Illustration School, Art Perceptions, and Extended Burnout
Going to community college to try to kindle my love of drawing into a career aspiration did odd things to my brain and warped the way I think about anything that resides on the image plane. The set of skills I learned were all taught professionally and competently, and I learned a lot--but the nature of illustration as a skill based in commerce threw me in a direction that, in retrospect, wasn't what I wanted at all. Drawing as a heavily exploited commodity skill was something taken in implicit truth, and every piece of education in that context brought me down a path that left me burnt out without a desire for making or engaging with any art at all. Picking that apart has had me retracing my steps a lot recently, trying to figure out how exactly I got to the point where I became burnt out enough that practicing would cause panic attacks.
One of my painting professors taught us how to cobble together pet portraits, encouraged us to pursue this for easy clients, and in another class taught us Corel Painter's toolset for essentially tracing (in a more painterly way) images near 1:1 to give them an illustrative sheen. In his own practice he related to us that many of his gallery pieces are 90% digitally crafted and sold as "mixed media" pieces. Over time I grew to understand his perspective on career illustration--that you aren't really going to make the pieces that you love for a while, but you'll get to engage with the process of image-making constantly. He didn't sugarcoat it: he spent several conversations through a foundational painting course instilling the reality that if you pursue this you'll need some odd set of day jobs for a while, and the clients you get will get under your skin. Less about artistic expression, more about commodity skillset.
Shortly after leaving college I became fascinated with James Gurney and threw myself further into landscape painting. Watercolor landscapes, and especially landscape realism, contain a practice that has a set of rules i can get along with and enjoy. It feels like working along the same pathways as an abstract piece, but people don't respond to it in the same coldness as they tend to with abstract art. There are some clear demarcations of success and failure, and the process of diagnosing issues and improving is rewarding. In my heart I wanted to make weirder, more abstract art, but burrowing further into processes I was already taught and given social approval for was easier. I could sell landscape paintings of the surrounding locale to suburban families.
Process-driven watercolor landscapes (usually en plein air) bear this odd resemblance to demoscene art (in the sense of restricted minimalism, i suppose). This resemblance lasts right up until the moment that you finish the piece, and then it becomes inert, a symbol of something other than the process. The constant rule when you're out in the field is to do as much as you can with as little as possible. Keep reducing, simplifying, never run out of space or bandwidth lest you run out of time and the light shifts. This process is still something I enjoy despite the issues that have cropped up in conflict with the way I want to see art. The implicit goal within these practices is still to use the image plane to communicate as strongly as you can in as little time as possible--barely separate from what I left at school, the only difference is that I was running against the clock of light rather than hypothetical client rates. I couldn't erase the idea that the end goal was to sell the image off somewhere else. None of what I enjoy in viewing art corresponds with "realism" (beyond appreciation of technique), which eventually made this practice's results feel a bit worthless to me.
During the spring semester of 2020 I took a character design class. I was well prepared for this class and I internalized almost every single thing the professor taught us. The focus of the class leaned heavily towards efficiency in animation and brand recognizability. We were supposed to distill the essence of appeal and confine it to just a few shapes, a silhouette, a budget-friendly puppet to hand an animator's way.
The process of distillation inherent in cartooning dropped any illusion that the type of art I cared for was able to be valued in these spaces. I've taken a lot of influence from the practice but underneath what I've learned is a constant affinity for things like texture and ambiguity of purpose, needless detail, footnotes. I remember some old character design process sketches being shown as examples in class as needlessly detailed and expensive--animals with lush fur, rich in detail and texture. Discouraging this brought out this frame of thought a drawing can overburden itself very easily by requiring rotation and articulation, or having to trace a thousand detail points across a thousand repetitions. This, in comparison to the aformentioned landscape processes, felt like a much more egregious process-efficiency optimization that changed the way I thought in a way that I found I was very incompatible with.
I think about things that were said in that class all the time. There's a lot that doesn't work for me that I internalized as truth and that I've only been able to unpack and dissolve recently. I was told at a certain point while my professor was looking through my sketchbook that I would make a great effects animator. I took this as a compliment, because a lot of my work at that time was focusing on intuitive movement--but the more I thought about it the more I felt unsettled by the idea. I realized later that this was because he had perfectly pigeonholed me into a role that I could sell based on my skills. My intentions were never to make something depicting kinetic energy itself, I think I always wanted to take those sorts of motions and etch them into stone, architectural features that generally exist opposed to the sort of shape. In the animation industry, this would be taken at face value, and I would be drawing kinetic structures for movement's sake. It tooks me a long time to parse the difference between these things.
After the semester ended (a drawn out grind reinforced by the panic of the early pandemic) burnout crept up behind me and slowly ate away at my ability to engage in any visual art practice. I found myself less able to spend time on drawings. I started to avoid the practice as it caused me more and more anxiety. It was hard not to beat myself up over it when it felt like so much of my identity and my aspirational career hinged on being able to do this consistently and with grace. Whenever I tried to practice, faces would contort underneath my pencil, they stared at me with mocking expressions, and I would panic. It took me a long time to understand how much this was hurting me, and when I did, I decided that I'd put it all away for a year.
As I continue to unpack what I internalized in illustration school I can't help but feel like the values that are emphasized in those spaces contributed heavily to my burning out. This trickles down to online spaces and our conceptions of entertainment media in general to the point that many amateur artists will use the entire space of the word "art" as a shorthand for illustration. This might sound like a semantics thing but it has an effect on the way information proliferates and consequently what kind of practices are valued within artist spaces. When you're new to the practice and ask for resources, it feels like you're nudged along by every other thing to learn to draw people. It's just what people do, it's what everyone teaches, it's what it's all about. I couldn't shake the feeling that people didn't care about very much else, and I cared way too much about social approval. I kept kicking the idea just around the corner that nobody would ever care about the types of things I really wanted to make and it caught up to me eventually.
I found love in drawing with hopes of depicting something resonant yet inarticulable. Beauty that forces a viewer to pull apart the layers and find odd, disparate, and ambiguous underlying purpose. Illustration school queried this desire, and slowly tore it apart. Ambiguity found within anything I did was something to critique, question.
Once it became clear that the solution to my issues was in shifting away my practice laterally from "illustration", a few interesting ideas presented themselves. It occurred to me that most of the people who gravitate towards the appeals in art I want to explore already started off on the right foot within fields like architecture and ceramics. These were fields that I had a lot of existing interest in but were put away because of a lack of immediate resources and social reinforcement. These are arts that are often deeply purpose-bound and utilitarian, but can easily be explored from every odd abstract angle and the possibilities that open up in consideration of that are beautiful to me. I realized I wanted to process space in interesting ways, and not a lot else mattered to me artistically.
Similar appeals to this are what have kept me interested in making music for so long! Every time I consider album arrangements I'm focused on how the sound can carry you through imagined space. Without this approach I would have doubts about being able to maintain interest. The album format and how it creates context within itself is extremely important to me. I'm sure there are ways that I could transpose this practice into what I know about visual art.
In high school, the thing that made me fall in love with art in the first place was taking ceramics classes. I discovered every previously stated appeal of process-driven art intuitively in a different medium. The difference seemed to be that none of it takes place on the image plane: each thing I made was its own, and to replicate it would be to engage in the exact same process until it produced a result. It seems odd to call myself a utilitarian in art when the closest I've come to acting as one broke me so thoroughly. The difference I think lies in that ceramics reckons with the process of replication and refinement of such in itself, in a way that has been mostly replaced by the digital on the image plane. It's materials, clay dries up, cracks and shatters, acts strangely, and has to be conversed with constantly.
For the past few weeks I've been fantasizing about wheelthrowing and creating perfect mug handles. Burnishing clay, carving textures, mixing glazes, the weight of something in your hand. Since I left high school, I've been having dreams at intervals about going back to school and unloading a glaze kiln. It's always full of loose impressions of my understanding of wheelthrown forms, mixed with odd impossibilities and embarrassing mistakes. Whatever was simmering in my head when I stopped practicing the art form has continued there, it's evolved with my other artistic practices. I'd really like to get back on a wheel and see what happens with a renewed set of eyes.
This fantasy, with some work and value-assessment, could also apply to my drawing practice considering everything I already know. I'm hoping that writing this out can rid my mind of some of those implicit critiques that have wormed their way into the bedrock of my creative process. I want to remember or rather figure out what I actually like, and bring myself closer to it. My need for social approval in creation has diminished pretty significantly already (I think my recent albums reflect this in a lot of ways) and with time the processes I cultivated in relation to that need will shift away, too.