Charles Urbach is a writer and colored pencil artist with more than two decades of work in design, publishing, and illustration. His work challenges everything you ever thought you knew about colored pencils. While he put some of his art on display in our Art Show last year, this is the first year he has attended JordanCon in person. Check out his panel on "Colored Pencil Techniques for Adult Coloring & Illustration" on Saturday if you want to see him at work, first-hand.
How long have you considered yourself an artist?
I was raised in an artistic family, so in one way or another I've always been involved in creative expression – be it music, theater, or ultimately, the visual arts. In that sense, I've always considered myself expressive across different kinds of media.
The word “artist” tends to be a title other people place on you – usually when you've accomplished something they recognize as relevant or as “art” in the formal sense. For me, that started in grade school when teachers and peers noticed that I was drawing and coloring a lot, although I was also involved in writing, music and other disciplines for many years. Things could have gone in any of those directions, but over time, the visual arts became my focus, with writing a close second. It turned professional when I started working as a graphic designer in the summer after graduating high school. I was fortunate to get a job with a large regional publisher, designing advertising and layouts for newspapers and catalogs. I continued in that field before, during, and after college, building my skills as an illustrator at the same time I was making a living and getting real-world experience as a designer. Eventually I was able to make the jump to illustration full time.
How did you first discover art, or that you wanted to create art yourself?
Some of my earliest memories include a fascination with how things worked and what was inside them. I always had an interest in the story or mechanics behind what you see on the surface. I loved detail, like in Richard Scarry's Busytown books. As a toddler, this was always a facet of my play and the things I was drawn to. For example, I'd build elaborate structures out of Legos with detailed interiors that were completely sealed from the outside except for a single window or hatchway. The idea was that there was some sort of inner life or story going on inside this structure – much like Scarry's work was filled with tiny vignettes of activity. In the beginning, I looked for these things in the toys I played with and book covers or illustrated stories I read. Later, TV, films, and other media added to my exploration. In addition to their main narratives, I was always looking at the backgrounds, or the details of characters' costumes, imagining what all those things meant and what other stories they might tell – or lead to. It was this interest in the world beyond the picture that sparked my desire to create.
Are you a fan of the Wheel of Time? If not, what is your favorite book or series?
I love the Wheel of Time series, although I've been away from it for quite a while. I read “The Eye of the World” shortly after it was published and stayed with the series through “Lord of Chaos.” At that point, my life transitioned from college to work and I wasn't able to follow as many authors as I had prior. In the case of WoT, it was a painful separation. Jordan's world building and characters were enthralling – some of the most richly detailed in all of fantasy. I loved the varied cultures and histories he created – their echoes appear in my work - and I'm looking forward to finishing the series. Attending JordanCon might just be the impetus I need...
What do you see as the primary link between writing and art? (If you think there is one.)
Narrative. Storytelling. World-building. Catharsis. Writing and art are related in their potential to reach inside a viewer (or reader) and connect with that viewer's inner self. They may get there through different mechanics, but the interactions and resulting effects are very similar. It's really just telling stories on different canvases or pages. Drawing with words, instead of colored pencils - or vice versa.
What's the one thing you most enjoy about attending conventions?
Without a doubt - meeting other aspiring creatives and equipping/encouraging them to go forward with their expression in a safe and positive environment.
For most creatives, the academic and professional arenas are filled with unfairness, negativity and discouragement. There are many excuses for and denials of that reality, to the point where many creatives just accept it as the only way to be. It's a sad fact that throughout the artist's life and career, there's almost always someone positioned to tell you your work isn't good enough or you don't have what it takes to make it.
On the professional side, industry and commerce are built around gatekeepers choosing who gets opportunities (sometimes rightly and necessarily, sometimes wrongly, almost always subjectively.) When you realize this goes back to the first time someone (a parent, teacher, internet troll, schoolyard bully...) tells you, “You drew that wrong!” you begin to see a lifetime of acculturation where the artist is taught to be subordinate, submissive, and that she must look outside herself for approval and validation. Certainly, there's a component of learning, practice, and evaluation that's healthy for an artist, and in contract work, there's a mandate to meet a client's needs. But too often, art culture (and art business) take those further, becoming elitist, arbitrary, and dogmatic. Punishing in the name of improvement.
Conventions can offer a powerful alternative; where artists of all kinds can grow, recharge, and renew their creative passions. Through various tracks of programming, sales venues such as art shows, and tolerant fan culture, creatives can bypass the power structure and negativity that accompanies it, if only for a weekend. But during that time, artists can connect with each other and audiences directly, exposing them to possibilities they might otherwise be denied. Those possibilities sometimes grow into opportunities, and those into successes. That's a rare and precious gift. It's what drew me to conventions in the first place.
Conventions are crossroads where creative expression is recognized and celebrated in all its diversity; from the written word, to gaming, to costuming, to music, to visual arts... and beyond. For creative people (me included), there's no better or more enjoyable venue to educate, strengthen, and encourage one another.