Saturday I had the great fortune to partake in the birth of a brand new movement, a collective of artists, photographers, musicians, body-painters and street artists who gathered in a warehouse to ‘vibe off each other.’ Lost Movements is creating a space for Brisbane creatives to meet, collaborate and get crazy. I like to think this is Brisbane beginning to grow into itself—Brisbane, grittier than Melbourne, funkier than Sydney, hotter, sub-tropical, a place where anything goes as long as you mean it. Posers are decried, haters are ignored.
I painted walls, imbibed beer, mingled, danced and warmed myself by the fire, and began to learn a thing or two about the social aspect of art. I am something of an artistic floater. I paint seriously under the guidance of representational artists, carefully studying tone, learning how to achieve the perfect mixed black, paying strict attention to form and generally filling my head with dreams of growing into a Dutch master. I also paint in what I consider a freer, bolder style, mixing bright gouache with thick linework and unrealistic patterns. I also dabble in graphic design, applying lettering and otherwise putting my illustrations to designerly uses.
These types of art all intersect with one another, but, most interestingly, they each bring their own crowd and their own way of gathering—their own artist archetype. Designers unabashedly meet for networking drinks and exchange business cards; artists throw out-of-control parties of which nudity is an integral part. Illustrators—when they make it out of their studios—love to show off their shiny published children’s books.
Crossing these boundaries can be bewildering, no less because modern artists are a different breed to representational artists, and while illustration is largely figurative like representational art, it is so bound up in creating a world based around children that it feels like the kindergarten version of art, certainly not to be taken seriously by traditional artists. Illustrators are then lumped with graphic designers, though, as Heller and Arisman* (p. 30) argue, ‘the majority of graphic designers have more in common with the producer in film or television than with painters.’ While my oil painting teacher would likely be underwhelmed by my illustrations, unable to comprehend a conscious choice to bend the rules of tone and perspective, spray-can-wielding warehouse-painters are miffed at my stuffy stylisation of angry Dutch children because it adheres to technique, and technique is so passé. My graphic design cohort is astounded I even use a paintbrush—or a pen, for that matter—though they understand that illustration, unlike fine art, has long played a role in advertising, subordinate to the designer (Heller and Arisman, p. 38).
The trouble is, I appreciate each group, whether or not they appreciate my position and my work. I make accessible art—like Howard Pyle’s ‘pictures:’ ‘art for the people, art about the people’ (p. 33). Does that make it ‘commercial, lively entertainment’ (p. 49)? That people are purchasing it to hang on their walls suggests not—though it easily could be. Having people approach my work as one would fine art has been surprising, since I was set to license it out for well-defined commercial uses. But this is a thing to be embraced. While Arisman (p. 49) argues that the distinction between art and illustration lies in the intent of the artist, I’ve found that even the artist’s intentions can be subverted. The distinction is, at best, flimsy, and at worst, meaningless and unnecessary. Taking on the title of ‘illustrator’ has forced me to attempt to break away from my natural stylistic tendencies to try to create something for the people—something designers will sit up and take notice of, because it’s not stuffy and old-fashioned, but something that can convey visual meaning in a way that modern art attempts to subvert. I get to hang with designers, the cool kids, and party with artists, the crazy kids. I am both, by the nature of what I do.
Janice Wu, a talented Canadian illustrator, sees it both ways as well: ‘When an artwork is just all about a concept, it is not as appealing to me. Yet when it’s just all craftsmanship and there’s no idea, then it lacks substance, and it is not as thought provoking.’
With my own exhibition on the horizon, a private commission under my belt and a children’s book in the works, I feel very much like I am all the things, and that they sustain each other just as the different types of artists sustain me, whether or not they support me. Janice sums up her career intentions thus:
With me, I want to pursue both commercial illustration and visual art, and they’re two different practices. They overlap in some ways, but they are different. I want to be an exhibiting artist and have shows in galleries and work on my own, self-initiated projects. But I also really like doing commission work for different publications and having projects assigned to me and working with people. So I hope that in the future I can do both and that I can succeed in both. I like to think that my work can exist within both realms.
As do I.
*Heller, Steven and Arisman, Marshall. 2004. Inside the Business of Illustration. Allworth Press: New York.
↬ Read a very thorough and sparkling interview with Janice Wu by Stacy Thomas at Trim Magazine, from which these quotes originate.
Our beardy dishes-hating friend is soon to appear on lovely cotton tea-towels which will be for sale at my show.