The universe conspired to get this quick interview with Bill Carman. Given his most excellent responses, I’m very glad it did. A few days ago I saw that his Tor.com gallery had been “StumbleUponed,” then I was showing his work to an editor, and then the next day he was featured on one of my favorite websites, Lines and Colors, after which he announced his new blogall within a week. Then, I knew, it was time to get some insight into the man behind the images.
Your work often hints at narratives while leaving enough ambiguity in them for the viewer to wonder and imagine what is going on. Do you have specific stories in mind while you are drawing?
I rarely start with a specific story in mind unless one is given to me as an assignment. Rather a story develops as I work or is revealed when a piece is finished. The figures and images can come from stories, usually autobiographical, but take on a life of their own. Certain images repeat themselves because of my history. For example the octopus showed up a couple of years ago when my mother died. I talked to her a lot in the period before her death and I re-lived as well as heard new stories. One story involved a family trip to Moss Landing in CA. We were fishing in the bay and I hooked something. I was so excited and started reeling and yelling. When I pulled in my catch it was a can. Of course I was the target of ridicule until fluid, flowing arms folded out of the can revealing an octopus, which promptly started spraying ink. My mother was Korean and in her skilled hands an octopus was a delicacy so I went from zero to hero. Since then every time an octopus goes into a painting the details of the story bubble to the front of my mind. But the subsequent work takes on its own life and the history becomes only a catalyst.
You seem to move back and forth between fine-art paintings and illustration can you speak a bit about the differences?
Differences and similarities between painting and illustration don’t make any difference to me. Every time I try to define them I lose ground. Quite honestly it is all about the specific piece or pieces on which I am working. The starting point defines the beginning of the journey. But every piece of art, whether fine or not, is a journey. I couldn’t start at the same place when I am doing a book cover or an opera poster that I would when I am thinking about genetically altered octobunnies. Both directions have taken me on spectacular journeys but one seems to start with a ticket and the other, more often than not, starts with stowing away. It has been much more difficult to etch out a place in the market, something which I am legendarily bad at, but I couldn’t have done it any other way. It’s hard to get money-people to take a risk on work that they somehow love but can’t seem to find a place for and on an artist that may or may not be delusional or on something.
Favorite painting you did in the past year?
Hard to say because “favorite” is so final, so unyielding. If I had to choose one I think it would be “I Am Leavened: The Last Twinkie on Earth.” The painting actually came from a title. The movie “I Am Legend” came out which prompted me to read the book again. Didn’t really like the movie but love the book and the pretense of the title.
A book. Telling a whole story, or even many stories, with word and image. My crazy pictures developing into a world or at least a neighborhood. Something self-indulgent and beautiful like Drescher’s Turbulence, with a great story like Shaun Tan’s Arrival, introducing a range of work like James Jean’s Process Recess. I would love to mix in thoughts and sketches building not only narratives but behind the scenes stuff. Wow sounds pretty fun and unsellable but we’re dreaming here, right?
Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I can’t remember ever not wanting to be an artist even if I wanted to be other things too.
t painting do you wish you painted?
The Ghent Altarpiece Van Eyck
First break in the business?
I don’t think there was one big break but many fence posts along the way. My career has built slowly rather than having a defining aha moment. I guess the children’s book with Random House opened a lot of doors. I remember my first real confidence builder was a cover for Dragon Magazine. It sucked but made me feel like I could do this.
Most embarrassing art related moment?
None. All of my embarrassments came in love.
A career highlight?
Accepting the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. Going to the gala and meeting and talking with artists whom I have admired for nearly a lifetime.
How do you balance personal time with work?
I don’t. My studio is at home so at least I am within earshot. My dogs don’t seem to mind. They just gather at my feet or sit in my lap as I work.
What are you working on now?
Illustrations for a kid’s book about Lincoln’s influences on the history of Idaho. Also a poster and conceptual work for the play Eurydice. And always paintings and drawings. I love to keep scraps of paper and other things near my table on which I make little drawings. No pressure.
Your biggest influences?
Huge question. Of course friends and former teachers. Jack Lindsay, my high school madrigal and choir teacher, taught me about passion for an art form. The Allman Brothers “Eat a Peach” album cover. Roger Dean, Patrick Woodroffe, and James Christensen, the teacher and friend who influenced me most in my formative college years. Robert Marshall who taught me to enjoy writing about art and that surface is a drug. David Andersen, my closest friend (other than my wife), who paints beautifully and is almost as good a fisherman as I am. JRR Tolkein who at a crossroads in my life taught me to love reading. All the comic books and Mad magazines I copied from religiously. Northern Renaissance and 16th-17th century Flemish. Cober, Holland, Drescher, Sis, Nerdrum, Craft, Mckean, Hale, and a whole generation of younger guns like James Jean, Mark Ryden, Eric Fortune, Adam Rex, Shaun Tan. I could go on forever and leave more off the list than I have on. The point is that I love to look at good work on the wall and in publication. I love reading images as much or more than I love reading words.
OK, pet peeve. How does one have a favorite color? My daughter’s favorite color is blue but she doesn’t want blue hair (at least not until she’s 75). So it must be blue for everything else, except she doesn’t have one blue friend, thinks the idea of a blue ham sandwich is gross, etc. And how can one choose a color without knowing which color is next to it? Things that a Dad/Artist can say to his kids in order to get that exasperated reaction which every father so relishes.
Do you have a set image in your mind when you first start sketching or do you start out abstractly and let the process of doodling take over?
I never have a complete image in my mind. I can’t imagine that. What would be the point of doing the painting? Drawing can be a sort of refined doodling. That is actually exciting when the conversation begins with very little but builds as I respond to previous marks. But it can also be exciting solving a specific visual problem where ideas come to mind and then must be realized on a surface. It’s that translation of mind to image which is the stumbling block and the reason that learning the tools are so important. But the tools are only a part of it. The greats work hard enough that an authentic voice finds them and personal statements are made.
What was the hardest part about establishing yourself in the field?
Knowing which field. I still have that problem. I like to do so many things. The teaching thing has helped. At least I can support my habit.
How do you feel your schooling prepared you for real life?
Well, I was never a great believer in school preparing one for real life. Maybe that’s why I’m still so ill-prepared. There are too many variables in life to cover in school. I should qualify this by saying that school can prepare one for dealing with life. Each class introduces a different system of learning. We learn to write, love books, interact, etc. But I’ve never felt, either going to school or teaching in school, that it was job preparation. There are programs and places for that. I guess I’m a corny idealist but I believe a big part of my role as an educator is to inspire and to help students find the magic. If one uses school to reach for a job one might actually get it. Is it what you want? And how do you know? School is about discovery and learning the questions to ask in order to continue the journey. Not very practical but if a student has the magic I want to help her to develop the drive to find it and make others notice.
Advice to a young illustrator?
Become aware. Awareness comes from seeing and experiencing and working real hard. Ask an elite athlete how often she works out, or a concert pianist how often he practices. If you love what you do and want to develop a true passion for it, working on it 8, 10, 12 hours a day 6-7 days a week is not that hard.