Who: Ian Smith
Where: Lower Garden District
Artist’s chosen location for interview: Hi-Volt Coffee, where he walked behind the counter and got a coffee because he also works there
Q: Do you think there is a state between innocence and guilt, and what is it?
IS: I don’t think anyone is ever really guilty or innocent. I mean, obviously, there are going to be some people who are guilty of a specific action, but most people are more in a grey area. My friends and I are super-nerds, and we would probably call that state ‘chaotic neutral.’ It’s the idea that classifying various things, such as good versus bad guys, doesn’t really exist. The ends can justify the means, and almost everything is a little bit self-serving no matter what the action is.
There always seems to be morality and ethics even in an imagined world like the world of ‘chaotic neutrality.’ There could be self-rules, and in order to exist with other people, you have to consider them. I don’t want to be mugged, so I am not going to mug someone else. That doesn’t make me good or bad, it’s simply a statement of how I want to be treated, so that is how I treat everyone else.
The women in my drawings live in a world like that. They are queens of their own worlds. Some of them love their worlds, some of them want to escape their worlds, and some think they want to leave, and then they miss it when they’re gone. These are parts of series I’ve been working on. Sometimes I’ll have a model I take pictures of and base the drawings off of that, but it’s usually really loose. I may have a female model, but I can put them in any fantastical environment. I have a couple of collaborators who will give me ideas about backgrounds or scenarios, and a lot of the time I start on the drawing and figure out what I want the character in the illustration to do from there. There’s no right or wrong in that; it’s creation.
Q: Who has told you the most interesting stories?
IS: Interviewing my grandfather about Vietnam and Korea was really fascinating; although, that was more about what he didn’t say or how he told the stories he chose to share. I probably got about five minutes of conversation, but there was nothing but honesty coming out of him. That’s why it was brief and to the point.
Actually [laughing], I recently experienced Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, and watching my friend come up with these stories on the fly has been pretty amazing. The game provides the basic story, but you come up with the branches, and my friend weaves these stories together so well. That’s the nerdiest thing on Earth, but playing this and coming up with these stories is so incredibly fun.
There’s always a basic story that games or movies will give you, but putting your own spin on it is what makes it stand out. You have to be a good story teller–focus on the witty things and things that pop out but might otherwise not be observed.
Q: When do you not question yourself?
IS: When I’m sketching, there are not a whole lot of questions involved because I am figuring it out as I go. It’s not a state of permanence. Now, when I start inking it, I really start questioning because if I mess up I either have to fix it or somehow incorporate it into the drawing somehow.
When I was working with one of the illustrations, the model had short hair, but I knew that I wanted the hair to flow in the illustration–not really have any logic, and branch off the borders. Everything else has boundaries and borders, but I wanted her hair to remove those. Yet, when I did that, I remembered that I wanted the entire background to be black, and her hair was also black. When I realized that screw-up, I had to change from regular sharpies to oil-based sharpies. That way her hair could be sheen and glossy against the matte black.
Of course, then I went to scan it, and even though scanners have come a long way, they still just see black and white. So all the differentiations you see with your eye do not come out through the scanner. Scanners can pick up so many details, but they can’t notice the small details, like oil-based sharpied hair.
Q: How do you know when it’s time to stop visualizing and start creating?
IS: Unless I’m working on comics, I don’t do a sketch first. I simply start drawing. With comics, I have to map out the figures and their poses, so I’ll use stick figures and make sure to sketch that out.
For instance, with faces, I can’t just do a face in pen without a pencil first. There are so many factors with faces, especially when working with women because they have more curves and there’s more grace with their faces. There’s a softness to a woman’s face that is not present with men. Men are angles and various forms of squares and triangles. Women have ovals, circles, and these natural perfections.
Once I get that rough outline, then it’s time to ink, and I can fill-in from there. That’s when I also choose their lives, and I will continuous tweak the drawing and the environment to get to the finished product. Questions about shading, the overall look, and the feel affects the visualization the entire time. I’ll stop, think, change my direction, redo it again, stop, think, and it keeps going. My mind is always going.
I have really weird dreams [laughing]. This is one of the reasons I like sleeping so much because I’ll wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and I can’t sleep again until I write something down or do a sketch. Then I try to make sense of it in the morning.
Q: What do you think is worth chasing but not getting in life?
IS: The only thing I’m ever really chasing is reaching a peak–reaching a level of what in your mind perfection is. Although, you’re probably never going to get there, and I don’t think you’re supposed to.
I remember one of my art teachers telling me that if you feel like you have perfected your art then you should probably stop and find something new to do. Because that means you’re never going to grow.
I’m pretty sure that even the greatest artists that are legends probably felt they could do much better. I don’t think you’re supposed to be perfect on the large scale. You may look at little things that you think are perfect, but overall you are still working for more.
A friend and I are working on a graphic novel, and we basically have to create an entire world. We have to think about every little detail in the world–currency, religion, the dialect, etc. There is a chasing that goes on with that world because we have to define it down to the way that people say things. We want it to be beautiful, even if what they are saying isn’t beautiful. We think about what the landscape is and what that landscape means. That’s an amazing thing to chase.