An Artist’s Process Shouldn’t Be a Trade Secret

Jed Alexander - Pyragraph

Process shot #1 from Jed Alexander‘s “Hippopotabus.”

Like many other artists, I like to talk about my process. I’m inspired to write about how I approach my work because I like it when others do the same. But some artists are afraid that if they share their technique someone is going to steal what is uniquely theirs. Someone is going to steal their style.

All artists have influences, and many share the same influences, but this isn’t the same as borrowing another artist’s style. There’s always the possibility that someone will be able to emulate your style whether they know your methods or not. And some illustrators and designers fear that if they share their technique, they’re making it that much easier, and if someone is able to make work that is too easily mistaken for theirs, they’re going to lose clients to their imitators.

Your process is, and will always be, uniquely yours.

And this does happen. Some clients are going to go with the cheaper imitation. And sometimes—because of opportunity, business savvy, or just plain luck—the imitator can overshadow the original. And there are even some occasions when the artist being imitated is mistaken for an imitator themselves. But this isn’t something you have any control over even if you do decide not to share your methods.

Jed Alexander - Pyragraph

Process shot #2.

Artists are often educators, and the most important thing we can teach isn’t technique. It’s how to be a better artist, how to have a better eye, how to make better images. Sharing your personal process is part of this. Problems arise and you come up with solutions. That’s part of what being an artist is. And sharing your process is not only a benefit to your students and others, but it’s a benefit to you. Because that’s what teaching is. It’s learning by explanation. By explaining the steps that go into making a piece, you learn more about the solutions you found and challenges you overcame. You learn more about how your own process works.

So teaching can be a gift to both student and teacher. This isn’t a new insight. People in education talk about this all the time. And it’s true, if you teach your technique, many students will miss the point. They’ll miss the idea that technique is in aid of finding their own process, of finding their own way to solve problems, and borrowing your technique alone doesn’t have any value at all unless they learn the process of problem solving behind it.

Jed Alexander - Pyragraph

Process shot #3.

Your process is, and will always be, uniquely yours. It’s nothing anyone can steal. And even if someone emulates the superficial aspects of your style, they’re still not you, and they don’t approach picture making like you do.

So when I share my process, I don’t worry about someone stealing what is uniquely mine. I do it to learn, and I do it to teach, and I do it to become a part of the ongoing dialogue that exists between a larger community of artists, a dialogue that benefits everyone. And if you don’t share your process, you’re excluding yourself from an important part of that dialogue.

I don’t think keeping your techniques and methods private carries any great consequence beyond this. It’s not going to make you less of an artist, or hurt you in the long run. Be part of that community, share what you know and learn from others. This ongoing and rich exchange of ideas is something I’d rather not miss out on for something as silly as worrying that somebody is going to take something from me that has nothing to do with what makes me good at what I do.

Jed Alexander - Pyragraph

Jed’s finished “Hippopotabus.”

Jed Alexander

About Jed Alexander

Jed Alexander grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where he first discovered his love of books at his local public library. Jed went on to earn his degree in illustration at San Jose State University where he studied under veteran illustrators Barron Storey and John Clapp.

After working for more than ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA WeeklyThe Sacramento News and Review, and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love: Children’s literature. He has since done work for Nickelodeon and Cricket Magazine. He is currently represented by Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. His first self-published book (Mostly) Wordless was financed by a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

He lives in Davis, California with his wife Regina, his best friend and favorite person in the world.

5 Comments

  1. Connie McLennan on July 21, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Some of the best artists I know are also the most generous with their information, because they are secure in their skills. As you point out, success has much more to do with communication/problem-solving (illustration) and taste (fine art), both of which are developed only through study. Without them, superficial technique means nothing.

  2. Connie McLennan on July 21, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Teaching forces you to consolidate your thoughts, so you also learn by teaching.

  3. Jed Alexander on July 21, 2015 at 10:46 am

    I absolutely agree! But some of the most talented and established illustrators I know of are tight-lipped about their process. I know one in particular who can paint and draw the pants of just about anybody, and though he’s very generous with sharing the way he generates his ideas, he’s still concerned that someone is going to steal his methods.

  4. Elene Gusch on July 26, 2015 at 1:47 am

    I totally love the finished Hippopotabus! The originality, the sense of movement, the perspective used to suggest the bus interior, the aliveness and interactions of the passengers– brilliant and so much fun.

  5. Jed Alexander on July 26, 2015 at 7:15 am

    Thank you so much!

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