The Illustration Master Class - A First Timer's Journal

This is a long blog post. It's mostly for my own purposes, but also for those who want an in-depth look at what being at the IMC is like. I have some pointers for first timers, things you might not think of and things to consider in advance. They'll be at the end of the article. I want to thank Dave Palumbo for allowing me to use a couple of his amazing photos too, he's a talented SOB. 

IMC class of 2018  -  Photograph by  Dave Palumbo

IMC class of 2018  -  Photograph by Dave Palumbo

I probably won't forget the moment my Facebook messages suddenly started pinging off. 'Congrats Sam!' 'Hey Sam, you won!' I distinctly remember thinking, hmm, what did I win? Did I enter another twitter giveaway or something? Then someone followed up with 'you won the scholarship!' It took me a moment. Then the chat I was in the middle of with my other half suddenly filled with lots of expletives and capitals on my end. Holy shit. I'd won the Muddy Colors scholarship to the IMC, something that had been a long-term wish of mine since I'd found out about it 5 or 6 years prior but hadn't ever had the funds to attend. So to find out that my entry to their scholarship program - through the generous donations of the Muddy Colors Patreon - submitted on a 'what have I got to lose' mentality that was still shadowed by the fuzzy sting of not getting into Spectrum, had scored me the full cost of the course. I'd honestly forgotten I'd applied. Let that be a lesson to those of you who hold back on submitting to things, especially the things that are free. It's always worth a punt. 

So what's it like to go to the IMC? I can tell you that winning the scholarship made the pre-IMC thumbnail assignment a lot more stressful than if I'd paid for it. The weight of imagining disappointing the people who had seen my work and voted for it - artistic heroes of mine -  was pretty heavy. It made me feel like I couldn't just go and do the same thing I'd always done, even if it had won me the scholarship. Before I started drawing, I reconsidered my influences. I'd started a secret Pinterest board a few months back simply called 'Ho Fuck That's Good.' Stuff that gave me a gut punch when I looked at it. I spent a lot of time looking at those images and a lot of the others I had pinned. I stopped paying attention to work that I simply found technically impressive, that had awesome composition or great values. I looked for what moved me. Why it moved me. I started making notes about themes I found compelling or that cropped up a lot in my own work. I decided I wasn't going to do just a straight up realistic narrative Whaler Girl piece, I was going to try and make my own work be more like that which moved me. A risky, and perhaps somewhat dumb move, given those same realistic, narrative images had won me the scholarship. 

We were asked to provide 4 or 5 thumbnails, either of our own choosing, or from an assignment provided, such as an illustration to accompany a short story, the likes of which are often published on With themes like duality, death, grief and love in relationships crowding my brain, I created a lot of thumbnails. I wasn't going to take the first 3 or 4 that came out. I did about 20 in total and narrowed it down to the 6 I felt most attached to. Some of them even had hints back to The Whaler Girl in a very asbtract way. They'd come out better than I'd hoped for and I could see a tiny glimpse of the sort of painting I might get out of it. It made me excited to put them in front of my chosen faculty member. 

15 of the 20 thumbnails I did, with duplicates or overly similar images removed.

15 of the 20 thumbnails I did, with duplicates or overly similar images removed.

We were asked to pick a top 5 from the vertiable smorgasbord of faculty. That was hard. It turned out that most people got grouped with their top pick and that dictated who the other faculty were that would give you feedback. I suspect my pick would have surprised a few people. Kent Williams was actually the instructor I was least familiar with, but researching his work, especially his most recent work, it hit the same kind of buttons that my inspiration board had. His work felt emotionally personal and while I knew I didn't want to necessarily paint like he did, I felt he might be able to give good feedback on how to tap into that sense of the personal. Perhaps someone who could help keep me on track with the first wibbly steps I was taking with my own work. I count myself lucky to have landed in the group with Rebecca, Kent and Tara (McPherson). 

I wanted to make a good first impression, but there were so many approaches to the dreaded 'crit day'. Some folks brought only one or two finished colour thumbs, some folks just had small, traditionally drawn thumbnails, occasionally done on arrival the night before. Some brought photo mockups of the exact piece they wanted to work on. All approaches got good feedback. I'd been forewarned that crit day could be rough, but I think the Studio 201 guys were pretty chill. I did peek my head in on the other two rooms briefly. Donato, Greg Ruth and Scott Fischer were all highly animated and I've been told often argued with each other's feedback. Dan Dos Santos, Irene Gallo and Greg Manchess were part of the group that, from chatting to folks, seemed to get the most direct feedback.

My final 6 thumbnails. The top right was the one the faculty were drawn to on Crit Day. 

My final 6 thumbnails. The top right was the one the faculty were drawn to on Crit Day. 

I was a little surprised when there was no tracing paper used during my crit. All three faculty members responded favourably to what had been my favourite thumbnail, despite its weirdness. No direct suggestions other than resolving the shapes in my minimal, non-figurative space (that minor bit of feedback would come to haunt me by The Thursday of DOOM, but I'll get to that later). Inspirations like Inka Essenhigh, Hope Gangloff and Dorothea Tanning were thrown my way, I loved all three for very different reasons. It was safe to say inspiration was running high and I had a tonne of positive energy to run with. 

I felt like I was well prepped going into the IMC, but I wasn't. Choosing to go full traditional when having to fly internationally was a pain. I didn't have a lot of the stuff I needed and had to rely on the infinite kindness of my fellow students and faculty to see me through. Stephen, Annie, Chris, Julia, you were all lovely, I can't thank you enough. 

Greg, Irene and Scott giving one of the students some good-natured feedback! Greg also makes an excellent vice, in a pinch.  Photo by  Dave Palumbo

Greg, Irene and Scott giving one of the students some good-natured feedback! Greg also makes an excellent vice, in a pinch. 
Photo by Dave Palumbo

My Tuesday started with James Gurney sat at my breakfast table. That was surreal but awesome. He and his wife Jeanette are as lovely two people as you could hope to meet, full of insight and always taking notes. The previous day's lecture on photo reference was flowing through my mind and I dreaded having to ask fellow students. My figures were both nudes and that wasn't something I was comfortable with, though I thought perhaps I could take individual legs and arms and use a little online ref to fill in the rest. I wish I'd drummed up the courage to ask my fellow students, but that particular social step eluded me the whole week. I spent the day instead with many sheets of tracing paper, figuring out What marks were what. I had discussions with Greg Ruth and Donato Giancola about how to find those shapes and make them fit in my piece.

You have to figure out who to listen to, and whose advice to stash for a later date. You get bombarded with advice if you go in as open-minded as I did. I'd thrown myself into a pool I should have been paddling in first, at the very public deep end. I'll admit I found ways to put off getting to painting, as it was only the 2nd oil painting I'd done in the last 20 years and the company I had in the room was stellar and a little overwhelming. Eventually, I chose to redraw via a grid so I could edit as I went along and I used some reference I shot of my own limbs to help flesh the drawing out. I left Tuesday feeling reasonably positive about the work.

James Gurney doing a demo, showing how he uses maquettes in his painting process

James Gurney doing a demo, showing how he uses maquettes in his painting process

Wednesday was a full day with faculty feedback, up to the first 5 pm lecture. Dan Dos Santos, who is perfectly lovely, but also very honest with feedback, stopped by my easel. Overall, very complimentary, he pulled me on a bit of weird anatomy, that after using a lot more photo ref with the rest of the piece, had begun to stand out. He suggested I grab Rebecca after our discussion. I'd responded best to her feedback, as she seemed to understand what I was trying to do, so I grabbed her after lunch. She immediately told me the leg and anatomy I'd had in the thumbnail had been working, and that if I liked the weirdness (which I did) to go weird with the rest of the piece to make the leg fit. Literally the opposite of Dan's feedback.

Feedback is such a personal thing, every instructor has their own view of art and own journey. I'd probably tried to take a little bit of everyone who'd stopped by and given feedback and every little bit had nudged me slightly off the course I'd intended to take. Dan's feedback was spot on, if I'd been after something with a solid grounding in realism, but I wasn't. I was after an emotional feeling rather than muscles that looked like they fit where they were supposed to go. Rebecca suggested I just print the thumbnail out, mount it to masonite and paint on that. But resolve my shapes first. 

That led me to ask Tara for advice and after some back and forth, I thought I knew where I was going, and decided rather than be tied to the values I'd got in the thumbnail to start with, I'd trace down the printed thumbnail and resolve my shapes. All went well, I got the drawing on the board, and aware of the ever-ticking clock and my ability to get feedback on my painting process, I was keen to get started the following day.

I nick-named Thursday 'Thursday of DOOOOOOOM' in my sketchbook notes. With that many 'O's'. It started well, with my sketch on my illustration board, I figured I'd use acrylic underpainting to speed up the process, then seal with matte medium and start on top in oils. I'd brought a lovely lime green and violet with me, my underpainting was done in warm purple-reds as a counterpoint, and I was winging it. It felt good. I stepped away for a bit before lunch and came back after to the horror of a C-shaped warped board. A brand I'd not used before, I hadn't been heavy with it at all. I threw some matte medium on the back in the hopes it would pull itself out of the curve, but it only stiffened. I think panic set in at this point, I knew there was no point in doing more on the board, but I'd been stubborn over mounting the printouts I'd done. Old dog, new tricks and all that.

What happens when two amazing faculty members happen to pass by your space at once! Photo by Dave Palumbo

What happens when two amazing faculty members happen to pass by your space at once!
Photo by Dave Palumbo

Distraught, I knew I had no choice. I slunk off to the back of the studio and tried not to blub my eyes out as I tried a totally new method of mounting with less than perfect tools. Flustered, my hair constantly got stuck in the medium, making me even more panicked that the whole thing would be a disaster and that I'd missed the last supply run and would have to face the very public shame of asking someone for actual help. If there's one thing I hate, it's not being self-sufficient. My fellow students would have happily helped out, but shame is a pretty powerful emotion, it tends to rule what you do. I prayed the mounted paper wouldn't need a 2nd sheet mounting on the back to counter the drawing mounted on the front. At best, in the blazing sun, this stuff would take a couple of hours to dry to the point I could paint on it. The wind did its best to prevent me from stacking the board outside and in my hours of deepest bleakness, I figured that maybe if it blew over into the dirt and insects, I'd say fuck it and make them part of the fucking thing too. It was also at this point I realised the printouts had cropped the two thumbnails I'd chosen to work with, altering their composition drastically. My own dumb fault for not setting the page size up properly in the printer. One more shame I'd suck up and live with. I wish I'd asked for help. I think knowing the pieces weren't what I'd initially intended broke my ability to give them my full attention and killed my mojo for the next couple of days. My anxiety rats, as Rebecca delightfully referred to them, were in full swing. 

While I waited for it to dry, I headed back into the studio and mentioned to Rebecca I'd given in with the curved board and mounted the thumbnail and would she have a look over what I'd chosen to do with the background. Rebecca is gracious and lovely and patiently listens to me explain what I've done. Then she points to some of the graphic elements I'd put in and gently says that they still feel too literal and forced, that the motifs I choose should be something I relate to closely and that it doesn't quite live up to the right hand, figurative side of the painting. I suggest a couple of other ideas, feeling a scrabbling panic building in me, only to hear her tell me everything still feels too literal. My logic brain knows she's right, but after a distraught morning, I'm clasping at any straw I have to salvage the situation. I don't know if it showed, and she saw that I was struggling with it or if it was just honest feedback for the moment, but she looked at me and said 'maybe this piece is a step too far for you right now. Maybe you should do the other piece, if that's something that's more comfortable for you.' I think I agreed with her, nodded and extolled the virtues of taking a step back into my comfort zone, getting a painting I knew how to do done was a good thing, yes? But damn if that wasn't a kick to the gut at that very moment. 

She was absolutely right, though. I'd thrown myself into a deep pool, with people who were olympic athletes at diving its depths, and in the course of a week, expected to be able to at least dive a good distance with them. I'd been able to get my head underwater with my well-planned thumbnails, but in this overwhelming, information packed, inspiring, public test of artistic mettle, I'd punched above my depth, so to speak. Trying to shift gears artistically when you have your own space and the time to find your journey is one thing, I don't know if it can be done in a week, no matter how much amazing input you get from your artistic heroes. Chris, Erin, Annie, I'm sorry if my energy those next 48 hours was a bummer, it wasn't a place I was familiar with being. 

Lectures were gripping, even for faculty! Photo by  Dave Palumbo

Lectures were gripping, even for faculty! Photo by Dave Palumbo

Kent Williams came to the rescue of my very bruised ego that evening with a talk about his personal journey through art. Indirectly, seeing the bredth and depth of his work over such a long time span, I confess to feeling a little idiotic that I'd expected to be able to make that leap in a week. Every faculty member who gave a talk like that had shown me that their journeys were long, and often fraught with failed ventures or periods of doing artistic things they didn't want to. I left the lecture with my tail between my legs, but a renewed sense that I would do my best with the hand I'd given myself. I did a couple of colour studies that evening, traditionally, inspired by seeing James Gurney's master studies in his lecture. I loved doing them, and wish I'd had more time to do more. But I found a piece online that had a palette I liked and did a couple of explorations of a similar theme. I finally, finally, 4 days into the escapade, managed to put down some oil paint. 

A tentative start to painting, finally, albeit it on a cropped piece.

A tentative start to painting, finally, albeit it on a cropped piece.

Friday and Saturday I painted as much as I could, but tentatively, I was making marks I'd never made before. I listened to the feedback being given around me and let anyone who wanted to stop and give me feedback, do so. I'm not sure I actively asked for it. I struggled as the ladies around me with their amazingly characterful pieces drew the attention of everyone who went past. Was I so far off the mark and weird that no one knew what to say about my piece? Maybe it was so bland that they couldn't praise or crit it. In retrospect, I recognise that my mood and lack of decent sleep was influencing my mood heavily. I suspect I was giving off the same negative vibe, which is enough to make folks give you a bit of a wide berth. 

The theme of finding your niche and doing what you love came up in more than one lecture over those days. I went to bed at 2 am both nights, in an attempt to get as much done as I could. I socialised a little more, realising that was as much a part of the experience as the painting. If not more. I'm hugely thankful for the bonds I forged during that week, something I couldn't have done at home, no matter how much I painted. Those bonds were worth much more to me than the painting I half finished. I think I came to accept that what I wanted to do was going to be a journey that needed a little longer than a week to take. I wish there had been more 'round table' lectures with all the faculty, seeing them interact together on the business lecture was amazing. 

My final stage of painting reached at the IMC... to be finished shortly. 

My final stage of painting reached at the IMC... to be finished shortly. 

Sunday was chill. I'd had the intention of painting more, but clearing up took a while, and I felt good being relaxed. So I socialised more instead. Our final lecture with Donato was the perfect note to end the experience on and the open house was a chance to take in everyone's work, the standard of which was amazing. After a super tasty mexican dinner and strawberry margherita, the bar beckoned. After drawing I don't know how much hentai in people's sketchbooks and getting a badass Bill Nighy sketch from the awesome Bud Cook in my own sketchbook, alongside the weirdest pseudonyms and animal drawings ever, I crashed and burned as being under the influence after a week of mental stress and lack of sleep took its toll on me. Conan, thank you for making sure I got back safely that night, I really appreciate it, I suspect I'd have passed out in a dark corner of the bar otherwise. Sad I missed out on the late night partying that ensued, but damn, did I need that night's sleep. 

What you miss out on if you crash early on Sunday night! Photo by  Dave Palumbo

What you miss out on if you crash early on Sunday night!
Photo by Dave Palumbo

So there's one woman's view of what it's like to go to the IMC, to throw yourself at the mercy of the faculty and your own desires. To fail and not deal with it well, to realise that the painting was never the important thing. IMC was amazing. I can only hope this gives those of you who haven't been a teensy insight. I'm not going to cover what the lectures were or what faculty shared with us, that's a very specific IMC experience, that you really have to go to appreciate. I will say I am hugely thankful to Dan, Rebecca and all of those on Muddy Colors who made that experience real for me. It has enriched me in ways I suspect I'll only realise as my journey continues. Thank you to everyone who gave me kind words and praise and to those who tried to guide me on my way. If ever the opportunity arises for you to attend, I would say grab it with both hands and run with it. Even if your experience doesn't run as profound as mine, and it simply lets you have some time to paint whatever the hell you want, being in a huge room full of people going through the same thing is well worth the price, not to mention watching faculty paint in real time is invaluable. 

So, what if you've taken that leap, some months from now and you're going to the IMC? Here's a few pointers from someone who thought they were prepared and was woefully not. 

Basic bed is basic.

Basic bed is basic.

Are basic AF. I was somewhat prepared, but when the FAQ says the beds are firm, they mean it. Think springs wrapped in a bit of plastic tarp. The sheets are functional, but the blanket looked like someone had put used dog bedding through a shredder and mushed it out into a rectangle. I bought a spare blanket at the CVS store, cause no way was that thing touching my skin. I may be a little sensitive though. I affectionately referred to the whole set up as my prison bed, cause honestly, that's all I could think of. If you can bring your own bedding, I'd recommend it.

The dorm bathrooms are gender neutral, which means anyone can use them. I was fine with it, but it's odd the first time you wander into the bathroom and find the opposite sex brushing their teeth. I never had any problems taking a shower, though, they were pretty quiet. 

Morris Pratt Dorm was definitely the more social, I was very thankful to be on the 3rd floor, as a light sleeper, the partying into the wee hours would have kept me awake had I been on the lower floors. The box fans helped with white noise, but the doors are all pretty heavy, so unless folks are very delicate with how they close them, expect some noise. I found the box fan enough without the AC, even when it got pretty warm on the last couple of days. 

2 - FOOD.
Having never been to a large educational establishment in the US, I wasn't sure what to expect with the food. Would I have to venture into Amherst to find healthy stuff, would there be much choice? The food was surprisingly decent. It's still a large facility, so it's never going to be amazing restaurant quality, but there were a few choices every day and a well-stocked salad bar. They even had a soft serve ice cream machine, that I managed to avoid until Sunday. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I had it on good authority that the coffee in the dining hall wasn't great. It might be an idea to bring a drinks container with you, as mealtimes are the only time you can get drinks on campus, outside of water fountains. Amherst is only a 10-minute walk down the road, though. 

The space most people had to work in, I got lucky with drawers. 

The space most people had to work in, I got lucky with drawers. 

I brought paints, brushes and surfaces with me, with the knowledge I'd ordered a couple extra things for while I was there and that there was a supply run. If you work on specific surfaces, it's best to bring those with, Michael's wasn't super well stocked, and more speciality things like large clayboard weren't available. A lot of people bring extras and are happy to share, thankfully. I would have brought more old rags or kitchen towels and some tape. People often used walls to tape up thumbnails or other pieces of art.

The university runs a very strict number of safety policies surrounding paints, water and mediums. Bring some lidded jars with you for mediums and water. Everything has to be labelled clearly and remained closed when not in use. Even water used for rinsing acrylic and watercolours. All have to be disposed of carefully too. Same with anything you wipe paint or mediums on, so using something a bit more disposable like kitchen towel might do you better. They ask you to cover your oil paints when not in use, though that can be with a simple piece of palette paper. 

If you choose an easel, if you have space for a little extra table, you'll likely make good use of it. The chairs they supply are also very basic and not comfortable for long periods, so bringing a cushion is definitely a good idea. 

Oh, and they say the studio opens at 8 am on Monday but I got there at 8 am and a lot of the spaces had already been taken, so if you want prime real estate, get there early! 

My amazing MOO luxe business cards!

My amazing MOO luxe business cards!

This sounds like a no-brainer. I brought business cards for the faculty and my portfolio review with Irene Gallo. I thought I'd sorted my work out reasonably well, but actually, my website would have been a better place to show off my work. I also wish I'd brought a physical portfolio to leave out for students and faculty to flick through, perhaps an example of finished work that was either nicely printed if I was doing digital, or one of my traditional pieces. The latter is tricky when flying. My business cards were on the pricey side so I wish I'd had some decent postcards or stickers, printed for the open studio, where folks were picking stuff up. You never know who's going to pick one up! The internet can be spotty in the building, so unless you have some 4G going on, it can be tricky to show off folios digitally. 

You might also be lucky enough to score a second portfolio review if the guests have enough time, I am so glad I could put my work in front of WotC's Jeremy Jarvis. It cheered my Saturday up no end! Make sure you check the lists when they go up and bag your second spot early. And don't puss out. 

I'm stubborn and British, so asking for help is the worst, but everyone there will gladly help you out if they can. Especially the assistant team, Daneen, Julia and Stephen and the 'honored easels' who've been in your situation. Take advantage of them, they are all lovely people.

And that sums it up! An amazing, tiring, exhausting, mentally demanding, inspiring, overwhelming experience that I wouldn't change for the world. I hope to repeat it in the next year or two. I count myself lucky to be part of the alumni and perhaps if you're reading this, I might see you there too.