Creating a Bridge between Comics and Caravaggio

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Spotlight on Huntington Arts Council Member Artist William Low: Creating a Bridge between Comics and Caravaggio.

Dianne Matus for Huntington Arts Council 2009

“My parents certainly didn’t want me to be an artist when I was growing up in the Bronx,” explained artist William Low. “They said, ‘You should be a architect or an engineer. Art is just what you do to stay out of trouble’.”

But in the end, William Low did much more than stay out of trouble: he has had a very productive career as an illustrator and has been teaching at a professional level for 23 years. Currently, in addition to his work as a commercial illustrator and author/illustrator of children’s books, he is a professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, teaching painting technique on the computer.

“Originally, I stumbled into art,” he explained. “Because English was not my native language, I couldn’t get into New York City’s best academic schools, like Stuyvesant High or the Bronx High School of Science, so I went to the High School of Art and Design. I studied oil painting, and I had a great professor who introduced us to the classic artists: Rembrandt, Velasquez and John Singer Sargent. When we studied the American illustrators, I loved the work of N.C. Wyeth for Treasure Island. So I became interested in storytelling and learned the basics. I went to Parsons The New School for Design, majoring in illustration. In those days, pre-computer, we used oils and acrylics for our work.”

William Low now uses digital tools to create wonderful illustrations for children’s books. When you look through his book Old Penn Station, you can almost smell the steam and the cooking aromas coming from the dining cars waiting in the station before heading off to New Orleans or Chicago. Because he is grounded in the classics, he can use the new technology available to artists to create illustrations with rich painterly qualities and great depth.

He discusses his move from brush to keyboard: “I got hooked on digital techniques while I was teaching painting and illustration at the School of Visual Arts. I was scanning some transparencies at the time and noticed a digital tablet nearby which I began trying out. I loved what I could do with it, so I bought a tablet and then a computer, learned Photoshop and began creating illustrations with the computer. I have been doing it for at least 10 years. Now I feel like an evangelist—I want to teach the entire world about creating this kind of art. But my approach is very different; I use a classic painting approach to digital illustrations. I don’t want my work to look too clean or perfect, because then it is cold, like the computer.”

He says it continues to amaze him that people often think that using digital techniques is somehow “cheating.” “People don’t say that my painting was ‘created’ with Windsor and Newton acrylics, so why do they feel the need to say ‘digitally created’? The computer is a tool just like a paintbrush is a tool.

“What is important for people to understand,” he continues, “is that to work on the computer with Photoshop or any other tools does not mean that you are doing something completely different from painting on a canvas. You still need to have the basics, like an understanding of color, shadow and proportion. Many of my students at F.I.T. are crazy about anime [a style of Japanese cartooning], but I try to tell them that they want to go beyond imitating that style; they need to ‘add to the mix’, and that is the challenge. My job is to try to create a bridge between ‘comics and Caravaggio’. Why would you want to paint something that looks like a photograph? The photograph already exists, so you want to go beyond that.”

He has some advice for young people interested in a career in art: “Open your eyes! Be as exposed as possible, look at more than just games, movies and videos. Carry a sketchbook! DRAW!”

Until March 5, the Huntington Library is exhibiting his illustrations in “15 years of Picture Books.” If you are unable to get to the exhibit before it closes, you can see the work on-line at  www.williamlow.com/picturebookshow.pdf. Mr. Low’s newest book, Machines Go to Work, written for three- to five-year-olds, is coming out in early May. Signed copies will be available at the Arts Council’s Main Street office.

Dianne Matus for Huntington Arts Council 2009

Huntington Arts Council