USA: Sonny Lee L – Canvas Artist and Digital Painter

I always loved to read comics and I still do, the shelves are packed with X-Men, Thundercats and Ascensions and heaps of boxes are stored in the cellar. While scrolling through social media some month ago I stumbled over this creative guy here from Ohio and checked out his digital abstract comic styled artworks which took my attention. You could say some of his artworks are abstract freak out comics sketches for adults. I loved it and wanted to get in contact with the artists for an interview, so here we go!

Sonny Lee L does paintings with oil and acrylic on canvas, but his focus has switched on digital painting and graphic designing primarily. His works are fantastic with different periods and technique phases. For Sonny there just opened a huge world not only of art made on screens but as well of new and innovative ways of networking and promoting his doings via the internet.

The art world is changing and the digitalization doesn´t stop in front of gallery doors. Of course it doesn´t mean that actual paintings or sculptures won´t be admired anymore or loosing value. As well despite the growing amount of mobile information and the shrinking number of real newspaper and book readers, there will still be printed magazines and literature for a very long time for sure. It just means that technology changes but in an evolutionary way. Galleries have to adapt and learn, they have to add new evolvements and always and ever try to reinvent themselves and redefine what contemporary art could and should be.

Digital painting, photo manipulation or computer art are new fields of being creative, the results can be fantastic works and need their place in exhibitions and galleries, but as well on the market. If the recent half conservative structure doesn´t provide an open space, no worries, the internet does. The biggest gallery we have, and it is for free. That´s what Sonny is using as well extensively. It´s digital art, so let´s make it viral and send it digitally. His Facebook and Instagram page is growing and he is continuously producing and uploading. Meanwhile the artist gets frequently contacted for prints of his works or even for some of the canvases. Sonny Lee L lives in Columbus in the state Ohio but sent already art mail all over the United States and to Canada. Also other countries are possible of course, just contact him if you are interested.

In an informative interview Sonny tells about his development as an artist and his painting techniques. He gives some insight in digital painting, how it is treated in the scene and which are the benefits of the internet for upcoming artists and genres. The conversation is as well written down in the following part.

When did you start painting?

It´s kind of funny. I´ve always been an artist pretty much since I can remember. Since I was two or four years old I basically just draw pictures. And from there I got into comic books and read comic books, you know, I was a kid. But then I started to reproduce the drawings myself. Then my mum noticed early and put me really on it. I´ve always kind of done it and it is part of the work that I am doing now. That started to getting serious kind of out of nowhere a couple of years ago. I got a tablet and had some apps on it and just started doodeling around on paint apps. Just like brainstorm things for lager pieces that I would create on canvas, acrylic and oil paints. Basically the problem I run into, because I have a small apartment here in Ohio, was getting the materials and having a lot of canvas and be able to store all that stuff. You run out of room pretty quickly. And so I started doing it just on the tablet, you know, just some ideas to put a plan and some brainstorming functions. And just for giggles I started posting it on my Facebook page, and that´s when it really took off from there. The first pieces I did like three years ago, they were simply some little hand sketches when I took a picture of myself with the phone and manipulated it with photo editing software. Like the Picsart and basically the free ones you can just pick and get from the Google store. Initially they were meant for, you know, just taking your photographs and kind of manipulating them and retouching the photographs you take. But what I was doing when I took photographs, I was like drawing on them and using this software to kind of manipulate them. That went from drawing and doing that to eventually straight into apps. Basically being more and more abstract and really doing more just the digital version of the exact same kind of thing you do with real paint.

I love comics, I read them a lot. So the base is from comics, you recognize it when you look at some of your work. They are abstract comic sketches more for adults. But you have still the patterns, the comic figures and the style. And you changed it in your own artful way.

Well, thank you! It´s kind of funny, you know, basically it was kind of in my mind. It´s almost if you start with a structure of like the boxes and everything. But I am as well an artist and you want to get out of the box. You want to remove yourself from these kind of structures and be aware. That´s why at some of my works I cross the boxes or it bleeds over or kind of those things. And I´m keeping the emotion, but I´m losing kind of the structure and the real comic panels from the old books.

There are artworks which are literally telling a story in one painting. Like a scene in a comic.

Yeah, and that´s what I wanted to say. Like in beginning of 2018 I started more and more to incorporate words and you see phrases sometimes. And then it went on. You always have the idea about the word bubbles. I allow the words more. Sometimes they are either repeated or spelled not correctly. But I always leave them open. For some people the eyes will go to some of the words more than others. Or they think I want to say something the way how I do the letters. Or it is even open what the word says. But I like to have these random words sometimes and mix them with the color. I mix them with the images and mix them with the competition. And then, you know, I can show the picture to three different people and they are each going to tell a different story of the same stuff on there. I like it to leave it open to interpretation in that way.

It´s a lot to reveal. You put a lot of sediments of painting and pictures on it. You playing with the perspective. On one you play more with the pictures, on the other it looks like a kitchen scene from above, another one looks like an abstract from the detective board game Cluedo. So you do this on canvas and as well in a digital form?

Yes and thank you. That´s what I like to do. The other thing what I am doing especially on the digital way is that I am able to create them in real time. Towards if I run into some of my canvas pieces or when I do my mixed media with pastel an acrylic and mixed media paper, the differences is to bring color with the acrylic paint down, you really need to put the layers down and let them dry. And what I like to do, with the digital ones you don´t have to wait for them to dry. You can basically just do it all in one stream of consciousness and one reaction. I really like to do that.

Is it only paint on your non-digital works or do you use as well other materials? Like plastic or applications to make it look 3-dimensional, or is it only paint?

 At least the recent ones and the ones I have posted are mostly paint. I´ve done some collages. I have got a huge influence from Jean Shabazki from the late 70s and late 80s in New York. He was basically painting on doors and pretty much everything and anything in play. I want to make some pieces where I play with texture by finding anything and incorporating it into the painting. I like some mash or some kind of brillow pad or kind of material and I would put that in there too. I really like the texture and that is something which goes from both. From this and from the digital pieces. There I make it look that there would be kind of a texture and tactile. So when you look at it you can almost feel it. I try to translate that to pretty much all mediums I work in.

Are you only on social media or do you have a website as well?

Currently I am just on social media and I am planing to have website like a dot com hopefully by the end of the year. I have been working the last years on it. And the reason why I wait for a while is that I want to develop to start the website. I want to get enough work. Basically I want to get the amount of work to built it up so I can really start to fill it up. I need to fill it and need to have a fully formed idea what the art is. Just a kind of definition. Because to have a website, that is really defining. And I want to have more work to be able to choose and built a structure before I go online. One wired thing is when you on social media, whether it is Instagram or Facebook or whatever and you post this kind of art. It takes me back to another one of my big art influences which is basically graffiti. And when you think back to New York in the late 70s when they had all this graffiti artists and a lot impact came from that. When you post art and you share it on a site, on Instagram or wherever, it appears scrolling to everybody, they are seeing that and it´s on their news feed. So it´s kind of a digital version of what somebody would do on the side of a subway cart. Or the graffiti in the subways where people are walking by and thinking about their daily business and then they are seeing this art is popping up out of nowhere. In a way when I post on social media I am kind of doing the same thing, because me personally I don´t use my personal Facebook page where I can post personal things, it is literally just the artwork. The only thing you are going to see when my name pops up at somebody´s newsfeed is just a piece of art. I like that idea that it is almost a digital version of graffiti that you are doing on peoples newsfeeds. Which now has so much more social interactions. You are kind of based in that digital world.

It´s just a joke, but you could hack in other peoples Facebook accounts and post your picture on their chronic.

Yeah, take digital graffiti to the next level!

Tell me a little bit about the art scene in Columbus in Ohio. Do you already had exhibitions there and are you in an art group or something like a collective?

Yes we have and do events. Luckily here in Columbus we have the 25th biggest metro media market in the country. So it´s a decent size and it´s not near the largest in Los Angeles and Chicago or New York. But we do have a higher state university here in town which is kind of a big university and brings in more diversity you would normally get in the Midwest of the United States. And what we have done was basically through a Facebook group. We called it “The Art and Artists of 614” which is the area code here. They have these groups all over the country. But through there we first wanted to post only locally and I have some really good friends from there and we bend together. We have meetings in local Jazz Bar and every once, every couple of weeks we checking in with each other, checking what the other is doing. We talk about our work and share it. The thing that is unique here that me and another friend, Marcus P. Blackwell, he is also an artist that was primarily in print work and does now a lot of digital work, it is that we find it is all over the world not only in Columbus, but the standard gallery structure of art, you know, the kind of sort people put into the galleries and that. It´s been really awkward of how they treat digital artists in the gallery world. Because the way the art structure is set up in pricing and value and large pieces that one of their kind and handmade, you know, that there is only one of them. There is only one Mona Lisa. Those are painted only one time. And it powders the art world. And something which is digital, it can be printed of course so then it is a print, but it is still digital made. Especially with the standard gallery structure it is kind of wired. I don´t know if it is real or not anymore, but I think it is kind of changing.

There is not that much a stigma anymore against digital art, but there is still the feeling of inside art circles that digital art is something like lesser than like your standard canvas large scale piece. And what we and a couple of my other friends have done, I have been in a couple of shows and group galleries and basically collectives. We have a place called “Wild Loose Collective” that is here in Columbus. It´s a collective art space, they have different things and I was there with a couple of those. And just now, starting last month until August, there is a local hair salon here that is a young hip hair salon. And I am actually showing six of my pieces in there from now until August. This is kind of more nontraditional. Because you know it is more a familiar kind of coffee shop, like a hair salon. And at this place as well some local and digital art. I focus more on that. And I think it is funny as well, because when you look on social media. Before that, like 20 or 25 years ago and with like the old structure of the art galleries. If I would have been an artist then I wouldn´t have made my art. To get anyone to see it, you have to put it into a gallery and hang it so people can actually see it. But now the good thing about social media is that it is kind of democratizing an entire process. Anyone can make any piece of art and post it online. And there it goes directly to people. So you don´t need gallery. What digital art and art is going through now is kind of like the music went through 30 years ago. You had record companies that controlled everything and made everything on tape. Now you have kids making digital files in their bedroom and they put it straight up online on Soundcloud and all those things and people find it there or on Youtube.

The possibility to reach the audience is so much bigger.

And that´s why I focus more on the digital style and less on my other works. You know, like going and doing and making an effort to get it into galleries. Just for an example, just through my Instagram and my Facebook I get to work out there. People comment, people follow me and then basically they contact me and want to have prints or other works. And I have been able to sell prints all over the United States to Canada. Just from that alone, but it´s very personal. You know, somebody is contacting me personally, and me is making a print and sending it to them. I think that is a much better way, because what I noticed in what I believe in what my art is, what I saw in the last 15 years, the art scene is getting really small in towns. And they are almost start to cannibalize themselves. You know they just order some preprints sometimes or small ones from me, and it is just from an average kind of person that would still like art. That person feels like shut out of the scene almost in the whole process. There are these galleries generally and you know, we have like our little gallery area here, it´s just an area of Downtown, but it´s very hard to park down there and it´s not very inviting to anybody to just go there. And I find sometimes the art scene is kind of a hole.

There are different understandings of what art is or should be or can be.

Yes, I think to have the strengths and really the life blood and the juice and the energy that keeps going, is to keep it someway pure. You know, I make the art first and soli to express my art and myself. And then I am putting it out there and people either like it or they can connect with it. And they do it that way. That keeps the entire process real and I think it´s really reflecting the world. I think it works better because of it. The way I work, I make between three and seven finish pieces a week when I post them off. You know, I am pretty prolific. And to think of switching that to the standard kind of art gallery thing, to be exclusive to one gallery and usually galleries don´t want you to present on different places. It kind of hurts the galleries ability because they want you to be exclusively there and they don´t want you to work as much. So once you started playing that game and you are not working as much towards. That to me is just a small scene of people that want to be famous more than they actually want to express themselves and to be with people.

Without social media we wouldn´t have this conversation right now from Germany to the other side of the planet. Via the internet it´s much easier, because I think in a gallery we wouldn´t have met soon.

Yes, and that is what I´m thankful for. Looking at art and especially connections and getting it out there, it is a new and different way. That´s kind of like, oh, what I am interested in? And I am just like creating and staying connected on a ground level to real people that enjoy art. I also play music in a lifelong music band and I like it to play music and everybody gets together. We have some Rock bands which are very potential but the music is just for these very small group of people around this band, and then we have like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Sieger songs they played in a bar all the time. But art, art doesn´t have that kind of thing towards that. You can have normal art for people that enjoy it. You know, everything kind of has to be pretentious and I want to eliminate that and just stay connected to real people. Pretty much everything I do I post as I do it. It´s all up there online.

Very cool, Sonny, thank you for the nice interview and we keep on following your art!

Thank you for your time, it has been a good conversation and I´ll just keep creating and keep living!



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