overcome this, I had to find a quick way of adding dimension in colour and an effective line art method that didn’t require detail, only precision. After (a great deal of) trial and error, I decided on a couple of techniques utilised by some of my favourite illustrators. In lining the comic, I utilised the ‘line and curve’ method loved by many 2D animators, most personally significant in the work of Bruce Timm for Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995). While this may not be obvious in the work itself, learning to think of my images as shapes and lines rather than an inadequate representation of real life forced me to step away from frantic detail and enjoy simply making images. In colouring, I had an incredibly similar experience. Utilising red and blue digital overlay layers, inspired by the work of Stephanie Pepper, I added dimension to my colour flats without overworking the colouring or losing the simplicity of line art that I was, surprisingly, now quite fond of. I made the competition deadline, and actually enjoyed the process of meeting it (fig.3). Only through being forced to reset and reconsider my practice did I manage to create this work, which is quite in keeping with how the rest of the world seems to be functioning right now.
So, maybe I’ll never be in the sky high offices of Mad Men, like I once dreamed, or even in the studios I see so often around my home in Kennington. Maybe Agencies are less important than the will it takes: for each of us to know exactly how difficult something is, and to carry on doing it anyway, because you now, in the end, it’ll be worth it. It might feel like the world is constantly falling apart, but the ability to keep picking up a pen and creating is the agency that will, without fail, get us through the darkest times.
Thanks for reading,
Elizabeth (Lee) Stephenson, @leechstepart