A daily project has long been a useful tool in providing much-needed parameters for many artists, illustrators, and designers. Establishing rules or constrictions can be liberating since many of us find our most creative solutions within the space that limits provide. It’s hard to “think outside of the box” if there isn’t a box!
Many of us start such a project, but not many of us follow through (I’d like to think I’m not alone in this failure). Jennifer Orkin Lewis, who goes professionally by the name of August Wren, is coming into her eleventh month of a very successful personal sketchbook project. Jennifer has kindly answered some questions for our readers and provided examples from her painted sketchbooks.
I know you graduated from RISD in Textile Design. Tell us a bit about your work life since college.
After a string of bad jobs, I worked at a textile company, where I really learned about color and paint. Since this was a time before computers, we had to paint all the repeats and colorways for designs. My boss, an older woman, would stand over me until I got the color [of gouache] to be an exact match to the customer swatch, and the paint had to go onto the paper completely flat or you had to start over.
I then worked as a stylist at a company that printed fabric for manufacturers. I put together lines for lingerie and children’s apparel and sleepwear. I bought art from studios and trade shows and managed a studio. I would also go to mills to do strike-offs and approve printing. I wasn’t making art of my own, but I was surrounded by pattern and color, which has influenced me greatly. At a certain point I wanted to make my own art and slowly phased out of that life to focus on painting and illustration.
How did this project come about? Describe for me your daily process.
I have wanted to do a daily project for a long time. It is something that intrigued me, but I didn’t know what it should be. In April 2013, I did a painting a day for a month with no restrictions. I spent way too long on each one and it became stressful to complete. In May, I did it again, this time painting only food and I limited myself to one hour, but I wasn’t experimenting enough. In October of 2013, I picked up an inexpensive sketchbook. Painting in it gives me the freedom to play and experiment.
I’ve given myself permission to not worry about perfection; I don’t care if the paint bleeds through or if the paper rips. In January, I made the commitment to paint half an hour a day and post the results to Instagram to hold me accountable.
I try to do the painting first thing every morning to avoid getting overwhelmed with other commitments. It also is a very meditative and gratifying process, so it’s a good way to loosen up before the day begins. I put on headphones and listen to all different types of music depending on the weather or my mood. The subject matter also varies daily. It really has become a bit like a diary.
I can see my mood in the colors and technique. I spend no more than five minutes doing a loose pencil sketch, get my palette of colors ready, and then I put the timer on for thirty minutes. I often finish in twenty, but when the timer goes off at thirty, I stop no matter what.
Although this began as a personal project, it has raised your profile considerably. Can you speak to the impact of social media and what effect it has had on your life, professionally and personally?
It has been a very exciting and special thing to have so many people respond so positively to my work. Personally, I love that many people have told me they started their own sketchbooks, and I feel happy that I may have been an inspiration for them to do it. I never saw myself as a leader in that way and it has definitely helped me gain a lot of confidence and happiness. Instagram is such a beautiful visual interface and I love the immediacy of it. I also enjoy interacting with so many people from all over the world. (I also post them on my Augustwren Facebook page and I feel the same about that.) I try to respond to everyone who comments, to the best that I can. Professionally, I have gotten a few really great jobs, which is the best thing that can happen!
Whose work inspires you? I must say, I see a Maira Kalman influence!
Yes, Maira Kalman is a hero of mine. I started reading all of her children’s books to my son when he was small and they made me as happy as they made him. I love her humor and quirkiness and painting style. I adore Matisse for his amazing pattern, color, and genius; Milton Avery for color and the beauty of simple interlocking shapes; Modigliani’s line drawings are so beautiful and stylized; and Saul Steinberg for his drawing and wit. I love buildings by the architect Tadao Ando, the simplicity and materials are so beautiful. With Pinterest/Instagram/Facebook now there is such an influx of amazing art from current artists, I think I could go on forever!
I particularly like your self-portraits. Do you photograph yourself? What is the process here?
Some mornings I just decide that it will be a self-portrait day. I take the picture with my phone in the mirror in my bedroom. They are the painterly version of a selfie. I always show the phone too. The only thing I change from the actual picture is the background. I usually change the colors to go with my outfit! It’s interesting to see the change of seasons this way.
I’ve really enjoyed your pen and ink drawings. Is this a style that comes more directly from your days as a textile designer?
It’s more a style that comes from drawing on the edge of homework, memos, notes, and meeting agendas for my whole life. I’ve never had a blank piece of paper without making marks all over it. In October, I started to do an ink drawing every day for the whole month (for something called Inktober). I’m so glad I did it because I wasn’t using line drawing or ink and it brought me back to another technique I really enjoy.
The year will be coming to a close in a few short months. Any plans for a daily project in 2015?
I will definitely keep up a daily project, as it has become a habit that I love. I was thinking that I’d keep doing the same exact thing, but now that I have only two months left, I’m rethinking if I want to change the parameters a little bit so I don’t get stuck in a rut. Maybe a smaller book and only fifteen minutes, or larger paper, not in a sketchbook, but keep it to thirty minutes so it remains very loose. Maybe add a collage element. All of these ideas are energizing and exciting; luckily I have a bit of time to decide. I’d love to do them all. I also hope at some point I can do collaboration with someone, I haven’t done that and it is a little scary, which is a good thing.