Mt. SAC Interview

A Conversation with Marshall Vandruff

by Fatemeh Burnes,
Mt. San Antonio College Art Gallery Director and Curator

The genesis of this exhibition was my introduction to Marshall Vandruff in the 1980s by my colleague, Don Hendricks, while we were both teaching at Fullerton College. At that time, Marshall was already establishing a reputation for being an accomplished artist. It felt as though everywhere I went, I would run into someone who knew Marshall and would speak of his work and teachings with superlatives, such as “amazing”, “masterful”, and “incredible”.

As Marshall honed his artistic skills at Fullerton College and amassed a collection of work, I became more curious about his techniques and processes. I remember being mesmerized by the incredibly minute and infinite details of his sketches and his ability to artfully weave those details into fantastic characters. Playing the secret critic, I would sometimes attempt to challenge a work selected at random by putting a particularly heavily — sketched portion of one of his characters under close scrutiny. Each time, Marshall (and his character) defeated the critic in me so that when I stepped back and viewed the work in its totality, I would have an added measure of appreciation for its creativity, detail, and vitality. It was as if the character subjected to my critique retorted: “See! I am real.”

It has been almost 30 years since my introduction to Marshall. In that time, I have discovered that he has a passion about his art and his teaching. When given the opportunity to have a solo exhibition with just his work he immediately began naming students and colleagues who along the way had inspired and challenged him as an artist. He wanted to share the stage with these people, creating a link and visual dialogue of the mutual influence they have had on one another. The result of that beneficence is that the exhibition features an exhilarating display of 14 artists. I hope their work instills you with the same sense of appreciation of their talent and creativity that I have.

Fatemeh Burnes: You started drawing in sketchbooks in 1997. Why?

Marshall Vandruff: To loosen up. My drawing style had become so tight that it choked off my ability to draw freely and easily, so I set out to fill a sketchbook with lots of messy drawings to get beyond finickiness. I never gave a thought to displaying them. They began as exercises, and they evolved into my visual journal. And I appreciate you recognizing them before I’m dead.

FB: How much do you credit your work to natural talent or is it solely hard work?

MV: It’s both. I work hard to make up for where I lack talent, and I work hard to make the most of the talent I have.

FB: You believe in talent?

MV: I’ve been teaching in college for longer than most of my students have been alive, and they’ve proven to me that talent is real. Some students can barely “get it” no matter how hard they try, and others run with it quickly. There’s an advantage to not believing in talent — it can prompt us to work hard for our mastery rather than relying on a gift, but I’ve seen such varying ability to draw and paint that all doubt about the existence of talent is erased forever in my mind.

I’ll give an example from my own experience. I found I had a talent for making gradations with graphite. I was eighteen years old when my teacher Don Hendricks showed me how he used graphite pencil to make these beautiful smooth gradations — I had never seen anything like them — they looked like airbrush — and within a few months of practice, my graphite pencil technique came up to a level of mastery that never needed to improve. But I’ve seen students who just can’t make smooth gradations. At the same time I have struggled with color, even though I’ve done a lot of color work for thirty years. I even teach color. But some students whom I’ve taught color theory have surpassed me quickly because they are talented colorists with a knack for making good choices. As much as I believe in putting ten thousand hours into developing raw material, some raw material is better than others.

But what is the point of trying to discern what part is talent, what part is training, what part is luck, and what part is discipline and determination? We can’t know our talent until we work hard to bring it out.

FB: You definitely glorify the past and Masters. Also, you are so connected to the industry, here and now, working with technology. How do you keep the values from the past, yet be open-minded to changes?

MV: By building on the past. We have a rich heritage, but we’re surrounded by plastic trinkets that displace the gold and silver of past masters. Trinkets are easy, treasure takes work.

That’s how I help students — I unearth lessons from the past to apply to the present, and in a specific niche — the popular and entertainment arts. My students design animation, film and game worlds. They make up environments from their imaginations, they light them to create a mood, they design creatures and characters. These artists need to know anatomy and perspective and light on form and how to invoke a mood with color and light — those are all old skills, even if they’re using new media.

We’re assuming that these pictures are going to be somewhat realistic — they may be cartoon pictures, or children’s books, stylized or simple, but they are representational. You enter a world, whether it is a Dr. Seuss world or a Bernie Wrightson world and you believe that it’s real. That’s where my love has always been — illustration, stories, comics. That’s where my love still is. Those are the people I teach. The new old masters.

FB: Where do you think the art is going?

MV: I don’t know. I leave that to the cultural observers and theorists, many of whom dismiss entertainment and the popular arts. Much of what I champion is low brow, but I’m not too concerned about that. I do care about what you mentioned earlier. That we learn from the past, but we don’t repeat the past.

FB: I have been teaching drawing for twenty plus years, and in the fine arts, essentially everything we teach students is perceptual — looking at things, drawing what you see, and learning how to see. When the students come in, they want to draw what they think, and it’s fascinating when the two come together. You learn what to see and then where do you take it? How you can bring your subconscious to deliver that visual poetry?

MV: We always balance what we see with what we want to see. We look around us and choose our inspirations, which can be familiar. I’ve always lived in the suburbs. I was born in Anaheim and lived in Orange County my whole life, I never knew any different and I always thought I should go to some other world, the desert or Europe or Hawaii or some exotic other place to find inspiration, but in fact the suburbs are a strange and marvelous resource that I didn’t appreciate until I noticed, while watching a Steven Spielberg movie, that suburbs are this fascinating world of people who live in neighborhoods with cars and driveways and sidewalks and lawns and bushes and sprinklers. The first part of Edward Scissorhands also gave me that insight — what a strange world I lived in. But any world can inspire. I have a friend who was raised in trailer parks that inspire him. Beatrix Potter was an English girl with countryside surroundings and she used those in her stories. Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor use small-town middle America. Woody Allen uses New York.

But we aren’t limited to the familiar. We can seek out the new and exotic. For me, that happens in museums. I’m a museum junkie. Even though I’m not a sculptor, sculpture thrills me and prompts me to draw. Old bones do the same. Old machinery. The Natural History Museum is my treasure chest of inspiration.

I’m also really big on dreams because that’s where the most personal imagery seems to emerge. Most of the creative people I know are vivid dreamers — they generate pictures whether they’re awake or asleep. Imagery that comes up from within is a rich resource that affects style and content, and that’s a reason to keep dream journals, which my sketchbooks are to some extent.

FB: That’s the creative part — having images in mind — but then there must be the ability to represent those images.

MV: Yes — that’s the balance. Art education has two sides; one is the technical aspect — skills like the ability to draw realistically without having to copy, skills like anatomy and form and control of the medium, skills that the old masters took for granted. Once we get anywhere near their level, we then want to do something that they never dreamed of. We do that by following our instincts. That’s the other side of educating an artist — not just to produce technically slick work, but to create work that is unique and fresh. I think a lot of that comes out of the subconscious, through insights, hunches and impulses, even through moods — mischief or depression, anger or glee. And it has a lot to do with what images we feed ourselves.

FB: With your delicate beautiful sketches and your sketchbooks, do you ever project them in your mind or have the urge to see them differently, going out of your comfort zone?

MV: How do you mean specifically? As finished pieces?

FB: I’m not calling them unfinished pieces. What I’m asking is, have you ever looked at your pieces on a larger scale, projected or painted? You teach the Masters and you know all their different approaches, does this have any practical aspect?

MV: Yes. I have turned some of those sketches into color pieces — into posters. Not paintings so much as colorized drawings.

FB: Have you ever thought about painting them, totally changing your medium? For example you were saying you have never been a colorist… so challenging yourself?

MV: I have tried, but I’m in better territory drawing than painting. I painted realistic airbrush illustrations for ad agencies for twenty years. I’m proud of some of that work but I got tired of the rendered realism, and more expressive painting doesn’t feel fit for me.

Let me make an analogy. A musician may love to compose at the piano. Mussorgsky never meant for Pictures at an Exhibition to be orchestrated — he composed it for the piano, and that was enough. After he died, Ravel orchestrated it, which meant turning the left and right hand notes of the piano into different instruments and making all sorts of decisions about whether these high notes are going to be piccolos, violins or whatever they are going to be. That was Ravel’s gift and his love. I’ve found that I am much more like a pianist with my graphite pencil and paper. My next love will be pen and ink, which I haven’t mastered.

FB: So you are challenging yourself.

MV: I’m challenging myself with pen and ink, but pen and ink is a single instrument. It’s not like an orchestra, which is how a painting feels to me. It gets out of my range. I do it enough to remind myself why I respect painters — I know what their job is like, but it’s not where I can do my best work. I’d rather draw.

FB: The quality of what you are working with is so important. In order for you to be free and to express yourself you need to depend on your ability to deliver that quality. You won’t sacrifice that.

MV: I’d rather speak in a voice that feels comfortable, rather than in a voice that doesn’t. At least most of the time.

FB: Do you play any musical instruments?

MV: Not at all.

FB: But you love music?

MV: I love music. I never played a musical instrument as a kid. I never took lessons. But when I first heard the Beatles as a kid, I went crazy for them and for rock ‘n’ roll in general. Then 70’s rock came in and it was on my mind all the time — I was drunk on rock ‘n’ roll, it was just thrilling. Somewhere at about nineteen I started to feel like my head had been hammered so hard by heavy metal that I sought an alternative, but I didn’t know what the alternatives were. I began checking out records from the library and found that certain composers, Bach, Handel, Mozart and Haydn, which I now know were Baroque and Classical, were easy to like. I also found that I had to listen to them over and over to “hear” them — I couldn’t make a judgment on first listening, but if I listened to a piece between ten and twenty times I began to catch the complexity of those melodies enough to respond to them. I pursued it through several eras, from Baroque to Classical to Romantic — I fell in love with the romantics and then moved into the 20th century, and it wasn’t until about six years ago, when my son was twelve or thirteen that we discovered vintage jazz. I’d heard bits of jazz all my life, but didn’t respond to it until I bought this little CD collection of 1930’s and 1940’s pianists like Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson… just these wonderful, wonderful talents. We listened to those CD’s over and over for months and when we began to hear how great they were, we started collecting jazz CD’s and I got drunk on vintage jazz and then later blues like I used to be drunk on rock ‘n’ roll and like I’ve been drunk for three decades on classical and still am. I listen to Beethoven and Schubert constantly — I’ve been living in Schubert every day for hours and it becomes unspeakably beautiful over time…. but I’m supposed to be talking about art, not music.

I don’t see these styles from a musician’s point of view because I’m not a musician. I am purely a fan, and not just of music but of musicians who articulate their creative process. Listening to musicians talk about how they get their ideas, and their balance between technique and creativity, their inspirations and influences, all of that is perfectly analogous to training artists, and analogies make learning fun.

We could make analogies between food and art. When teaching watercolor, cooking is a fit analogy because, like watercolor, it’s about timing. You can’t leave it in the oven too long or too short and it’s got to be the right temperature. You arrange the meal as a composition and your ingredients are very important — this kind of paper doesn’t work with this kind of pigment… all of that stuff. But I’m not a cook, and I know little about food and can’t pronounce the names of fine wines, so let’s move to another topic.

FB: Tell us a little bit about Marshall, maybe your early life. Were there any influences in your early upbringing?

MV: My first powerful artistic influences were children’s books. I got my view of how a picture should look from Dr. Seuss. As I got a little older, it was 1960’s television shows; Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, Twilight ZoneMod Squad, gosh — Mod Squad was a huge influence on me, personally — I wanted to look like Peter, I wanted to act like Linc, and I was in love with Julie. They were bigger-than-life icons to me, but their influence was personal, not artistic. The paintings around our home, most of which were kitsch, influenced me badly. I drank them in on bored afternoons and I may never transcend their effect. But there were advantages. We had a friend, Faye Garriott, who made paintings out of bubble gum. She had the kids chew the gum, then she’d dye it and create serious scenes out of bubble gum — we had a couple of those in our home. That gave permission that it was okay to mess around with any medium, so things like that had an influence even on my commercial work — I wasn’t afraid to experiment with anything to get an effect. I tell watercolor students that you can make a great watercolor with coffee and berry stains. Not that you should, but that you could.

Well somewhere in my early life I discovered influences that my parents disliked, and to this day I have regrets, but my older brother had those models designed by Big Daddy Ed Roth, who drew this character called Rat Fink — a monster rat on a hot rod, and it so thrilled me in my boyhood that it forged my taste and I’ve hardly moved beyond that. Also, the MAD comics from 1951-54 that were reprinted in books like The Mad Reader and Bedside Mad had these rather vulgar (though tame by today’s standards) styles that I pored over. I wanted to draw like those artists — Bill Elder and Wally Wood and Jack Davis. Now this was in my pre-teen and early teen years where I began consciously aiming my attention and defining the kind of art I liked. At the age of eighteen, Don Hendricks introduced me to MC Escher’s work and I went crazy for it — I thought it was the greatest thing that ever happened. Psychedelic 70’s rock album covers had a similar effect, especially the Hipgnosis team who designed Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd covers. I sought out every Frank Zappa cover to study it, aching to do strange and funny work like that. And of course, Rick Griffin. Even now, I feel like I’m in the stylistic wake of Rick Griffin.

Those artists influenced not only my imagery, but my techniques and materials. Dr. Seuss used pen and ink and sometimes watercolor. Rick Griffin and the MAD artists used pen and ink. With Escher, though it may have been lithograph crayon on stone, it was graphite pencil on kid-finish Bristol as far as I was concerned. Even his woodcuts and linoleum work looked, to me, like pen and ink. I chose those media for the same reasons a young musician who loves rock and roll chooses a guitar over a cello — they seemed fit for my tastes.

Another influence was Durer — what a great draftsman and visionary! But there is something odd about his pen drawings and woodcuts — they’re awkward. I have a good deal of that awkwardness in my work and I wonder how much of it is because Durer was the first artist I copied. All those early favorite artists influenced me for better and worse, and I can’t shake them any more than you can shake your family mannerisms when you’ve spent so many years immersed in them.

When I started teaching, I discovered artists like NC Wyeth, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Rembrandt, George Bridgman, Michelangelo, Heinrich Kley and others whose work I barely knew before teaching. They’ve hardly affected my style, but they are the richest resources I can offer students to nurture them with great work. They put feeling into form. They mastered their craft and let life flow through it.

Let me use Van Gogh as an example, because even though I knew his work, I didn’t see what he had to offer until I was 29 years old. I was in Paris alone for five days in 1987 and I didn’t speak French so I didn’t talk to anybody for five days, which means that Marshall, who talks and talks, shut down that part of his brain that talks. All I did was look at art and read. After three days I went to the d’Orsay, walked into a room where The Church at Arles was on display, and it may have been that all the energy that I normally put into talking got transferred into perceiving, but that painting washed over me — this happened in a split second — my whole consciousness rocketed back to what it was like to be a baby, not a small child, but a pre-language baby looking out the window at the world from the car when my parents were driving us somewhere at night and seeing that the world was not things you could name like a church or a fire hydrant or a street corner or a tree or a window or a lamp because there were no words when I was a baby — there were only sensations of color and light and the rules of perspective didn’t mean anything — it was just this flurry of moving streaks of color and swimming shapes and bobbing lights that gave me magical feelings. The Church at Arles sent me right back into that baby-state for maybe three or four heartbeats. It was an artistic epiphany. My work has never looked like Van Gogh, probably never will, but his painting came alive to me and gave me insight into what art is about — to see the world through an emotional lens and to get that vision into form so that another person looks at that piece and feels those feelings. Even an insensitive viewer may get a little bit of it. A sensitive viewer will get more. If, as artists, we can do that, our viewers will experience the world not through our eyes so much as through our emotional interpretations of it.