Mercy and Truth

The Real and The Ideal: Opposing Forces or Best Buds?

Or, What Shaving My Beard Taught Me About Art

I did something rash on Friday. I got carried away in my beard-grooming, and now it is gone. My beard is literally my identity (just look at my logo). It’s been years since I’ve seen my actual jawline, the actual shape of my face. Now I know why I have embraced the beard. Suddenly I am the shell of the man I thought I was. If you own a cat, imagine shaving its fur off. That is the real cat beneath the fur. The fur coat is what makes the cat cute and cuddly. The coat is an interface, a way of mediating between the raw truth of the cat (hairless rat-like creature) and our ideals of what the cat should be (cute and cuddly). I am now a hairless cat. My beard was an interface, mediating between the raw truth of my bone structure and pale features and whatever it is I am perceived to be to others, and to myself when looking in the mirror.

Mostly, I miss my beard and can’t wait for it to grow back. For now, however, I see this as a chance to check in with myself. Who am I? Am I myself without a beard? I still feel the same inside. It’s only when I see my reflection that I am faced with someone less familiar, or from my distant past. For most of my life, right up until about 30, I sported a beardless face. Somehow, over the past decade, my beard has become more than hair that grows out of my face. It’s become inseparable from who I think I am and who I want to be to others. The beard adds inches to my jawline. It makes me look more substantial and authoritative. In my mind, it makes me look more approachable and interesting. As one with very pale skin (especially in the winter) and eyebrows and lashes so blonde as to be barely imperceptible, I feel naked, almost alien. I have to be sure to acknowledge this feeling is mostly a reaction of the part of me that so closely equates my identity with my appearance. It’s like the feeling when you take one step too many at the end of a flight of stairs. It is a jarring experience to encounter the absence of something you’ve grown to expect or rely on.

By now you might be wondering what this has to do with illustration. Can I tie this back to art? Naturally, I’ve been thinking about that. It’s really something to do with the relationship between The Real and the The Ideal. On the one hand, you have the raw truth about something, and on the other, you have some kind of cosmetic adjustment to it that makes it more palatable. There’s what we have, and then there’s what we desire. This idea is at play throughout all of life, and so of course you’re going to find it in art as well. In fact, I imagine that art is really just a concentrated manifestation of this principle. After all, art is a root word of artifice. Art is where we aim for a balance of the real and the ideal. We somehow must communicate through the familiar, through forms that reference the real, but add layers that make the experience of the real new, by idealizing, reshaping, stylizing, face-lifting, beard-growing.

In art, architecture and design, there has long been a dichotomy between truth to materials (or subject) on the one hand and ornamentation (or stylization) on the other. Do you lay down real hardwood flooring or go for laminate? Should a church be maximally ornate, or minimal and modern? Which one speaks to the divine more? Should paintings be naturalistic and as realistic as possible, or should they be more abstract and expressive? What should be elevated: the objective or subjective?

Is there more virtue in drawing with pencil on paper than doodling in Procreate? Is a physical painting, with all its visible, non-undoable flaws more valuable than a painting perfectly composed in Photoshop?

As illustrators, I think we all have this dialogue as we develop our own art. We wonder if we should be trying more physical media. We wonder if our style is hand-influenced enough. We wonder if our work is too expected and controlled. (Maybe I speak for myself). There is one thing I have observed over the years about art, and that is the ever-present tension between chaos and order. Art that resonates the deepest has a perfect balance of the two. I have found that in my own work, the pieces I like best, and the ones that seem to gain the most interesting reactions, are those that have an exaggerated sense of freedom and chaos, which is tempered by a sense of skilled restraint. It’s like I let a monster out but gave it a time limit before it had to return, before it caused too much chaos. An artist becomes skilled at controlling their own chaos without letting it destroy them. We open the lid on Pandora’s box without letting go completely. It’s harder to do this than either keeping it closed tight or letting it open up completely. This is the edge we artists must find and fight to stay on all the time.

A few months ago, as a favour, I was taking some photos of hand-painted icons for a priest. He was present as I shot the photos in my improvised lighting studio, and he was there to see how I took the flawed raw photos into Photoshop to perfect them. Photos that were meant to be straight-on and perfectly lit, without dust, scratches and glare, were on an angle, distorted by the camera lens. With a few simple tools in Photoshop, I was able to correct the flaws and end up with some decent production-ready photos of the icons. “Mercy and truth have kissed”, he said, citing a verse from the Psalms. For him, it was a passing remark. For me, it was a pithy summarization of what I am constantly striving for. I have all these raw skills and abilities, that on their own, are not entirely useful or palatable. But then I have a few techniques and filters (figuratively speaking) that allow me to bring together the raw materials in compelling new ways.

Some artists have more talent with the raw materials. They are able to work with physical media and create marks with immediate perfection. The mercy and truth, the real and the ideal are formed together in one stroke, at the source. For me, I have to let out more chaos in raw format, and then make decisions afterward that bring them together in more ordered ways. I have to contend with a less perfect reality first, and then engineer it into something ideal.

Circling back to the beard (in a very forced segue), my beardless face is the real. It’s at least in some way closer to a “raw truth” than when it’s adorned by my beautiful, golden fringe. The beard is not a lie, but a frame. It bolsters my jawline, not in a deceitful way, but as a more malleable part of my truth. I can’t control the structure of my face, but I can mold and shape the hair the grows from it.

(This beard analogy is such a stretch, but I’m going with it today).

Maybe our raw talent or abilities or whatever it is that comes from us in its most unfiltered format is like the unbearded face. It’s there, take it or leave it. Our skills and techniques—ultimately what we mean when we talk about our style—is like the beard. We find ways of naturally extending the raw truth. We let it grow and then trim it in just the right way to appear natural but controlled.

(I’m sorry, the beard analogy is definitely falling apart!)

So I guess I have two ideas circling around here. First, I have the idea of The Real vs. The Ideal (order and chaos, truth and mercy, hand vs. digital, etc.). Second, I have the idea of being more acquainted with the raw truth, of embracing it. This is mostly what I was getting at with the beard story. And to tie these two things together, I think there is value in knowing the underlying truth of things, as much as possible at least. When we know what our foundations are, we can build onto them in ways that are both true and more becoming of them. In practice, this might mean we understand the strengths and limits of our “raw” talent or abilities. Maybe you have clever ideas but aren’t good at drawing (in a traditional sense). Embracing this, working with it, growing from it, you can do what artists like Nathanial Russel or Hervé Tullet do. Or maybe you’re both clever and an exceptional artistic technician, like Anita Kunz or Kadir Nelson (lucky you). In both cases, you have to augment a reality to make it presentable and appetizing to your audience. The Russels and Tullets of the world augment the raw truth of their drawing skills, adding cleverness, wit, and commentary. The Kunzes and Nelsons of the world, though they could paint with photographic precision, masterfully tilt their realism toward bigger ideas through conceptual and stylistic shifts.

Neither the conceptual nor the representational approaches lie. Like a well-groomed beard, they skillfully frame what is to come closer to what is desired.

As for me, I’ll be staying away from the clippers for a while.

Illustrator. Creatively Empowering Teacher/Speaker. Represented by Making Pictures/UK & Dot Array/USA. Top Teacher on @skillshare.