“. . . it’s really on a flat white surface that I’m able to search for truth and understanding”
I met Adam Doyle at the “turn of the millennium,” while working as the artistic director of the Virtual Theatre Project (VTP). Adam did a lot of artwork for VTP; in fact, he helped us define ourselves in visual imagery. He is a wonderfully imaginative artist, able to capture and convey, in magical strokes of his pen or brush, the essence of a play, thought, whimsy, story, or product and, in our case, a company. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Adam recently returned to his native Boston, after living in Rhode Island, Rome, LA, New York City, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. I met with Adam in Boston in the fall of 2013 to ask his advice on a project of mine, and to get current on his projects and thoughts. Subsequently, I sent Adam an interview questionnaire about his life as an artist, and this is the result.
Kim Terrell: James Baldwin once said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. That’s why I write.” Why do you paint?
Adam Doyle: Because sparrows fly and scorpions sting; it’s my nature. I enjoy it, and decided long ago to commit to it fully. It’s an escape, and it’s work. It engages my attention fully, and it’s part of something larger than myself. When I was in the fourth grade, I switched schools and discovered that drawing was part of making friends. I drew on the covers of my notebooks, and other kids asked me to draw pictures on theirs. For me, there’s always been a facet of image making that’s about connecting with people. When I sketched statues in Rome, locals loved to look over my shoulder and nod with a “bravo!” Now my stuff is on books, the internet, and tattooed on bodies. It’s really something that this discipline transcends identity and language, and can be personal to anybody anywhere.
I paint as a way to explore. Wandering through a forest or getting lost in a city is fun, but it’s really on a flat white surface that I’m able to search for truth and understanding. I like art, because it shares in the questions of science and religion: How do we see the world? Why are our experiences meaningful? Why do we need stories? Painting is being in a place of wonder.
Illustration suits me well, because every project is a problem to solve. I notice that I tend to bring an openness to my illustration projects, so that the images feel like they’re part of something larger. Likewise, the paintings I do for myself inherit traits of a narrative thread that’s sewn through my work.
Kim Terrell: Is this “narrative thread that’s sewn through your work” an ongoing conversation you are having with life?
Adam Doyle: Yes.
Adam Doyle: The most joy comes when I do something that really feels alive—something that, when shared, people are moved by. There’s a kind of “pop” that I’m always hunting for when painting, a moment that marks the transition from raw paint to an animal with a pulse. Over the years, I’ve been riding that edge, continuing to push the realism of the rendered form away from the realistic to the abstract, while still keeping the aliveness.
Kim Terrell: Do images have to maintain a ‘certain realism’ to keep their aliveness?
Adam Doyle: That’s a good question. I’ll try to clarify by saying that in order to capture an objective, relatable figure, say, a fox, it needs to look real to feel “alive.” If the fox is abstracted, say as was done with cave art, the lines and form of the fox can definitely convey “aliveness.” This isn’t a rule, and there are exceptions. I’m speaking here to the intentionality behind the range in my work.
Kim Terrell: What brings on sorrow, or is the most challenging, with respect to painting and creating?
Adam Doyle: There are plenty of frustrations that come with a career in art, as you’d expect. People disappoint and work fails. But I try to use sorrow as a relatable truth. There’s real value in that.
Kim Terrell: What do you mean when you say you try to use sorrow as a relatable truth?
Adam Doyle: Hitting only one emotional note would be bland. Sorrow can be as much fuel in a piece as joy or fear. All of our emotions are real and relatable. That’s what I mean. Inhabiting any emotion will be meaningful to a person at the time in their life when they’re experiencing it. The ongoing challenge, aside from the effort of getting work and staying on top of it all, is covering new ground. On the one hand, there’s locking down and keeping with what works; on the other hand, there’s the need to go to new places and do better. It’s tempting to keep doing what’s successful, but if I only did that, there wouldn’t be any exploration left. I need to push into the unknown.
Kim Terrell: What is your latest “push into the unknown?”
Adam Doyle: The next unknown I’m looking to undertake is how to explore the themes that are important to me further, and not use them as a crutch. For example, I need to see how the swirling visualization of energy, which is recognizable in much of my work, can be elaborated, nuanced, and augmented, so it doesn’t just become a played out “style.” I hate that word as it relates to art, because it only speaks to the superficial appearance—not to what’s underneath. Every time I brush a stroke of paint, the white surface is the unknown. I’m always asking along the way, “Is this safe—or daring?” “Is this meaningful—or just another bit of decoration?” It’s important to me that I don’t already know what my work will look like a year from now. It needs to keep evolving. That takes regular moments of embracing the void and stepping into the unknown.
Kim Terrell: Who are you when you paint?
Adam Doyle: I’m Calvin exploring with Hobbes. I’m Sherlock and the game is afoot. I’m Ender floating in the Battle Room. I’m Frankenstein contemplating a pile of body parts. I’m the narrator and I just punched Tyler Durden in the ear. I’m Joseph Campbell connecting the cultural dots through mythology. I’m David Attenborough marveling at nature. I’m John Williams conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I’m Max romping with the Wild Things. I’m a surgeon, a botanist, a zoologist, a faith healer, a psychic. I’m Marco Polo… or maybe George Mallory. I’m planting a flag on never-before-seen land… or doomed to die on the mountain trying to reach the peak. Fortunately, my deaths go in the trash, and a new sheet is a new life.
Kim Terrell: How does the world of technology impact/inform your work?
Adam Doyle: Technology has had an enormous impact on my work. Even though such a key facet to my images is that they feel quintessentially hand-made. I paint with oils, which for exhibiting work is the extent of it. I paint and the piece is pretty much ready to be hung. With illustration though, technology is more a part of the process. I’ll scan all or parts of my paintings and be able to re-compose and manipulate the imagery digitally. This allows me a lot of trial and error to get a piece to feel right. Technology has also been great for cutting out all the running around packaging, dropping off, and picking up required in the old days. My website is my portfolio. As with most fields, we can spend more time on the work itself. The challenge now is avoiding all the outlets for distraction that technology has brought into our lives.
Kim Terrell: You recently finished a year-long project illustrating a “creepy” children’s book, what did you like the most about this project? The least?
Adam Doyle: That was a challenging project. I’m glad to have it done and excited about its release into the world this fall. It’s a black and white book for young adults. Initially, finding a way into the story—which is about a farm with a vengeful fairy, footless pigs, a lovelorn mouse, and jealous flowers—was tricky for me. But once I got a bead on the right technique for the tone, the look of the characters, and the key moments to depict, it moved along smoothly.
A rough patch in the project was that seven or eight months into it, the editors told me a bunch of the story had been changed. That’s not something you want or expect to hear when the art is in a good place. Pictures ended up having to be altered and/or cut out completely. This is a big reason why the book took a year and a half to complete. But I did new stuff and refined the images further, and while it took more energy, the art was the better for it.
Kim Terrell: Issac Newton said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” What do you think about hour by hour, day by day? How does your thinking impact your creative process? How does your creative process impact your thinking?
Adam Doyle: Newton. Now there’s a guy who pioneered. To understand gravity, as a student, he went up to his room and invented calculus. What a mind. Back in grad school, I felt like Newton when I developed this simple way of painting that swirls between the exterior and the interior. It was a real eureka! moment. Hasn’t changed the world yet. Oh well!
Kim Terrell: When you are working on 2-5 projects, how do you make time for your own projects? Left to your own devices without a need to earn “daily bread” what would you be working on most?
Adam Doyle: Working freelance brings jobs in tides, which ebb and flow. I’ll work on personal projects and experiment during the quieter times, or in the evenings if my days are busy. I should say that even with the frustrations that come with illustration, it’s a field I love and am able to make the images I do for clients a personal exploration in one way or another. By and large the space between the images I’m making for hire and the paintings I’m making for their own sake is generally fairly narrow. My vocation is a good fit because I enjoy the required problem solving.
Kim Terrell: Who has influenced you? How have they done so?
Adam Doyle: Going into who and what has influenced me would fill another entire interview. There’s so many. Just to name a few would include CS Lewis when I was a kid. Joseph Campbell when I was around 13 opening the profound map beneath Star Wars. The sociological observations of Neil Postman on education and technology. Many filmmakers. Many musicians. And countless artists from throughout the ages, many of whom are friends from art school. In all honesty, I’ll go ahead and say how much the company of wildlife has impacted me. I draw an enormous amount, literally and emotionally, from my time with animals. From a childhood keeping every critter under the sun, to caring for RISD’s animal models in the Nature Lab, to the time I spent volunteering at the wildlife shelter outside of LA, to walking shelter dogs in Brooklyn, to feeding an elephant in Bali, to swimming with sting rays in Belize. There’s something about their company that makes me happy. And that’s why they’re so prevalent in my work.
Kim Terrell: What are the challenges that you face on a daily basis?
Adam Doyle: Finding quiet head-space. Avoiding distractions. Serving the almighty deadline.
For more information on Adam S. Doyle