In lieu of the usual top ten list, I thought I’d do something a little more interesting: the top five most influential artists, the ones who have helped shape how I approach and think about creative endeavours.
Which isn’t the same thing as being a favourite! I may love Hayao Miyazaki to death, but I can’t discern any real aesthetic impact he’s had on me in the way I can feel some of these guys entering my thoughts as I think about a story or open a sketchbook.
I’m taking a broad definition of artist here, with no restriction as to the medium.
(Probably unnecessary to say , but I feel like I should preface this list by saying that it isn’t intended to be a critical overview of the artists mentioned. So I’m not going to go into whatever points of contention there may be about them – aesthetic, moral or otherwise.)
My enthusiasm for Dickens began in my teenage years and has continued more or less unabated to the present. Some of my earliest stabs at fiction writing are marked by a very earnest (if cringeworthy) attempt at emulating his style of characterization and knack for blending comedy and pathos. Certainly my prose style, which has never been terribly economical, and which often has difficulty arriving at a period as it stacks up various clauses, is due in part to an exposure to the florid stylings of Victorian prose at an impressionable age.
Dickens’ characters are often exaggerated and caricatured, but feel very true to life, like a funhouse mirror reflection of people you know. Their stories are often tragic, grotesque and comical in a manner that rings emotionally true. I’ve tended to find this a more interesting method of characterization than an approach that aims for a more strict psychological realism.
C.S. Lewis once said that George MacDonald “baptized” his imagination, and I feel somewhat similar about Wolfe, in that reading him introduced me to aspects of the Catholic worldview and experience that had hitherto been inaccessible – not in a catechetical or apologetic sense, but rather in an aesthetic sense, like leaving a Cathedral and realizing that your clothes now smell of incense.
Wolfe’s stories often exist in intricately created sci-fi and fantasy vistas, with the hero often on some very classic sort of quest. But his narrative style has a playfulness and experimentation to it more akin to the highbrow modernist and postmodernist writers of the 20th century. A lot of the typical dramatic payoff we expect in this sort of novel is absent, replaced instead with an accumulation of incident and detail that obliquely suggests a story rather than telling it outright. The experience of reading Wolfe is one of getting lost in an incredible landscape of the imagination, and accidentally stumbling onto some quiet revelation.
It changed the way I viewed both genre fiction and “literary” fiction, showing that the choice between Proust and Tolkien is an artificial one; even though I was a science fiction fan beforehand, it was with Wolfe that I intuitively understood the limitless potential of the genre.
I could probably sum up Lynch’s influence on me with a pretentious-sounding phrase: storytelling as a canvas. This is best understood by contrast to a form of storytelling that is very architectural, where you focus on creating an airtight plot structure, characters and world. This approach works well for a lot of writers, and is very appropriate if you’re telling a story where a high degree of surface realism is necessary to break the ice with the audience. But I’ve increasingly found that it doesn’t work for me: Future Fairyland almost died a couple of times because I found myself obsessing over canonical details at the expense of the story, and at the joy I was having in crafting that story. And even when I had arrived at what felt like a perfect foundation, there would always be some doubt that would cause me to second guess myself.
Many of Lynch’s works begin with some sort of mystery that propels the story forward. But the mystery plot is never the backbone of the story – rather, it serves as a throughline for leading the audience through its world in a series of moments that are more important for how they function tonally and thematically than for how they advance the plot. So his movies can be very frustrating if you approach them in a manner that you would, say, a Christopher Nolan flick or a detective novel, but everything clicks into place if you see the plot as a canvas that he’s painting on.
I’ve found this approach to be very liberating in my own thinking about fiction. It’s still important for me to consider whether something violates the rules of the story, or the continuity, but the emphasis tends to fall less on the internal plot mechanics and more on questions of imagery, tonality and atmosphere – questions which both interest me more, which stimulate more creativity, and seem more important to the kind of story I currently want to tell.
I wonder if Moebius’ effect on me is a matter of timing, having only just started to read his comics a few months ago, around the same time I began thumbnailing comic book page layouts for the first time. I’m in perhaps the most critical time for another comic artist to have a formative effect on me. But although I’ve encountered various comic artists whom I’ve loved, Moebius is the only one where reading him feels like I am being guided in a definite artistic direction. Considering that his fans include as diverse a crowd as George Lucas, Hayao Miyazaki, Jack Kirby and Federico Fellini, I feel like I’m at least in good company in falling under his sway.
Like other French comic artists, Moebius uses less dynamic panels and more compressed storytelling in favor of a richer sense of tableau and incidental detail. But while, say, Jean-Claude Mezieres’ work in Valerian aims to give fantastical vistas a very dramatic, tangible quality, Moebius’ approach is more abstract and dreamlike. His images often seem deceptively simple at first glance, with its often caricatured and iconic figures. And strangely flat, with an approach to colour and shading that often wants to almost obscure the presence of the imaginary third dimension, or otherwise give it the quality of an engraving. It never quite looks like you’re looking at something real, but nevertheless manages to evoke entire worlds through the man’s deft linework, compositions and vivid, unconventional designs. It isn’t about achieving a kind of realism so much as it is imbuing the formal qualities of his craftsmanship with a high degree of surreal expressiveness in their own right.
I find that last point something to aspire to.
All Those Darn Furry Artists
Ok, so realtalk: the reason I am a visual artist in any capacity is due to the furry fandom. People sometimes ask me why I was inspired to take up drawing, given that I am a very late bloomer to the skill. The answer is that I wanted to draw my own fursona. I mean, I’ve always had an interest in comics, cartoons and animation, but that was the spark that lit the fire. So I have one of the silliest origin stories possible for this.
Tucked away amongst the people in funny animal suits is a surprising amount of genuine talent in the visual arts (and have you seen the level of detail and craftsmanship that goes into making a lot of those suits?) My own style of drawing has been inspired and shaped by many of the furry artists out there. Too many to name or remember, so if I’ve ever clicked “Like” on one of your pictures, there’s a good chance you’ve been an influence on me.