Creatives have a responsibility towards social justice + Colorful portrait drawing process

Published by Nela Dunato on at 06:37 in Nela's Art Chat, Video, Art, Thoughts

In today’s episode of Nela’s Art Chat, I’ll show you my process of drawing the ink and watercolor painting “I See Color”, while talking about a somewhat timely subject: how creatives can support social change, and why we should.

Our talent and skills have power. We can use those powers to uphold the status quo, or we can use them to inspire and enact change. If you already aren’t convinced why we all need to take a more active role in our society, I hope this video will make you at least consider joining me and thousands of creatives across the world in this effort.

Listen to audio only:

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Full transcript is included below.

Resources & human rights organizations you can support

Tools used in this drawing

  • Fabriano Studio 300g Cold Press Watercolor Paper
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor tube paints
  • Van Gogh watercolor pan paints
  • Watercolor brushes: Daler Rowney Graduate Flat Wash 1”, Raphaël SoftAqua Round #20
  • Spray bottle
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 tablet with S Pen
  • Autodesk Sketchbook Pro
  • Faber-Castell 0.35mm Mechanical Pencil
  • Kneaded eraser
  • Pentel Pocket Kanji Fude brush pen
  • Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen bullet nib 1.5
  • Royal Talens Amsterdam Acrylic Ink
  • Brause 66EF steel nib

No affiliate links this time. Support some black artists instead!

Finished drawing

Click to see the larger image in my art gallery:

I See Color by Nela Dunato, watercolor and ink
“I See Color” by Nela Dunato Watercolor, ink and acrylic on 18x24cm watercolor paper

No matter where in the world you live, you’re a part of the greater human family, and with every action you take you can influence how our society changes.

Social issues are everyone’s issues. They’re not only the responsibility of oppressed people, or people who get paid to represent them, or volunteer activists who support them. The main reason why positive social change happens so slow is because the majority of people prefer not to get involved at all. The complacency of the silent majority is what gives legitimacy to the oppressors. They don’t see a reason to change if only a small number of people are challenging them.

If we want to live in a society that treats everyone fairly, then everyone needs to take on a more active role.

Voting, marching in protests, tweeting about social issues, and volunteering my time and skills to support non-profits is not something I even consider activism—I just see it as part of being a responsible citizen.

I know many creatives who have felt their whole lives like they “don’t belong in this cruel and violent world”. I feel that way almost every day. It is disheartening to witness the pain in the world and not being able to do anything about it.

It’s easier to remain in our comfortable inner world and not see or hear about the injustices of the outside world.

Reading and watching the news about all the shit that goes on is exhausting. I understand why so many creative people want to protect themselves and just keep their head buried in their work. I sometimes do that too.

When I feel like it’s all become too much, I turn off my phone and go do stuff that I enjoy. But many people in the world don’t have a choice and can’t “turn off” racism, war, hunger, disease, and fear for their own wellbeing. If you have this choice, that means you have a tremendous amount of privilege compared to people who don’t.

Yes, it’s important for artists to protect their source of inspiration and energy.

If someone in your life is toxic and abusive, it’s OK to cut them off. If your clients are demanding, unreasonable, and rude, it’s OK to refuse to work with them. If random people online are calling you names, it’s OK to block them. If daily news is making you anxious and overwhelmed, it’s OK to ignore it.

But.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore every single thing in the world that makes you uncomfortable, and pretend that social issues don’t exist because they don’t affect you.

Your talent did not evolve in a vacuum

Even if, like me, you’re mostly “self-taught”—didn’t go to art school, didn’t have private tutors, worked summer jobs so you can buy the equipment you need, etc.—you still benefited from society.

You consume books, music, films, and lectures that inspire you. You use modern technology to create and promote your work. You benefit from retail workers who sell supplies and equipment to you. You receive advice and tips from people on the Internet.

You’re a part of an interconnected web of people, who may have had a completely different path to yours. They may have had to overcome tremendous barriers to get where they are now. By using the fruit of their labor—which you absolutely are—you owe them a debt you will never be able to repay them directly. The best you can do is to pay it forward.

You did not do this “all by yourself”. If you’re still living in an illusion that you haven’t benefited from society, and therefore don’t need to give anything back, please go live in a cave for a week without anything that you haven’t made from scratch and let me know how that went. This YouTube channel might prove useful.

If you want to enjoy the benefits of living in a civilized society, then you need to take responsibility for your role in it.

Being a responsible citizen means:

  • Voting according to your conscience.
  • Speaking out in defense of people who are being harmed.
  • Donating your money, time, and skills to causes you support.
  • Spreading the word about people who are doing amazing things that benefit society.
  • Educating yourself before forming an opinion on a controversial subject, instead of just repeating what you parents have taught you.

I know that’s a lot of work. I know there are many people who “don’t have the time for all that”. But if you’re listening or reading this, you obviously have some time, so don’t use that as an excuse.

Artists have always been a part of social change.

While there are some artists who are well known for their activism, there are many more who do a lot of good, but you don’t know about it because they don’t advertise it. It’s just a normal part of their life, nothing to brag about. In recent years and months creatives have started to become more vocal because many of us feel like something has to be done, and if we don’t do it, who will?

We can’t trust politicians and legislators to look after our interests, and the interests of fellow humans from all walks of life. They need to feel the pressure to do the right thing, and we—the citizens—provide that pressure. We do it by speaking out and taking action.

You can have one foot in your own rich inner landscape, and the other one planted in reality.

I’m not asking you to give up your creative work or family life and “join ANTIFA” or whatever you think political action looks like. I’m asking you to be a responsible creator. To think about how the work you produce affects individuals and groups who are routinely harmed by unjust systems. I’m asking you to take intentional steps to stop profiting from unjust systems, and develop a way of working that’s more equitable and sustainable.

You alone can not change the world. But you can inspire people to consider new ideas and take constructive actions.

Whether your audience is counted in dozens, hundreds, thousands, or millions, you have an audience who cares about what you have to say.

And sure, some members of your audience might complain if you suddenly start speaking out about social issues. I’ve heard from bloggers who got a nasty email or two after they publicly took a stand about an important matter, but for every such critical message they got many many positive messages.

Some loud comic book fans were disgruntled that “social justice warriors are ruining the industry”, but the truth is comics were always a medium for progressive ideas. This is nothing new. It’s just that some readers take personal offense at specific ideas that are being promoted. And that’s OK. Artists have a right to portray stories that matter to them, and consumers can enjoy them, or not.

You don’t have an obligation to cater to every single person in your audience.

It is impossible to always have 100% alignment with everything that a creator we respect believes, says, and does. If it’s a small issue, you can get over it. But if it’s a huge issue, you can choose to stop supporting them.

Likewise, your audience members can choose to stop supporting you if they don’t agree with you and it’s not the end of the world. The remaining fans will become more dedicated and respect you more.

I personally would much rather not have people in my audience who take offense at me speaking out against any kind of injustice. If that’s a deal breaker for anyone, please don’t even think twice, I would absolutely prefer that you unsubscribe.

If fear from alienating your audience is keeping you from being more authentic, engaged, and active, think about how small of a risk that really is, compared to actual physical and emotional harm people are going through every day that we allow this to keep happening to them. Oh, it’s hard for you to speak out? Well boo hoo. People are literally dying. Losing a few hundred followers or a couple of clients is a small price to pay.

You don’t have as much to lose as you think you do.

How to use your creative superpowers for good?

If sharing depressing news and heartbreaking stories is not your cup of tea, fine. Do what feels empowering to you. As creators, it’s our job to figure stuff out. You don’t have to wait for someone to give you exact pointers on what to do. But, it would be very helpful if you did consult actual people you want to support to hear out what their biggest issues are, and propose ways you can help that you’re both excited about.

Here are just a couple of ideas how creators can support social change.

1. Make impactful art.

If you really care about something, let it become a theme of your creative work. Creators are able to inspire and educate their audience in a way that scientists and politicians often can’t, because in addition to sharing intellectual information, creative work also makes an emotional impact.

Teens are way more susceptible to art and entertainment than any other content so if you want to influence the new generation of citizens, you’re much more likely to affect it through creative projects like music, film, vlogs, games, and comics.

It can be in your face, or it can be subtle. But at least check your own biases and make a conscious effort to produce work that is aligned with your ethical worldview.

2. Collaborate with marginalized creatives and give appropriate credit.

There are so many disheartening stories of mainly white men collaborating with women and people of color, and then taking all the credit and leaving their talented collaborators behind. As more of these historical and recent examples come to light, it’s no wonder that minority folks are suspicious towards their wannabe partners.

If you want to partner up with someone on a project, seek out people who are less likely to be offered such an opportunity. When reaching out to them, outline exactly how you plan to ensure that they’re compensated and credited properly. Make a written agreement on how you’ll divide the labor, responsibility, and benefits before you start.

During the project draw attention to their efforts and publicly commend them for the great work they’re doing. If you get media requests, include them in the conversation and either show up together, or alternate between gigs. Always use “we” language and name them as your partner as you discuss the project.

3. Volunteer.

You can volunteer without ever leaving your home. Organizations and movements need appealing media to reach and educate a wider audience.

You can offer your services of writing, drawing, video or music production, development, choreography, fashion design and sowing, etc. to a local organization that would benefit from more engaging content. They’re typically volunteer-run and underfunded, and they can’t pull off an ambitious production on their own.

Even if you’re just one person, you can still do a lot. Visual artists can make engaging posters. Musicians can compose anthems. Writers can write witty slogans or educational articles. There are many possibilities for each of us to get involved.

Reach out to them with an idea how you could help them, and volunteer to organize other artist friends who can contribute to the project in a meaningful way. I assure you, nonprofits all over the world would be super grateful if a group of creative folks came together in support of their cause.

4. Donate money to people and organizations whose work you support.

If you’re too busy creating paid work to do any volunteer work, well first congratulations! That’s a great place to be. Now pass on some of that hard-earned coin to people who will put it to good use.

You can set an automated monthly transaction to a chosen organization, or join a crowdfunding campaign, or just pay an amount you’re comfortable with to a different organization each month.

5. Use your platform to promote worthy causes.

If you have a lot of subscribers and followers, in addition to promoting your own work, you can also share causes you care about and encourage your fans to support them.

Many famous people do this, and it’s really a sign of someone using their privilege responsibly.

6. Teach those who do good, so that they can do even better.

Maybe you can’t be available to a non-profit every week or month when they want to produce new content. What you can do is train another volunteer who has committed to the cause long term on how to do things themselves.

Not everyone can reach your level of skill, but there’s always an easier route. Maybe instead of drawing their own illustrations, you can show people how to customize low-cost and free stock graphics. People won’t become masters at video and music editing in a week, but they can learn the basics to get started, and keep learning over time.

7. Lend a hand to a marginalized person.

If you know a talented creative who faces challenges because of their identity or disability, offer to mentor them, or connect them with people in your industry. Invite them to events that they might not usually have access to. Forward them job opportunities you hear about—and even better, offer to be a reference or to write them a recommendation letter.

If you don’t personally know of any such person because you live in a social bubble, start looking. You can reach out to local organizations that support marginalized people and ask them if there’s anyone there that has ambitions to advance in your field. You can also put out an open call on your social media channels.

People thrive when they’re treated fairly. You could change someone’s life by helping them be in the right place at the right time.

There are many ways we can make a difference.

I trust that you’ll figure out your own unique way that feels enjoyable and meaningful. But I think we can agree that we need to do something, and that the time is ripe.

Keep your eyes open. The opportunities to take action may be closer and more numerous than you realize.

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


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