Seattle-based creative Antonio Holguin is a designer, artist and maker of things. His current series, Cosmic Cathedral, is a number of stunning space-themed paintings inspired by astrophotography and Greek mythology, caught our eye and we couldn’t help wanting to explore the mysterious frontier further.
Let’s start by talking about your current series. The images and the titles are inspired by astronomy, astrophotography and Greek mythology. How did that come about? Are these all subjects that you feel strongly passionate about?
I’ve been endlessly fascinated by astronomy, astrophysics, quantum physics, and chemistry. I’m not a physicist or astronomer by any means, but I do enjoy learning about those fields as much as possible. I’ve looked for ways to tie my creativity to scientific fields in the past.
Last fall, with a child on the way, I had to find a way to paint that didn’t involve as large of a mess as oils or acrylics. Giving myself a challenge of getting more expressive, and to try to get over a bit of a creative block, I picked up watercolors and started playing. At first that’s all it was: Play. After a couple tests painting animal skulls, my wife suggested I try subject matter that isn’t so grim. I wanted to try to paint photos from the Hubble Space Telescope mixed with geometric designs. Just by pushing and playing, I’ve come to the style I’m creating now.
The Greek mythology connection really started because many celestial bodies, constellations, and NASA missions are named after Greek and Roman myths. I thought it would be fun to do the same.
Needing to find a way to paint with – pardon the pun – less space because of a child is certainly a great motivation! Congratulations on the new addition to your family, by the way. So what does your process for creating these works look like?
None of these paintings have turned out the way they looked in my head. I typically try to start all my work with quick thumbnail sketches to understand composition, yet, with this series, I pretty much just go at it. I’ll stretch out my paper, then pencil lines and shapes. I use hexagons a lot. There’s no real reason other than being able to generate other interesting shapes from the intersecting lines. After drawing out the lines I use watercolors to paint the nebulous look. Sprinkle on the “stars,” then it’s just a matter of laying down the gold or silver paint pen and pushing down the shadows with marker.
For some of the pieces I’ll get it done before matching it to a mythological figure. Many of the pieces I start by researching Greek mythological figures and getting inspired by the stories.
Is it very difficult to part ways with the originals then, since there’s only one?
It really depends if I like the piece. Sometimes I have no problem with giving away a piece for free. Other times I don’t even want to sell it because I like it and want to keep it for myself – or I’ll set the price high and if someone is willing to pay me for it then great, I can always make another. Mostly, handing over a piece just means space to create more.
That’s a fantastic way of thinking about it! So you’re a designer (in UX, UI and IxD) as well as an artist. Do you see yourself more as a designer who also creates art, an artist who designs, or are the two identities inextricable?
I started out as an artist then fell into design. Fine art is a tough market. Graphic and UI design is a never-ending need that pays. My art is personal; it’s my joy, my zen outlet. Design pays the bills. Graphic design definitely has similarities to art: color, composition, balance, weight, etc, with the twist of serving specific client or user purposes – and usually geared towards achieving marketing goals. Interaction design takes graphic design a few steps further with how people interact with the graphic design, the object, or the elements on the screen, among other things. User experience design goes much more in-depth on everything a user connects with with a particular product. UX design includes everything from research to wireframes and sketches to final output and user product studies. Art, in a way, is at the root of all kinds of design. There may not be formal user surveys, but I still have gone through a bit of testing of style, and personal growth, to land on what I’m producing now. Even then, that style is continuously evolving based on feedback from others as well as my own tastes.
How has having that diverse background influenced the way that you approach each?
Growth in one tends to lead to growth in the other. I’ve always been extremely detailed. It’s tough to break away from that need to hone the small elements and get more expressive. Over the last few years I’ve been working on taking a step back and looking at the “larger picture,” seeing the work and the progression from a holistic view-point. It’s easier with design because there are clear objectives from the client and the design can be progressed with statistics and feedback. With art I have to give myself constraints and see each piece as a step in evolution in a concept, or an iteration of the same moment in that evolution. Periodically, I hold up all the pieces in a series, view them as a whole, and assess the progress.
With enough experience you begin to see that the way you approach any creative problem is the same. For everyone it’s different. I like to outline what the objectives and goals are first, find out what others have done with similar projects, gather any statistics that might help guide solutions (typically more important for client design than personal art), then sketch out ideas.
Now that you’ve laid out some of the differences in the way you perceive the various areas as well as the similarities in how you approach them, we have to ask – is there one of these that you enjoy more than the others? Why is it your happy place?
I wouldn’t say that I enjoy one more than the other. They are each enjoyable for different reasons. I find myself often jumping from highly imaginative to stringently systematic. The analytical side tends to constrict itself around the carefree side. Trying to find a balance between the two is tough. My art has always been the best way for me to relax, to clear my mind. It’s for me to enjoy the simplicity of creating. My design is driven by making others happy, or creating a product that others would enjoy using. Design is a way for me to solve puzzles and think analytically about the intricacies of a project whereas my art allows me the freedom to explore my own creative boundaries.
Makes sense. Who do you really admire, in both the realms of art and design?
Here’s a good chance for me to rattle off some names that you may or may not have heard of. These are some of the people that inspire me in terms of my art:
• Libs Elliott does some incredible work quilting generative patterns using Processing.
• Phil Dunne (aka LoveTheRobot) is an illustrator whose work is expressive and just plain fascinating. Seeing his work has pushed me to get more fluid with my own.
• Kim Pimmel is constantly playing with different mediums in his personal work. It’s great to see his fearlessness.
• Sarah Janece Garcia’s paintings are wickedly fluid. She puts motion in her work that make her floral subjects appear to dance.
• Justin Kramer (aka AngryBlue) creates insanely detailed illustrations that have made me want to expand my other illustration style.
My wife is always encouraging me to keep creating. I also have a number of dear friends who are excited about the art I create and with whom are great for bouncing ideas around. The truest inspiration is when people get excited about my work.
As for design, although it may sound cliché, I try to keep Dieter Rams’ principles of good design in mind.
That’s a fantastic list of talented people! You’re currently based in Seattle. How’s the art scene there? The design scene? Is there a sizeable community of creatives working at the intersection of multiple disciplines the way that you are?
The Pacific Northwest, in and around cities like Seattle and Portland in particular, is booming with creativity and technology. Small studios and large companies are spread throughout the city and outlying areas. Many people who work in one field find hobbies and interests in other areas. Most are a mixture of artist, musician, technologist, tinkerer, engineer, photographer, chef, all kinds of creative. Even people I know who aren’t creatives by trade are some form of creative on the side. This area is one of the most creative scenes in the US, so it’s a great place to be as an artist.
Definitely sounds like a great place to be creative! Speaking of the Northwest – you have a degree from the Northwest College of Art. What do you think was the greatest takeaway learned during your time there?
One of the more important lessons from art school came as more of a side effect. My favorite professor called it “working in the round.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant until well after graduation.
In essence, the idea of “working in the round” is all about the level of detail in the piece and how happy and excited you are with the progress. Starting a new piece, with blank canvas staring you down, can be daunting, but exciting and fun. Your idea is fresh and glorious. As you begin to apply the first broad paint strokes, your work loses focus. You might not be able to see your idea as you first thought of it. It looks like a mess. You get upset, maybe even want to quit and start over. But as you keep working, as you keep pushing to the next level of detail, you’ll start to get excited again. You can see the progress. You feel good about it. Then you’ll start the inevitable decline again. It’s ugly. It’s a mess. It doesn’t look like what’s in your head. Just keep working on it until you are excited once more.
The hope is that, as you work, you’ll refine the details and be increasingly happy with your piece. End on a high note, when you feel like there is no more progress, the detail is refined to your liking, and you are happy with the outcome. With enough practice you learn how to ignore the declines, how to not get caught up in the mess, and work through the lows. You’ll be able to keep an eye on the end goal and see the final piece even when you feel like giving up.
Wise perspective! In your opinion, how’s the outlook for the current generation of recent graduates?
There is a ton of work out there. The market is competitive. The demand for good designers, either Graphic or UX, is high. If you’re hoping to get into the field, get to work and show off your best.
On the note of sharing wisdom, let’s finish off with some insights gained from experience. What advice would you give to others looking to balance a career in both art and design?
Whether you’re looking for a career in art or design, you should do a lot of work, read a lot of books and blogs and online magazines, sketch constantly, get involved in the community, get honest feedback about your work*, and take some time to reflect on everything you’ve done. The latter is often overlooked. You might have heard or read Ira Glass’ “Do a lot of work” monologue–maybe ad nauseum. While that is great advice, the best thing you can do while you’re doing all that work is retrospection. Take a look at the work you’ve done, critique it, make changes, evolve it and progress. Challenge yourself to see what works and what can be improved. Never stop evolving.
*From the very beginning, learn how to give and take criticism. It’s very important to get feedback from people you trust to give open, honest, constructive criticism. You also must be open to receiving that criticism. Understand that although your work may feel personal, it’s not. Your work is not an extension of you. Critiques – real, honest ones – are not a criticism of you as a person, but rather an exploration in improvement. There are those who will attack you personally. Learn how to tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism and don’t listen to the destructive ones. Their criticisms are often more a reflection of their own insecurities than the work they are reviewing.
Venture out to Antonio’s Nuvango portfolio to check out more of his Cosmic Cathedral series!
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