Friday, December 2, 2011

Introduction from Shaun Tan's The Bird King and other sketches

I recently opened the book The Bird King and other sketches by Shaun Tan. Tan and his history are discussed in our interview from 5/1/2011 focusing on his Oscar-winning short film The Lost Thing which is based on his book of the same title. I've since read his most recent book Tales from Outer Suburbia which I thought was one of the best books I've read (children or adult) this year.

Essentially, this book is a bonus material compilation of sketches that have or have not become books/films/published art. Below I've transcribed the introduction to the book which I found surprisingly fascinating. I hope you enjoy this introduction and its well-written musings on creating art.

Excerpt from the introduction:

"I'm often wary of using the word "inspiration" to introduce my work - it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions when an idea pops into my head for no discernible reason, the reality is usually far more prosaic. 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 this 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 young 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. Art, 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 casual 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 fertilised. They need to look outward and actively accumulate a swag of influences, things to bring along when taking that line for a walk.

While much of my work involves exhibited projects like books, films and finished paintings, the primary material of all these - the compost - remains largely unseen, tucked away in folios, boxes and sketchbooks. Some are half-baked story ideas, either mercifully abandoned or looking for an excuse to be resurrected. Some are tests from the early or awkward middle stages of a project, very utilitarian drawings, stepping stones on the way to finished artwork. Some are exercises to simply keep fit as an artist, where the practice of drawing is about learning to see, a study that never ends. And then there are other sketches produced for no particular purpose at all, just for fun, and these can often be the most interesting."

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