This is the Secret to Your Creative Success

Do you know what aggravates my obsessive-compulsive nature? Trying to decide between a sketchy or clean art style.

Whether painting or cartooning, I vacillate between these two approaches. Both have their charms, and it’s tough to embrace one over the other.

I envy artists and creatives who don’t suffer this confliction. They naturally adopt a loose or tight approach. From there, they’re free to concentrate on improving their craft.

But for undecided artists like me, creative development can be stalled by indecision. Man, if I had a dollar for every sketch I reworked one way and then another way!

Painting by James Reynolds of String Lake in Jackson Hole, from “The Landscapes of James Reynolds”

Check out the gorgeous painting above by the late James Reynolds. I consider this to be a very clean, refined piece.

Reynolds brought this painting to a high degree of finish, resulting in a somewhat photographic look. It’s not hyper-realistic, but clearly not a loosely painted picture.

“Seaside village,” by Thomas Kinkade, from “The Artist in Nature- Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air Tradition”

In the painting above, by the late Thomas Kinkade (an accomplished painter despite his kitschy cottages), we see a much looser, sketchy work.

Unlike James Reynolds’ painting, this piece contains obvious brush strokes. Like many plein air and impressionistic works, the image comes together the further you step back and view it.

Close up of “Seaside Village”

If you examine the above close up, you can clearly see those juicy brushstrokes that were used to sculpt the rocks and small background details. I find this kind of painterly brushwork expressive and exciting. But, I also admire the realism that can be achieved from more refined, subtle brushwork.

An exquisite draftsman

Let’s turn our attention now to the world of cartooning. I spent many years drawing editorial cartoons for various newspapers.

My idol in those days was three time, Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly. I emulated Jeff’s style because he was such an exquisite draftsman. He achieved amazing detail and an elaborate cross-hatching technique.

Jeff MacNelly cartoon from my newspaper collection

Jeff MacNelly passed away in 2000, and there are few political cartoonists today who can match his draftsmanship and detailed perfection.

Done correctly, complex crosshatching can result in a pleasing richness and depth in a cartoon. Done haphazardly, crosshatching can devolve into a disconnected mess.

Close up of Jeff MacNelly cartoon

In the closeup above, we get a better view of MacNelly’s tightly controlled yet sketchy cross-hatching.

A very clean cartoon style

I spent many years working on my own cross-hatching, and enjoyed producing cartoons that conveyed this loose, sketchy look. But then, I started noticing the work of Bill Watterson. If the name’s not familiar, I’m sure his comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes” will ring a bell.

Close up of Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbles” comic strip, from my cartoon books collection

Note that Bill Watterson adopts a very clean cartoon style, largely devoid of cross-hatching and the kind of sketchy look Jeff MacNelly employed.

Close up of “Calvin & Hobbes” comic strip, by Bill Watterson

In the above example, we see Bill Watterson’s masterful use of black and white, high contrast imagery. Again, Watterson largely steers clear of cross-hatching. As a result, his comics are clean and readable. Further, Watterson understands how to use negative space very well.

Bill Watterson was influenced by both clean and sketchy cartoonists. He admired the minimalistic “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Schulz and the scratchy comics of George Herriman’s famous “Krazy Kat.”

Close up of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, from my cartoon book collection

The photo above shows the scratchy, delightful cartooning of the late George Herriman.

Even though Herriman’s work delighted Bill Watterson to no end, Watterson’s personal cartooning aesthetic leaned towards the simplicity and clean look of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip.

The spice of life

So, you’re probably wondering what all this “sketchy” versus “clean” artwork has to do with improving your own art, or life. Here’s the answer. It doesn’t matter what approach you lean towards, or even if you employ both from time to time.

What matters is one thing.

Variety

Variety of line, shapes, color and composition.

Variety is the secret sauce that will vastly improve your work, be it painting, cartooning, photography, music, sculpture and writing.

People get bored looking at or experiencing a monochromatic image or listening to a monotone song. Same holds true for a book that is all dialogue and no description. Or all description and no dialogue. Boring!

You can get away with crafting a monochromatic or limited palette painting, so long as there is variety within the design, shapes and values.

Equally true for the minimalist writer who eschews description. So long as there is variety within the structure of the story, it’ll hold up better.

A spare story with just enough turns in the plot, or unexpected emotional salvos, will help carry the day. Otherwise, the storyline becomes predictable, pedestrian or stale.

“My philosophy? Simplicity plus variety.” — Hank Stram

Variety of lines and shapes is what makes a cartoon, drawing or painting interesting. Even with my confliction over sketchy versus clean styles, I figured out that both approaches need variety to succeed.

Of course, one must employ some reserve or the variety can run riot over the work. If you get carried away, you risk ruining the entire piece.

Even our personal styles tend to reflect a clean or complex style. For example, some people have minimalistic, orderly homes. Others have cluttered houses filled with objects of interest and inspiration. Neither is right or wrong (although I admit I’m more of a minimalist).

The trick is to tease the best out of either personal aesthetic. And the best usually has some sort of variety.

Some balance between unexpected and mundane. Colorful and bland. Busy and still. Sharp and soft. It’s what makes a hot fudge sundae so spectacular. The cold ice cream alone would be dull without that explosion of hot fudge!

As you pursue your creative passion, artistic craft or personal style, remember the importance of variety.

Look for it in the work of artists, musicians, writers and cool people you admire. Study how they wield this tool to improve their work and/or personal style.

Variety is the one thing that, when mastered, will greatly improve your work or personal style.

It can take you to the next level.

And, as somebody once said, it’s the “spice of life.”

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I stay up late drawing cartoons, painting and writing about life. Then I sleep in and drink too much coffee. It’s way more fun than all that “up by 5AM, conquer the day” stuff. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons and musings.