This is a repost from WNMU art student, Melissa Noce’s studio blog (MelBee Design Studio):
On a Thursday afternoon several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Karen Carr, a nationally renowned mural artist who specializes in digital illustration for museums like the Smithsonian as well as major publishing companies like HarperCollins. Perhaps you might not know the name, but her dazzling and eye-popping digital illustrations of prehistoric life and dinosaurs, might ring a bell. Learning both the “old school” way of graphic design and the digital hybrid, Karen was educated and inspired by her father, an artist, and her mother, a biologist. Mixing the two, Karen has carved out a niche for herself by creating high-quality murals and illustrations depicting all sorts of wildlife, as well as highlighting the technological skill and knowledge it takes be a real, modern artist:
MelBee: How did you start? What made you pursue digital technology to create your murals?
Karen: Well my father was in it, he was an independent artist from the time I was three or four. For the first ten years after I got out of college, I worked the first two at a couple of agencies, and then I partnered with-junior partner-with my dad for a number of years, then I went out on my own because I wanted to work with museums. We did advertising, illustration, and graphics-commercial graphics for a longtime.
MelBee: So you have a graphic design background?
Karen: That was how I started; I got my college degree in commercial art, and interned in the University’s professional studio-and I grew up with it. A lot of the business portions of it I learned through my dad, also after I got our of college I took some graduate courses in business, accounting, marketing, and statistics. I highly recommend students take some of these courses, whether it’s graduate or undergraduate courses; it’s highly unlikely that you’ll end up employed if you pursue art. You need those business courses.
MelBee: That’s how I felt whenever I started I going to art school; there’s something missing here-you need a little bit more real-world applications. I took an Marketing course, and it’s something I understand, especially from a graphic design perspective-it really applies.
Karen: It should be in your curriculum, and that’s very good for you to think of taking it. And you’re right, it will apply to graphic arts, but it apply to your personal business too.
MelBee: So..when did you start doing what you are doing now? What was it like transitioning from hand-rendered media to digital technology?
Karen: Well after I graduated college [from North Texas University, Denton, TX], the Apple Mac came out; and everything that I learned technically in college, was totally out the door. Overnight, I saw paper companies, printers, and design agencies that for years had been in Dallas-go out of business, because of the Macintosh and PCs. So, first thing I after graduation, was buy a computer. I didn’t use it for illustration for quite some time because I found the speed so frustrating; but my dad, has always been a geek, and from day one as soon as it was available, he was using them. He eventually talked me into it-let’s see I started working for museums in I was 27. I guess when I was 29 he said, “here, use my computer, just try something”. I did one of my jobs in Painter, and I’ve never done one another way since. It’s so wonderful, it was so fast, mobile, and offered so many advantages to the client and to me. I got great results-looked like an oil painting. So, yeah, I really liked it.
MelBee: I remember when I first used Corel Painter-it was so real. I couldn’t believe the feel; I had never painted with oil before, so there wasn’t much to compare. Most of my painting experience has been using acrylic, and when I used it in Painter, oh my gosh, it’s really how acrylic reacts! So it was really a realization that there was a new medium out there…
Karen: Yeah, and the thing is you don’t have to make it look like a conventional medium. You can create things that nobody’s ever thought of before; it’s what comes out of your head that is the product. And anybody that says that it’s not real because it comes out of a computer, is just so out-of-date. Andy Whoral would have done fantastic stuff with this, he would have sat down and went “holy cow”. It’s just what comes out of your head, that you can sit down and do that somebody else hasn’t done.
People that don’t do artwork and people who do do artwork get so hung-up on material and technique. And that’s so unimportant. The important thing is the image at the end…that’s it’s original, it’s yours. Hopefully, it’s good-that’s the important thing. All of the work in the future, that is work for sale, it’s all going to be done this way. It doesn’t mean to diminish, conventional work-I use looms which are thousands of years old and I spin, and I dye, I think it’s a total, wonderful art form-but hardly anybody could afford what I produce because of the hours required. I believe, that’s what painting in oils will become, it’s going to become a very niche area. Which will still be legitimate, still be wonderful, still be beautiful art form, and the good people will be able to sell it for a lot of money, but most people will be working this way.
MelBee: The semester I took the Digital Illustration/Painting class, we got to show our work. I remember experience a lot of mixed feelings and even negativity from some of my fellow peers that were against the whole hybrid form of making art. How did you deal with this issue?
Karen: I had to deal with that. A lot of people had this “magic box” syndrome where you put a quarter in, push a button, and artwork comes out. You just have to say, you know what, I invite you to spend 10 minutes to try to do this, because you’re talking to me out of ignorance because you have no idea how to create art this way. The computer didn’t think of it, I did.
I would never use paints out of a tube; they’d say that’s horrible, how could you mix your own paints. That’s getting too bogged down in the materials, and not concerned about the artwork.
MelBee : Yeah, that’s how I always felt. It’s just a tool to help you create what you want to create.
Karen: That’s right. It’s just another paintbox to help you create. Lots of people can play with it, but only a few people can come out with good results.
Unfortunately at this point, my recorder stopped working and the rest of my interview was lost. However, I will say we covered a number other other issues, like how designers should hold themselves around collecting money to what kinds of programs and processes students should be exposed to. To my surprise, Karen is not only fluent in Painter, but in 3D modeling as well! She showed me a model of a stegosaurus. By creating a 3D replica of a figure, Karen can position it in whatever pose she wants, then she uses that positioned “image” to help her create an illustration, because after all, you can’t exactly walk into the zoo and find a stegosaurus. Karen said she also uses Photoshop for color correcting and rendering her mural pieces. Because the final product is so large, Karen has to create the mural piece by piece, and even then, the files are pretty large.
At the end of the interview, Karen gave me one last piece of advice, in which I will forever keep in my mind. Getting to meet and actually talk to very tech savvy but down-to-earth artist, who has been there, struggled, succeeded, and then have the time to give advice to other beginning artists is very inspiring. Meeting Karen was such an exciting but honoring moment. She’s a perfect example of taking something you are passionate about-no matter the odds or how people view your techniques-and making it work for you.