Interview: Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton is a best-selling illustrator and graphic journalist. She draws from life wonderfully and knows a lot about living life wonderfully. Do be sure to check out her latest book, done with her partner, Caroline Paul, The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure.

How do you describe yourself? Your work? First and foremost as an illustrator. I also do illustrated journalism, and that means that I tell true stories using pictures and words. The words are those of people who I speak with. I put my pictures and their words together and do my best to tell the story from the people’s point of view.

I was trained in fine art. Illustration, that word to me, had some negative connotations. I was taught [illustrations] are all about decorating somebody else’s ideas, not creating original work within itself. I stayed far, far away from [illustrations] for a long time. But I’ve redefined illustration for myself: it’s using life as subject matter and telling stories directly from that, illustrating my experience of people and the world, re-presenting it in such a way that it provokes people to reconsider things they might otherwise overlook or ignore.

What are the things that interest you? I have a lot of questions [and] curiosities about people I see on the street, activities I see people doing that I don’t quite understand, things that are very different from myself or also very similar to myself that I’m just curious about. My questions are the starting points of the story.

Also, other people’s questions could be the starting point. I did a story about the San Fransisco Public Library, and my partner [writer Caroline Paul] tipped me off to the library as this potentially very rich story that might have a lot more going on under the surface than we expect.

Every time I start a story, it ends up being something completely different than what I originally thought. Always.

Would you say there’s a difference between looking and seeing? Most definitely. When we’re seeing things, we are taking information in visually to fit our needs. We are moving through the world and need to know that this thing is on our right, that we know that person over there, we’re making decisions constantly, but it’s all based on how we’re trying to navigate based on our goals, trying to get from here to there, trying to accomplish A or B.

When [I] really look at something, I step outside of myself, go really close, and I’m examining something in a much more intimate and deeper way than normal. I’m taking in more information than I usually would. It's almost physical for me. If I’m drawing somebody's face, especially in person, it’s almost like touching their face. You have to understand the shape of the face, how the head is constructed.

When you really, really look at somebody’s skin on their face or their hands or something like that, you see every wrinkle, every spot, every corner, all of those are connected to something that has happened to that person in their life. I start understanding or imagining who that person is, the experiences that they have had that have taken them to that moment.

[Looking] is a lot more engaged. It engages all different parts of us, not just our eyes, but our touch and our imagination and our memory at the same time.

When you draw a figure, is there something beyond the physical form that you’re looking to capture? I’m really interested in people’s stories. Every single person has such an incredible story to tell that will make your heart stop and your jaw drop and create such a sense of compassion and understanding.

That, to me, is the most interesting thing there is and also the most important thing there is in the world. Because once I understand what somebody has gone through in their life, I understand them in a totally different way, I respect them in a very different way, and I interact with them in a very different way.

I’m interested in the stories of people who are different from [me] because I’m trying to understand commonalities and I’m basically trying to connect. That’s what we’re all trying to do when we’re making any kind of art, whether it be writing, drawing, music or acting, we’re all trying to connect with each other.

When people look at a drawing, they see an outcome and, oftentimes, think that that was what the artist had in mind. But for me, the understanding of the person [I'm drawing] is in the making of the work. I haven’t figured something out and then try to represent it. It’s through the drawing of it that I understand this person more.

Was that instinct to connect manifesting for you before illustration became such a big part of your life? Before I was an illustrator formally, which was only six years ago, I was trained as a social worker. With my work as an artist, it is doing social work in a very different way with a very different kind of methodology. But the underlying purpose and goals are the same: connecting with people, supporting people, being supported, social justice, and trying to make the world and all of us in it a little bit better, as kind of grand and bland as that does sound.

Before [social work], I was in advertising. That also is about connecting with people, but to a very different end. First, I worked in commercial advertising; it was about selling chocolate, cheese, and beer, consumerism is the end.

That was a bad fit for me. Without feeling like there was a sense that it was beneficial to somebody in some way, I ended up sucking at it because I didn’t feel good about it. I don’t think we do things we don’t feel good about very well.

[Then] I went to work in advertising that only worked with nonprofits and foundations. I thought I could use the skills that I had to a good end and that I would like that more. But it turns out that even when the purpose is very good, if you don’t like the actual act of what you’re doing, it still sucks.

Once I left an environment where I was working by rules that had been created by other people within a description that I had to fit and went off on my own, it’s [been] like a constant creation.

The fear that it all could disappear, that time will run out doesn't go away - at least for me, it hasn’t. But I think that's good; I never take anything for granted because I don’t think I deserve anything. [Now] I get to work with people who I thought lived on a different planet, these brilliant, creative, greathearted people, and now I'm actually working with them.

I had all these ideas of what was possible, certain limitations that I expected about what I was capable of. But as soon as I made the scariest leap I’ve ever made [and went off on my own] and committed to keep on making that leap every day and worked harder than I’ve ever worked doing something I love, all of those boundaries dissolved. If we're lucky, as soon as we find the thing that is the right fit for us and we're doing good work in the world, more and more opportunities keep opening up.

How did you take that scary leap? I hadn’t drawn in eight or 10 years, and I started drawing again when I was commuting on the subway [to work]. I fell back in love with it and got very serious about it. I built up a practice where I was drawing twice a day and I would paint at night. I think more than anything that regularity of making is how you become an artist. But I didn’t know anybody who was self-employed, so I didn’t know a life like this was possible - it was something I had never seen.

Then I met my partner who writes out of a community space called the Writer’s Grotto. Through her, I started meeting a lot of people who had created a life based on making their own work and through freelancing.

Also, I respect [my partner] Caroline. So much that I believed her when she said that I could do this. I had never internalized that before and once I did, it was like jet propulsion: I’ve got to do this, I can do this.

At the same time, I had gotten to a point at work [in advertising] where I was completely checked out. People were being affected by the campaigns I was working on, and I was completely disinterested. That is dangerous. All of those things happened at once and got me really serious about [taking the leap]. Then I found some freelance [work], met some people who were very helpful, made some great connections, took on a bunch of work for free just to get my work out there, got paying jobs, worked day and night for about six months, and then quit my job.

How do you think about mistakes? I make a lot of them, that’s how I think about them. My drawing is often quite loose. If I were to stop my drawing every time I thought I made a mistake, I would never finish a drawing. In a sense, my best drawings are a series of fortunate mistakes. If I trust that even though something might happen that’s unexpected, I move through it, build off of it, and it takes me in a new direction that I wasn’t anticipating, and that drawing ends up becoming good.

To me, a good drawing is an honest drawing. As soon as the drawing becomes very effortful and you're avoiding mistakes, then it becomes very tight and contrived, and that is not as interesting to me. I make those uninteresting drawings sometimes. I try to avoid it. But when I allow myself to make mistakes, it always ends up going to an interesting place.

I think the same thing holds true in all areas. As long as it doesn’t impact somebody else in a really negative way, the mistakes that we make end up driving us forward in really unexpected ways.

How do you handle it when your confidence gets rattled? I’m both confident and terribly insecure at the same time, like all humans, I think. I’m susceptible - decreasingly so, I’m happy to say - to somebody saying something negative and internalizing [it], but on the flip side, I'm still just as susceptible to somebody saying something positive and internalizing it. And I think both are equally dangerous.

When I get some major criticism, or even if I just perceive some major criticism, I can get irked. I talk to my partner about it, she will help me get some perspective on it. I will see if there’s something I can learn from it, and if so, great, and if not, f**k it. It's an opportunity to learn, or else shake a fist at the sky and move on.

What is worth being fierce about in our lives? What isn’t worth being fierce about? Why do something if you’re not going to be fierce about it? You’re not going to fiercely watch a show on Netflix, you’re not going to fiercely drink a cup of tea. But if we’re talking about any art we’re making or any meaningful work that we’re doing or any relationship that we’re having, be fierce. There are so many options of things to do, what we choose to do we should be fierce about.

What’s worth walking away from? I’m still learning this. My problem is also my strength: I can get interested in anything. Everything has a story, everything can be helpful to somebody in some way, I am curious about all of it. But we only have limited time and we only have a limited amount of energy, so we have to pick and choose the things where we feel we can do our best work and be of best use.

For me, it’s really easy to get excited about something for five minutes, then it fades really fast. But like [designer] Debbie Millman says, "Expect anything worthwhile to take a while." That initial enthusiasm will inevitably wear off or at least dissipate, and there needs to be real commitment, interest, engagement, and sense of responsibility that’s going to make the work work.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult? When I was in my 20s, I had such a fear of compromise, but also a fear of making choices, a fear of responsibility. It is so nice to realize that if we just relax our hands a little bit, things both come and go a lot easier.

[We realize] that choices are not walking away from something, [but] walking towards something, that the unexpected will always intervene, and that compromise is about working with people and accomplishing things together. All the things that I feared when I was younger have turned out to be gifts.

The Lightning Notes is funded by kind donors. If something here strikes you, I'd be grateful if you'd consider donating. Click to Donate!