Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Beginnings: Part 1 of ? + Self-Portraits

Beginnings Part 1 of ?

This will be a long running, detailing of how my desire to become an illustrator began[1].  Rather than starting from the early beginning, I'd rather tell the story in a non-linear fashion.[2]
Before I jump in, a little background is necessary.  My school, NYU Gallatin, allows students to craft their own educational journey and name their concentration.  With very few requirements, Gallatin lets students independently pursue their own interests and apply their interdisciplinary interests to their acquirement of a degree.  As amazing as it is, there is somewhat of a catch[3].  Throughout the four years, a student needs to complete a few requirements, a 2-3pg. paper called the IAPC (Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration), a Rationale, a 3-5pg. paper using 25 texts (visuals included) that speak to a subsection of your concentration[4], and a pass a Colloquium, a discussion of your rationale with three faculty members, two of which are the student’s choice with the third being the student’s primary adviser. Only once a rationale is approved, the colloquium is scheduled and if one fails the colloquium, that student cannot graduate. 

I transferred into NYU as a junior and was late in getting these requirements completed.  The Rationale was a paper I didn’t really know how to write. My concentration was Narrative and Humanity and by the end of my junior year I planned to write about counter-culture and its paradox but during that summer break, with my interests in the visually creative field rising, I read books about art and painting, as painting was something I felt I really needed to learn about.

However, these books (listed in the footnote) spoke more to the idea of art and artist, giving little technical knowledge.  After I read about four of these books I figured my rationale should include art and those books.

I submitted my rationale early on in the spring semester of my senior year- it was a wildly ambitious argument discussing how the evolution of art took place through a thread of storytelling.  When I submitted my rationale for approval from my primary adviser, Christopher Cartmill who, if approved, sent it to a second reader who also needed to approve, I was basically told that the paper read like I was full of shit and pulled most of it out of my ass because it didn't seem like I read any books on my texts list. Whether I was right or not mattered less than the fact that I just didn't know enough to make the statements I made and for that, my argument lacked any basis.  It helped less that my 14 page rationale was much longer than the normal range of 3-5pgs[5]. I was shocked.  Throughout the conversation, as Christopher, who also taught various classes I took and whom I respected (and still do) immensely, went through paragraph after paragraph, statement after statement and challenged if not outright refuted them, I began to cry.  My tears fell onto the black ottoman we were both hunched over and I stifled my sobs.  When he finished, I was questioned on my strong emotional reaction.  I told him how hard it was to hear how all my work amounted to little more than nonsense when there were only a few books I didn’t read.  

The rest of the semester consisted of[6] constant re-writes of my rationale, moving the paper away from an argument and instilling more of myself and my sensibility within it, a trend that would only continue.  My primary adviser helped me immensely and without him I don't know how I could have even had a rationale approved, and I appreciate what he did so much more now than when I was in the middle of it all.  I was frustrated; with each rejection, each time I was told to rewrite my self-doubt only grew. Thoughts included "am I intelligent enough to even grasp these concepts?", "am I full of shit and so deluded I can't recognize it?", "what if I don't get it approved in time?", “do I even know what I’m writing about?”.  I lost sleep, my classes were beginning to suffer and my biggest fear was realized - my Rationale wasn't approved in time and when it was approved, my colloquium was scheduled to take place in the late summer.

When it happened, I had already accepted it, and expected it.  I also realized I had a different priority to think about - the classes I was taking at the time.  I didn't want to half-ass my classes for the sake of the rationale; it was my fault the rationale was not finished and it wasn't fair or respectful to my professors that their classes would have less of my involvement because I couldn't finish something that should have been finished already.   So what ended up happening?

I graduated on stage but couldn’t feel worse about it.  

It's nice to think of the apparent symbolism behind the ceremony of graduation; it is a celebration of the four years spent learning, reading, thinking and developing yourself to have your name called up to receive a diploma that’s a placeholder for all you did to obtain it[7].

Except in my case, I didn’t deserve to have my name called and I never felt completely right standing on stage.   When my name was called on stage, I smiled, posed for a photo and could only think of my parents, my sister, and my brother-in law high up in the balcony yelling in pride for me and I couldn't wait for the announcer to call out the next student's name.  I felt like a fraud.  I was so ashamed I never told my parents the truth; they had no idea I needed to study, read and go back to school once more to officially receive my diploma.

The next few months were anxiety-ridden, a rare feeling for me.   I read book after book, re-read book after book, made notes, read my finally-approved rationale over and over and made sure I knew how each text spoke to my rationale.  I couldn't sleep the night before the colloquium and, dressing up nicely in order to boost my confidence, I made sure to arrive thirty minutes before the actual meeting, rushing and sweating to make sure my laptop would work with the screen so I could display the various paintings and books I spoke about whenever I spoke.  I brought food and beverages and set the table.  I confirmed the technology worked as it should and waited, shaking my leg as I sat. 
My adviser came in, made sure I was doing okay and sat down.  We made small talk.  Soon, another faculty member came in, Jeanette Tran, who was my transfer adviser and whose class I was taking at the time was so essential to my rationale it worked out perfectly that another professor's schedule didn't work.  Again, small talk.  Bert Katz, the last faculty member who taught Drawing and Painting, a class in which we butted heads often[8].  When I knew I'd be talking about art, I knew Bert had to be part of my Colloquium.  The three spoke amongst themselves for several minutes before my primary adviser asked me if I wanted to start now.  I said yes after I go outside for a second. 

I stepped outside and took a deep breath.  I'm rarely nervous and when I am, I use it.  I couldn’t this time.  I felt panic, I was nervous, all I could think of was failing.  I told myself I could pass, I told myself I knew what I was saying, I told myself to stop being nervous.  In what seemed like hours my confidence came back, my logical self came back, and I walked back into the room.

The next 90-something minutes have been monumental to my life.  This blog is a direct consequence of that meeting.  The colloquium was more about me than anything else something that seems obvious now, but was so unexpected.  We spoke about art, stories, different ways of expressing them and what that meant to me.  To me.  Those were words I didn't think about when I was writing and preparing.  What does it matter what it means "to me?", wasn't I supposed to saying something that rang true regardless?  Thinking on it now, no.  And it's arrogant for me to think so.  How I can I say what art is, and what storytelling is in an objective manner.  Those subjects were things I needed to think about and how they directly applied to myself.  My three professors helped me do that.  During the colloquium, my stance was one of doubt and negative language considering my goals of wanting to become an illustrator[9].  I focused largely on skill and telling the right story that I sensed concern from my professors.  Looking back, the language I used were subconscious rationalizations that allowed me to not take action.  But why should lack of "skill" stop me?  What was I trying to say when I said I liked a certain piece of art for this storytelling and disliked another piece of art because of its lack of storytelling?

I didn't have immediate answers and the end of the colloquium left me feeling with a sense of care and importance for myself.  These were professors who cared not only about me but the words I had to say, the actions I was taking or, more importantly, not taking.  Before the three made their decision, I had to leave the room[10].  I sat down and listened to music to avoid going crazy within my own thoughts.  After a song and a half they came out and with reserved joy, announced that I had passed my colloquium, officially making me an NYU graduate.  

I wish I could say that specific moment was important for me because it meant I graduated and my four years meant something, but those weren’t the thoughts I had[11].   Their affirmation of our discussion meant so much more to me and the next few days I would only think of the conversation I had with three very important and intelligent individuals.  The colloquium made me realize that I had been limiting myself, waiting for the day I can say "yes, now I am a good draftsman, painter, writer, storyteller and now I can do what I've been wishing to do" but that never happens and that will never happen.  I will never be "finished" becoming a writer, becoming a draftsman- that's perfection and all I can do is aim to attain it, knowing I never will.  Attaining it means taking action.  This blog is exactly that, the first steps towards illustration, and it would have never existed if it wasn't for my colloquium discussion.

And for that, I dedicate this very personal project to you- Jeanette Tran, Christopher Cartmill and Bert Katz.

Self Portraits or I DON'T think I'm ugly, honest.

Trying to become an illustrator means allowing it to pervade all parts of my life. When I knew I would start this blog I knew both Facebook and a Twitter account[12] needed to reflect that fact. Twitter, if used properly, is a way to connect to professionals, people you admire and others like you. Facebook was something I rarely used in an active way. I'm a private person but knew part of me needed to be public. What did this mean exactly? It meant I needed to use these platforms to say "illustration is important in my life."  For Facebook, I knew I wanted to have an illustrated profile picture or me. 

I had an idea of what I wanted the picture to be; a sketch-like pen drawing. No colors, just lines. But I needed reference.  Problem was.. I'm not a big fan of myself.

I'm drawn to beauty, to things that look good and when I went to take a picture of myself, it was annoying how hard it was for me because I couldn't find one I liked.

To be clear, I don't think I'm ugly or anything, I just wouldn't say I'm particularly pleasing to look at in posed photos[13].  I mean I'm alright-looking, handsome on a good day, but I couldn't capture anything I could think “yeah I can see that almost everyday.” Eventually I did settle on one and began drawing lightly with a pencil.

At around the same time, I had bought a few new brushes and India ink, which I never used before, and thought - why not now? I wouldn't exactly have a line drawing but I could work on silhouettes. 

I stopped at about 80%. I realized the drawing didn't really look like me, it didn’t feel right to me.I liked the ink and brush look however and used a picture that I knew I shouldn't have trouble reproducing - my profile. Again I lightly drew it in pencil and began inking it. But it seemed a little too plain as I was filling in the black so I worked my personality in it, coming out with this.

This I like.  It looks like me and it feels like me.  My only problem was that my snake-bite piercing[14] looked more like a cigarette but after spending some time away from it, it looks more like a piercing and less like a smoking cigarette.  But (and there is a but).  It wasn’t the type of picture I would want to represent me in something as public as a Facebook profile.  So I kept it and I think of it as a completed picture[15].
I need a good picture and I needed one quickly.  I turned to a never before-used instrument, my laptop’s webcam.  It felt very strange to look at myself on screen which is even weirder because I spend a lot of time in front of a mirror.  Something about knowing that I working hard to put a “right” image of myself out there felt deceptively vain. Funny enough, as I took pictures of myself, I thought, maybe I am pretty good-looking.  I took about six pictures and chose this one as my final picture. 

I began sketching.  And sketching.  And sketching.  Something was wrong.  It wasn't coming out right.  My eyes were never looking up, always down.  My first, very rough pen thumbnail, the size of half my phone came out fine.  Pose looked okay outside of the face which wasn’t looking the right way.   

But when I got to the larger page, I probably began a sketch 3-4 times, erasing the entire page all over again.  Frustrated I overlayed a grid on the photo in order for my eyes to find proportion easier and started with a pen.  This would be my last sketch, no more erasing, I had to get it right here.  I didn’t. 

So what did I do.  I cheated.  I think.  I took my wacom tablet and on a different layer, traced my outline in Photoshop.  Of course it was easy.  I then resized my brush, my colors and opacity and added a few tonal values to the shadows of my skin.  My final image turned out to be this.  

I don’t know how to feel about this.  For one point, there’s always a counterpoint.  Yes I traced it.  But I also made specific changes.  But there was little that actually came out of my hand.  But the values and lines were deliberate choices I made.  But it was a concession to what I actually couldn’t do.  But most importantly, I liked it.  I liked it a lot and it was almost exactly what I wanted when I saw it in my head.  So it ended up as my profile page though I am a little ashamed of its creation.  So I’ll tell it here.  And I’ll feel better.  And I know one day, I’ll be able to draw myself from reference, and eventually just draw myself in my own way, and be happy with it. 

[1] In a more tangible way rather than a purely emotional way.  Experiences over emotions, though the two are related.
[2] Also, my memory’s terrible.  I might say “here’s where it began” then remember it actually began earlier. 
[3] Fairly so.
[4] Something I didn’t really know at the time.
[5] I would say to my defense I didn’t know that, but I should have known that.
[6] Outside of classes of course.
[7] In the actual ceremony,
[8] Another topic, another blog post.
[9] Not an artist.
[10] Procedural.
[11] The day I did receive my diploma, however, I never felt prouder of myself.
[12] @JL_Illustration (might as well)
[13] Why I don’t like posing for pictures.
[14] I have two piercings on my bottom lip; two black spikes jutting out.  It’s funny how often I forget they are there.
[15] Notice the clean-up in this photo is much more defined than the previous photo; the difference between a finished and unfinished piece for me.