With the release of The Art of Craig Elliott, I thought it a good time to ask Craig Elliott a few questions regarding his new book and his philosophies regarding his art and life. I would like to extend a special thank you to Craig for taking the time to respond.
Craig Elliott “The Art of Craig Elliott” Interview
Copyright 2012 John Fleskes and Craig Elliott. All Rights Reserved.
John Fleskes: You obviously have your own creative and artistic style. Do people sometimes make references to other artists that share your same sensibilities when viewing your work? How do you feel about this?
Craig Elliott: People occasionally mention other artists they “see” in my artwork when they meet me at shows or gallery openings. I find it fascinating that people choose other artists that have the same interests as I do. Our interests and motivations are the things that really create our art. People will point out artists that have, or had a strong interest in Japanese art, a deep love of nature, and of women, especially women in their “natural” state, without much influence of modern society’s specific demands upon their looks. These interests that I have combine to create my art, and combine in other artists to create their art. I think people respond to a feeling that is transmitted by those interests. We almost all will have had different teachers, teaching different drawing methods, ways of applying paint, preparing canvases, etcetera, so the specific techniques and details are different, but these interests that flow beneath the art are shining through.
Fleskes: What is it about women and nature that inspires your fine art that is featured in The Art of Craig Elliott? Why not men and nature?
Elliott: I think women are just about the most beautiful thing in the universe for a human male. Evolution and time have made it so there is no equal to them in all the world for us. Nature also is built on many of the same principles of beauty and design that women are, but can never quite overcome women in a man’s mind. It is a very strong second though!
Fleskes: You stay very busy with visual development work, character designs and conceptual art for the film industry. How do you find the time and energy to work on your personal fine art? And why is it important for you to create work that reflects your own inner vision, rather than purely the film and commercial assignment work that you do?
Elliott: I don’t really have an opportunity on a daily basis with my concept design work to put my own ideas to paper. I work to realize and flesh out the ideas of writer’s story artists and directors, and I consider their ideas the paramount consideration when I am doing a job. Only if they ask me to fill in a gap in their own minds do I step in and offer my own ideas. I can remember a time on Treasure Planet when the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements had a problem they had not yet solved in the story. This problem was how the main characters were going to escape from the stockade with the pirates sitting outside the door all night. I had an idea inspired by a type of plumbing valve, when it was mentioned that they had no solution for this problem! I adapted the valve to create these mysterious half spheres in the floor of the stockades interior. Our characters could, with a little initiative, fool around with them and discover that they would rotate, and eventually align an opening in the floor to let them escape. I drew up some simple plans and pitched the idea to the directors, and they used it!
Aside from these little ideas I don’t have an outlet at work to express the other ideas that come to me. Ideas for my art come to me while I am sketching compositions for work, taking a walk, driving, watering the plants, looking at books, all sorts of times. These ideas reflect my own story, the things that strike a chord for me. I don’t know what it would be like to not express my own vision in some way. It is hard to say why it is important, when it is just something that I do, or am. It really is like magma in a volcano, bubbling up from below, if not released it can explode. I have had stretches of time where I have not been able to do much art of my own. I remember once I had to go a month or two without doing anything because I was buying and moving into a new house. I had no furniture, dirty carpet and torn up linoleum. I had no art supplies either. I bought food and some sculpting supplies and sculpted for days, sleeping on the floor! I had to get it out or I would blow up! After that I could move in my stuff and get more settled. As for having the time or energy to do my own work as well, I guess the compulsion makes the energy and time for me. I have no choice!
Fleskes: Is your fine art created to satisfy and bring pleasure to you, or others? Maybe both, and if so, who comes first?
Elliott: I am really making things I want to see, or places I want to be in when I am creating my fine art. I have heard a few times that Disneyland was the place Walt wanted to live in, or play in. It is that same sort of idea. There is a hope that others will like what you do, and you can somehow support the continuation of your art with their interest and support.
Fleskes: Which is the painting you are the most proud of in The Art of Craig Elliott? What stands out about it?
Elliott: I think Jade is the painting I would chose as an answer to this question. It was a real breakthrough for me, and was the first time I did something that came close to the style I had in my head… It is also my late grandmother’s favorite painting. I also thought of this painting as representative of why I would be satisfied with the life I had led if I were to die. This may seem morbid, but I was faced with two weeks to live when I was 26, and actually thought of this painting when I was alone in the hospital, and said to myself “well, if this doesn’t work out I can look at Jade, and be satisfied that I had done something I can leave behind that really means something to me.”
Fleskes: Do you think your art is the result of a talent, or hard work?”
Elliott: I don’t really think there is such a thing as talent. If I compare how much time I have spent honing my skills, and thinking about art, I feel like if I have any ability as an artist, it had better be as a result of all of that! I have never done much else besides art, I don’t know if that makes me obsessed or something, I don’t know. For me it comes down to there being very little else that is nearly as interesting. Movies, bars, parties, clubs, sports, etc. are so boring to me, though most people really enjoy them. I wish I could understand, or get some enjoyment out of more things, but we are all different. At least there is something I enjoy!
Fleskes: We’ve spoken about labels and how people like to put artists into categories. This is something you don’t like to do. Why is that? And how do your respond when people label you?
Elliott: Though it is frustrating, I have enough understanding of the way the brain works to forgive that sort of knee jerk categorization. Our minds work by association, categorizing things in terms of other things the brain has already seen or experienced. This behavior makes perfect sense and is a very efficient way of dealing with the world. It has some side effects like stereotyping. Stereotyping is applying what you have experienced about “X” to other things that are, or seem, similar to “X.” The negatives of stereotyping are obvious, but it also helps our brain not have to spend hours assessing every individual situation or thing it encounters, and be able to make reasonably accurate decisions in very short time. If someone pulls into your lane on the freeway, you can use previous instances of that event to help you quickly decide what do to and what might happen next. If you wait and analyze the situation like it is a completely new one, you will end up in a crumpled mess by the side of the road!
Fleskes: How well does The Art of Craig Elliott represent you as an artist and as a person?
Elliott: I hope the overall impression of the art in the book gives people the sense of how I feel about the world, and an understanding of the beauty I see in it. I have had some feedback from the few people who have seen the book already, that they get a feeling of the flow and rhythm of nature from my work. That is much more the subject of my art than the physical things like people, grasses, branches, etcetera, that you see in the art. I am trying to capture something that I feel from nature. It really may not matter much what subjects I am painting in the end. That feeling is what actually matters.
Fleskes: What do you want people to know about you in relation to your art?
Craig: I am not sure if I have thought about that much. I try and stay out of the way of my art I think. I think I am afraid of influencing, or “messing up” their experience of the art with “me stuff.” I am always willing to answer questions that are asked of me, of course. Although, I think many of the most important things about me as a person are right there in the art. If I am doing a good job, the experience of my art should be similar to knowing who I am as a person.
Fleskes: The Art of Craig Elliott was designed by you. This is something I am happy about since a goal of mine is always to get a deeper connection between artist and book for a true representation of the pair. During the design stages, what are your thoughts behind your decision with the flow and pacing? What do you feel is most important when grouping your art into a collection?
Elliott: I really tried to approach the layout of the book the same way I do my art. To include and adapt things I already love into the design the whole way through: Natural textures, mysterious layers and unusual proportions and divisions in the layouts. I think the way the book flows as you move from page to page and move through groups of related subjects is important too. I apply the same ideas to my portfolio. I do so many different things that if I am not careful about how I group things and make them flow into one another, it would seem like I was a total scatterbrain. When things move gracefully from one subject to another instead of jumping all over the place one doesn’t even notice the transitions or the number of subjects.
Fleskes: When you work on one of your sketches or paintings, what do you think is more important, the idea or the technique?
Elliott: The technique should always be secondary, but that isn’t always possible. The ideal is to practice technique until it becomes second nature, so that one can concentrate on the idea! It is a very Jedi like thing to play baseball, ride a horse or paint! They all require that “let go” moment…
Fleskes: You are one of those artists I consider a triple threat. You are an excellent artist, successful at running yourself as a business and independent free-lance artist, and a great self-promoter by making appearances at shows and running your own booths at events. I suppose I could add that you do occasional workshops and teach as well. My question is, was this all planned, or part of a natural progression of who you are? How important is being well-versed in different areas to you?
Elliott: I don’t see it as important per se, but maybe more “helpful.” Maybe that is the same thing! I realize the value of all these elements, and strive to do what is best for me and my art.
Fleskes: Your artistry extends beyond drawing and painting. If you look beyond the many forms of art you have your fingers in, in addition, you are a sculptor, make your own fine art prints and create lovely jewelry, as well as having much interest in landscape design, among other things. Do you look at all of your interests as strengths, or a lack of focus? Is it boredom, or an honest love for life in enjoying so many different things?
Elliott: I really do enjoy doing these different things, and I think it is driven by a stream of ideas that I get excited about. Having so many ideas is tough, as I never have enough time to execute them all. It is frustrating, and I always feel behind! I guess we do the best we can in the circumstances.
Fleskes: Where do you see yourself going in the future? Any achievements you would like to conquer that you haven’t focused on yet?
Elliott: I do want to find a way to bring my three-dimensional work to the public. Dimensional work was the very first art form I practiced, and it is still a big love of mine. I think it is much harder to bring to people though; there are many impracticalities that make it clumsy, costly and ungainly to do. I feel like I am much closer to a solution, and my jewelry is a good first step!
Fleskes: Thanks for your time, Craig!