Most artists working post-1980 have probably asked themselves the same thing. The difference is, Decoster’s process provides a glimpse into what it really might have been like.
Besides paint brushes, acrylics, inks and lead, his tools are his scanner, Photoshop, Google. Starting with an original painting or drawing, Decoster may layer colors, textures, found images, scribblings, type or whatever else crosses his desk or mind. It’s a high-tech path to collage, using low-tech, original source materials. At the stroke of a key, Decoster can desconstruct an illustration he’s created, pulling it apart to show five, six or twenty images that have come together in a layered effect, each piece a work of art in itself.
On a recent assignment for Herman Miller’s See magazine, he created six spreads consisting of twelve panels, each with its own theme and color palette. Separated, the small paintings appear just that—separate. But when joined together as one long painting, a unifying line carries through, morphing to fit each image illustrated. The other unifying element is each panel’s unique use of color. Decoster possesses a precise, hyper-aware sense of hue. “One of my first jobs was as an assistant to a master print-maker at a fine art publishing press,” he explains. “I’d spend much of my day matching colors, which I had to do perfectly to create consistent editions.” The experience has paid off to this day.
Decoster, who teaches drawing at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, spends about 60% of his time on personal projects, which often inform editorial, advertising and design assignments. Stacks of leather-bound sketchbooks in his home and studio are brimming with page after page of “studies,” shapes and representational art in arresting color palettes. Some of the works include scraps of paper, old photographs and obscure objects like order forms and train tickets from the fifties. “I’ll go to the flea market and just buy up boxes of these things,” he explains, rummaging through an oversized shoebox stuffed with someone’s old family photos. He puts the disparate source pieces together and adds his own stamp in the form of broad paint strokes or a meticulous line drawing. Often, however, a page will consist of layers of paint, more a study in texture. The work lives in those books until Decoster liberates an image, scanning it into a digital piece of a puzzle-like illustration.
His personal work tends to lean toward abstract. Going through his body of completed assignments, a shape will jump out, seeming familiar, because it is—it’s a sketchbook image. Although a subjective selection process goes into choosing an image to incorporate, it’s important to Decoster to ultimately serve the purpose of an assignment. “Sometimes I wish I were a scientist so I could work on something that has a right and wrong answer. Something that you can test to see if it works. Something that a group of people in one room could agree upon. More than that, however, I am drawn to an object that can never truly be understood or known, a work of art. As soon as you understand something completely, it’s dead.”
Although he has employed the digital realm in his work, the result remains one-of-a-kind, completely unique to his eye and style. Part of it is the fact of the sketchbooks—he’s drawing from his own pool of original art. But it’s also because he’s never been drawn to develop a particular style. “I value individuality and personality and originality way above technical skill. This drives my students crazy,” he says with a laugh. “I value these things because they’re what I’m trying to find in my own work, and I feel like I have just begun. I agree with Picasso’s sentiment when he said he was trying to unlearn everything he learned in school. I was always at odds with the general assertion that one needs to have a trademark ‘style’ to make it as an illustrator. I’m interested in so many different ways pictures get made that I couldn’t be happy if I were limited by a single approach. It throws me when art directors try to control a piece because they don’t understand I don’t even want that control over it. Good art gets made when the artist gets out of the way.
“Frogs and oranges,” he continues. “Multiplicity and creative growth is a concept that is somewhat at odds with illustration, because you are asked to plagiarize yourself, sometimes with something you did years ago. The good art directors will hire you because they sense you will give them something with quality and sophistication, not because you are known for being the guy who draws frogs, or oranges, or fill-in-the-blank. I decided early on to just ignore that little rule and let the chips fall.” As a child, the illustrator lived in several places around the country, sometimes zig-zagging back to the same community after living states away for years. When asked about his early life, Decoster counters, “There are a lot more interesting things to talk about. Why would this readership care about where I went to college?” he asks. He’s genuinely concerned about not boring you, the audience. However, true to his tools, he turns to his Mac to illustrate his beginnings. Using Google Earth, a satellite map feature, he simulates flying around the country to the salient places of upbringing for the sake of efficiency and clarity, but mostly to get that part of the interview over with as soon as possible. It’s an entertaining visual essay that cuts a wide swatch across the nation. He in fact attended Kenyon College in Ohio, earning degrees in art and economics. From 1986 through 1989, he attended Art Center College of Design.
He started tinkering with the Google satellite feature for an assignment he was giving his students in Documentary Drawing, which required them to visit destinations around the Los Angeles/Pasadena area. Rather than send an address or a map link, he sent his students a Google satellite shot. “The great thing about it is that I can add my own comments right on the shot,” he says, demonstrating. The exercise reflects his unique view of the world and how he lives. Although passionate about constantly creating from scratch, he clearly has an advanced aptitude for the technical. When he realized years ago that he should learn Photoshop for his work, he bought a book, locked himself in his studio for a week, and came out knowing all about it.
As his influences, Decoster names painters David Hockney, Paul Klee, Calder, Matisse, Picasso and his mother, who passed away in April, 2001. “My mom was a ceramic artist who graduated with a masters and a Fulbright scholarship from Rhode Island School of Design,” he says. “I came to see that her ceramic works were very sophisticated in their shapes, playfulness and the variety of glazing effects she achieved through a combination of intent and chance. I think I am attracted to the iconic, central object—the gestalt silhouette—because of her work, and also to a kind of color palette that has a sense of going through the fire.”
Fire is a metaphor he uses to describe his creative process. He explains, “I think of a grass fire. A ring of energy that moves out in multiple directions simultaneously, often according to the wind. Some parts die and some parts flame up. Sometimes, when the fire goes out, you have to walk across the burned field to pick up the other edge.”
For all his musings and eclectic styles, at the end of the day, Decoster is a realist. “Illustration is art with a clock,” he says, simply. “You’re done when the FedEx guy comes.” ca