Why was an atelier approach to art so crucial for you?
The atelier-inspired approach used by many Cal Lutheran art professors gives students opportunity to learn not only through instruction but by observing their professors in practice, displaying and modeling the skills, techniques, and conduct of an active artist. I think that effective problem solving strategies and skills are central to each university student’s development, and it’s invaluable to allow professors the space, time, and resources to model behavior for their students, demonstrating how they encounter, analyze, and resolve obstacles to creating the art they want and need to.
For myself, I often found my occasional feelings of uncertainty to be an obstacle in getting to where I need to be, and being able to observe my professors recognize and face challenges in creating their own art prompted me to see the creation of art differently.
Instead of expecting something like a multiple-choice exam where I had to have all the right answers, I learned to expect and even seek out the unfamiliar or unexpected, sharpening my technical skills and honing my “artist’s eye.”
In practical terms, this translated to things like, “how do I render a convincing reflection in a drawing or painting,” or “how do I create harmonious proportions of light and dark in a picture,” or the ever-present and unrelenting technical hurdle to anyone who’s ever tried their hand at drawing: “how in the world do I draw a straight line?”
Finally, I feel that observing professors create their own works in progress was instrumental in shaping my own approach to my paintings, not just in terms of subject matter or technique, but in displaying an organic development of ideas and approaches that revealed things that the structure and constraints of assignments couldn’t always convey.
How did you develop and discover your own style?
The foundations of my style started quite early on. Artistic style blossoms out of the way in which artists’ foundations and backgrounds teach them to see the world, and style is tempered and shaped by physiology and the tools within the artist’s reach. As a painter, I can see how my work shows influence from all of this.
I often hear my paintings referred to as impressionistic in style. I can think of at least two reasons for this. Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about fine art, but I did find myself captivated by the concept art of the film and videogame industries. “Concept art,” while pretty diverse, by and large draws a lot of influence from impressionism out of necessity. As ideas which must be expressed quickly for other teams of artists to refine and realize, concept art pieces are executed quickly and loosely except in important focal points of their compositions. The concepts for the movie Blade Runner by artist Syd Mead, for example, are sketchy towards their edges but masterfully embody the crowded, futuristically hard-boiled sci-fi dystopia which was recreated in the film.
The second reason for the impressionistic way in which I paint is because I’ve always had poor eyesight. My eyes have long been nearsighted and easily strained, and in my drawing classes I found that taking off my glasses or simply looking over the top of my lenses gave my weary eyes rest and had the added benefit of allowing me to see my subject or the artwork I was working on as a fully-integrated, blurred-together unity when my long staring sessions often left me incapable of looking at the whole of what I was doing—a revelation, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It was only later that I learned that a certain Claude Monet had the same way of looking at his subjects through his woefully cataracted eyes.
I also mentioned tools being important to the style of myself or of any artist. In my case, before I started at CLU and was trained in the use of a veritable arsenal of artistic instruments and implements, my primary tool was the humble and utilitarian disposable ballpoint pen. With Bic pens and any paper at hand, I spent thousands of hours milling out thousands of well-intentioned but rather low-quality drawings which formed the pillar of practice that my current skills rest upon. Millions and millions of little diagonal lines were how I shaded and filled out all of those drawings, and painting turned out to be similar, with the exception that brushes had many little bristles, and each brush used its bristles to make many little lines according to its own profile. In fact, I continue to use disposable pens, still using them regularly to make my concept and practice sketches.
And with reference to how I see the world, when I paint or draw figurative work, I do what figurative artists tend to do: I idealize my subjects. In my case, though, this idealization has somewhat less to do with desirable proportions or complexion than it might for many artists; rather, the idealized person is confident and strong, the master of his or her own world: human, yet exuding all of the poise and dignity of a god.
I think this comes from my lifelong struggles with self-esteem, uncertainty, anxiety, and compulsive, hard-to-manage thoughts. Art has served for me as an aid in controlling myself and my own mind, a sort of anti-Pandora’s Box, not creating chaos but reining it in and directing it.
What was the balance like between self-discovery and guidance from your professors?
As a student, it was important for me to realize that assignments are generally designed to guide students to a certain realization by taking a specific approach, rather than to tell them the one possible answer to the question.
When I have to think, for example, “How do I know what to paint?” I’m not hampered by the many different and sometimes contradictory ways I’ve been taught to come up with an answer to that. Instead, having had many different techniques lets me either follow or contradict these ideas, or play them off each other to make something new. Thus, following assignments and instruction aided my self discovery. I was able to change “I don’t know where to start” into “Well, I can take inspiration from abstract patterns. Or from nature. Or from actions. Or riff off of already existing imagery that works well.”
What was it like to have your first solo show here in the Kwan Fong Gallery?
The response to my show was very encouraging. I think the biggest thing I took away from doing that show was that the feedback I got from it emphatically demonstrated to me that I can make imagery that people enjoy. I had gotten a lot of compliments on my art before, but having my show in the Kwan Fong, where a lot of people I know could come and see it, and many did, was like the happy conclusion to a big chapter of my life as an artist, and it’s left me ready for more: more art and more shows, and whatever else I can pull my way.
Harold’s solo show in the Kwan Fong Gallery ran from November to January 2015.
Do you have any advice for future art students at Cal Lutheran?
I would say that four years (or two years for transfer students like me) isn’t a whole lot of time to learn to make art, so learning what kind of thing you want to make is important to do pretty early on. This isn’t as daunting as it might seem—the majority of knowing what you want to make is knowing what you like. And to explore this as much as possible, it’s necessary to make a lot of time to work on projects on your own that are not necessarily related to your classes. A big part of learning art is self-guided exploration—professors can mentor and help you, but it’s ultimately up to you to learn what art you make and why.
Learning art can sometimes be slow and frustrating. For myself at least, I’ve found it tends to happen like this: you spend a long time making things that don’t seem to even resemble what you want to make, but once in a while you make one (drawing, sculpture, painting, picture) that fits the bill and makes you feel fantastic. Then, you seem to lose the magic. You can’t recreate it! But as you go on, the pieces you make that satisfy your sensibilities start coming more and more frequently. Learning to make art is an odd sort of walk: two steps forward and one step back, every time. Don’t get discouraged when you have difficulty—instead, focus on the things you have a hard time doing. While you’re a student, people expect you to be deep in the learning process, so you can experiment, be bold, and show that you’re struggling to improve as much as you want.