50 Voices of the Future: Blair Thornley on finding artistic inspiration

By Alex Roth

The best artists tend to share this in common: they follow their own instincts, their own voices, rather than succumbing to a singular obsession with how to please an audience. Blair Thornley is a big believer in creating things that “come from the heart.” She is an award-winning illustrator, painter and animator whose work has garnered a national following and appeared in publications such as The New York Times and Vanity Fair as well as prominent ad campaigns. She lives in North Park and has taught classes at UC San Diego Extension, among other places. She looks for inspiration wherever she can find it – and one source happens to be her students. “I love being able to interact with young people and see how they’re thinking and how they problem-solve with their art,” she says. “And it keeps me on my toes.”

Why is the work you do important?

I feel that art reaches people on maybe a spiritual level or a deeper level to communicate one person to another and I feel that is important for our culture – for people to feel encouraged and hopeful by feeling connected to others. I think writing and music and acting and all of those things do very much the same thing. And visual art, when it’s from the heart, reaches other people, and that’s why I think it’s important.

See a sampling of Blair's work at instagram.com/blairthornley.


What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

The web and social media are changing everything. It has changed the field of illustration – it’s gutted the market and made illustrations very cheap and made it very hard to make a living as an illustrator. I think visual art has become fast and cheap. On the Internet, it’s too easy to lift something and use it. Many people who have not studied art can sample other people’s work and shove it together and call it art, too. Most illustrators that I know don’t do it full-time anymore because of those changes. Young artists need to start fighting for their rights when it comes to copyright issues.

The good side of social media and the digital world is that now I can look online and find other artists that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I do that all the time on Instagram – I find wonderful artists around the world who are inspiring, and I wouldn’t have found them otherwise. Also, computer advances have helped. With Photoshop, you can do brilliant things. I use it to scan and clean up and send work, but what’s really great is I can make a gigantic poster of my artwork pretty cheaply, I can self-publish books, I can send my work to a gallery with very high-resolution and very quickly. It’s easier to get my art out into the world. And when I put it on Instagram, I’m connecting with the outside world right away and getting feedback right away. If you don’t find a way through social media to get your work out, then you absolutely disappear.

What’s the next big thing?

Artists really need to do work that’s personal and comes from their heart, not to repeat themselves to make money, not to be derivative of other people’s work to make money, but to really develop themselves and keep exploring and experimenting and do their very best in whatever visual medium they’re working in to be really true to themselves. I don’t think that’s new. That would have been my advice 100 years ago, too. I don’t know what the next big things is other than that each person as an artist has to go out and figure that out every day. Artists have the responsibility to reinvigorate themselves on a very regular basis.


How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

San Diego is a little bit like an open canvas. If somebody wanted to do something dramatic, they could go ahead and do it. There are artists and architects in town doing interesting things. I’m in North Park, where there’s a lot of young people, and that’s very exciting. Many of the new places are very creative. They’re kind of hand-made places. It’s not The Gap and it’s not corporate, which is exciting. It’s quite amazing. I never expected it. Want you really want is young people coming in and trying new things.

Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?

Whether it’s today, in 10 years, in 50 years, the best artists will always be true to themselves. Whether you’re drawing or painting, make it sincere, and always try new things and do it from your heart. Don’t do what you think other people want to see – because that’s just death.

Learn more about Blair Thornley and the courses she teaches on our website, and explore other Art areas such as Art History, Children's Book Writing & Illustration, Fine Art, Illustration, and Studio & Decorative Arts.

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