A Study in Stairways—Series Conspectus
A Brief Personal History, and a Primer
Come with us on our first look on an in-depth analysis of the history of illustration, animation, and the counter developments and competitive symbiosis of Eastern and Western influences, as its shaped the marketplace and culture of modern illustrative art.
Hello and fondest thanks for picking up one of my first articles ever in The Unconventional! As a new writer here, I believe introductions are in order. I’m Rowan North, a freelance mixed-media illustrator, writer, and art educator. I run my own business from my home and have a rich history in fandom and art, as well as supporting mental health awareness and freedom of expression above all.
I was raised in a fairly artistic, geeky family who were always determined to pursue their dreams. My father is a game programmer who worked for SingleTrac back in the days of the original Playstation [ 1 ]. He has since started his own independent game company while maintaining his “day job,” where he programs simulations to help teach workers using equipment like cranes and trains. He has also published many short stories in various magazines and anthologies, some Steampunk and some heavily influenced by pulp fiction.
My mother is both a schoolteacher and storyteller, focusing on ghost stories. She was one of the tour guides for the Salt Lake City ghost tours and works almost every night in October telling stories. She also loves fairy tales and folk tales as well as mythology. As early as I can remember, they were always playing Dungeons & Dragons, video games, and regaling me with all sorts of fantastic tales from comics and myths. As a result, my introduction to geekdom was fairly “well rounded.”
Additionally, my interest in art started when I was very young. I learn both visually and kinetically, which has affected my art today. I was very hands-on and had the tendency to get into everything and make messes; to this day I am surprised my mother didn’t kill me for it. She had to keep the crayons and pencils under lock and key, only to be used under supervision until I was seven years old, due to me continually drawing on every single surface, including the walls, the table, the chairs… In fact, one of the largest fits I ever threw as a tiny child was due to my inability to draw a rainbow. I could see, clearly, in my mind what a rainbow looked like, but my chubby baby fingers couldn’t replicate my vision. I lacked the coordination necessary.
I continued to draw at any opportunity I had. We were always out of printer paper at home due to me using it for my drawings. I was exposed to anime early on, but only truly got into it in sixth grade when I discovered something that changed my life… Kingdom Hearts [ 2 ]. Oh, how I loved that game! It was my gateway drug to anime, and I became a huge “weeaboo,” drawing fanart all the time and only reading manga. This lasted a few years until I grew tired of seeing the same plot lines at every turn or dealing with the “power level over 9000” syndrome found in many anime. My interest then turned to webcomics, American cartoons, and costuming.
I joined Tumblr in its early years, and I discovered more and more fantastic costume and fashion trends. I was a huge fan of J-fashion, specifically Lolita and later Mori girl. There was a trend towards a new style called “Steampunk Lolita” that piqued my interest [ 3 ]. Curious, I then looked up steampunk and fell in love. I started collecting and designing costumes and introduced my family to this phenomenon. I began taking classes in sewing, fashion design, and art classes in high school, which led me to travel to Florida for a fashion competition for high school students. I won a silver medal at the national level for an “up-cycled” gothic costume made from old clothes.
Entering the Steampunk Subculture
A short time later I discovered that there was a Steampunk convention that was about to make its debut in Utah in 2012 [ 4 ]. I begged my parents to go, and it was the most magical event ever. While I had gone to Anime Banzai for years previously, I grew irritated with the drama and immaturity of that crowd and my waning interest in anime made it hard to relate. But this, well, this was a crowd I could relate to. They, for the most part, were more intelligent individuals. Many were craftsmen, artists, and costume designers as well. I was in love with this crowd.
After that, I began to devote everything I had into studying history, both in general and my family history in particular as well asscience fiction, determined to come up with a “steamsona” that would be something I could focus my fascination around. I came up with a set of characters for a Steampunk murder mystery, kind of as a “test run” for my steamsona. People who were involved in the murder mystery became my “crew” and I their captain. We were well prepared when it was announced that the next year of Steamfest would include more of this, what was now being called “immersion content.” That’s where I met Savan Gupta of Steam-Funk Studios.
Following this, there was a “hiatus” of sorts; I went on a mission for the Church of Latter-Day Saints for a year and a half. This surprisingly defined me as an artist in ways more than any other experience, as I was broken down by an abuser and was left questioning what defined me; questioning who I was. I started dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression, and so was nearly sent home early. What I found was, at my core, I felt that the most important thing was the freedom to express yourself. Through dress, through interests, through art—all these things were about expression! During the time of my abuse, I stopped drawing for the first time in my life. I quickly picked it up again with the determination to never stop. I was resolved to share my knowledge with others and help them express their creativity.
Upon my return, I poured my all into my art and studies. I taught myself to cope with the negative voices left by my abuser and to power through my anxiety. It was within a month or two of my return that I was hired to be a writer for Steam-Funk Studios, with Savan stating that he was merely waiting for my return to get me on the team. This allowed me to express my ideas through writing as well as art and have a more hands-on approach to the creative process with a team. It also allowed me to continue exploring new ideas, histories, and mythos.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
I was shoveling a good 16-17 credits per semester, focusing almost completely on art and my studies of art, including art history, illustration, and fine arts. It was exhausting, but I learned the value of hard work, determination, how to keep deadlines, and many other skills that would further my future career. On top of that, I got married to the love of my life who was supportive of me and my passions and could give me feedback when I needed it.
Over time I found that instead of building me up, school started wearing me down. I found myself growing more agitated and frustrated. I attended my first convention as a vendor and as part of the art show during that time: the Life, the Universe, and Everything symposium [ 5 ]. I had a lot of doubts about selling my work and was certainly under-prepared as I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t get the prints I needed. However, it was a huge success and it floored me that people enjoyed my work so much! Despite only having a booth for four hours, I sold a lot and got two major commissions. It was more money than I ever thought I would make for my art! I started thinking about the prospect of doing this as a career. After that, it was like the floodgates had opened. I started getting a ton of small commissions and a few larger ones, and it was enough work to consider it a part time job.
However, school was busier than ever as I was working on my teaching major on top of my illustration minor. I also started taking some theatre classes because I found that the Illustration side of things wasn’t teaching me enough of the technical skills I wanted to get better at. I was taking classes in costume design, theater makeup, education, and illustration, but it all left me unsatisfied and frustrated as the courses required me to devote more and more time to “busywork” that wasn’t teaching me the things I desired to learn. One professor in particular, the head of the illustration department, left me quite distraught as he devoted most of the time in this illustration class “critiquing” the students’ work. Rather, he told each student why they couldn’t make it in an illustration career with their work. I was growing angry. Why was I paying so much money to be told that I couldn’t do something that I was already doing and succeeding at? Why was I devoting so much time to busywork while there were paid commissions waiting for me at the same time? I was beginning to dread going to class.
It didn’t help that I was watching artists with YouTube channels who were teaching me more than the professors ever did, and while they were honest about the hard work, they weren’t derogatory towards the hard work required as the professors were. It seemed most of these YouTubers had the same or similar stories. They didn’t go to college or didn’t finish because their career was taking off elsewhere. They were driven enough to turn it into a career and pursue it, so they did. I was beginning to realize that these professors weren’t teaching me these technical skills—how to price yourself, how to sell your work, how to find a market—while they outright should have been. Talking to my peers they all said the same thing; that they weren’t learning how to be an artist, that they weren’t being taught the technical things. I started offering to take fellow illustrators to conventions to give them the opportunity to sell their work, teaching them how to price and market themselves.
I developed a sort of “impostor syndrome” [ 6 ]. I couldn’t understand how I could know more about this than any of these professors. I realized that it was all my time spent learning on my own that taught me this, not a professor or a class. More so, I was hearing “horror stories” of the hoops you have to jump through as a teacher in a traditional classroom from my mother—who had just gotten back into teaching full time. I was hearing about how unreceptive the kids were, and how strict the teaching regimen was. I realized that this is not how I wanted to influence people and children; I wanted to instead fill in the gaps that schooling left.
Stand Back—I’m a Professional
So here I am, now a professional illustrator. While taking a break indefinitely from school, I am inspiring a lifetime of learning by continuing my own studies, then sharing my knowledge and expertise to others, in teaching classes. I attend a number of conventions as a vendor and panelist, exploring different venues for best collaboration as a business owner, and taking paid commissions while pursuing my own original work. I continue to explore new grounds, working on writing my own webcomic, and many other things that I couldn’t have done if I was still taking college courses. And now I am here as a writer for The Unconventional to share my knowledge with you, the readers, and pursue my goal to teach and inspire others.
In this series, I want to focus on the history of illustration and how movement throughout the ages influenced it. Some ideas were suggested by management that I hadn’t considered before—discussing woodblock printing techniques, and how the 1970s were influential in fantasy art. I started to make use of my old art history textbooks and suddenly my research exploded. From cross referencing to watching documentaries to drawing parallels from different stages in art history, it has grown into a monstrous project that has taught me more than I expected I needed to know about each topic. I have carefully weeded pages and pages of notes down to the most important details to showcase the growth of illustration and growth of the world of art today. I hope that it will be as informative to you as it has been for me.
- “While the tools and newer techniques have evolved, certain standards and historical terms are still a critical part of a modern illustrator’s lexicon.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/selective-focus-illustrator-drawing-cartoon-sketches-1623151795 (“selective focus of illustrator drawing cartoon sketches”)
- “Many fan-artists and nascent illustrators have gotten their start in said industries, from initial immersion in a fandom, be it anime and manga, or western comics.” Source: https://animefestivalorlando.com/join/artist-alley/
A professional illustrator and mixed media artist, Rowan is a regular at local conventions as an artist, vendor, and guest, teaching panels and workshops. She also speaks on mental health and confidence struggles we all face. Rowan’s work in graphic design includes interior illustrations, book covers and character studies. More recent endeavors include streaming tabletop games on Twitch as a professional Game Master, hosting TikTok art challenges, and contributing to The Unconventional.
- “SingleTrac Entertainment Technologies, Inc.” Giant Bomb, giantbomb.com/singletrac-entertainment-technologies-inc/3010-910. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
- Kingdom Hearts. Los Angeles, CA: Square Enix, Inc. 138, 2002. Computer file.
- “Steampunk Lolita.” Lolita Fashion Wiki, lolitafashion.fandom.com/wiki/Steampunk_Lolita. Accessed 18 Mar. 2020.
- Stufflebeam, Sarah. “SaltCity Steamfest 2012.” Blogspot, sarahstufflebeam.blogspot.com/2012/08/saltcity-steamfest-2012.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2020.
- “LTUE | Symposium for Science Fiction & Fantasy Creators.” The Life, Universe, and Everything Symposium, ltue.net/ Accessed 18 Mar. 2020.
- Dalla-Camina, Megan. “The Reality of Imposter Syndrome.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 3 Sept. 2018, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome.