This week my vocation and my avocations synchronized perfectly when Charles Vess came (back) to Richmond to speak at an event hosted by the library where I work. He spoke at the Grace Street Theater to a large, enthusiastic crowd of people from around Richmond and the region. He talked about his development as an artist and illustrator, his loves and taste as a reader, his time as a student at VCU, the joys and pains of making art before you become successful (and what happens when you do), working with Neil Gaiman, and many more things having to do with making art.
The talk was accompanied by a wide array of images, some of his work and some of his past; my favorites were his personal work, blown up to screen size. I love seeing the work of artists in their full power listening only to their muse. Afterward I bumped into a friend who said that it was the best lecture he’d ever seen at VCU. While I haven’t been a student there, I’ve seen many lectures, and his conversational, open, and direct style of address made for a great evening.
Questions from the audience included such topics as how one can succeed as an illustrator, his favorite Miyazaki films, what he finds inspirational or restorative, the nature of contemporary illustration, and more. I asked about his views on drawing from imagination versus drawing from life. I’d misunderstood something he said about using the real world in his work (some leaves, etc.), and he said that he does not, in fact, draw from life. He studies and is inspired by nature, but he doesn’t want to get all of the information onto the page. This was a comfort to me on many levels.
Over the last year I’ve been studying painters and draftsmen who most work from the model or direct observation, have been taking art classes that revolve around the same, and have been reading art instruction material that slants that way, too. That actually goes double for fantasy illustration. In an effort to bring naturalism to their work, many illustrators and artists of the fantastic use techniques that are closely tied to academic painting and 20th century illustration practices. This is all well and good, and I appreciate those methods and the works produced using them, but I do sometimes get restless working from observation. The painting I’m working on right now is in some measure an homage to Erol Otus, and while I could use maquettes, lighting, etc., I’m mostly painting from my imagination.
I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Vess before the event, and I did my best to say concisely what his work has meant to me. Long story short, aside from appreciating his work for many years, I ran across photos of his studio on Terri Windling’s blog at a time when I was doing (same as it ever was) too much soul-searching about writing vs. making art, and how to integrate the two. Seeing photos of his studio was like a swift kick in the ass from a monk at the end of koan, reminding me that the two need not be separate. I bought a pile of books at the event, having forgotten to bring Sandman, etc. stuff along, and he was kind enough to inscribe & draw on the flyleaf from Drawing Down the Moon.