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Back in July, I got the chance to make the trek up to Detroit for ICON10: The Illustration Conference. The conference offered two days of workshops followed by two days of talks by illustrators from all across the industry. I looked forward to ICON for months…after all, it was a chance to get my hands dirty, meet some of my favorite artists, and build relationships with illustrators across the U.S.

Like many of the artists at ICON10, I took notes in a sketchbook throughout the conference. Afterward, while sitting on the plane back to Austin, I looked through my sketchbook and noticed some patterns. So rather than give you a play-by-play of the events at ICON, I’ll share a few themes that made my experience memorable.

Be prolific by playing

From David Habben’s five minute talk about working with dancers to capture movement in abstract expression…to Ako Castuera’s karate demonstration, play was an important theme.

Mike Perry’s talk centered on the rituals and spaces we create for ourselves, and how they can foster the flow state that leads to better work. Energy plays an important role in illustration. Surrounding yourself with things that bring you joy (like a prism) will help you drop into a sense of play more easily. One of the ways we can bring ritual into our lives is by doing a simple everyday challenge. (For example, Mike took a selfie every day for a year.)

Dadu Shin made an important point: Don’t let your process become too formulaic. By experimenting with different media, methods, and inspiration, we can make room to continually grow as artists. You’ll see evidence of this in Dadu’s portfolio: Every piece has a life of its own, evolving from a fluid and unrestrained process.

One of the most entertaining talks was a video presentation of Saiman Chow’s surrealist, hilarious work for Adult Swim. Perpetually distracted and easily bored by repetition, Saiman makes art that combines different media and looks like no one else’s work.

As young artists, we grew up thinking of art as play. That’s why we loved it so much that we made it our livelihood. But corporate culture is built on a foundation of constant productivity…forcing artists to distill their work down to a formulaic process that systematizes work output for the sole purpose of producing more, for cheaper. As working artists, our self worth becomes inextricably tied to our net worth. That’s a surefire path to burnout.

Regardless of how you do it, the more you experience life, the more you can show in your work.

Diversity: It’s about time

For the first time, we’re starting to see a full spectrum of gender, race, abilities, sexualities, and beliefs represented in mainstream content. ICON10 speakers offered a breath of fresh air that included, among other things, Vanessa Bradley Newton’s story of a learning difference that led to a breakthrough children’s book, as well as Armando Veve’s talk about the safety of queer spaces.

Wesley Allsbrook presented a captivating demonstration of painting in VR while we listened to a recording of her description of the politics of the VR industry. It’s no secret that in recent years, the tech industry has come under fire for its sexist and exploitative culture, and the rising field of VR definitely hasn’t been spared.

One of my favorite parts of the ICON10 MainStage presentation was a panel of female muralists that included Sydney James, Louise Jones, and Ellen Rutt. Their talk was a free-flowing discussion of the messages in their work, male perception of women operating heavy machinery (eye roll), and how murals are truly having a moment.

Another panel, the State of Freelance Illustration, explored the ways that illustration is changing and evolving with the times. The panelists all seemed to agree that we’re experiencing a Golden Age of Illustration. Robert Hunt made a key point: Every artistic Golden Age has risen from turbulent times, and today is no different. Artists are part of the media, and we have to use our power for the things we believe in.

Strength in vulnerability

The greatest thing about ICON10 wasn’t just the workshops led by famous artists, or the demonstrations and panels from successful people I admire. It was the conversations that sprang up while waiting for shuttles or standing in snack lines. In this group, I found a pure willingness to open up and have meaningful conversations. Instead of wading through small talk and empty pleasantries, we jumped straight into shared passions and personal struggles. It was refreshing.

Every day at ICON was exciting, eye opening, and full of lessons. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting was all the emotion. Speakers onstage talked about feelings of inadequacy, failures, and putting more raw feeling into their work. And my own conversations with other attendees left me feeling emotionally drained…yet inspired…at the end of each day.

Every artist’s path is different, but we all have one commonality: We feel. We put ourselves out there, without guidance and without a map, and we try to make the best work we possibly can. ICON10 was a rare chance to surround myself with other people making a journey into the unknown. For a brief time, we were together. And now we continue our journey, separate but connected, across the vast infinity of possibility.

Written by

Illustrator of flora, fauna, and folklore

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