Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The More Things Change... the Life of Vincent Van Gogh

I love biographies, especially those of Artists and Cartoonists.  For Christmas, all I wanted was the complete letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo... not a biography, per se, but a very intimate and personal look at the life of a great Artist, life in the late 1800's, and more.  The letters cover the years between 1872 and 1890, and were written in Holland, Belgium, England, and France... fairly far away in space, and lifetimes away in time.  A history lesson, you may think, with nothing applicable to the life of an Artist in this modern age?  You'd be wrong.  As far as human nature goes, the more things change, the more so many things really do stay the same.

It's been a while since I've really studied painting and Painters.  I stare at every interesting piece of art I see, and take from it what I can, but I haven't done a lot of studying outside of drawing.  As I've seen recently, though, the work of Vincent Van Gogh is everywhere!  I just noticed the other day that I have one of his sunflowers on an oven mitt I bought a decade ago, and I see his name and his art in so many places, from vodka bottles to schoolroom walls.  I'll admit, though, that my recent fascination with the man came from that spectacular episode of Doctor Who, where Amy Pond and the Doctor meet Vincent and help brighten one of his days.  So, you see, Ma?  Television really can be educational and inspiring. :0)

Before I go further, let's clarify a few things.  If all you know about Vincent is the crap they teach in schools, then forget that and pick up any book on the man, which should immediately clarify things.  To think of Vincent Van Gogh as a crazy person who cut off his ear and gave it to a hooker is a gross misjustice, and totally disrespectful of the man himself.  I've heard variations on that above statement from various people I've spoken to recently, and it took me 5 minutes of reading to see that everything in that statement is misconstrued and taken out of context.  Oh, no doubt that Vincent had problems... for which we should be respectful.  Life with any kind of illness can be very difficult, and what we should consider is how he managed to accomplish so much by overcoming his difficulties.

Seen on the wall of the local pizza joint.

So what does any of this have to do with today's Artist, especially today's Cartoonist?  Well, quite a lot.  Vincent's journey to becoming one of the greatest Painters ever mirrors the journey of so many people today who are trying to find themselves as Artists.

I read a lot of blogs, articles, biographies, etc about Cartoonists today, and taken altogether a pattern of similarities emerges.  A person goes through many odd jobs before finally finding themselves in art.  A person lives hand to mouth trying to feed him or herself, while trying to make it as an Artist.  An Artist works hard, mostly in isolation, proud of what they are accomplishing, but not sure how it will be received, how good it is, is it good at all?  Worries about money, being looked down upon by people with 'real' jobs, wanting your family to be proud of you, wanting at all costs to succeed for so many reasons...

All of this is in Vincent's letters, in detail.  Even more like today's Artist, he looks for commercial art while studying to do the type of art he really wants to do.  He considers working as a magazine illustrator, but is frustrated by having to deal with Editors and to show his portfolio time after time.  He takes on 'freelance' assignments.  He considers making his own prints and seeing if he can sell them. He considers teaming up with other Artists in various types of collaborations.  He even considers self publishing!  I am sure that all of this will seem very familiar to anyone considering making a living today as an Artist.

The struggle is familiar, and relevant.  In raw detail he describes his life, and his choices.  Sometimes we don't have choices today or then... we need to eat, we need shelter, and we need art supplies.  Vincent often chose art supplies over food, although he tried not to compromise on shelter.  Not a bed or stove or anything, but always concerned with a studio with proper lighting.

Seen in the local liquor store.

Poor suffering soul that he was, though, Vincent had one thing that many do not have:  someone who believed in him.  He often said that his brother Theo would have been a great painter if he chose to be, and sometimes tried to push him in that direction.  But Theo chose a 'real' job, and made real money, and sent Vincent money every month of his life for food, shelter, and art supplies.  Later on for hospital bills.  This small but steady income gave Vincent the opportunity to study pure art, and not to compromise. To experiment with materials, and to have a studio with proper lighting.  It also gave him a small amount of guilt, which probably drove him to work as hard as he did.  Vincent drew or painted or studied whenever his health permitted.  At the end he was doing a painting a day, and each was awesome, from landscapes to portraits to his Starry Night.

And so the lessons of then become the lessons of now.  Do you want to be an Artist?  Do you want to make money as an Artist, or spend a lifetime trying to do so?  The answer is simple, but very difficult.  You've got to work at it, every day.  Preferably full time, with someone to support you, because let's face it... part time art will take years to get anywhere.  By working to support yourself, you are draining yourself from the energy needed to make art, and stressing yourself.  Of course, depending on others can be stressful in itself.  But you do need the determination to keep working at it, and to try new things, and to know when a new direction is wasting time. You need to learn the techniques of your trade, and how to use the tools, from T-square to computer.  And you need a dedicated work space.

Seen on the wall of a local elementary school.

Most of all, BE an Artist.  Be professional, be ready for opportunity, and make your own opportunity.  Give yourself assignments until real assignments come your way.  If you know what you want to do, then you're halfway to your goal.  If you want to illustrate children's books, then do that.  make your own books, or illustrate someone else's, but learn what it takes to do the job and do it.  Designing greeting cards is great, especially if it pays, but if you want to illustrate kid's books, then make sure you're developing a style that shows that.  Comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, greeting cards.... if you know what you want to do, then focus.  Focus, and, given time, you should reach some level of success.

If you don't know what to do, then try everything.  Learn different things, and try to get paying art jobs so that you can continue learning.  Freelancing does not often pay well, but the experience gained is invaluable.  Learning to work with others, to listen to others, to do work on demand... all these things helps one grow.

Vincent of course, didn't do most of these things.  He just drew every day, then painted every day, and studied every day, until it all became something unique within him.  He wasn't afraid to say "this is too much", or "this guy doesn't work hard enough", or "this work lacks soul or passion".  And he wasn't afraid to follow his own path.  He ventured into the realm of abstraction, and used color for it's own sake, and not necessarily how it was seen.  And because of that, created a path that so many Artists and Art Forms followed after him.

It was never easy, but he believed in himself, and his brother believed in him, and eventually his Sister in Law believed in him.  Fortunately, Vincent saw some of the praise in his work in his lifetime.  He also saw many scoff, laugh, and put him down, but he knew that one day they would all come around.  It takes time to appreciate something new and radical, he admitted, but he knew he had something good.

Unfortunately, he left this world before seeing those people 'come around'.  It took awhile, but his Sister in Law got the vindication they all needed, when Vincent's work finally became appreciated by the world at large.

So, believe in yourself.  Follow your heart.

It may not always be easy, but if you work at it, you'll eventually get somewhere.  That journey is something you just can't predict, though, nor the destination.

So good luck to you!    JOHN :0)

PS On my iPod?  Calm of Zero, Acoustic Sessions #1

PSS I'm working on a painting myself, now, but cartooning comes first.  More on all that later. :0)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Getting it done.

It's a new year, and that busy Holiday season is over, and it's time to get back into the action.
I'm not one for New Year's resolutions, because frankly, to succeed in anything, you have to have resolve each and every day... which is not always easy.  So with that in mind, I am tackling my to-do list, and finishing things that need to get done!

First off, I've been wanting to submit a comic strip to the Syndicates again, so am finishing that package of Knight and Day material.  I know times a ticking, but to submit anything to anyone, you should always submit your best, which means doing a lot of work and choosing the cream.
I'm also trying to finish a model boat I started last year, and doing some painting again.  I'm not done the painting yet, but will post that here when I'm happy with it.  I started it quite some time ago, as a gift for a friend, and it got put aside, and put aside.... well, too long.  Painting takes time, but is different enough from Cartooning that different energies are involved, so perhaps I can do both concurrently.

Of course, that also means paint brushes to wash, as well as pens to maintain, and other tools.  Which brings me to another resolution:  Keep the studio clean!

I've probably mentioned this before, but if you want to be a professional Artist of any sort, you need a dedicated work space.  Sitting on your bed with a sketchbook is great, but having a drawing table, or an easel, or a desk of any sort is essential.  A place with only your most necessary tools arranged within reach, and a place that is clean.  I think one of the best tools ANY Cartoonist can have is a box of baby wipes.  Seriously!  One cartoon can leave such a mess of pencil dust on the table, and ink on my triangles, and if I don't clean every day, then smudges appear on my drawings that don't go away easily, and which scan quite messily.

Please note that the spot on which I work is very clean. :0)

So, here are a few brand new Knight and Day's for your enjoyment.  Let me know what you think, huh?

Cheers,    JOHN :0)

PS On my iPod?  Aimee Mann, Lost in Space, and the soundtrack to an awesome tv show, Defying Gravity