Batman #5 Process, pt. 1

I’m starting a new piece and I thought this one would be good for a step-by-step series of posts.

While I’ve done technical step-by-steps before, I’ve mostly avoided explaining the process of choosing an image to paint. As a viewer of art, one is mostly concerned with the final image, but for the artist, all the really interesting stuff happens before you even pick up a brush or a pencil. Going from “I don’t know what to paint” to “I need to paint THAT” is an exciting experience.

For about a year now I’ve been working on a series of life-sized Batman Cosplayer portraits. I’ve done 4 so far, my eventual goal is 12-15.

Anyone who knows me knows how important Batman is to me. It’s a cultural myth that grabbed hold of me in 1989 and never let go. From the point of view of an artist’s development, the power of a myth can’t be overstated. Further, I’m part of the 3rd generation of artists inspired by this myth and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. The 4th generation is just now entering college and the 5th is developing the manual dexterity to play Lego Batman.

This relates to why I think cosplay is an important and relevant fine art form. Though most of the mainstream culture sees Cosplay as little more than an eccentric hobby for nerds, 25 years from now it’s going to be in art history books alongside cubism and impressionism. There are hundreds of thousands of Cosplayers in this country alone who spend their time and money, blood, sweat, and tears on their art. There are levels of technical skill and conceptual creativity that rival anything the fashion industry has ever produced.

It’s also an interesting movement from the perspective of the evolution of Pop Art. Not to get overly pretentious, but this is a post-Warhol world. Boundaries between artists and their art are practically non-existent. Cosplay expresses this in a unique way. Unlike painting where the artist creates a work of art then steps back from it, the Cosplayer actually BECOMES their art. It’s design, costume-making, and performance all in one.

And this is mostly done for free. Though the laws are nebulous, it’s more or less illegal to make any kind of real money off of Cosplay. By definition, Cosplayers are exploring cultural myths that are owned by corporations which are allowed near-absolute control over usage, and influence the laws to maintain that control. It’s worth noting that the “owners” of these myths are rarely the individuals that created them, but that’s a different conversation.

That it exists in these strange legal and cultural margins means that Cosplay is also inherently subversive. The best art always is.

But it also means that the artists themselves are doing it for reasons other than monetary gain. They’re not doing this to make money, they’re doing it for the satisfaction of having done it. It is art for art’s sake.

As a portrait painter, this is fascinating to explore. Portrait painting is about capturing the identity of the subject through their external appearance, to capture their invisible individuality in a purely visual form.

Cosplayers choose their costumes for a reason and that reason says something about who they are. Sometimes it’s because a character is popular, sometimes it’s because their friends are organizing a group of characters, and sometimes it’s because the cultural myth and iconography of a specific character are so important to them that they feel a sort of primal need to inhabit it.

You can see this creative impulse most clearly in the ways the Cosplayer changes the design from the corporate-owned template. Race, sex, and even species are routinely discarded or adapted to fit an artistic concept.

With my Batman series, my goal is to explore this myth that has been so important to me through the eyes of other artists that have been inspired as well. My artistic satisfaction is two-fold in that I get to paint a subject I love while also being able to explore it in a unique way.

A few days ago I put a call out on facebook for an African-American Batman Cosplayer. Typically I start with flickr and google but in this case their search algorithms weren’t sophisticated enough to properly understand what I was looking for.

I was put in touch with Eric Moran who graciously sent me some pictures. I decided to paint his Justice Lords Costume. Once I had a specific Cosplayer and costume in mind, it was much easier to find additional photos.

Below is the collection of photos I gathered. To my mind, this process is something akin to thumbnail sketching. The nature of Cosplay culture means that any given Cosplayer/costume has probably been photographed by dozens of photographers from different angles, poses, lighting, etc.

In the early stages of a concept, I spend hours pouring through photos, downloading anything that excites me. Often I’m doing this for several different paintings at once. It’s a borderline obsessive process that is guided largely by intuition. If an image strikes me, I download it without spending too much time thinking about why I like it or how to paint it.

As a result, I end up with dozens of images to sort through. As you can imagine, properly documenting and notifying the photographers who took the photos is impossible or at the very least wildly impractical.

It’s probably important at this point to speak a moment about intellectual property. The short version is that I don’t believe in it.

With the exception of ancient cave-paintings, all art is derivative. It exists as links in a multi-generational chain that spans further back and further forward than any one artist or institution has any right to claim.

I’ve had more than one conversation with Cosplay photographers about the morality of this. From their perspective, I see how this could be considered stealing their work and it’s something I’ve wrestled with. However, it’s hard to take their claims of ownership seriously when they are doing effectively the same thing to the Cosplayer.

The Cosplayer, incidentally, is doing the same thing to the corporate owners of the characters.

The issue of intellectual property is ultimately about economics, who is allowed the rights to profit from the work. In the case of my own work, the issue of rights is so twisted and convoluted as to be completely meaningless.

Further, I’m part of the first generation of artists that has access to the most robust library of visual images ever created. It’s the greatest artistic tool since the discovery of colored pigments. Any rules, legal or otherwise, that would seek to inhibit an artist’s access and usage of that library are absurd.

And this goes both ways. I don’t watermark anything I put online and I try to provide the highest quality images I can. What happens to them from there is frankly none of my business. If another artist is inspired by my work and wants to create their own art from it, that’s fine with me. That’s how art is supposed to work.