Monday, 11 August 2008

Dilemma of Service

Art vs. Service by Robert Revels


Centuries have passed, yet a major dilemma remains for the artist. How does one find a balance between art and commerce? Is it possible to achieve exceptional artistic merit while providing a service for our patrons? This conflict has consumed many gifted artists, and sometimes to the detriment of their physical and mental well being. Achieving this balance is essential to the growth and prosperity of every artist. Our patrons provide us with revenue and an audience. Moreover, the patron’s request keeps the artist’s concept grounded in the reality of communicating to an audience. Without that audience art can potentially become meaningless or irrelevant.

The advent of digital technology has deepened this conflict. Traditional media vs. Digital technology is a debate heard in art studios and schools around the world. This debate is more pas-sionately engaged in by artists trained in a traditional atelier approach in an academic setting. The belief of the atelier school is that digital art is not a valid art form. Also, lacking the training and dexterity required with traditional mediums.

So what is the answer?

Pros and Cons of Service

With many things in life there are pro’s and con’s — working with a client is no exception. I am not unlike many illustrators who, at times while working on a project for a client, wish to be in-dependently wealthy to avoid torturous compromises. The temptation is to forgo the project, to pursue my own artistic vision. As luck would have it, escapism is not my usual reaction. The many disadvantages are obvious for us all to see. We must respond to our clients’ needs and desires. Some of our greatest conceptual ideas may never see the light of day. A number of clients do not speak the language of the illustrator. Artists speak in the romantic language of the visual world: the patron speaks the language of numbers and bottom line. Then there are the looming deadlines, the deadlines that can cause us to serve our wine before its time. Every illustrator I know wishes they had more time — time to perfect the wry smile of a child, to add the twinkle of life in a grandmother’s eyes, or to magically capture the sunrise on the rolling hills. All of these external constraints can cause an artist to question their vision.

Through the years my perception has changed. I no longer view a patron as someone to be en-dured or, a changeable advisory. Admittedly, the con’s can seem quite dreadful, but I actually perceive them as a benefit. The advantages that a patron brings to the table far outweigh the con’s. The patron can act as a compass, guiding us along a path to real and effective communication. We have the responsibility to clearly convey our message to the target audience. Our message can range from an insightful political satire, to something as simple as “buy this product”. This responsibility is paramount and can deliver us from a focus on self-indulgent, narcissistic work that can be a trap for many students and young artist. To create and prove their worth they choose to journey down a road of self aggrandizement, astounding themselves and their viewers with their virtuosity. Lost in this fog, they lose sight of communicating the purpose of their illus-tration. Many times when I question students about the content and meaning of their work, I receive comments similar to: “I just wanted it to look cool!”. Looking cool does not define the pro-fessional. A seasoned illustrator wants the image to communicate both the visual artistry and the message.

Robert Revels: Dragon, Digitiser Tablet and Picture Editing Software

Once your work enters a public forum, you are responsible for communicating to that forum. That forum may be one or many persons, but the goal is still to communicate to your audience as clearly as possible. Moreover, strong visuals come from the innermost place. The feelings generated “in the heart” derive from intense opinions we have about the current subject to be illus-trated. The client provides the structure within which our vision reveals itself, and can assist us in communicating effectively to our target audience.

The restrictions a client places on the illustrator can be very beneficial. I am a firm believer in the “Less is More” theory. True beauty is about what is not there as much as about what is. Creativity is a process of dealing with the limited things that are around you. Great ingenuity does not come from having a great abundance around you. Discoveries, are made from a void in your sur-roundings. Impoverished people the world over, have learned how to stretch whatever food they have to feed their families. How many more ways can I cook this potato? The illustrator faces the same scenario. How can I paint the same character again and again, while making them feel fresh and new to a viewer. Sometimes our restrictions will not be about keeping continuity of a character. Maybe the restrictions will limit our color choice, or size dimensions. All of these constraints present the artist with a great opportunity to expand his or her ability to create — an opportunity to think beyond the obvious. These restrictions can make the struggle for the correct visual image daunting, yet, this is where true growth originates. Anyone can paint their own picture and make it visually striking. The question is rather — can you bring your patron’s vision to reality? This is what the best illustrators achieve, day in and day out. The professional must come to terms with this, being held to a different standard than a hobbyist. The hobbyist can create art for arts sake, but this is not the luxury of an artist. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Valezquez, Rembrandt, Holbein, Daumier, Sargent, Mucha, Leyendecker, Rockwell and countless others confronted this same issue. They all struggled individually in a unique way, either coming to terms or never finding the balance. Each personal struggle left a legacy for the world to admire. When we struggle and conquer these restrictions, we receive our compensation of artistic growth. We are also compen-sated monetarily, allowing us to make our way in the world and perhaps to have time to realize a wholly personal vision.

Each artist has to find a balance with which they are willing to live. For some, working as an illustrator may not be a good fit because that balance cannot be met. Some feel that their artistic integrity is being compromised. They may feel that fine art is the answer. A word of caution for those — the patrons change but the conflict remains the same. I have reconciled the struggle in myself. The reconciliation has been to provide whatever talent or gifts I have for others and with spare time I pursue my vision. Whether it is painting for a patron, family, or myself, the goal is to give them something accessible and heartfelt.

Robert Revels, Wise Men, Gouache and Acrylic

Digital vs. Traditional Media

The last ten years has seen a dramatic explosion in technology. The advent of the personal computer has shifted the way the world works, and thinks. We are no longer separated by our continents physical isolation. This shift has been jarring for some. While the internet can unify people, it can equally keep people hidden behind their computer screens, fully detached from one on one interactivity with others. Automated voice mail service leaves us hungry for conversation with a real person. It leaves many yearning for the good old days. As this relates to the craft of illustration, you have three camps. The older generation trained in the traditional atelier system. My generation, a generation trained in the atelier system, yet the first to begin to embrace the technology. Lastly, the generation completely raised on the new technology. The older and new gen-eration are usually clearly divided as it relates to the argument of “Is it art?”. The middle generation usually bears the greatest conflict on the subject. We were trained to love and respect all as-pects of the atelier system — the perfecting of one’s draftsmanship, the intimate connection be-tween oneself and his or her medium of choice. It is a romantic spiritual experience to create something with one’s own hand. Nothing can compare to this. In contrast you have the ease and convenience of digital technology, allowing faster realization of our vision. A parallel argument exist in photography. Is the convenience of digital photography worth the sacrifice of the beauty and technical proficiency of film. The artist and photographers who have not experienced the traditional methods do not typically feel this conflict. It is hard to have emotional feelings about something you have not experienced.

As an educator, I have seen the attitudes of successive generation reverse on the idea of working digitally. I personally teach traditional and digital methods. When I first began teaching Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop 9 years ago as a painting medium, many if not all students did their best to avoid the class. Why would I want to learn how to illustrate on the computer? Tradi-tional art looks and feels better. You had to strongly encourage taking the class. Today is a com-pletely different story. The classes are full. Students have a much higher proficiency with the software before they come into the classes. The interest in the technology is at an all time high. Moreover, the digital software is currently dramatically more proficient at providing a painting experience for those who long to paint with real paint. Digital technology is not going to disappear anytime soon. We must stay current and grow with the times in which we live. This does not mean we have to for go all traditional mediums. Some are mixing the two mediums to pro-duce amazing results. This brings up another disturbing trend affecting some newer generation students. Many ignore the advantages of the traditional atelier academic system. Students have expressed their love for the computer, because they do not want to clean up their paints, or to spend the time to learn how to paint traditionally. This is lazy and absurd logic that typically leads to a failed career. They are looking for the easy way to solve problems. The goal should be to find ways to solve your problems in the best artistic way, not the easiest or cleanest. Digital is a wonderful medium that can do both, aid the challenged and help the innovative.

Robert Revels, Spiderman, Gouache and Acrylic

Can you teach an “old dog” new tricks? I believe you can, if that “dog” wants to be taught. I have seen many of my mentors pay the price for not being willing to learn the digital technology. Now, many of them are rushing to learn. When I graduated from college, I was a purist. I abso-lutely refused to learn about computer illustration. I wanted to produce illustrations in style of the great illustrators past. My refusal cost me many job opportunities. As I accepted the realities of our changing times, I slowly dabbled into the digital world. Hating every stroke of my wacom pen. Lamenting the fact that this is not like traditional paint. Then, something changed. I stopped comparing digital to traditional. Once I did this, my appreciation and fondness for digital media grew. I still prefer traditional mediums but I realized that it is not an all or nothing proposition. I can create in both. Therefore I do. I quiet the purist voice in my head by recognizing the fact that all artists created art with the technology of their time. Illustrators began with etchings. This is what could be mass produced. One and two colors were slowly introduced. We finally arrived at a place where we could paint in full color. The printing process is the fastest and cheapest it has ever been. This allows the illustrator to push the boundaries of the visual medium. With the internet’s presence, illustration will continue to evolve into a non-print forum. Animated illustra-tion is already popular with web banner’s and interactive media. The technology is changing — the need for visual images will not. Beginning with the primitive drawings in the caves of Las-caux to the wonderfully 3D animated films of today, the illustrator is here to stay if he or she chooses to work with and be open to all available media. Adaptability is a virtue — we can change the paradigm of our thinking. Traditional media will always have its place in the market-place. To what extent? Only time will tell.

Technology has many benefits for the illustrator. The biggest advantage is the ability to make drastic changes to your illustrations without having to destroy the original painting. This has always been the biggest challenge with traditional illustration for me. How can I make changes in my work retaining the freshness and not overworking it. Digital technology has completely removed this impediment from my process and has completely refashioned my working relationships with my clients. I can provide them with their vision while preserving one of the earlier preferred iterations for myself. Digital technology has also assisted in meeting deadlines. We can provide press or web ready digital files through e-mail or through secure web servers. I remember shipping paintings overnight, hoping they would not be damaged during transport. The beauty of it all is that I still have a choice to do traditional painting and can simultaneously use technology to make changes to my traditional paintings, as well as to bypass shipping by converting my paintings to a digital format.

In conclusion, “Good illustration should never be based on the medium. Its strength of design should be apparent in any medium.” These are words taught to me as a student. They penetrated my core and have never left. I approach every illustration with the same inner dialog. What is this for, who is this for, and why am I doing this? If I can answer these questions resolutely, I have a good chance to create a strong illustration. When I fail to answer any of these questions, often my illustration fails right in front of me. The medium was not the problem, I was. Digital and Traditional offer different working methods, but serve the same end. It will be used for print, web, or TV. The choice of medium is deeply personal. Every artist has different needs and philosophies. Use everything, experience it all. You will be in the best position to make a choice that suits your artistic vision. Some want speed, some need a more visceral tactile experience, and others may incorporate a mixed media approach. The choice on the spectrum are yours.

Robert Revels is an award winning artist from the United States. As a student athlete his art education began at College of San Mateo. This is where the love of art began. Choosing to forego his athletic career, he enrolled into The Academy of Art University, San Francisco. After receiving several awards in college, he earned a BFA in 1995. Immediately he began to work as a professional illustrator. The projects he has worked on has varied from children’s stories to large concert backdrops for Lollapalooza, Carlos Santana, and U2. In 1997 he began working as a graphic designer for Hull & Honeycutt Marketing and Design. Robert has since returned to teach at his alma mater to give back to the next generation of artists. When not teaching or working on freelance projects — he loves to travel to different countries with his wife.

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