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From finding and focusing in on your artistic voice to staying passionate and purposefully driven, creative sherpa Lisa Congdon once again helps listeners take their work to new heights.

Design Matters From the Archive: Lisa Congdon

Design Matters From the Archive: Lisa Congdon

ARTIST / ILLUSTRATOR / AUTHOR

2021

illustration / voice / style / art / creativity

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

It isn’t easy to become—or to survive—as an artist. No one knows this better than Lisa Congdon, who didn’t become a professional artist and illustrator until she was in her late 30s. But when she did, she made it big. She’s also published numerous bestselling books: Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist, Fortune Favors the Brave, and A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives. She’s most recently published another how-to book for creative people. This one is titled Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic.


Millman:

Lisa joins me today in front of a live audience at Jen Bekman’s brand new gallery space, 20x200 in Brooklyn, New York. Lisa Congdon, welcome back to Design Matters.


Lisa Congdon:

Thank you, Debbie. It’s so good to be here.


Millman:

It is wonderful to be speaking to you again. This is our third interview on Design Matters.


Congdon:

I know. I can’t believe it. It’s been so many times.


Millman:

Today, mostly I want to talk to you about your new book, which is absolutely wonderful, but I do … I have found some new research that I wanted to get your input on.


Congdon:

OK.


Millman:

I understand that you once said that if you could be reincarnated as a character from children’s literature, it would be Harriet the Spy.


Congdon:

It’s true. When I was a kid, that was my favorite book. In fact, I was in a relationship with a graphic designer when I was in my 20s and early 30s, [and] she used to always tell me that I looked like Harriet the Spy. So she Photoshopped “Lisa the Spy” over Harriet the Spy and gave it to me framed for my birthday.


Millman:

Oh, that’s really nice.


Congdon:

Yeah, yeah.


Millman:

And do you still have a penchant for Harriet the Spy?


Congdon:

No. Not necessarily.


Millman:

Lisa, your new book is titled Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic. At the start of the book, you describe how growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in suburban Northern California, you wanted nothing more than to fit in. Can you take us back to those days?


Congdon:

Yeah. I feel like growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in suburban Northern California was sort of perfect for that. Right? I lived in a neighborhood of cookie-cutter tract homes. You know, our house looked exactly the same as five others on the street. I was really all about being accepted and fitting in and looking the same as everyone else. That changed years later, but when I was a kid that was really my goal.


Millman:

And given the brilliant creative voice that you’ve become, some might also find it surprising to learn that you studied The Official Preppy Handbook, which you now dub in retrospect, the ultimate handbook for conforming.


Congdon:

Yes.


Millman:

Were you really a preppy?


Congdon:

Yes. In fact … so I graduated from high school in 1986, which was sort of the height of that preppy as a trend. I grew up in a very upper-middle–class community in Northern California, and my high school replaced “Best Dressed” with “Most Preppy.”


Millman:

Wow.


Congdon:

Like as if it was kind of—


Millman:

Something to aspire to.


Congdon:

Yeah.


Millman:

Did you win?


Congdon:

No. I got nominated. Amy McNeely, who I’m still friends with to this day, won, but … and she deserved it. We—


Millman:

So tell us your preppiest outfit.


Congdon:

Oh my gosh.


Millman:

Costume.


Congdon:

Everything I wore was preppy, like … and also the way I wore things, from like collars being turned up—


Millman:

No.


Congdon:

Yes. And you know what’s really interesting is, nowadays friends from high school will sort of, you know, rediscover that I exist, right, and that I’m this tattooed artist with pink hair. And they’re like, “Oh, but you were so preppy,” and I’m like, “Well, I’m still kind of preppy at heart.” Like. I really do—


Millman:

What does that mean?


Congdon:

I mean, you might see me walking around in a Ralph Lauren dress, like on an average day. I mean, I like the Bohemian preppy look still for sure. I’m definitely preppy at heart. My wife loves the preppy look, so I can support it in her always.


Millman:

Tell us about the moment you stopped conforming.


Congdon:

So on May 20th or 22nd or something in 1990, I graduated from this Catholic college where I continued to be very preppy. I moved to San Francisco and, literally, like my entire interior world exploded. You know, I went from somebody who had lived in this very sheltered environment to moving to this place where I was exposed to a spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations and books and film and fashion.


Congdon:

San Francisco is maybe no New York City, but it’s, you know, relatively so. For me, it was like walking into this place that opened me up in a way, almost instantly, to a different way. I came out as a lesbian a few years later, and I think it was no accident that I chose it in retrospect, and that so instantly I went from somebody who wanted to be like everyone else to somebody who began to see the importance or the comfort in being different. I began to sort of view life differently, immediately, when I was about 22.


Millman:

You’ve said that art taught you about the power of nonconformity. How so?


Congdon:

Well, I think in mainstream culture, in sort of the world that I grew up in or that a lot of people occupy, at least in the United States, you know, idiosyncrasies or differences are seen as a flaw. In our world, in the world of creative people, idiosyncrasies are actually your strength. I think before I even identified as an artist, I began to see myself as a creative person or somebody who wanted to express herself creatively in my 20s, and I began to see the sort of power in that, in being different. I kind of ever so slowly allowed myself to shed all of the, my skin, basically, and become this person who was like—you know, by 27 I was like, “I’m going to get my first tattoo.” Now I’m covered in them, but that was a huge deal for me. Or dying my hair purple and dressing differently and getting into fashion, and not just preppy fashion, but like … and those were sort of, those are my first expressions before I started making visual art, and that was a really important part of my world.


Congdon:

When I was 24, I got into a relationship with an artist. She actually grew up here in New York City, in Greenwich Village, and—


Millman:

Is this the same person who did the Harriet the Spy montage?


Congdon:

Yes. She’s a very important person in my sort of history because she introduced me to the world of art and design. I remember walking into her apartment in San Francisco on our like second date or something. There was like a Tibor Kalman book on the coffee table and a Guerrilla Girls poster on the wall, and these are things I had never been exposed to, but instantly was drawn to. She was so wonderful about kind of inviting me into this world that she already occupied. That was really the beginning. Those were the seeds that sort of got planted. Yeah.


Millman:

I know we’ve talked about this in past interviews. For anybody that might not have heard those interviews and certainly for our audience here today, talk about the moment when you felt you could lean into your artistic voice, that you could be an artist. Because you didn’t become an artist, you … as artistic as you might’ve been, you didn’t pursue being an artist until your late 30s. So talk just for a moment or two if you can about what you were doing at the time, and the conditions that led to your decision to really live your full self.


Congdon:

I started making art in my early 30s. A few years later, the internet was becoming a space for artists to share their work and there was, you know, blogs and Flickr. I sort of joined all of those things with abandon. Periodically somebody would email me and say—because this was before social media—they would say, “Can I buy that from you?” My first opportunity was, there was this woman who I’m still friends with today. Her name is Kristin [inaudible] and she had this shop in Seattle. She said, “Would you like to have a show here?”


Congdon:

I just remember … I was at my job at the nonprofit where I worked and I sat down at my desk and I … my heart was racing and I thought, This is it. I am an artist. I just remember feeling this sense of euphoria. And that was really the beginning for me, that opportunity. Then eventually, I sort of left my job and started to cull together projects, and I really started to identify as this person who wanted to live a creative life.


Millman:

A lot of people are hesitant or downright afraid to call themselves artists. What are your thoughts on that? When do you feel that someone can or should or is allowed to call themselves an artist?


Congdon:

You know, it’s funny, a lot of times at events and book signings, people will come up to me and say, “I love your work and I’m so glad you’re here,” and they’ll buy a book. A couple of my books are for artists. Some of them are not, but I often ask, “Oh, are you, are you an artist?” Or, or I’ll say, “What kind of work do you do?” And they say, “Oh no, no, no. I’m just … I’m a mom, but you know, I make things on the side,” or, “I have a full-time job and some day I’d like to be an artist.”


Congdon:

It’s interesting because we have all these preconceived notions about what it means to be an artist, that somehow it means you’re a professional or you make money from it. But really being an artist is just anyone who wakes up and intentionally makes things. Because that’s basically how I started, and I had to own that in order to get to the place where I am today.


Millman:

In Find Your Artistic Voice, I think people might be relieved to hear that it’s normal to not know what your artistic voice is at first. You state this: “When we’re in the process of finding our artistic voice, we are almost always constantly straddling the plains of belonging and independence, of being part of a movement and having our own unique form of expression, of emulating artists we admire and breaking away from them.” When did you first realize this?


Congdon:

I think pretty early on, I started asking these questions, like, “Who do I want to be as an artist?” Or, like, “Do I want to be part of a particular genre or movement in art?” Or, “What do I want to say through my work, and how does that relate to what other people are saying?”


Congdon:

When I first started making work and posting it, I was also diving into the work of other artists and began to understand that there were movements and that there were genres of art and that there were things I was attracted to, and that I was part of something bigger than myself. Often I think what happens for a lot of creative people who are starting out is like, part of finding your voice or standing out as an artist is saying something different or saying it in a different way, whether that’s visually or through words. Then part of it is sort of like being part of something, right? I feel like we’re always sort of straddling, Where do I belong and how do I stand out within that? Even when you’ve been working for a really long time, but especially in the beginning because you’re trying to find yourself and you’re trying to find your audience and your community.


Congdon:

For me, I began to understand that once I started building an audience and once people started comparing my work to other people, sometimes favorably, sometimes unfavorably, but you know—


Millman:

Who would they compare you to?


Congdon:

Oh, I remember very early on, I had a show in San Francisco at a hair salon. This is not like some highfalutin gallery, but you know—


Millman:

Got to start somewhere.


Congdon:

Right. It was packed, people came. I think they wrote about it on Daily Candy. I was excited, you know. This was back in the early 2000s. I got an email like three days later from somebody who said that I was trying to make work like Margaret Kilgallen. I remember being kind of pissed and I told my girlfriend at the time, like, “How dare this person?” You know? I realized, looking back, I was trying to be part of this kind of like genre of art that I was attracted to and that person saw that. I was young and—I’m not necessarily young compared to a lot of people who are starting out, but I was young in my career and it was hard to hear. But then it also woke me up to the fact that once you start putting your work into the world, people are going to consume it and they’re either going to like it or not like it, or they’re going to be critical of it. I realized then and there I had to get used to that because it wasn’t necessarily going to go away.


Millman:

How do you get used to criticism? I have not and I’m a lot older than you. I have yet to. Every time I’m criticized—Oh my God, I’m fucked up, I’m a failure, I’m horrible! How do you get over that?


Congdon:

I mean, like anybody else, I’m a human being with feelings and I’m very sensitive. So when my work is criticized or when somebody accuses me of something … you know, it doesn’t happen very often, but when it happens, I take it very seriously.


Congdon:

You know, Brené Brown always talks about fielding feedback. You know, “is that person in the arena?” And so I would … the first question I always ask myself is, like, “Is this feedback I need to listen to because this person is in the arena?”


Millman:

And “in the arena” means doing it too?


Congdon:

Doing it too, right. Or, “is this a person who is remaining anonymous or is purposefully being critical for who knows what reason?”


Millman:

Attention.


Congdon:

Attention, whatever.


Millman:

Jealousy.


Congdon:

Yeah. That helps me to kind of work through it for sure. And I feel like there are things to be learned always from feedback, but sometimes you just have to reject it out of hand. It’s just not fair.


Millman:

It isn’t. You’ve described how finding your voice is one of the most important experiences that one will ever have, and the process can’t be rushed. You state, “It isn’t just something that magically happens. Instead, it’s both an exercise in discipline and a process of discovery that allows for and requires a lot of experimentation and failure. Most of the time, finding your voice takes years of practice and repetition, frustration, agony, humiliation and self-doubt.” And so I’m curious, how did you find your creative voice and how would you describe it?


Congdon:

I found my creative voice through all of the things you just described. I was pretty lucky early on—I signed with an illustration agent just as I was sort of emerging into this world of illustration, which is where I sort of, within a couple of years, decided I wanted to head, versus being a fine artist. I have both practices now, but illustration is sort of how I make my living, so commercial work.


Congdon:

And I signed with an agent early on before I had very much training, and I stayed with her for six years because she really was instrumental in helping me understand what I needed to develop more of to be a successful illustrator. And I feel lucky because I entered the profession when I was in my 30s, so I already had this very stable work ethic and I had come from this career where I had learned the importance of showing up and getting stuff done. And so that was sort of a baseline for me. I’m also a Capricorn, so that’s kind of how I’m wired. And you would think that when you’re in your 30s and your parents sort of disapprove of your choice, that you could be like, “Well, who cares? I don’t care. I’m 30. I’m 35. Whatever. I’m going to do what I want.” But I cared a lot about what they thought. So my whole thing was like, “I’m going to prove them wrong.”


Congdon:

And so I took this very seriously and I was just still really very much a beginner, so I spent a lot of time making art, and drawing, and painting. And I would invent these challenges for myself, challenging myself to try something every day for 30 days or whatever. And then I started to do these public challenges, and those were transformational because you can’t practice getting better at something every day and not get better at it.


Congdon:

And in the beginning of my career, I had a part-time job. I was not even a freelance completely yet and so I would do it in the margins of my day, after work, and I started to see the payoff. And it wasn’t like it was completely linear, linear in that I went from practicing to having an illustration career overnight. But Malcolm Gladwell talks about the tipping point and, in 2011, I hit that tipping point where a lot of the work that I was doing to become a more skilled artist started to pay off, and then it just didn’t stop after that.


Millman:

A lot of your reputation initially came from self-generated projects, which at the time were rather unique. There weren’t that many people putting things up on the internet quite in the way that you were doing. Your Collection a Day really introduced you to a global marketplace in a lot of ways. What do you tell people now who are looking to develop an artistic voice online with their own self-generated projects? Because now there are so many.


Congdon:

Yeah. I mean, I was sort of at the cusp of that—


Millman:

You’re a pioneer.


Congdon:

Yeah. I still think it’s really important to do self-generated projects. I feel like creating projects that are sort of structured around time and have a particular focus is one of the best possible ways to develop your voice. Whether it’s using a constraint, drawing something in under 10 minutes every day for a period of time—or, people always ask me, “Oh, but isn’t that like … it’s just I get bored after 15 days,” and I’m like, “That’s why it’s called a challenge.” You know what I mean? If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a challenge. So there’s a certain amount of grit and determination that you have to have and a sort of way that you have to get comfortable with being bored.


Millman:

In the book, you make note of how finding one’s voice is of critical importance, and yet artists rarely discuss it publicly. And I’m wondering why. Why is that?


Congdon:

I don’t really know. I mean, I didn’t come into this world through academic channels or from being discovered by someone. I sort of did it on my own, and then built relationships, and did all the things one does to build a career. But I became very fascinated with my own journey in a way because I got to this place where I became known for having a particular look and feel to my work and I was starting to get a lot of opportunity as a result of that. And so many people were also simultaneously coming to me and asking me, like, “How did that happen for you?” It was one of these things—I was like, “I don’t really know.” And part of why I wrote the book was because I feel like voice is something that, traditionally, in the art world—in what I say, capital ‘A,’ capital ‘W’ Art World—it’s almost like it’s this thing that’s reserved for certain other people, and that if we eventually find our voice, and that voice sort of lends itself to some sustainable professional cycle, that we’re lucky or that we’re one of the chosen few. It’s actually not that mysterious. I mean, part of my goal is to demystify it because I figured it out—not completely on my own, I had a lot of mentors and people that I worked with. But it’s not magic. It’s just work.


Millman:

If somebody was looking to find their artistic voice, aside from obviously reading your book, what would be the first step that you would encourage them to take?


Congdon:

I think the two most important factors in finding your voice are, No. 1, the sense of discipline around deciding what you want to do, and what you want to get better at, and what it is you want to learn, and what do you want to explore. Figuring that out, making a decision. Because a lot of people will say, “Well, I want to do a million things. I want to be good at a million things.” Choose a couple and work at them.


Millman:

Give me an example of what that would be.


Congdon:

Like engaging in a daily project every day for … so, saying, “every day for 100 days I’m going to work on this thing, and I’m going to hold myself accountable for it in some way.” It might be on Instagram, it might be with the group of people that I meet with once a week for my art group or whatever. You have to build some kind of accountability structure for yourself if you’re not somebody who’s self-motivated. And then you’ve got to track your progress and see where that leads you.


Congdon:

One of the greatest predictors of creative achievement is actually openness to experience. And so if you are somebody who is sort of a naysayer, or negative, or constantly telling yourself that things won’t work, your potential for creative explosion is so much more limited. And so openness is incredibly important. And to me, that feels like this sort of other … if there’s a Venn diagram with voice in the middle, those are the two circles: discipline and openness. Openness is the harder one. Maybe you need to go back to therapy, I don’t know, but it’s the harder one to sort of self-monitor, for sure.


Millman:

A friend of mine taught me that there are two kinds of people in the world, really just two kinds—generators and drains. And the generators are the people that are open to new ideas, open to “what if” or “let’s try” or “maybe we can,” and they always add energy and enthusiasm. And then there are the drains, and that’s “no matter what, there’s something wrong.” “It’s too cold,” “it’s too hot,” “this isn’t right,” “I’m not good enough,” “they’re not good enough,” “we’re not good enough.” And that if you hear those types of statements in your head, you’re actually draining away your possibilities. You’re draining away what you can make of yourself. And that’s always stuck with me.


Congdon:

Yeah. I started a new practice recently. So I have this amazing studio manager named Amy. She is brilliant and she keeps coming to me with these ideas. “We should do this, we should do this, we should do this,” and of course, instantly, inside I’m like, “I’m overwhelmed. Stop coming to me with ideas.” But every time she gives me an idea, instead of saying no or talking about why it can’t work, I say, “yes, let’s figure that out,” or “let’s have a meeting about that next week.” And ultimately what I’ve found with Amy and her amazing ideas is that eight times out of 10, they’re amazing, and they turn into something. And the times when they’re not supposed to work, they don’t work anyway. So the saying “yes” hasn’t hurt anything, it’s just helped our relationship also, and it’s helped my business to grow. And she even has ideas for my work that I’ve now forced myself to be open to, and it’s really changed so much for me, just that one relationship.


Millman:

Talk about the difference between voice and style.


Congdon:

If you ask any audience of people, “what is your voice?” The one word they’ll come up with is style. That’s the thing that is the most synonymous with voice. And while style is a very important part of your voice and, ultimately, is probably the best synonym, it’s not everything. Your voice is so much more than that. And that’s one of the things that I think is so important for people to understand: Your voice is ultimately your story, which is your subject matter. What you choose to make work about is actually just as important as the style that you make it in.


Millman:

So voice is about the way you communicate the work, and style is how you create it?


Congdon:

Yeah, your style is like the visual … if you’re a writer, or a comedian or whatever, it’s not necessarily visual, but it’s—


Millman:

The way you’d be described.


Congdon:

Yeah, the way you’d be described. But your voice really also encompasses what you make work about, like the choices you make, which are ultimately based on who you are as a person, what you value, what your life experiences are, the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, the privilege or lack of you’ve had in your life. All of those things matter, and all of those things weigh into the choices you make about the work you make. And sometimes the things … ultimately, your voice is a reflection of your own personal truth. And some of that is really simple banal things, and some of those things are actually deep and complex. And most of the time it’s a combination of the two.


Millman:

One piece of advice in the book comes from Martha Rich. You do quite a lot of interviews in the book, which is a wonderful expansion of your ideas. And Martha says, “The minute you think about trying to have a style, stop.” And I’m wondering if you can talk about why she feels that way and if you agree.


Congdon:

I think Martha is one of those artists who is … she’s really driven by more about the message or sort of the weirdness of her work and the story. A lot of her work stems from reflecting back experiences that she’s had. And she’s gotten really obsessed with snake charmers in Southern churches. And her style is very … it’s not super refined, and so I think her messages—and this is true for a lot of people—they say “stop trying to develop something that looks like something.” Because a style is … if you want to develop a style, you’re usually developing a style that looks like another artist, and I think Martha has always been really focused on doing totally her own thing. And her work is quite unique.


Millman:

Can you tell us about Kate Bingaman-Burt’s creative family tree exercise? That’s one of my favorites in the book.


Congdon:

Yeah. So she has her college students do this exercise as she’s trying to get them to think about all of the things that they might tell a story about. And again, this is encouraging students to think about subject matter more than style, which is, I think, another thing Martha would also encourage … if she were a teacher, she would encourage her students to do as well. But this is really, “what’s interesting to you? What are you passionate about? What do you wake up thinking about?” And all of those things go on your creative family tree. Kate, she loves color and she’s really into vintage stuff. All the stuff that’s interesting to you outside of your art practice really can be the subject matter for your art practice, and as her—


Millman:

As her debt project.


Congdon:

That’s right, her obsessive consumption project. And I think what she’s trying to get her students to understand is this isn’t about finding a style that’s outside of you. Finding your style is one thing, but start with what’s interesting to you as the basis for the work you want to make.


Millman:

You mentioned before the notion of skill and having and developing skills, and you make a pointed differentiation in the book between skill and the old outmoded definition of what it meant to be a skilled artist. So if you can elaborate on that, I’d really love to chat with you about it.


Congdon:

Yeah. So traditionally, we think of skill as your ability to render something realistically. And in very traditional art training programs, that’s, even today, still part of the curriculum, this idea that you can actually draw something realistically. And in the last century, we’ve been so blessed because all of these artists who might’ve had that traditional training have come up and said, “No, not interested. I’m more interested in abstraction. I’m more interested in stylizing something.”


Millman:

Ideas.


Congdon:

Ideas, right? Or making something my own. And that opened up a whole new world for artists. And so now I like to think of skill as not your ability to render something that’s in front of you perfectly—while you might have that skill, that’s great—but rather to do what you do consistently over and over and over. You had this wonderful conversation with Lynda Berry where she talks about, “Yes, I can ‘draw,’ but I choose to draw in this really sort of childlike way because it’s an extension of my personality, it’s an extension of the story that I’m telling and how I want to tell it.” And that really is true artistry. Being able to render something realistically is great, but your voice really comes through in how your work is different.


Millman:

She has been accused of drawing the way she does because she doesn’t know how to draw, and a lot of people don’t know that in fact she can draw really, really well. Do you think that being able to do it does make you better when you don’t do it?


Congdon:

I don’t care. I mean, when I see somebody’s work, I’m drawn to it because I’m drawn to it. I think as human beings we are attracted to and moved by art, cartoons, graphic design, all of it, because whatever visual imagery it is, speaks to us. And sometimes the weirder it is or the less realistic it is, the more it speaks to us. And I teach “embrace the wonkiness.” The sleight of your hand or the way you make things is what makes it yours. Right? And that’s actually what’s appealing about it. Some ascribed to the adage that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is madness. You see it differently, as do I, and I’ve talked about this quite a lot in my work. You write that it’s actually how you build skill. I think it’s evidence of hope.


Millman:

So talk about that notion of doing something over and over and expecting different, perhaps improved results. And why that’s different from maybe a scientific experiment.


Congdon:

Well, I think we live in a day and age where a lot of people, even those of us who have been around since before, there was such immediate gratification for things. Because, let’s face it, the technology has made things faster for us, right? And I worry a little bit that we’re becoming a society who doesn’t want to sit down and practice things because we’re so used to things happening for us immediately. And I think this is particularly worrying about the younger generation.


Congdon:

I read this essay by Cheryl Strayed once, I think it’s in Tiny Beautiful Things, one of her books. And she writes this advice column that’s called Dear Sugar. And somebody writes in and is like, “I just lament the fact that I’m never going to be a great writer,” and “do I have what it takes?” And basically Cheryl’s like, “get up and start writing,” “do the work” and “it is only through practice.” “It’s also feedback, it’s also taking the risk of putting your work out into the world and seeing what resonates with people. It’s also not tripping too much about things being perfect.”


Congdon:

I think about how much my work has transformed even in the last two-and-a-half years since I started drawing digitally. I started using an iPad in September of 2017, and I was already a very successful illustrator. But that act alone of trying this new technology and just working at it over and over and over has made a new transformation in my art practice and in my career. And so I can’t say enough about how important it is to keep learning and keep showing up and keep practicing. We expect to try something two or three times, and if it doesn’t go well, we move on to the next thing. And it’s just not how it works.


Millman:

It’s not how it works with—think about as we grow up, even just being babies, how long it takes us to learn how to walk, how to talk, how to poop in a toilet bowl. The most basic, quotidian things are really monumental when we’re first starting out. And yet we do expect that this notion of not being great at something when we first start means that we should abandon it.


Congdon:

Exactly. I think that is the No. 1 thing that holds artists back, is this sense that we have this idea of what we want to make, we don’t achieve it within a short period of time and therefore we move on. And I think part of the problem right now is that the internet or social media is this space where we post work and all of the work is finished and looks great.


Congdon:

Some people post process images and things like that, but … so we’re in this world, all of the visual stimulation that we get looks really great, but what we don’t see is all of the struggle or of the trial and error, all of the attempts at making it that went before that. And I think that’s somewhat problematic.


Millman:

Talk about the moments that you retreat from being online and how important that’s been to you.


Congdon:

Well, just this week I have been here in New York and I normally post on the internet almost every day, and I’m tired cause I’ve been on this book tour and I got a bad cold last week, and I’m giving myself permission to not be present online to the extent that I normally am. And this is a very small example, but it feels so important to me to take that time.


Congdon:

And I also spend periods where I go off the grid for a period of time, and I’m trying to do more and more of that. Especially, the weekends are my precious time with my family, and I’m an avid road cyclist and I spent a lot of time on my bike. That is time that is spent using another part of my brain, using another part of my body. Talking to people who have nothing to do with what I do every day about really boring things in our lives. And that is the most regenerative practice that I can think of. And in fact, when I feel the most burned out, it’s because I haven’t taken enough of it.


Millman:

A friend of mine recently said, “no one ever spends 30 minutes scrolling through their feed on Instagram and comes away feeling good.”


Congdon:

Yeah, it’s true. It’s like, “I should be doing this. I’m not doing this.” Right. Exactly. Or, “I should be keeping up by also posting more.” There’s this constant pressure.


Millman:

You mentioned how technology has changed your practice. It’s also changed mine quite a bit, in the same way we both do a lot of work now on the iPad (and this is by no means an ad for digital drawing or any devices). How has it changed your practice?


Congdon:

OK, so previously I was working mostly in ink and gauche and I was drawing on vellum and watercolor paper. Scanning everything, manipulating it in Photoshop. So there were multiple steps. And I can create a very similar thing now with certain brushes that I use in Procreate on the iPad in so much less time. And so when there’s a mistake, or when I’m like, “I don’t like the direction of this,” the speed at which I can change something and move something around is so … in a way, it’s sped up my creative process because I can work so much faster.


Congdon:

Now that’s both a blessing and a curse, right? Because as we were talking about before, this immediate satisfaction we get from digital drawing, or this way that we can manipulate the process so that, it’s not so laborious, and the struggle is in some ways less really feels great, but I become a better drawer because of it. I’m just more skilled. What’s interesting though is that while I love drawing digitally, I’m taking a sabbatical next year, and one of the things I cannot wait to do is paint with acrylic paint on wood again. And I have a show that opens next June, and I’ve been going to museums all week this week in New York, and my mind is blown with all of the things I want to make with paper and paint.


Millman:

There’s something about just getting your hands dirty like that.


Congdon:

Exactly. And I miss that. So I’m excited that I have an opportunity to go back to it.


Millman:

I was shocked to find out when I was reading your book and doing research about your process that you only use seven colors for this book. Now, on a digital device, you have an infinite number—you can use as many as you want, shades of everything, shades of shades of shades. How and why did you pick seven?


Congdon:

Well, I’ve always used about seven to 12 colors. Even back in 2011 when I was making these large paintings of animals that were way more painterly and less flat than my work is now. And if you really look at it, my color palette was still pretty limited. And so I’ve always been attracted to a limited palette. My greatest design and art heroes are Alexander Gerard, Paul Rand and Ellsworth Kelly, all of whom use the very limited flat palette. They’re all—or at least two out of the three—influenced by folk art as well, which is a big influence in my work.


Congdon:

But I’ve always been attracted to that. And actually, digital drawing has made my work more graphic and flat, which I’m loving. But I remember when I was talking to my editor at Chronicle about this book and my ideas for it, I said, “I really just want to use seven colors. I want to make this really not too feminine and not … I want it to be really solid and something that is going to feel attractive to a man or a woman or anybody in between.” And I chose this palette that was all of the key core colors and I made everything work in that palette. And it has pink in it, but it doesn’t really have any skin tones. There’s no brown. So when I was drawing people, they have blue faces.


Congdon:

But there’s a way that that frees you up. Right? So on my iPad, I have all these palettes that are labeled for different projects, and I have one that’s called “2019.” And it’s interesting, because every now and again … in the last spring I introduced some ochre brown tone to my work, and people were freaking out on Instagram. Like, “Oh my God, I love this, but that’s a new color palette for you.” And I’m like, “No, it’s just a new color.” I’d used it in my work before, but maybe subtly, and then I made it something prominent, and people get very thrown off and excited by that when it happens. And I’m always changing things up a little bit, but I always love working in a limited palette. It’s part of my voice. It’s not something I feel like I have to do. It’s something I feel like I want to do. And every now and again I’ll add something in, but I’m very attached to my palette.


Millman:

You’re evolving your voice. Lisa, my last question for you is about something you just mentioned—your sabbatical. So tell us about that. When does it start? What are you going to be doing? And how did you arrive at the decision to do it?


Congdon:

I have had the most incredible opportunities, things that I could not have ever imagined in my career. And I have both been trying to corral them but also say yes to as many as possible. And they’ve all been really amazing. But I realized this year with all of the travel that’s been involved in all of the client work—and this year I’ve been working on four books, including this one that just came out. I was finishing it at the beginning of the year.


Congdon:

But I realized if I’m going to do all of this, I have to bookend it with some spaciousness, because often how busy-ness translates is feeling a little bit like you’re in a sardine can. Deadlines make you feel that way, a busy travel schedule makes you feel that way. And I realized that I could handle all of that and take advantage of everything that’s happened in the last couple of years if I could also afford myself this opportunity to just do what I want to do for a year. And so I’ve been saving a lot of money—also a lot of the opportunities have paid for this way that I can take a year off. And so I’m really excited to start painting again. I have an idea for a sewn project, so my sewing machine is already out. I bought a kiln last year.


Millman:

Your ceramics. You can see what you’re doing on Instagram, it’s magnificent.


Congdon:

Thank you. And so I’m just diving into more 3D stuff and thinking about all of that, and I’m just excited to see what happens next. What am I going to do? What am I going to make? I don’t know. And I’m really excited to see where that goes. And so, yeah, it’s going to be a lot of studio time and exploration and experimentation and so, yeah, we’ll see.


Millman:

I cannot wait to see what you come up with. Lisa, thank you so much for sharing so much about your wonderful new book and what you’re doing in your glorious life. And thank you so much for joining me today at this wonderful new space, Jen Bekman’s new gallery space 20x200 in Brooklyn, New York. Lisa’s book is titled Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic, and you can find it wherever fine books are found. You can learn more about Lisa Congdon at lisacongdon.com. This is the 15th year I’ve been doing Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman