Realism vs Idealization, and the Narrative Spark

Are you not what you think you are?

It’s OK. Really.

I am thinking I am experiencing one of those disjointed moments where who I want to be does not line up with who I have been. Particularly, where it comes to my artistic identity.

Today, I looked back into my files; while two days ago, I wrote:

In the Art program, I thought that I might go into Illustration or work on comics or graphic novels (doing the writing and the art); but the prospect is intimidating. It seems like it would be easier (and more fun) to do non-sequential art! Things that can’t be immediately recognized as a person, for example (if they’re meant to represent people, at all — which are not necessarily the focus or theme of my personal work). Abstract content or method might lend itself better to the fine art sphere — though I say that, not having read comics for a while.

So what do I see when I look back at my unfinished artwork?

As though from the gym, a female person has just descended a staircase which leads off the right side of the frame. Looking up, her friend crouches on the left side of the frame. A small bird stands in front of the crouching figure.

Illustration. Lots, and lots, of illustration.

Illustration with my mark on it, waiting to be finished.

And then I ask myself, “Why am I not doing Illustration?” The answer is that it’s flipping hard to do Illustration. It can be hard to have the heart to do Illustration, that is; it’s hard for me to expose myself to the reality of what’s going on.

Not that drawing people is all that difficult: I’ve been doing that for years. Key to this, however, is the fact that I tend to devalue things that I do, and do well…because of the fact that I do them well, and I reason that because the tasks are easy for me, they should also be easy for everyone else.

What is difficult for me, is sitting with the realities and feelings and conflicts that surround me, and really taking them in. Art entails this for me — at least, when it’s not decorative art. Writing does as well; but it’s a degree abstracted and removed. Art requires actual observation of reality, ideally immersion in reality, at least if you’re looking to emulate someplace real, or communicate something about being in someplace real. Even the generation of a fantasy, however, may arise from a refashioned version of reality. It may be based on what could be and isn’t, or clarify a dynamic…

The main story I’ve had bumping around in my head since high school began as a fantasy. At this point it’s just a part of me, though I haven’t fully written it down. Fantasy provided safety at a time when abuse in my school ran rampant — and reassured me, against the dominant narrative, that I was OK. (Of course, I had to learn later that this story was idiosyncratic to myself…)

I’ve felt, in my own creative work, the imperative to inhabit places that are uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes even dangerous to observe. There are some things that need to be studied, but which it’s easy not to want to see. The main example I can think of is attempting to observe the inner-city areas my characters may have to live with (or within). Having had at least one unhoused/homeless character pop into my repertoire a while back (I forget the story he was involved in; it was some futuristic drama that I may have only noted in sketches)…you can see where this gets complex.

Trailing Dorothea Lange?

The homeless camps, right now, are something everyone in this area lives with, and something to which many people have been taught to turn a blind eye. That really is not easy to do, however, with the current scale of the situation.

I’ve been shielded from this within the last two years, because I (mostly) haven’t been in any of the major urban areas like I had before, and on the one occasion when I can recall being there, I didn’t get out of the car. This was in an industrial area, not quite inner-city; given much life by the fact that there’s a restaurant there that acts as a community anchor — and not just for people with money.

A railroad runs nearby, and with the railroad come encampments. It has been like that for as long as I can remember, although the camps have likely changed their precise locations over the years. Local law enforcement has taken to uprooting them occasionally, but really, I don’t think they know what to do. We need an actual, thought-out plan to deal with the homeless crisis, most likely including the input of the people who are said to be the problem. They aren’t the problem. They live at a societal pain point that impacts them more than it impacts anyone else.

When you grow up around this stuff, it’s easy to question why it doesn’t show up in Art; like it’s an intentional cultural blind spot. In certain schools of art, for example, with some ukiyo-e, or shin hanga prints, artists idealized their world, depicting it as harmonious rather than as realistic. The impulse is understandable: to bring something of beauty into the world, rather than reproducing imperfection. However, I’m not entirely sure to what extent idealization actually engages with reality, as versus building a fantasy within which one may escape from reality. This has become clearer to me as I’ve aged. At one end, a person is pretty much delusional. At the other…well, we all can use multiple vibrant visions of what could be, rather than letting mass media dictate our realities to us, right?

I have had the cultural problem of privilege as versus dispossession in the back of my mind for at least the last 17 years. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to live with family all this time; I wasn’t booted out at 18; I was able to at least get into and through University; my parents did not reject me for being noncis and nonhet; I’ve never used street drugs and haven’t had children; I’ve been able to utilize psychiatric care; I haven’t been forced to move in with an abuser in exchange for housing; or to stay in a subpar job for survival. I have, essentially, never fully lived on my own, and others cared for me when I couldn’t care for myself. If the situation were different…let me say, it could be much worse, easily.

I can empathize, maybe too much?

Comics, Comix, Graphic Novels, Graphic History…

I wrote that I haven’t read comics in a while, but then again, it’s easy to overgeneralize the field of comics to mean mainstream superhero comics, when a number of different genres exist. This goes beyond Marvel and DC, beyond comic strips, and even beyond translated manga and underground comix.

I’m reminded of a couple of examples I’ve read over the years…like a story which was paired with a how-to in comic creation (they opened from different sides of the cover), with a title that eludes my powers of memory at the moment. My best guess is that it’s hidden in a box somewhere, or we gave it away with the rest of the paperback comics.

I believe the story (not the main title of the book) was a Science Fiction one-shot called The Regenerator, but I can’t at all be sure about that, and I can’t find the book now. Nor have I presently been successful in trying to look it up online. It’s all drawn in black on white, and is one of the more serious comics I’ve read, with a gritty, overwhelmingly detailed feel to the illustrations.

Another comic, Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, is about the development of nuclear weaponry and energy, which (as a non-fiction book) is obviously…not at all about superheroes or supervillains. It begs the question of what we call illustrated books made in the style of comics that are not meant to be humorous (thus, “comic,” is misleading) and are not fiction, thus can’t really be called, “graphic novels;” and nor are they tailored to a young adult audience, but an adult one. “Graphic History,” seems a little…specific?

But hey, I guess they tried. Not only that, but Googling “graphic history” is rather interesting…

In any case, I can see myself leaning towards this more gritty, literary side of the production of, “comics,” or a graphic novel (or a manuscript). This may have been why I initially shied away from Fiction Writing after my BA focused on it, and also why I shied away from Illustration, after I began to get good at it. Maybe I just need to allow myself to, “go there?” Maybe there’s a story waiting for me there?

Paper and Media Decisions; the Beginnings of Technique

In any case, I did find a bunch of unfinished images…on what kind of papers, I don’t entirely remember. I know that some of it is on Mixed Media paper, and some may be on hot press Watercolor paper. Then, there is some that is just done on Drawing paper, which I’ll have to transfer over (i.e., redraw) if I want to use wet media with it. I guess that would make it, “planning;” or, source material.

I still remember a bit of my planned color placement for the image I posted above…the issue is whether to use FW acrylic inks, Ecoline dye-based watercolors, or traditional, pigment-based watercolor paints, on it. Because of the fact that my acrylic ink tests are still bright and saturated after all these years, I have the inclination to try those, first…although I know they ruin palettes if allowed to dry in them! (I might be able to dig up a disposable palette, or fashion one out of foil or something, regardless.)

The Ecolines are very pretty, but a side effect of breathing too much of their vapors is reduced O2 levels in the blood. Which, I can say, nobody needs in the time of COVID (though it was worse when Delta was the dominant strain, as versus Omicron). I also do not have high hopes for color permanence with the Ecolines…due to the fact that they are dye-based. They seem to be meant more for reproduction (and transparency) than stability…and I’ve recognized that media made for reproduction don’t necessarily look all that great to a person as versus a scanner (e.g. Higgins Eternal ink, which is more of a dark grey than a black. It’s easily alterable in Photoshop with a Brightness/Contrast adjustment, but still — Blick Black Cat ink is better than Higgins Eternal, to me. Actually, almost anything is better than Higgins Eternal…unless you want your work to last on the scale of one of Osamu Tezuka’s art boards…which are still yellowing, where he taped in the printed text).

Then there are the traditional pigment-based watercolors…which I would use on properly-sized cotton rag Watercolor paper, rather than trying to get them to flow on Mixed Media paper (I sense Mixed Media paper may not work well with them, but I haven’t tried it yet). I also I haven’t yet swatched everything for transparency — some of those watercolors (particularly the greens) are new.

On top of that, I’m still not sure how my colored pencils will fare on Watercolor, as versus Mixed Media, paper — and I know it will differ between hot-press, cold-press, and Plate finish. (Not to mention, Bristol board — which I just remembered existed!)

A while ago, I developed the technique of doing underpaintings in watercolors, and then adding texture and depth (and detail!) with colored pencil. That actually suggests using acrylic inks to me, as well, as the acrylic binder should hold the pigment down onto the paper if I try to draw over it. Otherwise, I could be lifting pigment particles, and not all of those pigments are safe to make into inhalable dust.

I can try the FW acrylic inks (and maybe liquid frisket) for the above image, and plan to go over them later with colored pencil. I’ll save the Ecolines for experiments until I can see how they handle; and I’ll use the real watercolors with watercolor paper.

Of course, now I have to reacquaint myself with how the FW inks mix and flow…

Published by Haruna

Haruna is a Librarian by training, currently pivoting from Public Services into Technical Services. Their undergraduate major was English -- Creative Writing, and they hold an additional small degree in Art (i.e. Visual Arts). They are now pondering whether a career in Academia is viable or desirable, given the current situation.

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