I often believe – the good makes you jealous; the great inspires you to find your own thing! Meeting Dutch writer and illustrator Mark Janssen proved it all over again. It was definitely the latter. I was imbued with art inspiration from head to toe, hearing words of wisdom from an artist who has been illustrating almost as long as I have been living!

For the last few months, I’ve been a part of I for Illustrators’ first cohort of authorial illustration workshops. Started by Neeti Shrestha and Krisha Tamrakar, I for Illustrators is a space to engage, discuss, and network with visual storytellers. Along with 8 other artists, I’ve embarked on a 5 month-long journey to create and illustrate an original story. As a part of the ongoing workshop, we had the chance to meet Mark. Bridging the gap between The Netherlands and Nepal was, of course, Zoom. 

Mark has illustrated 500 picture books and children’s books for Dutch, Belgian, and Chinese publishers from 1997 to 2021. His books have been translated in over 15 languages and he has won many awards among which the Purple Island Award is the latest.

As a business graduate and a current literature student, one of my questions to many artists I’ve met is this: I do not come from an art background; how do I practice or navigate my way? Most of them would say what I would have anticipated – the background isn’t important; it’s the passion. And yet, I continue to ask this question to gain a diverse and more profound understanding of art and the world. 

Mark gave an answer worthy of emulation not just in art but in many fields of life. “Lack of technique might be your biggest strength,” he said. The statement hit me so hard, I wanted to engrave the sentence and hang it on my wall. What I don’t have might just be the very reason I can make it further – a line with deep philosophical underpinnings, something I’m going to remember for a long time. 

Striking a balance between the traditional and digital 

I remember being a very poor student in art. As a kid, I drew, but not with passion or curiosity. The flame returned when I rediscovered drawing through digital art. I loved the medium so much, I experimented and dived in. I do sometimes wonder if I should take a risk and get back to the traditional medium. The traditional versus digital is a quandary that many artists come across and Mark’s suggestion was to find a medium that makes us feel the most confident – a medium that speaks our art. He suggested finding a balance between traditional art tools and digital equipment. The ideas are endless – drawing with hand and copying onto the digital platform or using traditional art tools to bring texture. 

Never lose your language 

“You are the artist; you have your own vision,” Mark said as we began talking about finding the balance between our personal goals and the goals of publishers, clients, and project leaders. I was in awe of the artistic confidence Mark tried to fill us with. Of course, there are moments when we must find a middle way, but the point of believing in our artistic vision – our language as artists – remains crucial. 

Importance of picture books 

We had the chance to see Mark’s new book, Always Nearby, which has some stunning visuals including places of Nepal, and discussed more aspects of publishing, storytelling, and finding unique perspectives. “We need more picture books,” he said, describing the reading culture of The Netherlands where parents and grandparents continue to invest in picture books as a way to bond with their kids away from digital devices. Beginning to see art as an investment instead of liability is an essential step for our culture – be it content creation, picture books, designing, or any other elements of the creative line. Art has much more than what meets the eye. Always Nearby is in the process of being translated into Nepali and will be available in Nepal soon. 

Meeting Mark reminded me of a dialogue from Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns: Always believe in yourself. Do this, and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark’s unyielding focus on artistic confidence, finding our voice, and practicing the craft. The nuggets of wisdom he shared are valuable in the arts and so many other creative areas and life. Hearing Mark’s ideas gave me more agency and confidence as a creative professional. I need to believe it will be okay; I will make things that matter to me, and hopefully to others too. 

On the cover is a page from Mark’s new book, Always Nearby. You can click here to visit Mark’s instagram filled with beautiful illustrations and drawings. You can click here to visit I for Illustrators’ instagram to learn more about the collaborative and creative space for visual artists.

Posted by:Alfa M. Shakya

Someone who likes to make things.

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