Catching Up with Travis Louie at Comic ConJuxtapoz // Saturday, 01 Aug 2009
“I ran into Travis Louie,” writes Trina Calderon. “He was promoting his new book, Curiosities. It’s a compilation of paintings he has worked on put together as kind of a Photo Album of his world of characters. I sat with him at a booth before his signing and he shared a bit about his universe.”
Trina Calderon: Why did you want to be an artist?
Travis Louie: It goes back to 1994. I started working for other artists first. There was a person across the street who was an old school photo retoucher and I worked for him all through high school and college. I learned from him not only how to paint but what finished work should look like. It was very eye opening to see how far you could push something. You look at artwork, and no one seems to realize there are levels that you can push something, that you can make something more refined. That’s a good word; it’s all about refinement, and also a kind of stasis in the work. If you look at more successful pieces of artwork, you will notice that the most important parts of the artwork are the ones that have the most focus or ones that are placed properly - we are talking about composition. It’s important to have something to say, but it’s very important to be able to say it.
Where did the noir influence in your work come from?
It’s funny, some of it had to do with looking at something as innocuous as the grain of a film. If you are watching films of the German expressionist filmmakers, there was deep focus, and everything was so sharp. There were shots of whole rooms of people. The camera was set back about 25 or 30 feet yet everything was pulled in focus, from the glasses in the front of the table to the guy all the way at the other end of the table. I love that. I saw a really good print of Metropolis in the public work housing station and it stayed with me, even as a little kid. It looked amazing and so sharp. We had an old crappy TV set, it was an old Zenith, and for some reason those films looked the best even though it was old. As old as the 1920’s, there was such quality to what was shot. It was these beautiful compositions, and the placement of everything on the screen that I loved.
Do you write the stories for all your characters before you create them visually?
At first I would wake up every morning and write little notes in my notebook. It sort of evolved into something bigger, sometimes I write full paragraphs, down to what they guy might have eaten, how they live their day to day lives. Paintings come from the writing. The writing is first actually. Then I sketch out what their face might look like, and then I draw a body to match it, from there I try to figure out what kind of clothes they might wear, the shoes. Then I make a painting after that.
The paintings in Curiosities resemble portraits of the 1800s. What is it about that time period that attracts you?
We don’t have a lot of information about it. There were people alive up to the 1950’s from that time period, and we can go by their stories. Things are well documented I suppose, but those portraits are not. You find an old portrait of someone from that time and you say what’s going on? Why do these people dress like that? I have been looking into it, and I have discovered that a lot of these photographers traveled around with the wardrobe with them. They would actually lend these fine clothes to these people, because most people couldn’t afford to hire a portrait painter, but a photograph was more accessible. No matter how poor you were, they would make you look like a little more affluent than you actually were. Just the expressions on their faces, that’s another tricky thing, because the exposures are very long. They had to actually put them in braces. You can see a piece of a stand sticking out, usually that was attached to a waist brace or a neck brace that held them in place. We are talking about a 60 minute exposure, that’s a long time for someone to stand. Back then, everything took a long time, you had to really plan it out.
Your characters are a bit different than the common man in portraits from the 1800s, why?
I like the idea that, just like the common man, everyone deserves to have their portrait taken if they want to. Even these misfits, these people who really wouldn’t have been given a chance. In my strange little world that I write, these people are normal just like you and I, they just happen to have 6 eyes, or 6 fingers, or be very furry or really really big. Sometimes the characters come from ecology, other times I just pick and choose things that I think would be interesting.
What are you doing here at Comic Con?
I have a new book. It’s the first collection of paintings I have been doing the last few years and I’ve included the stories for each character. I wanted the book to look like an old photo album from t he 1890’s. So, I have the old corners holding each painting in and I had them design the book so it’s like a little worn, embossed cover.
I think they did a really god job producing this book. I liked the fact that they followed all art direction. There was no compromise, everything is exactly how I wanted to do.
So, aside from all the buzz over James Cameron’s Avatar movie or who is going to be in the last episode of LOST, there was a bunch of dope art and it will be there next year too. If you can brave the nerd smell and traffic, I highly back checking it out at least once in your lifetime.
Check out Part 1 of Trina's experience at Comic Con 2009 with David Choe here.