Liana Finck is a bit of a shapeshifter when it comes to her work. By day, the illustrator regularly contributes clever cartoons to The New Yorker. By day and night (social media is a 24/7 operation), she lays bare her feelings—“I have a lot of feelings,” she says—to her 215,000 followers on Instagram with hastily drawn observations about life and relationships.
Finck has been drawing cartoons since she was 15, but it wasn’t until after graduating art school that she took the artform seriously. One of her earliest pieces, an intricate, hand-painted comic reinterpretation of Jean Racine’s 17th century play, Phedre, was her first “real” piece of work. And yes, it was as complicated to make as it sounds.
Here, Finck explains how the unruly project set the stage for her later work, including her new graphic memoir, Passing for Human.
“I found comics when I was 15. Someone showed me some indie comics, and I decided that was what I wanted to do. I’d seen superhero comics and the vibes were so strong that they weren’t for me. Then someone showed me Stan Klaus and Lynda Barry and those seemed so right. It was the only angsty art I’d ever seen, and I was an angsty teenager.
“For a while, I stopped making comics because I was very into highbrow when I was a teenager. I wanted to go to art school at Cooper Union, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to go to that school if I was making comics. I made this piece (Phedre) to be highbrow because I wanted art school to accept me. I wanted this to be the comic that Cooper Union liked. It’s all acrylic paints, and it’s a translation that I did myself of this like very highbrow, like florid French play from I don’t remember what century, but a long ago one.
“This was really the first thing that I made that felt like a real thing. There were many, many years of copying painters and writers and just making really terrible work in high school and college. But looking back, I think I was starting to find my voice. I was making fun of an old thing, and I love doing that. All the characters are based on people I knew. The boy is the guy I was dating, and one of the women was my only friend in college at that time. I think the heroine is the woman who cleans my parents’ house, and the dog was my childhood dog, who I put in my work a lot.
“I did like a few things that made me laugh, like I drew someone face as a spiral. And that’s something I would like to give myself liberty to do it again—just being weird. I think I was inadvertently weird, and I tried so hard to beat it out of myself. The book I made just now (Passing For Human) is not very weird. I was very conservative and tried to make everything very clear. I think weirdness comes when like you’re either not self-aware or you’re not a perfectionist, and I think I’m self-aware right now. My Instagram drawings are weird and not clean, but it’s really hard for me to do that in a professional context.
“I first translated the play and then I jumped right into making it, and that’s where the messiness came in. I don’t think I made many different versions of it, but I layered the paint, so I did many versions of it on the same paper. In the last six months [of working on it], I did a new version in Photoshop where I used all these airbrush techniques on it to make it neat. It’s kind of how I still work—a very disorganized perfectionist.
“I didn’t know when to stop. I should have cut my losses. It was a messy book. I couldn’t have made it less messy. Those six months [of Photoshop] were a bad six months, although they kind of set the stage for not having a job and learning to organize my time.”
I don’t really regret being disorganized or jumping right into the paint and figuring it out organically. I work that way much more than I want to. I’m always kind of fighting it and telling myself, “If you don’t know how to draw out something, that means you need go to back and work on the writing and then draw later.” I hate that confusing feeling when you want to make something and you don’t know what it is. I have that a lot, but I’m feeling my way past it lately. I’m working on a new book now, and I’m doing a lot of drafts just with words. I’ll take an hour and now and then and do a sample page to try to figure out the style that I want to try to make the whole book. I won’t to finish the whole book before I really know what I’m trying to say. I trust my gut—when I feel lost and sad that means that I’m being too ambitious in trying to make something perfect before I know what it is.
With a lot of my earlier work I would venture into something, and the minute it started feeling strange I would pull my foot back out again or start over to the point where even if I spent 100 hours on it, I just had 10 minutes to show for it. And with this work, for whatever reason, there was a lot of going back and redoing and trying to erase myself, but I came out of it with with something. And I think the silliness exceeds the pretentiousness. I say in more than I hide. Today when I read it, I think it’s so ridiculous. It’s like outsider art, and that might be the best I can ever hope for.