Lads, This is Our Fight Too

I’m conscious that children visit my website, so be warned, this post is not suitable for children. If you’re a child, don’t read it. And I’m not just saying that to make you want to read it – seriously, go and do something else.

The rest of you lads, take a seat and get comfortable; we need to talk about women. A lot of guys might be thinking they’re either going to vote against the repeal of the 8th Amendment on the 25th of May, or just choose not to vote. Here are some of the reasons for these decisions:

  1. You believe life is sacred, and you don’t think women should be allowed to have abortions under any circumstances.
  2. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, you might support it in some circumstances, but this could be a slippery slope, and where will it all end? Allow them sometimes, and before you know it, they could be performing abortions in Mass.
  3. You can’t be arsed either way, and what’s it got to do with you anyway, sure aren’t you a man?
  4. You would vote to repeal it, but you have other things to do that day. The whole day. All of it.
  5. You would vote to repeal it, but you don’t want the lads to think the feminists have cut your balls off.
  6. You would vote to repeal it, but this is a woman’s issue, and really, they should decide it amongst themselves.
  7. You would vote to repeal it, but you don’t want women to think you only support feminism in order to get laid.
  8. You don’t want to vote because you’re confused about it all, mainly because you’ve grown up with conflicting signals from society about how masculinity should be defined, everybody’s so angry, you just don’t know what to think, and isn’t it an ugly business altogether?

Make no mistake, whether you vote yes, no or choose not to vote at all, every man entitled to vote will be part of the final numbers on the 25th of May. If you intend to vote no, or if you plan to just seek cover for the day and not stick your head out until the polls close, this post is for you, but it’s also for all the young guys who are maybe still trying to figure out what the world wants from them, and what they want from the world. Because the same thinking that would have us believe that women cannot be trusted with their own bodies, also tries to convince us that men are lacking some fundamental human qualities.

Let’s look at the root cause of all this hassle: At some point in the distant past, someone convinced us that neither a man nor a woman could be a complete human being on their own, that they were two halves of a whole, not just biologically, but intellectually and emotionally too. And to this day, part of us still believes this, that each of us is one of two things. And they’re not even equal halves. We’ve had decades of changing attitudes towards women and while we’re finally starting to recognise them as, y’know, equal human beings, and we’re developing a legal structure to support those attitudes, we still haven’t overcome a few thousand of years of social programming.

If you think women have equality already and that they should stop being pissed off with us now, bear in mind that this is Ireland, and when we were negotiating for independence back in the day, it would have been like England saying to us: ‘What’s your problem? Okay, so we took your land, your rights and your money for a few hundred years, but sure you’ve got most of your country back, and didn’t we give you roads and plumbing?’ Nearly a hundred years later and we’re still holding a grudge about that, and it’s only taken one Brexit-inspired border dispute to turn us all into raving Republicans again. Every fibre of our civilisation has been influenced by the attitudes of the past – including our idea of what it means to be a man. So I want to talk about male identity, and how it has a bearing on the issue of abortion.

We are making fundamental changes to the way humans live with each other, and this transition between the programming of the past and the expectations of the future has created a perceived limbo for masculinity. It can be a confusing time to be a young man, still trying to find his own identity. Most guys want things to be equal, so many are wondering why women are still pissed off with them. And yes, part of it is the past we had no hand in, one that still has a huge influence on our perception of masculinity. We have been indoctrinated into believing that men who lived centuries ago, in simpler times, lived a more fundamental life, and knew more about being a man than we do. And we are committed to living up to their expectations.

One of the last and biggest obstacles to gender equality is the deep-seated idea that women’s rights are a threat to men, and indeed, the very definition of what a man is. This stems from a concept of male identity that is drilled into us from birth onwards . . . that male is defined as the opposite of being female. These opposing identities are accepted as a natural law because our understanding of the differences between men and women was formed some time in the distant past and because that concept is very old, it must therefore be ‘natural’.

Tradition has us believing that we identify entirely by our genitals, that life is binary, and what is considered male is ‘naturally’ the opposite of what is female. Like penis and vagina, like sperm and egg, we serve different purposes in life. These physical differences were extended outwards as society developed: the man initiates sex and the woman accepts. In life, he gives and she receives. We have an image of the woman as the one to be protected, as she nurtures the children and cooks the food, while the man is the provider, dominant because of his physical strength and his duty to protect, able to kill a wolf with his hands and teeth if required.

It might sound simplistic, but modern attitudes are still essentially shaped by the belief (whose origin can’t actually be proven) that there was a time in our development when things were right, as nature intended, and we’ll all be happier if we hark back to that time, and stop resisting our natural instincts.

However, our hunter-gatherer days are long gone and most of the beliefs that may have seemed reasonable, even practical, back then, like the world being flat or that your mind was located in your heart, are completely irrelevant in the new existence we’ve shaped for ourselves.

We have cast off most of what we thought of as ‘natural’, and with good reason. There was no point in the past when humans were more enlightened than we are now, where we had things better than we have them now. We don’t have to follow the example of more primitive people. Neanderthals were not smarter or wiser than we are. If you think there was a time when men were more ‘real’ than they are today, ask yourself which bit of that real masculinity you’d be nostalgic for: The bit without modern transport? Without technology? Without democracy and human rights? Without modern medicine or dentistry? And even if it was natural, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically better. Dying of cancer is completely natural, that doesn’t mean we have to make a belief system out of it. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had to kill a wolf with my hands and teeth in a long time. Besides, I like wolves.

When a young man asks himself what it is that makes him a man, instead of asking himself what makes him a grown-up, it can often be interpreted as, ‘What makes me different from a woman?’ This idea that the masculine character is, by definition, not feminine, is inculcated in us almost from birth. We are opposite poles. The yin to each other’s yang. Two opposing halves of the same whole. They are the soft natures to our hard ones. The opposite sex. You have to be one or the other, it’s how we identify . . . and to our great misfortune, neither of us can possess a fully rounded character – there has to be something missing that the other sex provides.

And even with well-meaning parents who might try to counter this influence on young children in order to try and raise a whole human being, there is so much in society that forces this idea onto us. The dregs of these ancient beliefs persist in our education, our entertainment and our culture – they’re almost impossible to avoid. Let me be clear; I’m not saying that men and women are not different from each other – hormones and genitals play their part – I’m just saying they are not the opposite of each other. What’s even weirder, is the idea that we had to divide up personality traits between us, because there evidently weren’t enough for everyone.

Think about the traditional view of male identity, the things we tend to admire in other men: to be physically and mentally strong, ambitious, brave, daring, decisive, rational, protective, competitive and, of course, get lots of sex. These are good, strong male traits – this is what it means to be a real man, right? So women are the opposite of all that? Really? Try saying that to your mother, your sister, your girlfriend or your wife. I fuckin’ dare you. And if you have beliefs that you’re afraid to express out loud in front of a woman – and I don’t mean from an anonymous Twitter account – then you seriously need to ask yourself why that is.

And as society becomes more open, and it turns out not everyone considers themselves exclusively masculine or feminine, when some women might possess every one of these ‘male’ qualities and still have a vagina, the pressure of tradition for a man to be what a woman is not is fucking up young men’s perception of what it is to be a grown-up.

It’s not that these traits aren’t good things to have – of course they are. But who decided these were male traits? It must have happened a very long time ago, in what was a very different kind of world – so why do we still have to believe it now? Look at what traditional society regards as female traits: empathy, gentleness, sensitivity, compassion, tolerance, the innate need to nurture your children. But hang on a second . . . don’t guys need those too? What kind of asshole has no tolerance? What kind of a shit father would you be if you couldn’t be gentle or compassionate or nurture your children? Why are these only seen as female traits? Maybe it’s because they could be viewed as passive, even submissive qualities, conflicting with the image of the man’s man, the one who brings strength to the partnership, who kills wolves and fucks like a buffalo.

And empathy? Do we seriously not value empathy in men – the capacity to experience and share other people’s emotions? This perception, more than any other, is fucking up our concept of modern masculinity. Imagine the horror if half the entire human race lacked empathy, if they were essentially psychopaths. Empathy is the root of cooperation of every kind, the basis of every partnership, the reason the players on a football team can anticipate each other’s moves, it is foundation of family life. It is the reason soldiers are willing to give their lives for each other. Empathy is the basis of civilisation itself. How about we don’t just leave that to the women?

If men are expected to be strong and women are the opposite of men, then it follows that women must be weak, and the qualities we think of as passive or submissive must be feminine traits. A man who demonstrates these too often is seen as effeminate – and because of our ‘either/or’ mentality, when a man is compared to a woman, that comparison is invariably a negative one. He is less of a man, and less worthy of respect.

When did these traits get divided up and shared out between us? At what point did someone decide that neither gender was capable of having the full range of positive qualities? Because those assholes didn’t stop there; we had to divide up the emotions between us too – because no human being can have the full range of those either. Naturally, women got most of the passive, submissive ones: sadness, contentment, anxiety, etc. while the men got rage, lust and triumph, among others, stuff you could roar about with the lads while you were cooking your wild hog over the fire. To experience – and worse, express – softer emotions was to be like a woman. And we didn’t do that. After all, that’s what we had women for, to have those feelings for us. They were the soft, caring bit we added on when we needed it. They completed us . . . and crucially, we completed them. But on our terms, of course, because we were the stronger ones.

There is one aspect of our genders that we can say for certain is required for the success of our species: we need a sperm and an egg to procreate, and a womb to bear children. And if you don’t have a womb, then you sure as hell need someone who does, if your genes are to be passed on, one of our most primitive drives. So, because men lacked this one basic requirement, and because we had the advantage of strength, for most of our civilisation, a woman’s worth to society was based, not on her abilities or her character, but on the fertility of her womb. She became identified by the one thing that a man did not have.

Men didn’t feel the need to dominate women because women were inferior, but because they had something we didn’t, something we needed, but could never take from them. Control was the next best thing, contriving to ensure that a woman was not an individual, a complete human being in her own right . . . she was a resource, a step along the way to other humans. She was a means to an end.

All of this because men saw women as opposites, the other side, the opposition, the weaker sex, who could not be trusted with something that was so important to our species: The womb. And here we are, in our modern, enlightened age, still trying to pull the same old medieval shit, as if we’ve learned nothing at all.

There was no time or place when human relationships were more ‘normal’ than they are now, because such a normality has never existed, it has been in a state of continual change, as humans have. This is our normal now. We live in a world which is more enlightened than it has ever been, and yet we still allow our lives to be shaped by the beliefs of less developed people, who inhabited a far more primitive and less enlightened world. In terms of how men and women relate to each other, only one thing has stayed constant: We get one body and one mind to get through life and that’s it; it’s everything we’re born with and everything we die with. Your body is the only thing that is unarguably yours. And though we might all need social contact and love, we are not half-formed, with an incomplete quota of traits and emotions. We emerge from the womb a complete human being.

Because a lot happens during the nine months we spend in there.

Abortion is an uncomfortable subject, and the debate about it is an ugly one, with extreme voices on either side. I am not in favour of abortion in any circumstances, I think the closer a foetus gets to being able to survive outside the womb, the muddier this issue becomes. But it will never be a decision I have to make, and I believe every human being is entitled to control over their own body, and should not be condemned as a criminal for exercising that control, nor should others be condemned for helping them to exercise it. I have known women who had abortions, and I know how seriously each one took that decision. I also understand that some people believe that that early cluster of cells is a life in its own right, even when it is incapable of surviving without the mother’s body, and they must defend this life on principle. And yet it is a strange thing to believe that that bunch of cells can be considered a human being, when the voices of the past tell us that even fully grown humans are fundamentally incomplete.

Beyond the biological imperatives that are needed to keep us alive and healthy, and to propagate our species, everything about our lives has been, and can continue to be, shaped however we choose. There were no humans before us who had a more rightful claim on how humans should be defined. We are not bound by the obsolete wisdom of dead men, by the voices that claim a man’s self-esteem has to be based on the inadequacies of women. We are not bound by the beliefs that state a two-centimetre foetus is entitled to the rights of a fully formed human, but a grown woman does not have the right to make decisions about her own body.

Some time in the future, there may come a perfect time when the ugly act of abortion is unnecessary, when young people don’t make mistakes; when condoms don’t burst and the pill does not fail; when young girls and women are not raped; when families are not driven to the point where they can’t cope; when men do not desert women after getting them pregnant; when illness, injury or mutation will not prevent a foetus from growing into a child.

But the Eighth Amendment does not recognise any of these realities. It is a woefully blunt instrument that actively obstructs reason and compassion.

Women need us; our sisters and our friends, our girlfriends and wives and mothers. They need us to be strong and decisive and to take action to support them, not because they are weak or they are incomplete without us, but because that’s what a man should do for his fellow human beings, no matter who they are. It is not enough to sit back and say that men today can’t be blamed for what history has done to women, because that insidious influence still pervades our culture and our behaviour. We have to actively take a stand against that influence, against the extinct, less developed cultures that demand we obey their dogma, that are still trying to decide our society’s future for us. That is not their right – it is ours.

There are too many guys whose beliefs are still dictated to them by a long line of dead men from a distant past, and you can be sure they’ll be getting out to vote. We have to make our numbers count against them. I’ll be out on the 25th of May to vote for repealing the Eighth Amendment.

I hope you’ll be there too.


How an Illustrator Chooses Their Style

People who take an interest in children’s books and comics learn to recognise individual illustrators by their distinct styles, but not many outside of the trade itself realise that illustrators can and do often work in more than one style. Nor do they understand how an illustrator chooses the styles they use most often – and how those choices can affect their career. You might assume that the style they’re known for is one they chose at the beginning of their career, developed deliberately, and that they fully intended to end up where they are. If so, you’d be amazed at the random things that can influence an artist’s path.

Illustrators rarely achieve the same kind of recognition as writers in children’s books, though creative credit is far more evenly balanced in comics. If you want to become recognisable as an artist, to have a brand, it’s best to have a single distinct style that will become tied in to your professional identity. This style will, in turn, dictate the kind of work that’s offered to you, which will affect how much money you can earn and the recognition you might receive. It can also mean that you can be in fashion as an illustrator . . . so you can also fall out of fashion.

There’s also the matter of what you want spend your time drawing or painting. The subject of your art might well be a major element in the enjoyment of the work, whether it’s caricatures, animals, machines, superheroes, architecture or whatever. Part of loving the making of art is the passion you have for your subject.

Unless you’re lucky enough to make a living from one style in your chosen subject early on in your career, however, you’re going to end up taking on a range of different jobs to get established . . . and those early jobs will have a serious influence on your development, and on the future of your career. And though I’d say technology is changing the nature of that development more than ever, art has always been influenced by the technology of the age.

Many illustrators can and do work in a variety of styles, either because they never settled on one they wanted to concentrate on, or because the opportunity to specialise never presented itself. For me, it was a bit of both. Some who do have an established style will also feel the need to branch out from time to time, either to take on more varied kinds of jobs, or just for the sake of doing something different. We learn early on that persistence and pure chance are as important to illustrators as they are to writers.

Changing drawing styles is much more common in animation, where every artist has to work within whatever style is being used for each production. Individuality has less of a chance to express itself, because unless you’re making your own film, you’ve a specific part to play in a bigger operation. You have model sheets to stick to, to ensure a unified look to the visuals. Corporate comics companies like Marvel or DC take a similar approach; if you want to work for them, you have to conform to their style first, though you’re expected to find ways to give it your own distinct flavour.

Imagine yourself at the start of your illustration career: the biggest influences will be the artists you love, the ones whose techniques you copy over and over again, though they may be a wide and varied bunch. To pick some at random, let’s say your favourites include Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Charles M Schulz and Jim Fitzpatrick; four very different illustrators. Which aspects of their work do you choose to emulate? Perhaps you decide you want to have two or three styles you can concentrate on.

When I was starting out, nobody I knew drew on computer, though digital art was starting to find its feet. Even if you did just settle on two or three styles, the tangible materials you chose to work in would affect the look of your work. Pencil gives a different line to a brush; dip pen, felt tip or technical pen will be different again. Your hand physically moves across the paper in a different way for each of these tools; most people are more comfortable with one rather than another. Does your black and white shading style lend itself to pencil, charcoal, ink or paint? Each one has a distinct finish. If you are providing what we used to call ‘camera-ready’ artwork for someone to scan – which was almost always the case for an illustrator, back in the day – necessity will guide your decisions. Materials like charcoal, chalk or oil pastel aren’t practical, being easily smudged or scuffed during transport or scanning.

Your choice of paint is a factor too: do you work in thin washes, as you would with water colour or ink, or do you go for thicker layers, like acrylic or heavy gouache? You normally wouldn’t use oil paints because they are too slow to dry. There’s all of this consider, even before you decide how you draw noses and eyes and all that stuff. When you do settle on a style, choosing a different material to finish it can be enough to introduce some variety.

Then there’s the time you need to think about. If the job’s not paying much, or if you’re working to tight deadlines (or both), this affects your choice of techniques. Black and white is faster than colour, line and wash is faster than fully painted work. Simple cartoons are faster than realistic drawings. Expressionistic, gestural art can be faster than a tight, neat finish – though not always. Even small tweaks one way or the other are already influencing the style that will, through repetition and habit, become a natural technique for you.

Or maybe you’re working in Photoshop, or one of the many painting apps available these days. As styluses and slates have improved, more and more artists are drawing straight onto computer, able to switch ‘drawing tools’ at the click of an icon. In which case, your style is being influenced directly by the technology and what it can do – and also what you can afford. Most of the artists working today however, started off using physical materials and many still rely on them for some stages, despite providing the digital finished product that’s expected by publishers these days. Their drawing and painting styles will reflect this.

Even working digitally, things like detail, perspective and the need for reference images all add time, which means extra cost, which either the client has to pay for, or else you have to put in that additional time and effort at your own expense – which you might well do if it’s the type of commission you want more of. Because it’s not just how you’re drawing or painting, what you’re creating is important to your career too. Being able to work fast does mean the ability to make more money, but only if the money’s there to be made. Normally, if a job doesn’t pay much, you get it done quickly and move on to the next one. The client won’t suddenly offer to pay you more for doing nicer work. Cost will dictate other factors too; for instance, if a book’s internal pages are printed in black and white or colour . . . and all of this will affect what the illustrator has to show to a client for the next job they pitch for.

A professional illustrator’s portfolio should be made up primarily of paid work. Prospective clients don’t want to see you doing it as a hobby – you have to prove you can produce quality art to a brief and a deadline.  They’ll judge you on what they see in front of them, so your past work is the single biggest factor in what future jobs you can get. The nature of paying work available to you, the opportunities you’ve been offered, start to shape what kind of artist you are.

Starting out, you may want to concentrate on a style for which there isn’t much work available in Ireland or the UK, say fully painted fantasy book covers or some funky collage work. In the meantime, you need to get established and make a living, so you take any paying work you can get, so you let the demands of the work steer your style, because you want more of the stuff that pays, so you can keep making a living. And all the time, you’re trying to work your way closer to the jobs you want to do, often by doing your own pictures on the side. Not only do you need to show other people this kind of stuff, you also need practise doing it, so you’ll be able for it when you get the chance.

Talk to most book illustrators, and you’ll find out they had a long and varied road to the work they do now – and chances are, they’re still taking on other types of jobs.

My background is more mixed up than most, which has been incredibly frustrating at times, though it’s ended up serving me well. I wanted to do that fully painted sci-fi and fantasy work. And the wacky cartoons. And the expressionistic stuff. And the Marvel-comic-style stuff. And the . . . Actually, what I really wanted was to be able to illustrate whatever story I wrote, and in an appropriate style. For me, there were so many different kinds of career I wanted, but telling my stories took priority over getting recognition for a single style of art. The only problem was, that meant getting published as a writer as well as an illustrator. Talk about making life hard for yourself.

For a long time, I took any job I could that paid. I did cartoons and graphic design and illustrated children’s books and school books. It didn’t pay much, so I learned to draw fast, so that I could make the time worth the money. I was a background layout designer for an animation company. I did paintings on commission on anything from paper to walls, motorbike helmets to leather jackets. Ireland was a small market and it was almost impossible to get enough work to make a living in just one style, and back then, working for clients abroad inevitably meant having to move abroad.

I don’t know if I’d have been able to keep working if I’d stayed in Ireland, but there’s no question my illustration style would have been influenced by the decision – perhaps I’d have stopped trying to make a living from varying my style, got another job and concentrated on honing one or two styles and then sought out commissions from publishers in the UK or the US. There just wasn’t enough work to be had in Ireland back then, despite the fact that there were very few full-time commercial artists in the country. Most of the work didn’t pay well and the use of cheap stock photos was just starting to eat into our commissions. I was seeing one person after another dropping out of the trade, so eventually, like so many before me, I made the move to London.

At a meeting with a couple of people from the Association of Illustrators, I was advised to have a maximum of three styles of art in my portfolio to avoid confusing potential clients. I imagine they’d offer the same advice now – I would. I ended up spending nearly a year working night-shifts in security as I tried finding illustration work, the meagre pay supplemented with regular cartoons for a local newspaper. Any hope of a clearly defined path into London’s illustration market was undone when I got a job as an art director in a small advertising firm, where I expanded into copy writing. Having an illustrator on staff was very useful to a small company with limited in-house resources. Weirdly, we ended up illustrating a higher proportion of our ads than a company like this normally would. Once again, I found myself responding to the demands of the jobs, rather than my own tastes, working in whatever style and whatever medium got the message across.

The key point here is that, not only was I not working in a specific style, but the subject matter of each illustration was out of my control. Commercial artists don’t get to choose what they create. I had to draw everything from engineering parts to Santa Claus for corporate Christmas cards; cartoon gags about computer telephony to the Photoshopping of product photos. It was enjoyable, and sharpened my skills further, but – ironically, considering the nature of the business – I was no further along the road in terms of developing a ‘brand’.

For me, this wasn’t such a bad thing, because the books were always going to come first anyway, but as I’ve already said, look into the past of any illustrator, and you’ll probably find stories like this. I came back to Ireland and found that publishing was changing. Illustration was being taken more seriously, and the technology meant there were more opportunities to work for clients abroad, while staying at home.

As the nature of the business has changed, the opportunities, but also the demands, on illustrators have been changing too. Illustration and design was going digital even as I was starting to learn my trade in the nineties. Physical artwork is in decline; working on paper has its advantages, and its pleasures, but it’s slower, because it needs drying time and scanning, steps we can now cut out of the process. I still love working with traditional materials, but they’re harder to fix and change, either for yourself or at the request of the client. The range of tools and effects available in art apps now is extraordinary, though the fundamental drawing and painting skills still apply. It will be interesting to see what happens as the influence of those physical materials fades and younger artists form new kinds of habits from scratch, some of whom might never get their hands dirty on charcoal or paint. We can already see new habits forming based on effects, short-cuts and trendy techniques that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago – just as my generation would have developed ours. And are still developing ours.

So next time you find yourself admiring an illustrator’s work, maybe go and have a look at their website or wherever you might find their gallery or portfolio, and see what else they have there. You could be surprised by what other kinds of things they do. And you might wonder what random happenings helped bring them to this point in their career, and where they might still want to go from there. There’s always a lot more than what you see on the page.