Gemma Correll: Naive, or Just Bad?

The following is republished in full with permission from Gemma Correll (YG8). Originally published on her blog, July 6, 2011.

I read this article yesterday and it really annoyed me. Not so much because it implies that Ben Shahn was a bad artist : “Shahn couldn’t (or chose not to) draw very well. At all.” … because I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone with half a creative brain that Shahn’s drawings are in fact, quite amazing and no less so for being non-representational (I mean, Picasso’s cat/dove etc. sketches aren’t exactly in a realistic style, but everybody loves those). What really annoyed me was the opening paragraph; “Recently a friend who shares my passion for illustration sent a note. He’d been perusing one of those massive volumes that collect and showcase “some of today’s hottest young illustrators.” In his opinion (and I have tremendous respect for this particular friend’s opinion) he thought it was crap. Full of “faux naïve stuff, or just plain bad drawing.” This is a complaint I hear often – both in the comments section of this blog and from (commercial) artist friends I respect and admire. “What the hell is wrong with this generation of illustrators?” they ask. “Why have they not been taught the importance of learning how to draw well?”

It really irritates me when people assume that illustrators who draw in the so-called faux-naive style do it because they can’t draw “properly”. What they don’t understand is that the majority of those drawing in this style choose to draw in this way because it works for them- a simple drawing can say so much more than an overwrought pencil sketch… and it’s actually quite difficult difficult to portray a form using a minimum amount of lines. Folks think it’s easy to draw in a childlike* style, until they actually try it themselves. * Childlike, not Childish. I’ve frequently been told that my drawings “look like a three/four/five year old’s” – well, I look at that as a compliment. Five year olds draw without presumption, intuitively, naturally. It’s only when we start telling them, “You must draw in this style” that they start adhering to preconceived ideas of the wrong/right ways to draw.

I spent my high school years, and the first year of college, trying to draw in the way I thought I “should”. I drew cartoons, too, but in sketchbooks and essay paper margins, on posters for school fairs, in my church’s newsletter (I did a page called “Kids Korner” – yes, I know, very Kool – for ten years. It was a mixture of stories, puzzles and drawing. I’ve always thought of illustration as part of a wider context- in a magazine for example, tying in with the other content rather than being something completely separate and inaccessible.) I didn’t consider my funny little doodles to be “real” art, they were just something I did, naturally. I was good at english and art, an introverted bookworm and avid reader of my dad’s Gary Larson “Far Side” anthologies. I had a group of friends who were like me, quiet and reserved, maybe a little geeky, but funny and intelligent. We’d make up characters and funny songs, draw comics, write down the silly things we overheard other people saying (one advantage of being an introvert is that you’re good at listening and therefore eavesdropping) – my friend Rachel and I even invented elaborate personas for a pair of Denby salt and pepper shakers that we sold in our department (Home) at our boring Saturday job at Debenhams… their names were Vip and Bob – they had a song and everything. Unfortunately, I was moved to Lingerie after the managers decided that we weren’t doing any work. But I digress…

High school art lessons involved sketching still lives in 6B pencil, painting big self portraits on giant boards, or experimenting with mark-making techniques. I’m glad I did all this- I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t teach these vital skills. I continued to draw observationally through college (and I still do)- I attended life drawing classes- I am actually pretty decent at drawing in a realistic style. I believe that it absolutely underpins every illustration style. Being able to draw well gives one the freedom to draw in any medium, in any style. My work is about narrative and context, beyond simply drawing. All good illustration conveys some kind of message, that’s the very point!

Anyway, isn’t every illustration style equally valid? If everybody drew (or painted, or collaged… etc) in the same way, it would be very boring. And I include the naive style in this statement. Yes, a lot of illustrators do draw in this way these days, yes, it is somewhat trendy – which is why I admire any young illustrators who choose to work in a completely different (and therefore presumably untrendy) style. On Formspring recently, I received a question from a concerned student who wasn’t getting much attention (ie. Tumblr notes, Flickr favourites and all the instant gratification that comes with being Internet famous for 5 minutes) for his/her artwork because it was detailed pencil drawings. The question asker wondered if he/she should give up. Of course I said no- in my opinion, I’d rather see young illustrators doing different things, trying so-called “old fashioned” or unfashionable techniques, instead of following the crowd. I often find my work blogged on places like Tumblr, and yes, it’s nice to get lots of “notes” but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It’s so much more important to enjoy what you do- it will show in your work.

I’ll shut up now, I have some faux naive drawing to do.