"It’s like I found out how detrimental my own head could be to myself, and this is how I escaped from it."
Sometimes by looking away, as visual artist and author Sophie Kipner discovered, we can see with even more clarity.
Sophie’s career with blind contour drawing began as many great creations do. It was an accident. When she ran out of activities while hosting a dinner party, she broke into her art drawer and asked her guests to draw each other in the blind contour style, an exercise she remembered from college art classes. What she found was that in their “blindness,” her guests felt more liberated to draw freely and without judgment. By not watching the moment-by- moment creation of the art, the inner critic is silenced and true creativity can begin.
Her visual art is like looking into a distorted mirror: portraits of human beings that appear at once beautiful, grotesque, and familiar. Using the technique of blind contouring – a technique when the artist draws a subject without looking at the paper or her hand – Sophie’s portraits capture the essence of her subject while transforming their image into something completely new and fresh, with a dash of Cubist Picasso.
Also a debut novelist with her book “The Optimist” soon to be hitting the UK shelves, we asked Sophie to tell us about her new novel, her artistic process and her upcoming exhibition showcasing her series of blind contour art, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN.
Tell us about your process as an artist, where does your inspiration and drive come from?
More than any other time I can recall, my process with this current DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN series is, in a way, the art. The method by which I create my work is what allows me to get somewhere that I otherwise wouldn’t know how to get to. I am just as much surprised by the outcome as anyone else might be. It's spontaneous, exhilarating, unplanned, and uninterrupted by that self-editing doubt that often plagues many of my other creative endeavors. What I think I respond to with this series, or at least what keeps me motivated, is the high I get from completely letting go and being in the moment with the subject. It's incredibly intense. Vulnerable. Intimate. Wonderful. It’s like I found out how detrimental my own head could be to myself, and this is how I escaped from it.
How did you get into blind contour drawing? Did you study art growing up?
I have always taken art classes, from when I was young as an extracurricular activity, all the way to choosing art electives and courses during my time at USC where I studied Journalism. I also took figure-drawing courses at Otis before I started at USC, where I think I was first exposed to blind contouring as it’s an exercise taught to most art students as a hand-eye coordination technique. There was a time I was more focused on writing, but I’d always illustrate my own stories and do pieces here and there for friends and publications. It wasn’t until this series, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN, that I became so obsessed with blind contouring. Now I spend most of my time thinking about what I’m going to draw, and wondering what a certain face would look like, or how I’d recapture images I’d always loved. It’s a wonderful thought to be consumed by.
How did the idea for this series come about?
This series came about very organically, about a year and a half ago, when I was living in London just before moving back home to Los Angeles. I was throwing these dinner parties just as a way to teach myself how to cook, inviting a few friends around to my flat. I had been so focused on writing that I wasn’t making much art at the time. I would do illustrations here and there but I was totally consumed by my book. One night, we ran out of games to play and so I spontaneously came up with the idea of using all those art supplies in my cabinet and told everyone to draw the person across from himself or herself without looking down or lifting up the pen. It was also a way to play matchmaker because I had two friends over that night who were very shy but liked each other, and this game would force them to have to stare at each other without being creepy.
How do you go about choosing your subjects?
It depends on if it's for a commission or for a show. For commissions, most often people will send me photos of themselves, their loved ones or an icon or image to recreate. I just finished a piece of newlyweds that a husband had me do for his wife as his wedding gift to her, using a photo from their engagement. Other times, someone will ask me to do a portrait of Biggie or Bob Dylan, so the subject is decided already. When it's up to me, I spend a lot of time collecting photographs that speak to me on various levels- the vibe, the body language, the face, the subject matter... Starting with the right image is imperative.
What do you hope to communicate in your work? How has your work evolved over time?
For all of my pieces, it’s about trying to capture a vibe that will elicit a reaction in the viewer. I want people to be able to look at a portrait of someone they can recognize, either as a public figure or someone they know, and somehow see them in it even though when they look closely the lines don’t really make sense. For example, in the Marilyn piece, if you were to look at it your brain would make the connection that the chin is fully formed, although it isn’t. We put it together in the way we need to in order to make sense of it, even when the information isn’t there. I’d like to hope my work is evolving in that I’m getting better at being able to capture the vibe of my subjects, but it’s interesting with this technique because it’s almost like the better I become at drawing without looking, the more realistic it becomes, which isn’t all that good. I like when it doesn’t quite work... I want to keep it raw and wild.
You are a visual artist and a writer. How do you balance doing both? Do you tend to spend certain periods on visual art and others on writing, or do you practice both crafts regularly? Do you see yourself more as a visual artist or a writer, or both equally?
I think my writing and my visual art work together to feed each other, fatten each other up. The art helps me to approach my writing with more freedom, from a more instinct-based and emotional perspective, less heady; while my writing helps my art because it forces me to have to make clear choices to make it work, especially in that second shading and painting phase. It brings my head back in so it can make sense again. I feel like in the past year and a half, I’ve put so much attention on my art while I was trying to get my book published that it definitely felt like my attention was more skewed towards my art, but now that my book is getting published with Unbound and beginning to move into production, I’ll be shifting once again. But this time, I will need to find a balance as they are all important to me. I definitely honor both parts equally as they are both very important sides of my creativity. What would one be without the other?
Tell us about your book, "The Optimist." Where did the idea for this book come from? Have you always planned on writing a book? How was the process of writing it?
“The Optimist” has been a true passion project from the beginning. I wanted to write a book with a protagonist we aren’t usually confronted with, but to whom we can relate. It’s about a delusional girl trying to find love, and is an absolute farce, but it’s in the absurdity of her character and action that I hope people will find not only humor but a shared, sort of lost humanity of it all. So many characters we read about, in these sorts of stories of finding love, are about timid, fantasy-prone, meek women whose active and vibrant fantasies are never executed in real life. I wanted to see someone act on them, as if the barriers of social normalities weren’t there... I began writing this character while I was taking a short story class at UCLA about 4 years ago. I was nannying for my friend’s kid at the time, and had to take her to these gymnastics classes. Her daughter is a perfect character: charming, hilarious, insane, fun, kind, all the good stuff. We became such good friends (she was five). So I’d spend all this time with her and I started building stories around it...
When I moved to London, I signed up for a writing seminar at The Society Club which included having a literary agent, named Carrie Kania, read one of our stories. I sent her another story with the same protagonist on a different adventure – where Tabitha signs up to be a volunteer at the Braille Institute because she hears that blind men make great lovers. Carrie loved it and encouraged me to continue developing Tabitha as a novel... Cut to a few years later, Carrie is now my agent and The Optimist is about to be published by Unbound in the UK!
What for you is the ultimate purpose of art and expression? What do you get from the process that you cannot get in any other way?
I think it’s a way for us all to connect to each other on a different level, using a different language, about things that are otherwise hard to explain or pinpoint. There’s also this wonderful thing that happens in the space between two strangers who are reacting to the same piece of art at the same time in the same space. There’s life there. I think the process allows me to connect with people, both subjects as well as when I’m talking to people who are looking at my pieces, in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. It’s a language, forming these connections and bridges between people who might not otherwise talk to each other.
What for you is the most important piece of art you have ever experienced?
It’s hard to narrow that down, as there are so many pieces that change us. There was a painting of a cow my parents had on our front gate in the house I grew up in. It was, by itself, a beautiful painting, but it represented home to me. Every time I’d come home from traveling, I’d see that painting the minute I would turn the corner to drive up the street. Art can represent something so powerful to us on such a small level. On a larger scale, I had a very visceral reaction to the architectural phenomenon that is the Taj Mahal when I was traveling by myself around India. Of course I was prepared for its greatness, but what shocked me, what I wasn’t prepared for, was its ability to disorient me with its magnitude, its play on depth perception. I’d never really been affected by architecture before or taken note of its ability to cause such a reaction in me... I love how art can do that. It can actually shake you down and change your chemistry.
What are you working on at the moment?
My upcoming show, called The Tortoise and The Hare, is on Sunday, July 24th in North Hollywood at this amazing recording studio called Larrabee, so I’m frantically trying to prep for that as well as finish commissions. I’m also now about to plunge into the editorial and production stage of “The Optimist”, for which I’m doing all the illustrations as well as cover design. A lot to keep me busy, for which I’m so grateful.
What is your definition of beauty?
We are programmed to be drawn to beauty from a natural, evolutionary standpoint; it’s engrained in us. But defining it is what’s interesting. I think, in an effort to break down what it is to me, I’d say beauty is in finding something that we connect to, something that makes us feel a belonging to something bigger. Something that connects us. A humanity, maybe.
What do you think is the most important thing for an artist to do for the advancement of their work and career?
Continue to be open, engaged, aware. Searching for whatever it is that ignites emotion in us. As long as there's a curiosity, there is change and there is movement. Complacency is the killer.