Now Featuring Nancy Chan
Oakland artist Nancy Chan carefully observes the people in her world, but her works are more than documentation. Working from posed photos, situations grow, expressions melt, subjects react to each other. She strives for what she calls “emotional likeness,” the intimacy of familiarity.
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MH: How did you get started with drawing? Your work brings back so many memories for me of drawing from the figure, which is something so many artists learn and then forget, but you’ve clearly mastered and continued.
NC: I drew a lot as a child, thinking I’d be a comic artist or cartoonist. I took the usual required art classes in high school and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated. I went to community college and enjoyed taking a whole bunch of figure drawing classes. For my first two years at CCA, I painted but was never really happy with my results – there were too many layers, my favorite marks were being covered up, making color choices was overwhelming. When I started making sequential works, ink seemed the most natural and efficient way to get my intentions across, and as soon as I started working with sumi ink again, I was reminded of how natural it felt to use it in my first figure drawing classes at CCA.
MH: Can you talk about your very restricted palette, just the blacks and grays of sumi ink? It seems to emphasize documentation and observation for me, because it’s a quite utilitarian medium in my mind (like pencil maybe) but it sounds like it’s something you’ve considered carefully.
NC: My drawings are very much observations on my part (I’m glad you interpreted it that way also!), so I feel that the limited color palette allows a less distracting view of the subjects. Color can be very loaded and can be read differently by different viewers – I’d rather the focus be on the individuals, their poses and gestures, and the little things. Working with sumi is very similar to working with pencil, but I can get the range of blacks with ink much more easily and quickly than I could with graphite.
MH: What is it like working with people you know well as subjects? How do you choose them? Are you aiming for intimacy? Are you interested in learning more about people don’t know by drawing them?
NC: I enjoy it a lot even though it does feel a bit odd looking at my friends from behind the camera. But it’s a very different experience when I’m making a drawing of someone I know well versus making a drawing of strangers. It sounds odd, but it almost feels like I’m trying to get an “emotional likeness” across as well, while with drawings of strangers, it’s usually only a physical likeness.
If I can, I like to draw pairs of people and see how they affect each other in their mannerisms. Drawing solo subjects can be nice too, though, as it pulls me (and hopefully the viewer) into the drawing as the unseen partner.
I’m fairly adverse to drawing strangers, though I’ve done it before. I would much rather meet the subject prior to drawing them. If I were on the other side, it’d seem a bit creepy to have a complete stranger staring at a photo of you for two weeks. It is a very intimate thing, drawing someone, whether they know you’re doing it or not.
MH: Can you talk about your use of image groupings, triptychs, diptychs and so one? They seem to hint at film and photography in some ways, and distinguish you work from any kind of observational sketching that might come to mind at first glance.
NC: I kind of stumbled upon the idea of sequential imagery in my senior year at CCA after doing a photo shoot of some friends for a painting I was working on. I took a lot of photos and kept scrolling through them on the digital camera, trying to decide which shots I liked. I narrowed it down to a small handful and loved the animated feel of looking at them one after the other, so I decided to just go ahead and do all of them.
Thinking a bit more about it now, it also feels a little wrong to try to distill a person into one image. Having more than one drawing animates the subject in that space – they can move and stretch and do what they need to do.
It took me much longer than it should have to realize that my interest in comics, graphic novels, and animations have probably had a hand in me wanting my drawings to “move.”
MH: Who are some of your influences? And because we come from the same community at CCA, I can’t help ask who you think your most influential teachers have been.
NC: Egon Schiele, for sure – he was a big shock to me when I was first introduced to his work in college (seems like that’s where all the art kids discover him). When I saw his work, I realized that not all “finished” works had to have a defined place behind the subject, that the bare space around the subject could be just as active as the subject itself.
I learned a lot from Larry McClary’s and Roy Tomlinson’s drawing classes at CCA, especially since both of them had their students look at the arrangement of what was on the paper rather than just what the paper was depicting. That was (and still is) a really important process for me to practice.
MH: How do you think you use humor in your work? It seems to flow out of the familiarity of your subjects, to awkward everyday-ness of their poses.
NC: That’s a good question; I’ve never really given any serious thought to that aspect of my drawings. The drawing process is very meditative, and my mind often wanders to good memories of the person I’m drawing and the photo shoot and whatnot. We laugh a lot during the shoots – I mean, it’s an awkward thing to be photographed – and the best drawings come out of the photos where the subjects are relaxed. I don’t want my drawings to be taken too seriously, so I’m glad you can see the lighthearted quality of them.