It’s time to dig deeper.

Print by Madmanincognito

Print by Madmanincognito

I snapped yesterday in class. And it wasn’t pretty.

It happened after I gave a presentation to my class about the people, artists and brands who inspired me. I created a slideshow, showed video clips and shared about why they were special, and the patterns that link through them and how the students would benefit by thinking and going deeper into researching their own likes and dislikes; while understanding the reason behind the way these artists work.

I gave this presentation in turn – after hearing the class share a 5 to 10 minute presentation about who and what they’re inspired by last week. I prompted the presentation from the students after a round of exasperated hand-wringing and questioning yielded no answer to the question “who inspires you”. None in particular it seems. All of it a hazy blur. Let me be clear – some of them knew vaguely what they like. They just don’t know names, faces, etc; or how to articulate what it is that they like about the works they see. And that’s the biggest problem – either they’re barely skimming the surface or they’re not communicating their thoughts well. Either or; it was a problem nonetheless.

So when I went deeper and showed them what it means to go digging around for information (I was talking about Maira Kalman who researched about Abraham Lincoln who collected these findings into a book), I saw yawns. Glazed eyes. I saw people heading out to the restroom. And that’s generally okay with me. Maybe they had really small bladders or maybe they didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Fine. Then I heard shouts of “Wikipedia” – suggesting that it’s the place that people should go to for information – instead of Miss Kalman’s round-about way of going into Lincoln’s garden and collecting leaves, and her writing that seemed to ramble off information. I held my tongue. But when I started to ask about the names of the people who I’ve talked about on screen, a big giant blank went over the class. Names were uttered. Wrong ones. I wanted the names of 5 people. Not 10, not 20. FIVE. My face changed. The insides of my chest burned.

I was angry.

Angry because they were arrogant. Because they were over confident of their (at this point – very limited) abilities. Because of their nonchalance. But mostly it was because I cared. A little too much, I’m afraid.

They got me that list in the end after lunch. And I brushed my anger aside.

When I got back, I realize that I’ve left a lot of things unsaid although deep down I was frustrated at the whole affair. I tend to hold my tongue when I get angry – because I don’t believe in hurting people’s feelings – and so that’s what I did. Because I knew that when words are spoken it’s hard to unspeak them (or for that matter, for the other person to un-hear them). So I held back. Mostly.

But then I got to thinking. I should have told them that if I had Wikipedia, I could look it up myself – what do I need them for? What would the world need of artists or designers then? What would they be? Just another alphabet puncher on Google or Wikipedia? What would they hope to learn if they were confident in their assumption that they knew it all already? Would there be a place in their hearts and mind for knowledge if it was instead already filled up with self-righteous smugness?

Would they recognize golden nuggets of information if it hit them squarely in the face? Would they embrace digging? Would they voluntarily go a-hunting, not knowing what they would find, but revel in the journey instead? The unearthing of information, of facts, of emotions and science, and to put them together again with beauty? With clarity? Or perhaps shaped and moulded by their own hope and desires?

One can only hope.

I can only hope.

[Print by Jonathan Moore of Madmanincognito]

Moving forward vs. slipping backwards

Grow your imagination // APAK

Grow your imagination // APAK

“When you’re being told that you’re good at something, you start to believe them and then you forget about your hopes and dreams,” ~ Ken Spillman 

This topic of growing has been on my mind lately.

Growing, shifting, experimenting; along with the fear and excitement that comes from it all. I lost this a while back, and instead of pushing myself forward, I found myself a bit more frozen with fear with each passing day. I wasn’t excited either. I was stuck. I thought it was just an internal rumbling that came from being bogged down with work, my impending wedding, and my grandmother being unwell. I didn’t listen to that small nudge that persisted inside my heart and my mind. I blocked it out, convinced that if others didn’t feel the need for me to change, then there must be some truth to what I’m doing – that it’s okay to stay the course.

I attended a talk during my time at The Asian Festival of Children’s Content two weeks ago, and Ken Spillman was giving a talk about finding his calling. And what he said stuck with me for a long time. He was a non-fiction writer who turned to writing for children after many, many years. When he was writing non-fiction, everyone told him how good he was at it. He believed them although he felt conflicted inside – and it tore him apart. “When you’re being told that you’re good at something, you start to believe them and then you forget about your hopes and dreams,” he said. We talked a bit more afterwards about it one-to-one, and his message hunkered down deep.

It’s a funny feeling.

There’s a lot of pushing and pulling. And yet I’m stagnant. Coming to terms with it has been liberating.

I’ve known only too well that anyone – whether you’re an artist, a writer, or an entrepreneur – that there is no such thing as being stagnant. There’s only moving forward, or slipping backwards. No two ways about it.

And I’m excited to move forward.

What about you? Have you ever been in a situation where you consciously moved forward instead of letting yourself slip backwards? I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure that it will resonate with others as well!


If you’re a little confused, allow me to shed some light – this week marks the last online class that I’ll be teaching for now, and it’s called Visual Journaling, and I’m teaching with Jamie Shelman. It’s part of the Pikaland Artist Bootcamp series as well as Camp Pikaland – where I gather teachers and students together for online classes which started in 2010. I love bringing people together and it was great fun too! But the time has come for me to grow personally and as well as take Pikaland to the next level, and in order to do that, I’ve had to give up Camp Pikaland for the time being. Technical difficulties also played a big part in the decision, as it would take enormous resources to upgrade the site – I’ve been given an ultimatum to comply and to make these changes to the Camp Pikaland website, or be shut down. I chose the latter.


Dear students: Who says you need a degree to learn?

yvonne kroese

yvonne kroese

Dear students,

I like to challenge conventions and ideas all the time.

And one of the topics that I can quickly get hot under the collar about is the topic of education. I think it’s a field that needs to be challenged, especially in this day and age where information runs freely and so abundantly. I’m not against the idea of learning. Far from it – I’m challenging the idea that learning needs to be in a formal environment, for a minimum of 2 to 3 years, learning about things that ultimately do not help you get to where you want to be.

You see, I get a lot of questions about pursuing a Masters degree, or even a diploma in a field that they love. And if you’re a student who knows what you want, and you have the means to go to a college or university, then by all means, go for it. But only IF you want to and feel very strongly about it and know what you want to get out of it. For the rest who don’t know what you want or can’t afford to go to college or university, then this article is for you. For those of you who don’t know whether to continue your education or not, then this is for you too.

I spent 5 years in a public university and graduated as a landscape architect back in 2004. I spent my life following a very predictable arc – primary school, high school, university, and then work. Only I didn’t work in the field that I graduated from. I felt that I didn’t belong, and after 6 months of intense internship where I gave it my best shot, I’ve deduced that I’m not suited to being a landscape architect. I hated the long hours, and the red tape that governed each project. I hated dealing with contractors and having my design torn to shreds due to shrinking budgets. And I hated AutoCAD with every fibre of my being. So much that I did my technical drawings manually (i.e. completely by hand) during my final semester when everyone else was doing theirs via computer.

So when I graduated, I turned to publishing immediately. What made me go to a publisher with nary a resume and no work history to prove my worth? Instead of focusing on what I didn’t have, I demonstrated what I could do instead. I wrote up an article and laid it out in Adobe Photoshop, to give an idea of the sort of articles I think should appear on the magazine. I got a callback for an interview and was hired on the spot as an editorial assistant. You wouldn’t believe the amount of push back I got from my peers and my parents about going for a job that I didn’t learn about in university! People said it would never work, and that no one would hire me – not without a Mass Communication or a journalism degree. I challenged it and proved them wrong. Heck I even went on to start a magazine for a publisher, and worked as an editor!

Was my 5 years spent in university a complete waste of time? I’d say it’s split down to 50-50. Back then we didn’t have choices. And the internet was still in its infancy. So we followed along a very linear path – one that our peers took. And the ones that our seniors followed before that. I wish that I could cut the time I spent in uni in half, but it wasn’t something that I could control. I wished that I had travelled more and explored student exchange options overseas. But that’s basically it. The upside which I could control: I’m grateful for learning a bit more about fine arts, design and the experience of working in a studio, and for the friends I made along the way. I made sure I was in control of what I wanted to learn – I enrolled in a degree that taught me the basics of design and art, even though deep down I knew that I might not work in the field I studied in. The reasons for doing so was a little complicated – I didn’t have access to a lot of courses in public university, and I didn’t go to a private college because of financial restraints (I didn’t want to get myself or my parents in debt). I made sure that the lessons I learnt, however, can be applied to virtually anything I was interested in life.

And that’s what I want people to know.

That you’re in control of what you do. That you can choose to learn at your own pace and to create your own outcome. That you don’t need a title to define yourself – you’re better off focusing on the things you want to learn, rather than what you will be at the end of a degree. That you’re no longer following a linear path – you have a wide open field at your disposal. And yes, that may be terrifying at times, but it’s also a very exciting time.

I set up this blog in 2008 precisely because I didn’t know much about illustration. I wanted to learn more from the artists I saw online. I saw their work, and I devoured their statements and went looking for patterns in their work so that I could try to get a glimpse of why they chose to create the way they do. It was always about ideas, and never about techniques for me. And so for 5 years (it’s approaching 6 now!) I learnt on my own. I saw thousands of illustrations, read thousands of bios, artists statements and concepts; talked to hundreds of artists and learnt what I could about the business. And I want to give back to people, and show others that it can be done.

Here’s another example: 8 years ago, I learnt about HTML and CSS. And PHP. I remembered that I was so frustrated for three months because I couldn’t grasp the idea behind a content management system (CMS) – this was before the heyday of WordPress – and I wanted to have a blog designed the way I liked it but I couldn’t afford a web developer. And I couldn’t tolerate the ugly designs of shopping carts back then so I had to customize my own. I wrote to developers instead, asking about the big picture and why I can’t seem to wrap my head around the core function of a CMS. I asked people in forums newbie questions, and continued my relentless pursuit of information. And then one night in an eureka moment it all came together for me – I could piece together the information because I now understood what it all meant. I happily went to work on the website and learnt bit by bit everyday.

And it was the best feeling in the world – the thought that I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my heart into it.

And so can you.


You may also find this useful: Our Good to Know series that asks artists about whether or not an art education makes a difference.
Illustration: Yvonne Kroese

[box icon=”heart”] Every week, I teach about the creative process of illustration at a local college. And when I come home, I realize that I’ve forgotten to point this out, or to remind them about something. Dear Students serves as my own personal compilation of thoughts, and is a series dedicated to students around the world who might find my musings useful. To read the entire series, click here. [/box]

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