Steve Kim is an artist and illustrator. Born in Seoul, Korea, he immigrated to the states at the age of two. He received his undergraduate degree from Art Center College of Design in 2006 and his masters from Claremont Graduate University in 2010. His work has been featured in Computer Arts, Beautiful/Decay, Print Magazine, and American Illustration. He has shown in Portland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and throughout Los Angeles. He has taught at Art Center College of Design and lives and works in Los Angeles. After achieving so much I wanted to sit him down and pick his brain. Read below for the full interview…
What can you tell us about your processes for making art?
Steve: Most of the time I start out with some kind of photo reference. I try to be as accurate as I can until I get bored and fatigued at which time I switch from graphite to colored pencil and start ‘doing stuff’ to it until I’m happy.
I tend to avoid preparatory thumbnails or sketches. I like to start and finish on the same piece of media. But sometimes, and all the time if it’s client work, I’ll get fancy and mock things up in pencil or Photoshop. I suspect I will have to start planning ahead more as the work expands in size and scope. I also play around a lot with software. I know just about every trick in the Photoshop book and I’ve been working on ways to incorporate 3d stuff—Cinema4d and Zbrush in particular—into my work.
How did you get started and why did you choose to do portraits?
Steve: I went to Art Center as an undergrad because of an initial interest in concept art; movies, video games, that sort of thing. I practically lived on conceptart.org. After a while, I felt like all the cool people were doing illustration work, it seemed classier, so I narrowed my focus to that. But after a while, I felt like the really classy stuff was happening in fine art, so by the time I graduated I was convinced I needed to be an artist’s artist, and that lead me to the fatal mistake of going to grad school for fine art.
After grad school and some time convalescing, I decided illustration was pretty cool after all, and I began building my portfolio in earnest. This was a little over a year ago, so I’m still very much a newbie when it comes to this stuff, but I feel pretty good about it. Painting digitally, it turned out, was not so hard. And the bigger existential nightmare of simultaneously having a fine-art practice along with an illustration practice, after a while, it stopped mattering. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries certainly exist, but it is something I’ve decided other people will have to worry about.
As for the portraits, they came out of a desire to practice academic drawings. I had been painting in oil on canvas for a long, long time and I felt a strong desire to prove that I could still draw. I had just created a Tumblr account and I didn’t wan’t to draw random stuff from Google, so I asked some followers for photos and I began working with those. Immediately, I realized I couldn’t just leave them as academic drawings. I saw potential in the faces and something about them being tied to a real if distant person on the internet compelled me to imbue them with as much beauty and gravity as possible.
Now that you are in your 30’s, have the subjects of your work grown with you or do you generally gravitate towards younger (or older) figures?
Steve: I’m unremarkable in that I like to draw young, attractive women. From time to time I will draw a male something or other and 1.) It is an unpleasant experience, particularly portraits, and 2.) I emasculate their features anyway. I enjoy smooth, clean, simple forms. Animals for example are problematic as subject matter—all that formless hair and fur gives me very little to latch on to. Even when I work with gender-neutral material like skeletons and anatomical forms, if I can give it a feminine touch I am happier for it.
As an instructor, what lessons are most valuable to you that you are trying to instill into your students?
Steve: I don’t teach any more, and I’m interested in it, but it’s a touchy thing. I feel like how Apple felt about cellphones before the iPhone came out, that they were stupid and shitty and they wanted to fix them because it was irritating to use something so stupid and shitty. That’s how I feel about education. And that might be a problem. My interest in teaching comes from such a bitter place. So, I don’t teach, but I pay attention to a lot of my followers and a lot of them are art students and I look at their work on their blogs and some of them are so emotional so public about it, but, you know, I like it. I like the vulnerability and the honesty. It reminds me what is at stake. But all I can do is silently cheer them on and hope they keep doing what it is that they need to do, because it’s really important, to them, to me.
As we all know, art is very subjective, however, what is a persons interpretation of your art supposed to signify?
Steve: I don’t know about interpretation, but when someone likes my work, it signifies a lot of things. It validates the work. It’s one thing to make work and for me to like it, but it’s really meaningless if I’m the only one that likes it. Absolutely meaningless. And what it does, I think, is turns the notion of art as subjective on its head, because it becomes about commonality and shared experience instead of differences.
The best way I can describe this is how I think about jealousy. I am not above jealousy, of course, but when someone makes really amazing work, it is really like a favor, like a gift, because it’s basically saying, hey look at this cool stuff that animated my heart a certain way, and look how it animates yours the same. It tells you things about yourself.
My favorite aspect is how they’re so human yet unfamiliar at the same time. How do you achieve this balance?
Steve: It helps me to stay as true to the reference material as I can, at least at first. I might shave off double chins eventually but I want to work with as much of the real thing as possible. Then I wait. I work and I wait until it starts doing something special. I tend to be very grouchy and serious looking during the waiting time.
Do you have any favorite Asian films?
Steve: Definitely. I love Asian horror and my absolute favorite is A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s just gorgeous. I also like of the old Korean standbys, Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (But not Lady V.), The Host, The Chaser. Anime-wise I have a deep obsession with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Not quite so obsessively: The original Ghost in the Shell movie, Goldenboy, FLCL, His and Her Circumstances, Initial D, the Kenshin OVA and the first part of a three-part OVA about a ghost ship whose name I can’t remember. Not much else. Nothing seemed to happen after the 90’s.
All artists experience challenges in their practice. Can you tell us about any you have had?
Steve: I was a sad kid. Hopelessly sad. And I think the hardest thing was never being OK with those kinds of feelings, never seeing the value, the absolute necessity of them. The world is always telling you how happy you need to be. It wears at you. So the hardest thing was trying to keep up appearances. The most painful thing was trying to be happy. When I could start letting go of that fundamental error, a lot of things started flowering on their own accord.
Lastly, participating in various exhibitions over the years, what are you bringing to the table for your next one? Any ideas floating around yet?
Steve: I will be having a solo show at Design Matters in West LA. So I’m thinking about a lot of different things for that. I know I really want to do something with high end fashion and, uh, cosplay, but neither fall into my natural areas of expertise. Research time! I’ll also have my usual assortment of pretty faces and body parts and babies.
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