Adrian Hillman

“Rusty metal and cracked paintwork have nature’s fingerprints all over them”

Digital Artist living in Thailand

Could you give us a bit of background please?

I grew up in England with a science background and eventually had the great good fortune of working as a volunteer in wildlife research in Thailand, initially for two years this stretched to five then I married my Thai teacher (for the extra lessons!) and have now lived in my adopted country for 25 years. My art can be described as photo-illustrations of wildlife based on weathered surfaces of the urban world. It is digital and evolved out of macro photography.

Why is nature and the natural process of decay so important to you?

Nature has been my first love since the age of four when I found a bird’s nest in a rhododendron bush with four perfect eggs in it. Over the years this interest was encouraged in small ways by those around me to the point where I’ve been hooked on wildlife for over 50 years now! The connection with the natural process of decay comes in the urban context in which I have spent much of my life, and although I do call it “urban decay” I actually think of it as creation rather than degradation. Originally my aim was simply to help people see the striking beauty in what is typically ignored and dismissed as an eyesore, which I did through macro photography. Close up the details can be so stunning and I just love the idea of nature slowly reclaiming parts of our urban world through the process of weathering. Rusty metal and cracked paintwork have nature’s fingerprints all over them. The patterns we make, which can be very beautiful, are usually very precise and lack all the intricate subtle variations of nature’s work. It was this realisation that made the connection to wildlife and gave me the idea of helping the reclamation with my current style. I hope my art can help people see that the results of weathering are full of wonderful character that not only reflects nature but is in fact natural.

It also fits with my interest in re-wilding, which to me it is about giving space to nature and in doing so allowing her to help us. This can be through ‘services’ such as soil preservation, flood control or pest management, or at the more personal level of finding a better balance through reconnecting with the world from which we came. Seeing nature’s beauty in weathering can be part of that.

Could you tell us about your process, it’s fascinating?

I start with photography, wandering around urban areas looking for interesting detail in weathered surfaces and trying not to feel too self-conscious. Sometimes what I photograph immediately reminds me of a habitat or landscape but usually at this stage I am just taking abstract compositions of colours, patterns and textures. Back home, I open a picture in Photoshop, tweak the basics like contrast and colour saturation, and then stare at it, sometimes for ages, until an idea develops of how wildlife could be incorporated. If no idea appears I might do something more drastic such as invert the colours and tones or overlay more than one photo together. Or possibly just give up and move on to the next photo. Once a final image is clear in my mind I move over to Illustrator to make silhouettes of the wildlife, sometimes tracing parts from photographs, sometimes hand-drawing. This step could be done in Photoshop directly but I prefer Illustrator. Given that I am basically just using silhouettes I have to choose animals and poses that are distinct and recognisable. If badgers had horns I might be able to use them! The finished silhouettes are then placed back into the Photoshop image and the task of blending begins. This is the absolutely key step to make those animals believably part of the image. I always use part of the background to fill the silhouettes but colour and tone may significantly change. I have also worked out a number of tricks to help such as roughening the edge of the animal to match the roughness of the background and how to make just the right amount of it disappear into its surroundings. I then leave the image for at least a day before coming back to it with fresher eyes. If I do this twice in a row without making any changes then it’s finished.

“So, yes, art can at least change the artist’s view on nature and the world in general”!

Could you also tell us about your poetry and does that support certain images or are they unrelated?

I write the poetry that I like to read, so it shares similar themes to my visual artwork with perhaps a greater focus on conflict. Recently I realised that I write it as a type of retirement pension. It is personal, often directly related to my own experiences in the natural world, and when I am too old to get out there paddling a canoe or slogging up a mountain then my poetry will hopefully bring back the memories and stimulate something of the interest and exhilaration wildlife has always brought to me. I have made a few artworks to fit particular poems as a way to display them but on the whole the two have felt quite separate except for the obvious link of my interest in nature. I could see the two becoming closer, and the idea of finding a way to merge my images and poems is always in my mind but I would have to be convinced that I am not detracting from either. I am actually quite content with leaving them as a private non-financial pension plan.

Could you explain Cryptoart to us?

In short, it is a way of proving provenance for digital files. A problem that has always devalued digital art is that absolutely identical copies of an original can be made so easily, unlike with more traditional art media. Using the same blockchain technology that powers cryptocurrencies this problem is overcome by creating a token attached to a digital file that cannot be changed. Thus, a single digital art file can be sold as the equivalent of an original or even as a limited edition and the collector(s) will always have the token for proof of authenticity. Some think of it as adding value to digital art through creating rarity. However, I am no expert and have only just started dipping my toe into it. I am actually still not convinced it makes total sense but the movement seems strong and there are already significant numbers of active collectors. Many predict it will seriously take off over the next few years and it does seem to offer a good alternative perfectly suited to digital artists.

So are digital artists starting to be respected and if so why is this changing?

In the wider world of art I think this is changing very slowly and I don’t think most cryptoart will get taken seriously as it seems to be very technology-driven and unless you are already part of the world that creates it will not seem very good. But on the other hand there are some exceptional digital artists producing wonderful art that I could only dream of making. There will always be the scepticism about how digital art is made, and with artificial intelligence programs being trained to produce art, for example, this will remain. The often unfair perception that a computer did the work will probably be forever strong and probably is not helped by people using technology as a shortcut to art rather than as a creative aid. However, I think that younger generations growing up with technology at their fingertips understand what goes into it and accept the digital style far more and that is probably where most of the respect is growing, and in itself the digital generation is an increasingly large slice of the art world. Personally, I am not part of that generation so although I have grown very comfortable with digital art as a process of expression, I am actually happier viewing more traditional styles, which are more likely to contain the subtle variations that I find so pleasing in weathered surfaces. Digital art is often a bit too ‘clean’ and controlled for me, despite the many great exceptions.

Do you think art can change peoples view on nature and the world in general?

I hope so, but I think the strongest effect is probably in re-enforcing views already held. To change views would require a fine balance somewhere between being too blatant, which will be dismissed, and too subtle where any intended meaning is missed. I suppose the holy grail is art that engages viewers in a way that guides them to making their own new realisation or understanding. I could never claim to have reached that point. Interestingly, making an artwork recently did change my view of nature in a minor way. It was a piece about the life of pheasants, which, where I grew up, have a reputation for being stupid, and when it came to illustrating some chicks being released into the wilds from a cage it dawned on me that they grow up as captives without the benefit of learning from parents so no wonder they are a bit clueless as adults. My long-held contempt therefore shifted towards sympathy. So, yes, art can at least change the artist’s view on nature and the world in general!

What would you like to see changed regarding the art world?

There’s the age-old problem of rewarding talent rather than the ability to promote yourself but beyond solving that I would actually like to see more effort and opportunity put into helping everybody from the youngest to the oldest find an artistic channel to express themselves and thereby benefit from the satisfaction of doing so. Things seem to have fallen into place for me but I sense that too many people don’t know where to start and therefore feel that their only relationship with art is as a viewer. I believe there is an artist lurking in everybody who could be released with the right non-judgmental environment and some gentle guidance.

Your art and your poetry seems to suggest that nature is more powerful than man, could you explain this?

Yes, I think it is, mainly because nature is such a large part of us, and increasingly I see any attempt to separate the two as a futile yearning to see humanity as something more than it is. Particularly in my poetry, there is a lot conflict between us and the natural world but to me this largely comes from our disconnect with nature and the nature within us. By way of a small personal example, when we moved into our current house in the Thai countryside which has a large 50m-long pond, I was very nervous about getting into the pond knowing that it contained several species of snakes and unknown other beasties. However, with a gradual connection came better understanding and I now love spending time in the pond knowing full well that no snake is going to hang around with a large, lumbering beast like me wallowing around in the water. Perhaps it comes down to the ability and willingness to empathise but for many people empathy for others is challenge enough without trying to do so with wildlife.

As mentioned earlier I also love the concept of re-wilding and I suppose much of what I write and my digital art is actually a yearning for a greater appreciation and acceptance of our fundamental tie to the natural world.

Is all your work digital or do you use traditional media as well? Is there a reason for this?

All my work is digital, except perhaps for an occasional piece of beach art created with our six-year old nephew. As a teenager I did a bit of wood carving, particularly with driftwood, and quite a bit of clay modelling, but I always seemed a bit shy of painting and drawing. The science side of my brain was probably a bit too dominant which led to a feeling that I had too many artistic limitations. To some extent these have been released through digital media, which have enabled me to find a careful method and style that suit me but looks more free-flowing than it actual is. So really I am just standing on the shoulders of tech giants! Another reason is the amazing power of the digital world to enable art to be seen. As a young man I put a lot of effort into getting the best photos I could with heavy tripod and Kodachrome25 followed by hours in the makeshift darkroom of my parents’ bathroom hand-printing on Cibachrome paper making prints that a only a handful of people would ever see. I was proud of what I produced but I would not want to go back there.

How do you see your art developing in the future?

Although I do have my own distinctive style, most of my artwork so far has been fairly traditional in the sense of being more-or-less portraits of wildlife and habitats, sometimes with action, sometimes not. I am currently working on a series that uses the same style but adds a story-telling dimension particularly drawing on our own relationship with the wildlife. This art often becomes pictures within pictures, which I think encourages the eye to wander the image but linger within it, and hopefully the overall aesthetic quality of the original source material is not lost. It also gives a lot of scope to include more meaning in the artwork for those willing to look a little deeper. Whatever these new works end up like, I’m sure they will always start with weathering.

Adrian Hillman

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