Neil Gaiman Reads His Manifesto on Making Art: Features the 10 Things He Wish He Knew As a Young Artist

I think you're absolutely allowed several minutes, possibly even half a day to feel very, very sorry for yourself indeed. And then just start making art. - Neil Gaiman

It’s a bit early in the year for commencement speeches, but fortunately for lifelong learners who rely on a steady drip of inspiration and encouragement, author Neil Gaiman excels at putting old wine in new bottles.

He repurposed his keynote address to Philadelphia's University of the Arts’ Class of 2012 for Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World, a slim volume with hand lettering and illustrations by Chris Riddell.



The above video captures the frequent collaborators appearing together last fall at the East London cultural center Evolutionary Arts Hackney in a fundraiser for English PEN, the founding branch of the worldwide literary defense association. While Gaiman reads aloud in his affable, ever-engaging style, Riddell uses a brush pen to bang out 4 3/4 line drawings, riffing on Gaiman’s metaphors.

While the art-making “rules” Gaiman enumerates herein have been extrapolated and widely disseminated (including, never fear, below), it’s worth having a look at why this event called for a live illustrator.

Leaving aside the fact that each ticket purchaser got a copy of Art Matters, autographed by both men, and a large signed print was auctioned off on behalf of English PEN, Gaiman holds illustrations in high regard.

His work includes picture books, graphic novels, and lightly illustrated novels for teens and young adults, and as a mature reader, he, too, delights in visuals, singling out Frank C. Papé's drawings for the decidedly “adult” 1920s fantasy novels of James Branch Cabell. (1929’s Something about Eve featured a buxom female character angrily frying up her husband's manhood for dinner and an erotic entryway that would have thrilled Dr. Seuss.)

In an interview with Waterstones booksellers upon the publication of Neverwhere another collaboration with Riddell, Gaiman mused:

…a good illustrator, for me, is like going to see a play. You are going to get something brought to life for you by a specific cast in a specific place. That way of illustrating will never happen again. You know, somebody else could illustrate it—there are hundreds of different Alice in Wonderlands.

Which we could certainly take to mean that if Riddell’s style doesn’t grab you the way it grabs Gaiman (and the juries for several prestigious awards) perhaps you should tear your eyes away from the screen and illustrate what you hear in the speech.

Do you need to know how to draw as well as he does? The rules, below, suggest not. We’d love to take a peek inside your sketchbook after.

  1. Embrace the fact that you're young. Accept that you don't know what you're doing. And don't listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.

  2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.

  3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you'll probably feel like a fraud. It's normal.

  4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you're out there doing and trying things.

  5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.

  6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.

  7. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you're easy to get along with, and if you're on deadline. Actually you don't need all three. Just two.

  8. Enjoy the ride. Don’t fret it all away. (That one comes compliments of Stephen King.)

  9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you're someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.

  10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.

Read a complete transcript of the speech here.

Related Content:

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling in His New Online Course

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

18 Stories & Novels by Neil Gaiman Online: Free Texts & Readings by Neil Himself

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City tonight as host of Theater of the Apes’ monthly  book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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