Baseball and Illustration

I’m a Baltimore Orioles fan. I’ll skip the blurry anecdotes and poetic waxing of what the O’s have meant to me. Suffice it to say my devotion runs deep. How deep? I still loved them after what happened in the spring of 1988 (look it up).

As a fan of baseball, I can’t help but notice the parallels and lessons that directly apply to something else I love: illustration. With outfield assists from fellow baseball fans Sarah Bunting, Tad Carpenter, John Hendrix, Kenard Pak, Elias Stein, Matt Tavares, and John Tomac, we discuss the lessons artists can learn from our national pastime. So pull up your socks and chew on some gum—we’re talking baseball and illustration!

INTANGIBLES AND FUNDAMENTALS

“What do art directors look for in an illustrator’s portfolio?” How many times have you thought about the answer to this question? For me, the answer is simple: personality and prowess. Your work should show potential art buyers what you want to say and how well you can say it. Personality and prowess. Good ideas and good technique. Heart and brains. Or in baseball terms: intangibles and fundamentals.

Most aspiring illustrators have room for growth in at least one of these areas. Many suffer from a lack of prowess—the basic principles of drawing and painting needed to professionally execute personality. Their problems are made worse by the fact that they also have a tenuous grasp of their chosen medium. The result is a body of work that comes across as amateurish and primitive.

On the other hand, a lack of personality is often the problem. At conferences and schools around the country, I see the same uninspired decisions being made as if children’s book illustration is a formula—with artistry being an optional ingredient. Oddly, the artists themselves are interesting and inspiring, but none of that comes through in their work.

Much like baseball—fundamentals can be taught. Intangibles, however, cannot. Sure, our friends, colleagues, and teachers can help us answer who we are as artists, but only to a point. Since the intangible speaks to our artistic identity, we must ultimately come to that conclusion ourselves. The best baseball players are described as having “the intangibles.” Derek Jeter (much to my Yankee-hating chagrin) is famously in this group. They have that thing. The indefinable something that sets them apart.

© Elias Stein

© Elias Stein

So, how do you tap into the intangibles? Answer the tough questions of who you want to be and what you want to say as an artist. This has nothing to do with being superficially “different” relative to other artists. It does, however, have everything to do with being yourself. As Elias Stein, Cubs “lifer” and illustrator, points out, Ichiro Suzuki is on his way to the Hall of Fame for hitting . . . singles. He goes on to explain, “Most people think of the Hall of Fame as being for home run hitters–Mays, Ruth, Aaron. What Ichiro lacks in power, he makes up for in speed and hitting for average. The thing I take from the Ichiro fact is that there is more than one path to success. Find out what you do well, and do it to the best of your ability.” And that is exactly what art directors are looking for.

BOMBS, DYING QUAILS, AND CANS OF CORN

If a batter doesn’t hit a home run, is he a failure? Have you ever heard a baseball player say, “I had four hits today, but unfortunately, none of them were home runs”? Of course not. You hear them say, “I just wanted to have a good at-bat.” A good at-bat is defined by many different productive outcomes. Even outs can be productive—from sacrifice bunts that move teammates into scoring position to long at-bats that force the pitcher to overexert himself.

Illustration (and writing) follows the same logic. You won’t hit a home run every time you sit down to illustrate a piece, write a chapter, or design a book cover. If you walk up to the plate expecting to hit a home run, you’re less likely to hit one—unless you’re Babe Ruth. And even he couldn’t call them all. In any given at-bat, in any given attempt at creativity, all we can do is control our ideas and our execution. If we do that, the end result will be a positive one—even if it’s a strikeout.

You may be thinking, “Sure, but I feel like I’m always striking out.” That’s called a slump. All of us, and I mean all of us, have experienced slumps. Before you hang up your cleats, let’s unpack that slump.

If you’re like me, the Act of Creating produces its fair share of swings and misses. It can be discouraging. Imposter syndrome—feeling like you don’t have what it takes—begins to seep in. When this happens, you have two choices:

  1. Feel sorry for yourself, allowing that feeling of disappointment to affect your outlook and judgment. You avoid the reasons you failed. You blame everything—equipment, circumstances, coaches, talent scouts and distractions—for your lack of results. You bench yourself. Or
  2. You learn from your experiences, get back in the batter’s box, step up to the plate, and try again.

On any given night, a batter could go 4 for 4 with four home runs or 0 for 4 with four strikeouts (called a golden sombrero). Whatever the outcome, the box score is reset on the following night. Whatever the outcome, you can always try again. As beloved former Oriole Nick Markakis notes, “You’ll have some tough and good stretches, but you get an opportunity every day. That’s the beauty of baseball.”

Matt Tavares, Red Sox fan and author/illustrator of Growing Up Pedro and other baseball-themed books, sees the connection between player and the picture book maker. He points out that, “There will be days when nothing goes right, and when the time comes to wrap up for the day, you can’t believe how little you accomplished. But like the hitter who just struck out three times, you can’t dwell on it. And other days, you get in the zone and everything goes right. Those days are awesome, but even then, you need to know that it’s not always going to be like that. And that’s okay.”

John Hendrix, a lifelong Cardinals fan and illustrator, puts it this way: “I often imagine different projects I work on as plate appearances. Honestly, I don’t know why this helps me as an illustrator, but it does. We work on so many projects over the course of a career, one at-bat doesn’t determine the arc of our whole career. Except when it does! (See David Freese, Game 6, St. Louis Cardinals World Series 2011). It reminds me that anyone, even a utility infielder, can run into a game-winning home run on an inside breaking ball. It also reminds me that even Stan Musial struck out looking, and I can too.”

© John Tomac

© John Tomac

Slumps are part of the game. Sometimes, many times, you’ll strike out, ground out, hit a can of corn. But don’t focus on the slump. Focus instead on having a good at-bat every time you’re up. When you do get a hit, they won’t all be homers. As John Tomac, Mets fan and illustrator, explains, “On any project, I know I’m giving editorial clients at least two or three ideas that are going to be rejected. Failing is a part of the job description. Sometimes, the ones I’m sure are home runs get caught at the warning track, while the weak grounder of an idea turns out to be a hit with the editors. I may not be thrilled with that, but I still have to hustle to get it done.”

The career of an artist will have its ups and downs, its streaks and slumps. For Tad Carpenter, Royals fan and illustrator, the analogy rings true: “For me, a batter’s plate appearance has many similarities to design. We get to make a lot of things, and the majority of them are not home runs. We make a lot of singles, we make a lot of doubles, and hell, I make a heck of a lot of strikeouts that never see the light of day. But what do we do? We dust ourselves off and walk back to the plate. Each and every time.” 

Treat each at-bat as a learning experience. An opportunity. A chance to get better. Do that, and the results will take care of themselves.

BATTING PRACTICE

What do baseball players do before a game? “Play video games and stuff their faces!” Let me rephrase: What do good baseball players do before a game? They practice. They stretch. They study film to improve their technique. They do their homework. Illustrators would do well to follow that lead.

It’s unrealistic to expect excellence in any creative endeavor without practice. Baseball players arrive at the stadium hours before the peanuts and crackerjacks to refine their swings and pitching mechanics, study opponents, discuss strategy, and prepare for the game in all other ways. Why should illustration be any different?

We should consistently set aside time to “practice.” Practice can take many forms, including:

  • Stream-of-consciousness doodling
  • Plein air painting
  • Contemplative walks
  • Museum and gallery visits
  • Media explorations
  • Taking classes
  • Teaching
  • Reading

You don’t have to practice every day. I used to be in the “practice every day!” camp. That sounds great, but life priorities (kids, jobs, chores) have a way of commanding much of our time. For Carpenter, practice is vital: “So often we are overwhelmed with deadlines and emails and day-to-day stuff, we forget that like playing baseball, we need to carve out some time to practice. Remind yourself you love to do this and find some time to make things for yourself, experiment, play. That is all just practice.” Do what works for you—but do something. Because, as Carpenter reminds us, “You can’t get any better if you don’t practice. Ask Mike Trout how often he practices.”

Hone those skills. Study. Be ready to play. And it’s probably a good idea to stretch those hammies every now and then, too.

THE BIGS

Quick, within ten seconds, name five publishers not named Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, or Simon & Schuster.

Now, name one market for your work other than publishing. You have ten seconds. Go.

How well did you do? How well do you know your market? I’ve been in publishing since the ’90s, and I can’t name each and every publisher. Hell, I don’t know if I could name all thirty Major League Baseball teams without hesitating. (I’m still surprised when I see Houston in the American League column.) But at least I know that there are more teams than the Orioles, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and Red Sox; there are more publishers than the “Big Five,” and more importantly, there are more markets for illustrators than publishing.

If we widen our focus, if we think as creatively in business as we do in art, we begin to see opportunity and possibility. There are myriad markets in which illustration absolutely still applies: editorial, greeting cards, games, decor, advertising, education, entertainment, and bespoke goods to name a very few. For many of us, applying our talents in several of these markets is the only way to maintain a career in the arts.

Baseball players know how important it is to diversify their income (at least their agents do). Some hold financial interests in restaurants and hotels; others score endorsements; while still others create second careers in broadcasting and other media. There’s a very valuable lesson for artists here: How else can we apply our talents? Many of us teach. We volunteer our creative time for political or community outreach. We create products for other artists. We produce podcasts, video tutorials, and popular websites that generate ad revenue. In my experience, one venture almost always leads to another.

The point here is a simple but important one: “Big Five or Bust” is not a viable business model. Learn about the markets in which illustration is used. The road to the Bigs is different for each of us. Many artists start out in one industry and end up in another. I went from wanting to be an architect to a painter to an editorial illustrator. So, naturally, I became a children’s book art director and founded a school (The Illustration Department). Find your road, but allow for deviation.

“IT WAS A TEAM EFFORT”

Unless you’re Reggie Jackson circa 1977, who reportedly called himself the “straw that stirs the drink”, you know that baseball is a team effort. It’s a collection of players with specialized talents who root for each other. Not every player is the same. Some are big power hitters. Some are speedy table-setters. Some hit. Some pitch. Some catch. Some do all of the above. Each player contributes in their own individual way.

Illustration is the same. All of us have our own talents. Some illustrate. Some design. Some art direct. Some do all of the above. Hendrix takes it a step further: “Even beyond this, I look at other illustrators I admire and give them different statistic profiles in my mind. Some illustrators have a high batting average but low power numbers (lots of regular work that is great, but few crushing projects), some illustrators have an okay average, but can steal bases (they do good work, but their hustle and smarts significantly amplify each project’s value). Some illustrators are total MVPs: high average, lots of power, and good in the field. Some illustrators are utility workhorses, some are specialty players.”

© John Hendrix

© John Hendrix

There’s no template for what kind of illustrator you will be. But whatever you end up being, know that illustration (or any commercial art) is a situational game. Tomac shares this view: “Like a baseball team, not all of us are asked to do the same thing. On one project, you may be the starting pitcher asked to carry a load, like illustrating a cover, spread, full page, and spot. On another, you’re the left-handed specialist coming out of the bullpen to get one guy out in the eighth inning—cranking out a two-inch square spot illustration on a twelve-hour deadline. While the former certainly seems more glamorous than the latter, it is no less essential to the collective effort of trying to win a game or get a magazine out on deadline.”

An illustrator once said to me, “I don’t know if I can break into illustration. There are so many good illustrators out there already.” There are. But that’s no reason not to play. In Cal Ripken’s day, were there no other shortstops playing?! Of course not. We each bring a different view to the game, other players notwithstanding.

DRAWING FROM THE PAST

 © Kenard Pak

 © Kenard Pak

Kenard Pak, Orioles fan and Illustrator, sees the analogies of effort. But he finds more interest in how the past has such an influence on both baseball and illustration. To Pak, “Baseball, much more than other sports, is about the many long gone players that have, in varying degrees of success and failure, devoted their lives to the sport. For every disappointment and resolved acceptance, there has been a Walter Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Madison Bumgarner, and, one day, the first female MLB player. Knowing failure is readily available, every player makes that risk.  Why make yourself so vulnerable? There are different reasons for each and every other player, but let’s think about the images and feelings of the past: hazy memories of late afternoons with friends, family outings, stories handed down from parents and great journalists, and the many images of the deified great ball players. There is hope and wonder garnered from things of the past that very much carry over to the hard work done in the present.”

He goes on to say, “The truth is many of us are romantics, and, like baseball, illustration is a good receptacle for that romance. With all the strange sharp turns and curves that can happen in an artist’s career, all the artwork gazed at with awe and confusion, there is that same nostalgia and same romance that helps the illustrator hope that somewhere, sometime that one design, pencil work, or watercolor piece can come with content and quiet pride. The illustrator can dive into things not easily remembered but can discover just enough remnants that can cascade to an image never expected or planned. The work to get there does not guarantee any promises or anything that resembles certainty, but much like how a pitcher thinks about who has been there on the mound before him many, many years ago, perhaps it’s these recollections that give us just enough to make a beautiful drawing.”

Draw from what you know. Draw from what speaks to you. To be an artist in the present, certainly draw from the past.

GRIND IT OUT

I’ve always found it interesting to hear writers and illustrators dismiss baseball, especially when the lessons we can learn from it are invaluable. Sarah Bunting, East Coast editor-in-chief at Previously.TV and keynote speaker at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, agrees. She adds, “As a writer, you’re well advised to keep it direct when you write about the game, because it doesn’t need you to add plot or embellish descriptions. Incredible things happen all the time, miracles even. Curses are put on and then reversed. The metaphor and the melodrama is already in it, so you want to keep it simple: just report what happened. Just write it all down.” She goes on to explain the lesson: “Once you’ve applied that directness to writing about baseball, you realize you should apply it all over your writing life. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel that is describing twilight, or love. Just use the words you already have and go on to the next thing. The words we have are already useful and beautiful.”

Baseball and illustration (and writing) have quite a bit in common. Neither can be separated from the human element. Pride, doubt, joy, fear, instinct, impulse, spirit—all play as much of a role in baseball as they do in illustration. Let’s not forget about self-criticism. Like a baseball player, an artist’s self-worth can ebb and flow with the caliber of his latest performance. Breaking a bat over a knee and trashing a painting (possibly also over a knee) both come from the same exact point inside of us. And how about superstition? How many of us genuinely believe that listening to a certain kind of music or cleaning your entire home can positively affect a creative session? Baseball players are notorious for not changing their socks or not shaving if they feel it will help their game. I’ve been successfully designing books for a very long time, and yet I’m one subpar design away from giving my Wacom stylus a shot glass of rum, some incense, and a cigar. (Don’t steal the rum. It’s very bad to steal the rum. Very bad.)

A baseball season is 162 games. It is a long, arduous, painful, journey. It is frustratingly simple in theory, but nearly impossible in practice. Some days you win. Some days you lose. Either way, you can’t get too high or too low. Most of the time, nothing happens . . . until it does! You have to give it 110%. It takes hard work, talent, and a little luck to make it. There are no shortcuts—you don’t get to play the World Series in April. It’s a long game. So you take it one day at a time.

Sound familiar?

Now, PLAY BALL!


I’d like to thank Sarah Bunting, Tad Carpenter, John Hendrix, Kenard Pak, Elias SteinMatt Tavares,  John Tomac, and Laura Stiers for their time, generosity, and invaluable contributions to this article. A special thank you to Kenard Pak for his Orioles illustration (Go O’s!).

Feel free to share your baseball-related thoughts in the comments section below.