Q&A: Toyin Odutola on Drawing, Chinese Art, and What It Really Means to Have a Big Head

The portrait artist readies for a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem

You work primarily with pen and ink—are you thinking of incorporating any other tools?
Yeah. I have acrylic ink underneath, markers, ink wash, and I work with a variety of surfaces. It’s all white background when you see it digitally, but the actual surface could be a really glossy board or a really toothy paper and that literally looks completely different in person than when it's scanned and put online. The surface is very important because the tactility of the work is really, really interesting. The geography to me is the story, and when you create something that’s very sort of striated, and heavily layered and textured, that to me is like a story. You read that story through those lines—the surface of that is also equally important. If you have a very rough textured paper, that adds to the story of the face. I hope I don’t do pen ink the rest of my life. I’m sure that’ll probably destroy me in a few years.

You give the viewer access to your work on your site. Why?
One of the reasons I wanted to start the blog is because I wanted to show people the process of the work and also how boring it is. When I started the blog in 2009 there was this sort of myth around artists. Being an artist is not that grand. It’s you, alone in a studio, drawing or painting, and it is very tedious and repetitive. Sometimes you’ll go over things and it won’t look like change, but it is a huge change for you, so I would always update those things on my page. It is a very long process. But that’s why you do it—you do it because you love it.

Do you think people have more of an appreciation for the process since they can see it on your blog?
Yeah. The demystifying aspect of it, I think, really attracts people, ’cause it’s just very barebones. And I tell them each stage, or I play coy. For the most part, I think people appreciate something that's straightforward. I think for some artists it’s better economically for them not to talk about their process, and that’s fine—that’s their business.

Odutola's Bored, Doe-Eyed and Waiting.
Courtesy of Toyin Odutola and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
Odutola's Bored, Doe-Eyed and Waiting.
Toyin Odutola
Courtesy the artist and Studio Museum or Harlem
Toyin Odutola


November 11 to March 10
The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org

How so?
I was talking to someone in grad school and they were like, I would never post my process, someone might steal it.

I don’t know if I decided to take my ballpoint and draw something if that’d work out.
If someone happens to steal my process, good for them, 'cause it’s extremely tedious. If they can do it, I will personally come up to them and hug them and say, “You too, you too—great!” But I like the blog format because it also allows me to backtrack. I can go back and see things from a piece I did a month ago. How did I work that part out? How did I do that? You know, it actually helps me work with future work, so it serves both ways.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
Oh god! How much time do you have? I love Lucien Freud, almost obsessively. I cannot not say Kara Walker, because then I’d be doing a disservice to all black women artists—everywhere. Kerry James Marshall, of course. Gosh! There are a butt-load of Chinese artists, but I can’t remember their names right now. At. All. It’s a shame, 'cause they’re really good. Korehiko Hino, he’s a Japanese painter—really great painter. A lot of Japanese manga, which people would never think, but I love Japanese manga. I’ve read it since I was in grade school, and a lot of my style came from it. Uh, I should give cool answers, shouldn’t I?

No. You don’t want it to be a typical list, you want people to go and look it up. You got Kara Walker in there.
Yea, I got the prerequisites down. But yeah, it’s a variety.

Why the Chinese artists?
One of the things that’s happening now is there are a lot of Chinese artists in blogs and art magazines. And so you read them, and you say, “Wow, that’s visually striking, and it’s so different aesthetically from anything I’ve seen before.” A lot of that work is coming from a different historical perspective, so a lot of what they’re painting, and colors they’re using, and the styles are just a different reference from what a Western-influenced artist has. It’s very inspiring to me because it says I can break the rules and still be aesthetically pleasing.

I really believe formally in work. I think sometimes there’s a lot about the message and not about how formal it is, and beauty—if you dare say the word—they’re very beautiful works. A lot of these Chinese painters and draftsmen and printmakers make just really powerful stuff—very detailed. For me, if you put a lot of detail and a lot of time into the work, it’s a gift to the viewer: I’m gorging on this—it’s so beautiful and luscious! That’s sort of what I’m really interested in—opulence and aesthetic.

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