Monday, March 4, 2013

Shaun Tan: Taking a Line for a Walk

A page from Shaun Tan's incredible picture book, The Arrival.

Shaun Tan is an Australian illustrator and graphic artist who, in 2011, won the Best Animated Short File Oscar for his film The Lost Thing.   He has a wonderful sense of the fantastical and the artistic talent to put those visions down on paper.  It is little surprise that he's written several children's books, including one that I think captures the immigrant experience better than anything else I've ever seen or read: The Arrival.  I cannot recommend it enough.

I recently checked out Tan's book, "The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook".  In the book's Introduction, Tan writes about the creative process and the need for artists of all types to continually search for inspiration by actively living life.  Even though he talks about the artistic process in terms of drawing, you can easily substitute writing for drawing -- or whatever artistic activity you choose.

The following reminded me of what I quoted Graham Linehan as saying in an episode of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe about feeding the unconscious:

"Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can't think of anything original.  I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive.  It's the familiar malaise of "artist's block" and in such circumstances there is only one thing to do: Just start drawing. 
The artist Paul Klee refers to is the simple act as "taking a line for a walk," an apt description of my own basic practice: allowing the tip of a pencil to wander through the landscape of a sketchbook, motivated by a vague impulse but hoping to find something much more interesting along the way Strokes, hooks, squiggles, and loops can resolve into hills, faces, animals, machines - even abstracted feelings - the meanings of which are often secondary to the simple act of making (something children know intuitively).  Images are not preconceived and then drawn, they are conceived as they are drawn.  Indeed, drawing is its own form of thinking, in the same way birdsong is "thought about" within a bird's throat. 
Klee has a second good metaphor: the artist as a tree, drawing from a rich compost of experience - things seen, read, told, and dreamt -- in order to grow leaves, flowers, and fruit.  At, following the laws of horticulture, can only make something out of something else; artists do not create so much as transform.  That's not to say the process is a causal or simple one.  I find that good drawing requires conscientious effort: active research, careful observation of things around me, ongoing experimentation and reference-gathering, all of which exist "behind the scenes."  To follow the Klee metaphor, artists need to work hard to make sure their creative soil is well tilled and fertilized.  They need to look outward and actively accumulate a swag of influences, things to bring along when taking that line for a walk."
-- Shaun Tan, The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook

-- Tom