Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/10/2004
William Stout: The Well-Tempered Artist
The highly accomplished and celebrated artist discusses his work, his ethos, and staying fresh
Today's Baker's Dozen represents a profile of William Stout from International Studios vol. 1, # 3, published Feb./Mar. 2004.
William Stout moves with ease through at least four worlds, all of which overlap to some extent, but which each represent quite distinct and diverse environments, nonetheless. To those who know his finely detailed illustrations mainly from his past comic and current book illustration work, be it via his contributions to Little Annie Fanny, Heavy Metal magazine or Abu & The Seven Marvels, he's viewed as a pillar of Pictopian society. For those more familiar with his extraordinary poster, character and production designs for films ranging from Wizards to Conan to Men in Black, he's considered one of the more skillful artisans plying his trade in the celluloid trade. Meanwhile, his vivid recreations of prehistoric life, particularly dinosaurs, and his studies of the stunning variety of life populating the Antarctic continent have garnered well deserved accolades from paleontologists, naturalists and others in the larger scientific community. Finally, he's highly regarded by his fellow practitioners as an exemplar of the illustration world, where he's seen as an artist who has a real grasp of -- and an abiding reverence for -- the work of those giants of the field who precede him ... and who is also able to readily create exquisite pieces in any number of mediums, each of which bear his unique stamp.
William Stout is all of these things, and much, much more. To attain this state, he strives mightily to maintain a balance between studied perfection and the passing moment, informed science and spiritual awareness, spontaneous laughter and luminous thoughtfulness in both his life and work. All of which is readily apparent in the lively interview which I could only call...
The Well-Tempered Artist
William Stout on his recent work, the inspirational sources, and the importance of balance an interview conducted by Bill Baker
Bill Baker: You've been working on a lot of different projects over the past few years, a fair amount of which haven't been widely seen.
William Stout: That's true. Probably the biggest example of that is the nine months I spent designing an entire Wizard of Oz theme park for Kansas. It was so thoroughly exciting --- probably the most fun I've ever had on a project. I'm such a big Oz fan. In fact, I had so much fun that, after the project ended, I ended up drawing and publishing a whole portfolio of Oz prints.
BB: What about the Oz books fascinate you?
WS: To start with, I'm still such a sucker for the MGM film. I love that movie. I love its music and the performances in that film. And that was what started me reading the Oz books. I have a complete collection of all forty five of the books with the original color plates, including a first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I get really excited by John R. Neill's work. Neill was a tremendous illustrator who illustrated most of the Oz books for [L. Frank] Baum and [Ruth Plumly] Thompson, and who actually wrote and illustrated three on his own.
John R. Neill's a wonderful pen and ink artist; he also did nice color work. I found out later that he was really good friends with the great pen illustrator Joseph Clement Coll. In fact, for a while they shared a studio together and worked for some of the same publishers. So, they share a lot of stylistic similarities.
And Baum's writing is just so funny, really clever. As my boys were growing up I reread all the Oz books to them; I don't know who enjoyed them more --- me or them. The books really do hold up well.
BB: While it's an idea that's fallen a bit by the wayside over the years, there was a tradition of sorts in the artistic community that there were some classic works of fiction that different artists from different generations would illustrate at some point in their careers. Carrying on the torch, so to speak. Was there a bit of that idea in your doing the Oz portfolio?
WS: Well, yes --- I'm a big one for carrying on the torch, especially for a lot of the semi-forgotten late Nineteenth Century guys. That's my favorite period of art. It was a wonderful time for art. I think the high quality of that period was brought about by a number of factors.
That era ushered in the first development of photography. For the very first time in human history we could take photos of animals running or birds flying, and actually see what was going on physically with them. Prior to that, when artists depicted horses running, for example, they would often show them with all four hooves off the ground. And, after Edweard Muybridge did his series of photographic studies on the movements of a horse, we discovered that that four-feet-off-the-ground thing never actually happened. And so photography helped to give a greater, enhanced sense of reality to what was being done at the time.
Also, the artists were all academically trained. So the photographs worked merely as an aid --- not as a dominant factor in their work. They already had this stupendous knowledge of design, composition and anatomy, and drawing, painting --- everything --- that photography was never allowed to overshadow.
The other thing that occurred was the opening of Japan to the West. The very first Japanese prints arrived in Europe around 1900. And the fabulous design quality of these prints immediately struck and influenced the Europeans. Japanese prints were largely responsible for the birth of Art Nouveau and the poster movement. So it was an incredibly exciting time to be an artist, and is an incredibly exciting period of art for me to study.
BB: Well, the idea that a heightened sense of realism arose in that period on the one hand, something which has had real influence on a large part of you work, leads me to ask how that feeds into your more fantastic work, depicting imaginary creatures and such?
WS: It dovetails into all of that really well. Early in my career I worked as an assistant to Russ Manning on the Tarzan of the Apes Sunday and daily comic strips. And one of the great things I learned from Russ is, since we were dealing with a lot of fantasy elements, he told me to make sure that the realistic elements are really portrayed accurately. Because if things like ropes and cages and other types of things in the strip look real, it will convey the message to the audience that the fantasy is real as well. So I've always applied that thinking to my depictions of fantasy creatures.
Because of my background as an academic reconstructionist of prehistoric life, I'm able to apply, for instance, some dinosaur anatomy to dragons when I draw them. That extra touch of realism ends up making the dragons look much more realistic, as if they had really lived.
BB: Have computers, and other modern technology, had much of an influence on your work?
WS: Certainly. It's so much easier to write now! [General laughter] I love cut and paste.
But as far as art, have they influenced me? Not really. I'm still much faster with a paint brush than almost anyone I know with a computer. One thing, though, that computer guys can do faster is change color schemes.
Still, it's something I'm slowly learning. It just doesn't have a whole lot of appeal to me because, for one, it doesn't smell the same. I like the smell of the linseed oil, and the turp[entine], and the oil paints themselves. I like the sensuous physical quality of applying paint to a canvas. And, also, just strictly from a commercial standpoint, at the end of the day I have a painting I can sell, whereas with the computer art, there really isn't an original. There's electrons inside of your computer, which you can transmit to your publisher, and they can print something, but you don't have a chunk of original art that you can take to a science fiction or comic book convention and sell to people. So why on earth would I want to cut my income in half? That just doesn't make sense.
BB: There's another recent project that you've worked on which a lot of people might not have heard about; I believe it has something to do with Aesop's Fables?
WS: Yes. Brett Waller, a sculptor who participates in my Sunday figure drawing workshop, approached me with a fine arts project that he wanted to do. He was contacting prominent Los Angeles fine artists and asking each of them to do two Aesop's Fables pieces; he plans to publish them as a folio. I agreed to do two, and I picked two that had foxes in them. And while I was doing them I was having so much fun I decided to do more, and I ended up doing five, instead. Then, after I copied the black and white images, I published them in William Stout: 50 Convention Sketches Volume 9 and then hand-colored the originals. I'm looking forward to doing a lot more.
I love drawing animals. And I love working in that sort of late Nineteenth Century style that was so popular with Arthur Rackham and Harry Rountree.
BB: When you do animals in that kind of story, something like a fable, do you try to strike a balance between their natural feral state and the anthropomorphic qualities that we just naturally attribute to them in that kind of story?
WS: That's the exact balance I'm trying to strike. I try not to make them too cartoony or too human, but I do push the expressions. I like animals to be pretty natural looking, especially when I do Aesop's Fables.
I think that Harry Rountree, a New Zealand illustrator who did most of his work in London, really had the exact right balance. He had an enormous knowledge of animal anatomy. And it didn't matter what animal he was drawing -- whether it was kangaroos, or birds, reptiles, or whatever -- he really knew the anatomy and had it down cold. Because of that, he was able to push the expressions of the animals in a very, very natural way. And that's something that I aspire to.
BB: When you're trying to create expressions in animals, are you at that point in your career where you can just imagine what you want and then draw it, or do you have to resort to some kind of reference material, even if it's looking at your own face in a mirror?
WS: I approach it a number of ways. Sometimes I'll use that old Al Capp method of looking in the mirror, and mugging in the mirror, to see if there's something I can pull from myself to put into the animal. But a lot of it comes, actually, just from observations of my own pets. I have dogs who are very expressive, and reptiles I've kept over the years in which I was able to see facial expressions and body English. Birds each have their own character. I can distinguish the different scrub jays in my neighborhood apart from each other. You ask anybody who has pets, they'll tell you they're all different. Each one has its own, distinctive personality, and I try to capture that and push that in each portrayal.
BB: So it's more using your memory, as opposed to photo reference, then.
WS: It's very much a memory thing.
Also, I've studied the great animators over the years, and the way they were able to capture an expression. And, once I decide upon the mood I've that I'm going to invoke, I usually just dig back into my memory of that stuff, and apply that to the faces and the bodies and the postures, and use that to express those emotions. I've been at this a long time, so I've got a lot to draw from.
BB: You mentioned the figure drawing workshop earlier. What do you get from teaching something like that?
WS: [Laughter] You can talk to any teacher, they'll all tell you the same thing: they learn much more from teaching than any of their students learn from being taught. See, for me to teach I have to, basically know what I'm talking about! [General laughter] I have to be able to crystallize my thoughts, organize my thoughts in a clear way, so that I can communicate whatever it is I'm trying to teach -- whether it's about anatomy, or about design, or form, or composition. And so it forces me to clarify my thinking, and it forces me into a sort of self-examination at the same time, which I find in turn clarifies and enhances my own art and my approach to my art. So it's enormously beneficial for me.
BB: How long have you been leading the workshop?
WS: It was started by Steve Huston, who's one of the best figure artists in the United States. He had lost his original studio space, but wanted to keep the workshop going, and he asked me if he could use my studio. He began to teach out of my studio on Sundays.
Then he got wrapped up in his fine arts career and other projects. He began to show up less and less, but he still continued to book the models. And, finally, there were periods when he was forgetting to book the models, where I'd have a whole room full of artists and no model. So I asked Steve if I could just take it over. I started to book the models, and also began to offer optional instruction.
The workshop is on a drop-in basis; if you want to just draw the model, that's fine. But if you want instruction, the only caveat is that you have to ask for instruction; if you don't ask, I'll just leave you alone. We get a great group of people in there. I play music, we have lively cultural discussions, and it's a Golden Period for models right now in Los Angeles. We just have the best models in the world.
BB: If somebody wanted to join the workshop, how would they go about it? Or is it by invitation only?
WS: They should just give me a call. We do have a "no assholes rule." [General laughter]
BB: Strictly enforced, I'd imagine!
WS: Well, I slipped in before that rule was made, so ... [More general laughter] But no other assholes are allowed.
BB: What are some of the other things you do to keep yourself fresh?
WS: Of the two most important things that I do to improve my work, one is figure drawing. I tell my students, "If you want to be a good artist, the fastest way to get good is to do as much figure drawing as possible." Because everything that you see that is made by man is designed to fit the human form. Whether it's chairs or houses or cars, they're designed to be wrapped around the human figure, or for the human figure to connect with it in some way, that is in relationship to the human size and form.
The other thing that I do, which I think is the greatest training for painters, is called "plein air painting" --- on-the-spot outdoor painting. I love to paint nature. There's a whole number of places where I like to go to paint, like Saguaro National Park or at the Eaton Canyon Nature Park nearby my home. I'll drive over and just set up my easel and paint --- I usually do little nine by twelve [inches] paintings. They take about two hours each. Sometimes I'll work on larger paintings, about three feet by two feet; I might work on those over a series of afternoons, because I want the light to be consistent.
They're great training because the light is constantly changing as the sun moves, so you've got to paint really fast. Plus, Nature itself is constantly surprising you as an artist with its color combinations; you end up learning so much as a painter. Plus, when you landscape paint, you've got this gigantic vista before you, and you have to make distinct choices. It becomes a real design problem and it sharpens your skills as a designer, because you obviously can't paint everything you see. You have to focus in on something, to work out something that is well planned, well designed and well composed.
BB: Are you really altering what you see in those cases, or is it more a case of being selective about what you're capturing on the finished canvas?
WS: I do both. I think it's important to record as accurate an observation as possible as far as light and color. But, at the same time, if I can make the composition better by moving a tree a couple inches across the canvas, I'll do that as well, because I don't have the restrictions that a photographer has. I don't have to paint it exactly as the way I see it. Nature can be really sloppy in Her details. If I can make Nature's design a little better, I'll do it.
It's like my favorite Whistler story. James Whistler and some fellow painters were out in Nature. They were witness to a particularly spectacular sunset, just drop dead gorgeous, awesome and unbelievable. Whistler looked up at the sunset and noted, "God's catching up." [General laughter]
BB: Are there any other projects, perhaps movie-related, that you've recently worked on that you haven't mentioned yet, and that you can talk about at this point?
WS: I worked on a film in Dallas, Texas called Ant Bully that's written and directed by John Davis, who did Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. It's got a brilliant script. I think it's going to be a huge hit. I've also been asked to production design a live action film with a CG character in it, called Roswell the Little Green Alien; it's based upon Bill Morrison's graphic novel.
I've approached Peter Jackson and his people about working on the remake of King Kong that they're planning. The original is still my favorite film of all time, and I've heard Peter's got a great script. He's keeping it period, and I love New Zealand, so it would be a great project to work on.
BB: What about King Kong makes it your favorite film?
WS: Well, it's a number of things. It's the very first film I ever saw. My parents took me to the drive-in when I was three years old to see a 1950s re-release of the original 1933 film. I think it may have done damage at a genetic level! I've never been the same after seeing it; I've been nuts about dinosaurs ever since. And then, very shortly after that, I saw Disney's Fantasia with the "Rite of Spring" dinosaur sequence. So from then on I've been hooked on dinosaurs.
But King Kong has got that incredible combination of great elements: It's a love story, an adventure story and it's got amazing special effects. There's dinosaurs, jungles, and natives. 1930s New York. You just can't ask for more. It's so wonderful. I must have seen it over a hundred times.
BB: What does working on animated projects do for you as an artist, as opposed to something that's more realistic?
WS: You know, for me, they're both the same -- it's all about problem-solving. I like to solve really hard problems, and, in film, you've always got a lot of really difficult problems to unravel. And I don't see any difference in solving problems whether they're for live action films or computer generated films. I've worked on both. I've done over thirty live action features, but I've also worked on some animated pictures as well. I did a lot of the character designs for Disney's Dinosaurs. And whether I'm designing those creatures, the creatures for Men in Black, or even Predator, it's all "How do you design things so they look interesting on the screen, so that they're distinctive, and so that the people want to pay their ten bucks to go see them?"
BB: And yet can still be built at or under budget. [General laughter]
WS: Exactly! [Laughter] That's right. "And is practical, on top of all that."
BB: Does that then feed back into your other work?
WS: It does in that it calls upon my science background. For these things to be practical, I have to have a general understanding of special effects -- how special effects work, how mechanics works. Fortunately, math and science were two of my fortes growing up. I planned to be a gynecologist, so I was a science-math major up until my last year of high school. Because of that, it's easy for me to read the scientific papers that are necessary to be read when I do reconstructions of prehistoric life. Most artists often find it really difficult to read science papers or deal with mathematics. I don't have that problem; science and math were always my strongest subjects back in school. And art coupled with science turns out to be the perfect combination of knowledge to have when you work in motion pictures, because motion pictures are a combination of arts and sciences. And budgets!
BB: There's another project that you recently initiated which we haven't touched on yet, and that's your series of books on Joseph Clement Coll. What brought that about?
WS: I've been a dedicated collector of Joseph Clement Coll for several years now --- I have nearly everything he's ever done. It really doesn't make much sense to me to just hoard this collection of the world's greatest pen and ink artist. I think this stuff needs to get out. People need to see how spectacular this guy was. It needs to be shared.
I publish several sketch books each year, but usually it's of my own work. I thought I would produce one on Coll, though, just to get his work back out there in the public eye. There has been one really nice book done on Coll by Walt and Roger Reed. It is long out of print, and it costs several hundred bucks if you can even track down a copy. For the people who already had a copy of that book, I decided I would reproduce Coll images that were not in that book. Everything except for the cover was not in the original Walt Reed book, so my Coll volume works as a compliment to that book. And, as it turned out, there was a huge response to the book. There was a real hunger amongst the public to see that man's work, especially since it's so difficult to find.
Because of that, John Fleskes also came out with a beautiful Coll book. The first one that came out is the first of two volumes. That first volume is on Coll's work for the Associated Sunday Magazines. I'm planning to do more volumes more similar in reproduction and format to the Fleskes' volumes, but I'm going to be a little more scholarly in my approach, systematically reproducing everything that Coll ever had published. That's my goal, and also to keep those books in print, so that the American public doesn't forget the work and identity of one of America's greatest artists.
BB: What are some of the things that made Coll so remarkable an artist?
WS: His work is an amazing combination of tight and loose. He could do incredibly detailed stuff, but at the same time, make it look so effortless, like he'd just dashed it off. It was as though he was able to paint with a pen. He had enormous control of not just his lines, but of the values, the dark and light systems, throughout his work. He had facial types of men and women that I consider timeless. For the most part, I don't look at his work and say, "Oh, yeah, that's a 1921 girl." In some ways, like this painter that I admire, John William Waterhouse, Coll's men and women for me are just timeless.
He was also important in that some of the assignments and the books that he was given to illustrate have become icons in the world of fantasy and fiction literature. He illustrated the first American serialization of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. He illustrated Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel. He also was the illustrator in Collier's magazines for the very first Fu Manchu stories, so he set and established a whole visual style for those genres. The work was just the best ever of any pen artist that I've ever seen.
BB: What do you hope that your fans get from your work?
WS: Man, that's a tough one! On the one hand, most of the work that I do is for my biggest fan --- and toughest critic, which is me. I really do paint and draw to please myself first, because I figure if I haven't pleased myself, I can't expect my work to please anyone else.
But, I am also conscious of my fan base, and what they desire and expect. I think I'm different from most artists in that most of my fans are pretty intelligent and sophisticated. One of the things that I think that they like and expect from my work is surprise. I think that they enjoy that I don't do the same thing over and over again. Obviously, there's a lot of fans who would just love to see me doing dinosaurs for the rest of my life. But there's many more of my other fans who -- as I can tell from the letters that I get and from the response I get at conventions -- feel, "Hey, I love the fact that you're constantly surprising me, you're constantly working in different genres, and trying new things, and experimenting, and pushing yourself as an artist." My work shows that I'm excited by that and, in turn, that excites them, and makes them want to follow my work. Which, I admit, is difficult to do.
The main thrust of my fine art is trying to provide a balance of the visceral/sensual, as well as the intellectual and the spiritual. For me, if I can combine those three qualities then I've got a successful piece. That's what I aim for in what I do.
For further information on William Stout's latest projects, releases and numerous convention appearances, head on over to www.williamstout.com and enter his worlds...if you dare.
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