Sunday, April 18, 2010

Going to New York + Idiotically Self-Indulgent Introspection

It's Saturday evening as I write this, but by the time you read this it will be Sunday morning and I will be several hours into my drive from Ohio to New York. White Plains, New York, to be precise. Monday night, I'll be giving a lecture? Talk? Slideshow? Presentation? Still not quite sure what to call it. Anyway, Monday night at 7:30 I'll be sharing images and talking about this Moby-Dick illustration project as part of the Open City Dialogues series at Pete's Candy Store in lovely Brooklyn. I've prepared everything as best as I could, but I'm still nervous. So wish me luck, and if you're in or near Brooklyn please come down and say hello. I know Aaron Cael of TitleOfMagazine will be there and I'm looking forward to meeting him. It would be great to see some of the faces behind the comments and the emails you've been sending.

This slight lull in making art comes at a very opportune moment for me. I generally avoid any kind of deeply personal writing on this blog for reasons I've gone into before. I've got so much on my mind right now though that I think this might be a good time to get some of it off of my chest. If you dislike "Idiotically Self-Indulgent Introspection" please read no further because I do think that what will follow will probably be incredibly self-involved, perhaps a little pathetic, and maybe deeply interesting in a voyeuristic kind of way.


Right now, I am just feeling absolutely burnt out and exhausted beyond belief. I've described at length my living and working situation, how I wake up at 5:30 AM, have a 90 minute one way commute, get home near 7:00 PM and try to find time every night to do everything life asks as well as making art. Within the past 30 days though, I've really just taken on far too much. In addition to these daily Moby-Dick pieces, I agreed to illustrate two short comic stories (one was two pages, the other was five pages) for a small press anthology and have been working diligently on trying to create another small (i.e. xeroxed and hand-bound) 20 page art book, a sequel to last year's collection The Solar Brothers. That involved making another 18 to 20 pen and ink drawings, planning a cover, writing an introduction, and so on. So in short, in around 30 days, I've created almost 60 pieces of art and haven't cut corners or "mailed it in" on any of it. But it has taken a toll. My fire is burning pretty low right now, and my mind just feels scraped down to nothing. It will be a relief to take a few days off and just concentrate on making this slideshow presentation the best it can be and enjoying time with my wife who I sometimes feel like I never see anymore. It's funny and a bit ironic, really, that when I started this project I was pretty casual about it all, thinking it would be a fun and interesting adventure. Slowly it seems like it has started to consume me though, and at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I am starting to feel just a bit like Ahab and Ishmael. Ahab in the sense that I am becoming obsessed with completing this project the way Ahan was obsessed with destroying the white whale Moby Dick. Sometimes it is all I can think about, to the detriment of just about everything else in my life. When I wake up in the middle of the night, the first thoughts that leap into my head are what to do for the next illustration. I feel a bit like Ishmael in the sense that he, like me, had no idea what he would be in for when he signed on to the Pequod. By the time Ahab's madness and the true purpose of the voyage had been made clear, Ishmael was far from shore and farther from home, well beyond the point of no return, with no choice but to see things through and hope to survive. I can empathize with that.

So, yeah, I need a very short break.

One last thing that has been on my mind an awful lot lately has been the art. I think some of the exhaustion I've been feeling, and some of the still shocking (to me at least) visibility this project has gotten has really fuelled this self-doubt. See, before I started this project, the drawings and comics I had been making were lushly and obsessively detailed. I drew everything with rulers and templates, spent hours putting down layer after layer of colored pencil (or, in the case of the comics and the ink drawings, thousands of tiny hash marks for texture and patterns) and creating these elaborately detailed idols. I'm not sure if I've ever shared these but here are a few examples. First, the very first drawing I ever made as an adult, way back in 1998. It's titled Metatron...

Other, similar pieces followed, like these...

I look back at those pieces and I still like them. Actually I love them. I'm really very proud of them and of what I was able to create. But after a while, the length of time each piece took became incredibly frustrating to me. Some of those colored pencil pieces took 30 to 50 hours to make, and this was with a full time job. If I was lucky, I could make maybe one drawing per month. It became a kind of prison to me, and I needed to find some way out.

This went on for literally years and finally got so painful that I almost stopped making art. This Moby-DIck project was a beacon of hope, a way to continue making art but in a way that was drastically different. By forcing myself to complete and share one piece of art a day, every day, I would be forced to work faster, simpler, more conceptually, and in a radically different way. You can see how completely different my approach was in the very first image. Compare the above pieces to my illustration for page 001 below...

Instead of taking a month, I had created a complete drawing in less than an hour, and I was quite happy with it. This simplicity bordering on abstraction was a characteristic of many of my early illustrations for this project...

Somehow though, over time, I've found myself drifting back to those old ways of working. What's such a paradox about that is that, while it is mentally easier for me to visualize art that is rich with details and textures (like those old colored pencil illustrations up above), it is actually physically much much more agonizingly difficult to create them. So pieces like these...

...come to my mind very easily, yet they take hours and hours and hours and hours of agonizing, backbreaking, arm-cramping work. I'm always pleased with the results, but the effort is murderous and sometimes I wonder if I am perhaps working counter to what the original and personal artistic goal of this project was. I really am interested in exploring art that is far more simple, perhaps slightly abstract. The concept of doing more with less, of communicating ideas and even narratives with simple lines and shapes...that is really magnetic to me. It's what I tried to do, and think I succeeded at, with some of the very first illustrations in this project but I think I've really started drifting from that original goal and I don't yet know why.

So I really need to pause for a bit and do some deep thinking. It's complicated because I feel like, based on the kinds of comments that have been left on this blog, that many of you viewers really respond to the more detailed pieces. But it can also be dangerous to create something just because you think people will like it. That's a bad path to head down, and fortunately I haven't taken a step in that direction yet, but I worry about it. Especially since when I started this project, I honestly thought that maybe 10 or 20 people, most of them good close friends and family, would be the only ones to see it. And now I am driving to New York to give a presentation about it. Honestly, never in my wildest dreams...

Well, that's that. I need to take a few days off. I need to rest. I badly need to rest. I need to get my mind straight, my vision clear and my goals in line. I'll be back from New York late Wednesday night so there won't be any new posts until the next day. I'll post lots of photos and a full write-up about the presentation and the rest of my adventures in the city on Thursday evening. Art will resume some time on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

If you read this whole thing, I hope you don't think any less of me. This has been a strange, exhilarating, terrifying, thrilling, exhausting, challenging and unexpected journey so far. I wish I could share with you all even half of what has gone on behind the scenes. And please, rest assured, I am fully committed to completing this entire series of 552 illustrations for Moby-Dick. I've just run head first into a wall right now, and badly need a quick rest and a fresh brain.

Any advice, comments, emails, encouragement, or even honest critique would be deeply appreciated. You can leave them in the comments (which are moderated and won't appear until Thursday) or email me. The emails always mean a lot. Comments can be left anonymously as well.

Okay, wish me luck Monday night, and I'll be back on Thursday.

Matt K.


  1. Remember: this means something.

    But yes, it's good to acknowledge when you need to take time off to refuel and spend time with family and friends, and sometimes, just clear a space in the ol' brain.

    It makes a space for ideas to come in.

    Self-imposed discipline is a funny game that we play. It does work, at least.

    Rah rah--your art is meaningful!

  2. Hi Matt,
    I'm a Brooklynite and I just want to welcome you here. I read recently at Pete's and it's a great place. My friend Becca was in town (from Mpls/St.Paul) and she shares w/ you a passion for Moby Dick. She's kicking herself that she's not in town to come see you at Pete's.
    Anyhow, I'm sorry you're stretched thin and I hope Brooklyn takes its best care of you.

  3. Hey man, you do what you need to do. Recharge and if you come back for the heavy detail, that's awesome! If you come back for the simple and bold, that's incredible!

    And if you get inspiration for something altogether different, then more power to you.

  4. Don't forget about the "feedback loop": your current fans were probably drawn to your work because they loved the complexity, so it's no surprise that their favorite Moby Dick images would be the most complex ones. However, my first introduction to your work was the Moby Dick art, and I love the simpler style, and I'm sure many others will, too.

    Besides: when you're creating a single standalone work of art, there's pressure to make it absolutely perfect; but now you're building hundreds of images designed to be viewed together, which leaves you with tremendous flexibility; whatever you do or don't do in one image will be balanced by another.

    Italo Calvino said it better than I could, in a passage that (by sheer coincidence) I read just yesterday: "If I think I must write *one* book, all the problems of how this book should be and how it should not be block me and keep me from going forward. If, on the contrary, I think that I am writing a whole library, I feel suddenly lightened: I know that whatever I write will be integrated, contradicted, balanced, amplified, buried by the hundreds of volumes that remain written for me to write." ("If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," p. 181)

    Incidentally, I've never had the slightest interest in reading Moby Dick before, but the day you finish the last page I hope to start it, with each of your pictures side-by-side with the pages of the text, the dual stories (Ahab and Ishmael's ambitious quests on the one hand, and yours on the other) reinforcing each other. :)

  5. Dude, I'm so bummed I only found out about your talk in White Plains now because I live near there and I would have loved to hear your lecture. I heard about the Moby Dick project several months ago and I can't tell you how inspiring your work has been to get me to work everyday and try new things. Take as long a break as you need. You deserve it. :)

  6. Thank you Hannah. I like what you wrote about "This means something." I've been thinking a lot lately about how nearly everything I do creatively is acted upon almost blindly. I do almost no self-examination and everything is intuition. I think that approach has served me well in the past, but I have been sensing a need to look more deeply into the choices I make. Not to overanalyze them, but to understand them better. It's a bit of a tangent, I suppose, from what you wrote, but your words are always very thought-provoking to me and I think you are deeply perceptive.

  7. Hello Amy, and thank you for the kind words. Brooklyn and its denizens were astoundingly kind, warm and supportive and I had an amazing experience. Pete's was wonderful, Jamie Hook was wonderful, and sharing my art with all of those strangers was nothing short of astounding. It was truly an experience I will never forget.

  8. Thanks Buck, that is all oddly liberating in many ways. I'm still pretty exhausted and sleep-deprived from the trip, but I nkow that can't last forever. I'll be back behind the drawing board sooner than anyone can imagine.

  9. Josh, that Calvino quite was absolutely brilliant. Perhaps a bit of synchronicity? Interestingly enough, without even realizing quite why (see my comment to Hannah above), I have often spent some time flipping through my stack of prior "Moby-Dick" illustrations when I've felt exhausted or overwhelmed. Something about seeing them all together, building on one another, showing so many different facets of the narrative and of my own view of it has always been marvelously rejuvenating. Your words were wise ones, thank you for sharing these with me.

  10. Hello Kate, I never in a million years thought I would write this, or even think it possible, but hopefully I will be able to continue sharing this project in person or in some way other than a blog as it continues. So perhaps I will be back in the New York area soon and you can see this in a different light!

  11. Hi Matt,
    Perusing your blog and found this fascinating account of your history as an artist and your thoughts as you move forward. I loved Megatron! Kind of an Incan-Transformer God - just fabulous!
    Also, gotta say, one thing about books and reading - the author gives us these characters as friends and fellow travelers. They walk with us. Ahab and Ishmael and sweet, noble Queequeeq. (May I suggest Q. to you as a doppelganger of sorts?)
    I hope you keep drawing and painting but also I hope you keep writing about it. I am feelingt better about the world just seeing it and reading it.

  12. Kathryn it is astounding you mentioned Queequeg as a coppelganger. Of all the characters in the novel, it is he that I am most fond of. I maintain deep attachments to them all in one way or another, even the monomaniac Ahab, but it is to Queequeg that I feel most akin. I love drawing him, and could do so for hours and hours while thinking about his part of the story.

    The response to some of the more personal entries exploring the art process has been encouraging, so I will be sharing a bit more over the fall and winter. I hope I can continue to be a bit interesting, and, more importanly, avoid (like the plague) coming off as self-involved.


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