Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Beginnings - Learned? Self-taught?

The question is often posed whether I studied art somewhere or was self-taught (and if the former, what suggestions and recommendations I can offer). The answer to that always seems rather complicated. I took many art classes all my life, whenever the opportunity presented itself. If I had the option for an ~art class~ or ~something else~ I invariably chose the art. Electives throughout middle and high school. Summer courses. And when I was at University of California in Berkeley from 1994-1998 studying Computer Science, I did also snag an art degree as well (more on that later).

So I've always had a creative background and exercised my drawing and painting skills. I feel that all of that laid the groundwork for basic concepts that I take for granted these days - like color theory, blending, perspective, composition. If it wasn't exactly focused or intense studies of any of these, it was at the very least an understanding and integration of the vocabulary of art into the way that I think. You don't ever think about learning to speak your first language - it just happens as you develop; I feel that way about art and how the concepts of color and light are simply a part of how I think.

My painting style today was not the result of any dedicated course of study, nor reference to technique books. I never sat down and specifically took any class on watercolors or illustration. In this way I do feel that I am self-taught. But to use that term "self taught" seems to deny the wealth of disparate experiences and backdrop of artistic expression that guided me to evolve and grow as an artist.

I was at University of California in Berkeley from 1994-1998, studying Computer Science and doubling in Art. I'm frequently asked by students if they should consider going to Berkeley for Art. I didn't even go to Berkeley for art. I went there for their wonderful Computer Science program because at that time I had every intention of following a sensible career course and entering the workforce as a software programmer. I had been convinced by the time I entered college by various high school career advisers that making a living with art was a hopeless endeavor. My choice of school was purely to get myself an education with good career options (also I did grow up with a computer-geek father, and so I actually do enjoy programming). Art would be side hobby.As I mentioned earlier though, I was always picking up art classes on the side when opportunities arose. I began taking so many art electives that I eventually decided to simply double major.

What kind of art classes were these though? Certainly nothing of the sort you would expect from seeing my art these days. I spent those four years smashing bottles and gluing them back together, throwing paint and drips onto canvases, digging through junkyards to put together found-object art installations.... It amazed (and saddened) me to find how quickly freshmen learned to look at any work that was remotely representational and say with a faint sneer to their voice, "It looks illustrational." (Which was the worst possible thing imaginable!) I found it ironic that in the name of being open-minded and accepting of all forms of Art, they immediately shut out so many possibilities, and closed their thoughts to a whole arena of expression. I was disappointed, but determined to make the most of the experience, and not to close my mind to these more abstract forms of art. I threw myself (and my paints) wholeheartedly into it. (Incidentally, we were not allowed to use watercolors in any of the classes. It was deemed "an illustrator's medium").

And then in my spare time at night after my assignments were done, I did illustrations ("illustrational!!!!") for various Fanzines. I can't even remember the names of all of the fanzines any longer, except for one Moonlight Masquerade. They were distributed by snail mail. No ezines yet in those days. Labors of love!

That whole experience has shaped my opinion of art school. I believe that the most vital key to making your way into the world as an artist is not found in any class. I'll grant that there are many classes and schools out there that are vastly different from my personal experience; but courses can't put the drive to create art in your heart. And daily practice - forcing your eyes to see and your hands to understand how to make that translation from eye to mind to paper, is better than any teacher.

Even as my Berkeley graduation date approached, I still thought that I would be a software programmer, art hobbyist; but I distinctly remember when that changed in my head. I had just returned from a career fair, talking with recruiters from all kinds of tech companies. This was at the height of the dot-com BOOM! Programmers were in such high demand that some companies were offering bonuses to students to leave their studies and just come to work now. I had many promising leads.

All that evening I found I was inexplicably depressed. I couldn't understand the cause of it, for my prospects were looking fairly good. It was only when I realized that though I did enjoy programming, I did not want to do it for a living; that I wanted to draw and paint. Art was vital to my happiness and I couldn't conceive of it being secondary any longer. With that realization I took a few days to weigh my options and finally formulated a plan. I would take a software position, and the relative comfort and security of that job would allow me to have the funds to pursue art. It would afford time to put together a portfolio and seriously explore avenues. I had only begun to go to some of the local smaller conventions. I wanted to travel further afield to some of the larger shows I had heard of (GenCon! Dragoncon! Comic-Con!) The programming knowledge came in handy in that I was able to get started right away with writing my own website. Nifty programs that helped non-programmers create webpages were another thing that didn't really exist yet at the time.

.to be continued. Getting towards the midnight hour!

(Part 2 - Continuation of this thread can be found -here-)


  1. Wow! Truly inspirational indeed! Glad you followed your dreams and became an icon in the art world today! This should have been published in your Dreamscapes books. Look forward to the next part.

  2. Better to be a "have been", than a "never have been"... congratulations on your success Steph! you`ve earned it... :D

  3. I have no problem seeing things through an artist's eyes. But I have troubles "forcing my hands to understand how to make that translation from eye to mind to paper". The reason for that is making art requires a certain mindset, an inspired, intuitional, creative state of mind. I've found this state very hard to reach after a whole day spent with a down-to-earth day job. How did you manage that back then? How were you able to keep the balance?

  4. You are right - no school can teach you things that you can learn on your own *nods* And in my art school it was similar with that under-appreciating some of the techniques and media and so on; that;s why I've decided it's not my place this "art world", it's better to create your own world :)

  5. It's always interesting to read about the process and choices in life that lead one to become an artist, especially because I took that road recently. Can't wait for part 2.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone, and glad you're all enjoying this post.

    Andrea - I'll get to that when I continue this. Short answer is though that I'm kinda a person of extremes and so there wasn't much balance. Haha. Or at least, very little sleep.

  7. 人類的聰明,並非以經驗為依歸,而是以接受經驗的行程為依歸。..................................................

  8. Hi Stephanie,

    I think you've gone away to your very good. Art lives in one, you must have the courage to show his own art, one must not be pushed into a corner of the people have their own art just like it. so you can never force someone at your art .. You can familiarize the people at your art, just as you do it and the people will love them.

    and we love your art, it is fantastic and unique and I am a little to have not trauig your unique talent, but I will soon be one of your pictures (well, in two years) have and I will enjoy every stitch cross it to

    doreen and google english o))

  9. I'm so very glad you followed your heart. Your art is very special to me.

  10. I can't tell you what reading this means to me. Thank you for elaborating as you have done - I think you've encouraged and inspired more people than you could ever count. I wish you continued success and joy in your work!

  11. Ah yes, I know *exactly* what you're saying when you talk of how illustration was a dirty word in college courses. My undergrad school was much the same! Looking back on it, I just shake my head at how many opportunities I missed out on because I was convinced Illustration wasn't 'true art' and the only way to make money was to bare your soul on canvas, glue journal pages to it, and sell your work to galleries.

    Glad time has taught me a few things! And also glad there are other people insane enough to be double majors ;)

    Always good to see insights on life from you, Stephanie.

  12. Angela, re: double majors...I couldn't have picked two more different fields. That fact was only emphasized by the two buildings being at completely opposite ends of the campus, about a mile apart. So I would spend my 15 minutes between classes frantically racing from one end to the other. I got lots of exercise. :D

  13. I just recently started following your blog, and I really love your artwork. It's gorgeous. :D

    And this question is slightly (okay, not really) relevant, but since you've become one of my favorite internet artists I thought I would ask you. Do you think it's ever too late for someone to start taking art classes to help them improve their art ability?

    I'm 17, and, I'm about to major in art in college, but I'm worried that it's too late for me to develop any art skills. (I never took art in high school. It was just a couple of years ago that I decided that I wanted to learn how to draw/paint, but I was a little hesitant to start trying to learn because I wasn't confident in myself).

    Thank you for taking the time to read my comment. I really appreciate it. :)

  14. I don't think it's ever too late to start something! As long as you have the time to put into it, you can go somewhere with it. I have a wonderful artist friend who never drew or painted until his 30's

  15. A very interesting read! Thank-you. Have you ever heard of Processing? It's a programming language geared toward artists and the book "Processing" is written with the aim to teach those with no prior programming experience. has a free download of the "sketch" environment and is a venue for sharing processing sketches you've created. They've got some really cool stuff!

  16. Thanks for the link Phoebe; I'll check it out. I've never heard of it before.

  17. What you say about the art school "art classes" explains a lot about what is regarded as "modern art". It seems to me that the big difference between these modern "artists" and the artists who were genuinely innovative, like the impressionists etc., is that the latter did know their craft and all the theory of colour, light, and composition and would have been perfectly able to paint in representational style. Unlike the moders glue-the-page-to-the-canvas crowd.

    Please do elaborate on the theme how to be able to paint after full day's work...

  18. veronikab - more about that in my most recent post tonight!