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Mapping Influence

October 14, 2010

Everything an artist makes owes a debt of influence to something or someone else. And even though every artist has thought about this and has probably had to answer questions about it on more than a few occasions, it’s rare that we document these influences. But lately a lot of artists have been doing just that thanks to an Internet Meme called the “Influence Map”.

The meme, which is essentially a downloadable PSD file consisting of a grid of squares and a set of instructions/ suggestions for its use, provides a structure for an artist to lay out their major sources of inspiration and share it with others in an accessible visual form. Clearly it’s been a popular idea.

This is an easy, straight-forward format, but it requires a degree of deliberation and reflection on the subject that you may never have engaged in before. I know I hadn’t, despite countless conversations with fellow artists and more than a few “What would you list as your influences?” questions. It’s not easy to boil down all the things that inspire you to a dozen selections, but in doing so you can learn a little something about who you are as an artist.

You can see the original source of the meme by user Fox-Orian (Matt Laskowski) on DeviantArt.

For my Influence Map I’ve taken a cue from Kate Beaton and included a brief write-up of each influence.

1. Stan Sakai

I think the Japanese influence and the comic influence in my work are fairly obvious. Both of these influences took hold when I was about 10 or 11, with Book Three of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. It was the first thing I saved my money to buy, and I’ve treasured it ever since. Sakai’s lines are smooth and confident, and his balance of black and white is perfect. I adored his big fight panels, where Usagi or Gen appears to be downing an entire horde of cat-ninjas with a single stroke. They were aggressive and brutal without ever being graphic enough to traumatize my little imagination.

I still have the habit of drawing slightly extended pinky fingers on my characters’ hands, which was no doubt adopted from Stan’s swordsmen and cemented when my brother and I drew a full-length comic (a feat I have never since repeated) featuring my shamelessly ripped-off animal samurai character Kato (bet you can’t guess what kind of animal he was).

2. Salvador Dali

Apparently it’s really not cool to like Dali after you’re through with puberty, and one of the most common traits of fresh-faced art school students seems to be that they are very much too cool for Dali (and Van Gogh, Picasso, all the Rock Stars of painting except maybe Schiele). But you can’t deny Dali’s clout, and I think there are very few of us with any surrealistic tendencies who haven’t been influenced by Dali. I certainly have been.

3. Pushead

Before Pushead, skulls were already a cool thing to draw, but nobody bothered with the foramina. Pushead made them a key point in his many, many skull images and now everybody draws them. I imagine just as few people today know what foramina are, but that’s besides the point. This guy is being copied by a whole generation of poster and t-shirt artists, and skulls all over the world couldn’t be happier about it. He was something of a role model for me for a time, running a record label at the same time as being a world renowned illustrator of record covers, posters and T-shirts.

4. Egon Schiele

I adored Schiele’s drawings and paintings in art school as many of us did, and I only grew to respect him more when I saw how much of what he did came from his mentor Klimt, and what brilliant and original things he did with what he learned from his teacher. One of his lesser-known sunflower paintings remains for me the golden example of negative space, and his rendering of roof tiles taught me a key lesson about coloring detail. Specifically, not to use the same color for each tile/scale/feather/whatever,  a little variation goes a long way. Thanks Egon.

5. Carson Ellis

Though I don’t own any of the records, her covers for The Decemberists are the best series of album covers I have ever seen. I still see the artwork for Her Majesty in my head any time I draw an album cover.

6. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The classic Japanese woodblock prints that so rocked our world after Japan opened its borders continue to blow Western minds to this day, and mine is no exception. Kuniyoshi, as my current favorite of these authors, stands in my Map for this whole tradition as much as he is included for his own work. The composition and flattening of space, and the bold use of black backgrounds in these works, especially Kuniyoshi’s Warrior vs. Monster images, are at the heart of its appeal to me. In addition to that, the way they document the folklore, daily life and rich design and craft tradition (textiles, architecture, weaponry etc) of that time and place solidify this art form as my favorite of all. And I could go on, but I won’t.

7. Bird-Banding

Yes, bird-banding.  Catching birds and weighing/ measuring them, and fitting numbered bands on their legs. This is, strange as it may seem, a major influence in my art. My father is an ornithologist and as such does a great deal of banding, it’s a key part of information gathering for the study of birds and their movements. I used to go along with him on banding trips as a boy in Saskatchewan, and I came to be familiar with and fascinated by birds in a way that only such close encounters with normally unreachable creatures could foster. I drew a lot of field-guide style bird drawings and admired artists like Roger Tory Peterson, JJ Audubon, and the much-maligned/much-loved Robert Bateman. But beyond the temporary hold those artists had on my artistic aspirations, the birds themselves left a permanent stamp on my imagination. I think travelling alonside scientific expeditions to far-flung places, drawing the scenes, would be a dream job for me if only science had some use for my weird, ambiguous interpretations of the world.

8.  Arthur Rackham

Once again I can thank my father for this, and indirectly his father. My father passed down to me his copy of Rip Van Winkle, which he had from his father. It is a 1910 edition, hard bound in olive green with hand-drawn lettering and Rip himself stamped on the cover in gold. The text is hand set, letterpressed on beautiful heavy paper, and at least half the book is devoted to the gorgeous lithographed illustrations, each set in by hand and protected with a thin sheet of vellum. It is a venerable, beautiful thing and at the time it fairly blew my mind. And what’s more it stands as evidence of a time when illustration was valued so highly that an artist like Rackham could become a household name, and wealthy to boot. Imagine, Washington Irving’s name doesn’t even appear anywhere on the cover. We would never see that today.

9.  Gustav Klimt

Klimt is a fairly recent discovery of mine, as I began learning about his work when I was getting ready to move to Vienna. He was a master in the old sense, steeped in the classical methods and all the tricks and techniques of the trade, but what I love most about his work is the unique visual identity he created at the height of his career. His lushly rendered figures submerged in flat planes of  pattern and abstraction are, in my view, a brilliant response to the Eastern influences that were sweeping Europe at the time. Like Beardsley and a few others, he translated the lessons of the Japanese into his own Western voice.

10.  Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley’s work moves me for many of the same reasons as does Klimt’s  but it’s the dark, frightening aspect of his imagination that makes him special. Beardsley understood the relationship of black and white as well as anyone, and far better than most. To my eye he stands out from his contemporaries as a true original.

11.  Roots

This portrait of my great grandfather Alec Reeves stands for my ancestors in general. It’s a constant source of fascination to me that we are all descended from such long lines of mothers and fathers, and for years I’ve picked away at the impossible task of reaching back to them.

12. Otto Wagner

In Vienna I’m surrounded by stunning architecture, and Wagner’s buildings are invariably my favorite. I especially love his use of dark green and gold, and his balance of ornate detail and open unadorned forms, not to mention his skills as an illustrator (the architects of the time presented their buildings with stunningly embellished, superb illustrations). His Pavillion at Karlsplatz was always a treat to pass on my way to work, and like Rackham’s Rip Van Winkle his buildings testify to a time when art was king.

13. Yuko Shimizu

When I first saw her work years ago, Yuko almost instantly became my favorite illustrator, and gradually became my prime example for the kind of illustration I wanted to do. She was the first contemporary illustrator I had seen who could turn her own subjective, personal vocabulary to the topic at hand and go beyond visual metaphors into territory that was distinctly hers. Since then I have discovered many other artists working this way, and it yields some of the very best work out there. Taking part in her 2009 workshop in Venice was a major turning point in my development and she has helped me grow as an artist more than anyone else.

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