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MADE YOU LOOK – MIKE SNOWDON LOOKS AT PHYSICAL ART IN A DIGITAL AGE

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28/10/15

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#041

[ made you look documentary ]

Last night I was invited to a screening of the ‘ Made you look’ documentary which casts its eye upon the current graphic arts scene. There’s been an increasing trend for creatives to pursue more analogue methods of creating their art, moving away from their mice and tablets in favour of good old pencils, pens, scalpels and squeegees. To directly lift a description from their website, the documentary “is a rare and candid insight into the work of some of the UK’s top creative talent, including beautifully shot footage of artists at work and play in their own creative environments”.
The screening at FACT Picturehouse was organised by Emily Salinas, followed by a panel of industry specialists for a Q&A co-hosted by Scott Duffy and Ilan Sheady. This was my second time sat facing an audience for a Q&A at FACT, the previous being the pretty similar ‘PressPausePlay’ documentary. I was joined by a familiar group of fellow artists in the guise of Abigail Sinclair (The Print Social), Alex Smith (The Critter Shed), Ian Mitchell (LJMU) and Gemma Germains (Well Made Studio) along with some new faces, Ken Bullock (sign writer) and Craig Robson (Daggers for Teeth).

It was certainly an entertaining and at times heated panel. Gemma kicked off the discussion with her honest disdain for the documentary but it was Ken who stole the show, and the microphone, telling us of his lifetime spent painting letterforms across Liverpool’s buildings. Brimming with Scouse charm, he illustrated perfectly how an artist can survive without the internet and social networking tools. Although, despite his skill, his success from an age where this technology didn’t exist would be much harder to accomplish now. Ken may have never heard of Instagram, Twitter or augmented reality but he certainly knew the value of his time and experience.

In this current climate of an over-saturated market it seems near impossible to stand out from the crowd. If you do get noticed by a potential client, we’re generally expected to work for pennies or pitch for free to obtain the mystical carrot of a job they dangle before our eyes. No matter how cheap you are, you’ll always be under-cut by someone hungry for one of those “it’ll be good for your portfolio” jobs. Most of the time it’s a case of trying to educate your employer as to why you’re worth ten times more than they think you are. Ken’s pearl of wisdom was someone could hand him a million pounds, but he couldn’t buy any experience with it.

This is a crucible most artists face; determining their self-worth. Your time and experience are worth plenty but putting a number to that is no easy task and getting someone to pay you a respectable fee is no mean feat. Some stick to their guns. Craig was adamant we should all boycott this current pitch-culture. Why should we work for free? Somehow in our industry we’ve allowed clients to think it’s common practice to ask for weeks’ worth of work, with second and third round revisions all for free because they’re offering you a bite of their coveted carrot. Opening up to tender is usually just a legal requirement and a chance to steal our ideas so they can give them to their regular incompetent design team who more often than not bastardise your work, removing all creativity in favour of bland, safe, mundane work.

If you’re having a kitchen installed you wouldn’t expect them to put in half of the work tops before you decided whether you wanted to pay them or not. You seek out a company and you hire them to do a job. You trust they know what they’re doing. You’ve seen their show room and told them what you’re after which they quote you for. You’re not a plumber or a joiner so you begrudgingly pay them their fee because they’re the ones with the skills and experience in that field of kitchen cosmetics. Now switch said workman out for an illustrator and suddenly the world thinks it’s bartering time for some cheap cartoon portrait on Blackpool strand.

[ digital world ]

I am a professional. I’ve got the degree debt to prove it. I’ve got a digital showroom (and a physical one) for you to visit and peruse my wares and I even own a suit or two. Don’t you dare question why I charge more than minimum wage or expect me to work for less. I work 70+ hour weeks as the norm. By day I’m employed by a studio, by night I freelance and in those weird twilight hours between the caffeine wave and the screen blur I sometimes make my own art to sell.

All of us are living in a digital world and there’s no escaping that unless you want to go ‘off grid’ in some Australian desert community or happen to survive a nuclear winter. We spend most of our lives looking at screens at work, at home and in transit between the two. It’s only natural for some artists who work in this digital sphere to want to escape the glare. It may be for the chance to get their hands dirty or it may be to try to do something different in the hope of standing out from the digital crowd. I’m an illustrator first and foremost. I grew up with fine liners and sketchpads. My work as a graphic artist means my work is commercial, intended to be digitised so it can be mass produced across your social media or in print. If I wanted to avoid the digital as an artist I’d be a fine artist producing one-offs, but I prefer the consistency of a client base.

After years of creating artwork via a computer I had a longing for the analogue, so I started experimenting with screen printing and paper craft. I made my own work. I was my own boss. I could do what I wanted, expand my skill set and hopefully people would buy my creations and help subsidise my income. They did. The “Made you Look” documentary focuses on other artists who’ve done just this; industry giants like Pete Fowler, Jon Burgerman and Kate Moross. Whilst it was enlightening to see them at work in their studios, the argument never delved deeper than the obvious. Computers are just tools.

I use whatever media I feel is appropriate for the job; it could be a magic marker or a mouse. As artists in this modern age we do need to diversify. True, we need skilled craftsmen like Ken and his traditional sign writing, those are skills that shouldn’t be allowed to fade into extinction. However, you can’t just sit and create art in a vacuum otherwise you will suffocate. You need to be pro-active and consistent. You need people to see, hear and pay you – including for all the valuable time spent on the business of art. You need to be the artist, the director, the copywriter, the social media marketer and the networker.

Why is there a growing trend for artists to do it themselves? Because they have to. Why a growing trend for analogue over digital? Is there? Sure I look around and see a lot more people print-making and yarn bombing, hoping to make back the cost of their expensive rented craft fayre table, but they’re all still tweeting, sharing and liking their existence in the hope that you take notice. That beautiful hand crafted artwork still ends up digitised in an online store or on tumbling down the wires onto Tumblr.

The internet isn’t simply going to be turned off. The digital expanse will grow and invade our lives tenfold in the next decade. Did digital herald the end of print? No. Did elevators replace stairs? No. People will always find a use for one and the other. Perhaps as a generation who are the first true digital children we’re just finding more of a balance. Made you look :-p

Mike Snowdon

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