Liz Melchor was bored and took a drawing class that changed her life. She also leans on her interest in mathematics to code algorithmic art and uses robots, some of which she builds, to draw. Always trying new techniques to see just what might happen, Liz enjoys the mark making and responding until the work is done.
Literature student to creating your own drawing robots. That’s quite a leap! Tell us more about that journey.
It sounds like a leap when put like that but in some ways, building robots is coming back to the things that interested me when I was a child.
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I grew up in Silicon Valley where my grandfather had been an engineer when it was strictly hardware. He was teaching me to code in BASIC when I was five years old. I loved tinkering with our household computer and was hanging out in Usenet groups before the World Wide Web became a thing. And throughout school, I always loved mathematics. In fact, it was probably the subject that I was best at. I never understood other students who didn’t want to learn math because they didn’t understand how it would be used practically; I loved math for math’s sake.
But curiosity about the human experience steered me away from my more math/science interests for awhile. Literature opened me to a world of ideas, humanness, and maybe messiness that never seemed possible with technology. Now, I have found my way back, and a way to integrate these interests towards an end—art—that makes sense and motivates me.
How did you learn about hand drawing?
I learned to draw at 23rd Street Studio in San Francisco with Michael Markowitz. The whole thing was really an accident. A friend and I were bored and decided to try our hand at figure drawing for just one night. The teacher’s eccentric approach fascinated me though. He wouldn’t let us look at our page. We drew—the whole room full of students—drew for three hours without looking at the page. Our eyes stayed fixed on the model. If we dared to try to look at what we were drawing, Michael would tap us and tell us to look back up. Like everyone, I ended up with a pile of scribbles. I threw all my drawings in the trashcan that night, but I also signed up for his class. I knew this man had something to teach me.
Funnily, I didn’t do it because I wanted to learn to draw. I was writing regularly then, and I wanted to get better. His class was more about creative process than anything. So I learned to draw with him, but I also learned to write, and to live life.
I stayed in that class for almost three years. We wouldn’t look at our page for three months at a time. The goal was to teach us to see and to detach us from our final product. When we would look at the page again, we were supposed to bring that same freedom to the interaction that we had been practicing by not looking.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
Different implies a comparison, and depending upon which group you compare me, the answer will differ.
Compared to more traditional drawers, I have no formal education. I have zero idea on how to think about proportions. I can’t render a perfect figure on my page, but also I am uninterested in doing so. When I am in a group of figure drawers, I am the weird one who has pastel on her face, completely dirty hands, probably is sitting on the floor, and might be grabbing for the neon gel pen to add some final touch. And in front of me might be a very cool drawing or a complete hideous disaster.
And compared to other pen plotters—people who draw with a robot—I also am the weird one. Most of them come to it from a more technical background. They think more about the code that generates their lines. Often, they want the machine to render their digital files as accurately as possible. But I am still thinking about the marks, and I am thinking how to arrive to a place where I won’t know the outcome, which is a bit harder to find when you are sending the very precise robot a file where each line is coded in order.
How are your hand drawings and robot drawings similar? Different?
The biggest difference between my hand drawings and my robot drawings is that the hand ones are primarily figurative and my robot drawings are abstract. I’ve tried more abstract hand drawings, and I dislike doing them; conversely, I find figurative stuff on the robot not that interesting. So that is the main difference.
The process, however, to create both feels very similar. I am still always approaching my drawings the way I learned in Michael’s studio. When I tell people this, it shocks them a bit. But in each it is about making marks and then responding and continuing until you feel it is done. And for me, a big part, is experimenting in the middle. What happens if I try this? Or this? And then see the result and react or interact with what is emerging.
Hand drawing is more rapid-fire, reactions happening quickly. With the robot, maybe it is working for 60 minutes and then I need to make a responsive choice. But it is the same process.
Do you focus on process or product with your art? How does that influence the final art piece?
Process absolutely. I have no idea where I will end up. And also it is in the process that I find joy. Sometimes I make things that I think in the end look fine, but I didn’t have a great interest while making them. It makes the end product boring to me. These may even be drawings that other people find interesting, but I don’t.
In fact, I think of this one monkey I drew. I had done it in a rote way, and I found the final product boring because nothing surprised me. It wasn’t ugly, just boring. And I had it framed in my business in Lisbon on the wall along with other monkeys, and so many people told me this boring monkey was their favorite. I was always shocked, like really? And if I had a choice to do work that was personally interesting versus that boring monkey that got a fair amount of external attention, I would pick the former every time.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do? How did you learn to build your own drawing robot?
In the beginning, learning to draw was really me attempting at all times to push myself to my own edge, past ideas I was holding. I held ideas about talent, about needing to be good, about what something should look like to be “real art.” And my development was about challenging those ideas. And now, while those ideas still linger which can cause tightness, I am pretty practiced in confronting them. But I am still always trying to push at my edge, to experiment, try something where I am not sure what will result, cover some unchartered territory.
And currently, a lot of my skill development is more technical. I am teaching myself to program and to build little machines. This is in some ways a relief. There is an answer, an end point! If you build a robot, you know when you have arrived at resolution: the robot turns on.
What motivates you artistically?
Joy. I enjoy drawing and that fuels me. Paradoxically, I worked for years to feel free in the creative process, and so now I am just enjoying that freedom. So many lessons of my drawing class from a decade ago. I only, in the last few years, actually began to understand in an experiential way.
By adding the robot, I also have been challenged in new ways in terms of engineering and math/coding problems. I always loved wrestling with these sorts of problems in school, and now I have refound that joy of being stuck on a problem and finding my way out.
And simply the surprise of what I can create drives me.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
Everywhere. Some recent places: the tiles in a Lisbon metro stop, a book on historical computer art, and often on Instagram seeing other people’s art and experiments.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
Absolute improviser. I start usually with a question not a destination. The work is an attempt to answer the question. An example of a question would be: what if I made the page wet in places before I drew on it? And then I watch the art emerge as a response to the question. If it looks ugly, I will do something else to try to get it back to somewhere visually interesting to me. That is actually my process in a nutshell.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
When I used to write, I would schedule my creative work time. But that was partly because I dreaded writing a lot of the time. But with drawing, I fully enjoy it so I don’t schedule it and just do it when I want to which is essentially every day. I don’t really need to wait for inspiration though, I have tons of ideas, too many for the time I have, so work is just chomping along that list. And work is always generating new ideas and new avenues. I follow the energy.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I used to have a studio in my house, and recently I started renting a shared studio that is in an old school in Vienna filled with different creatives. It has huge ceilings, huge walls, and I built an enormous table that is half filled by my giant pen plotter. It feels amazing to simply have so much space that is just dedicated to my creative pursuits. I built most of the tables myself in the way that I do things, by improvising. Some of my cupboards are leftover from the Austrian schooldays. On one wall, I have a wall hanging pen plotting robot and lots of large papers with the traces of the errors and test prints when I was building it.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
All the time! I actually have a hard time not working on something new. I need the newness to motivate me. I have to be answering a fresh question, exploring a fresh idea to stay interested. I often work on multiple projects at once.
In drawing class, years ago, one of the exercises my teacher would have us do was to work on three drawings at once. When and if we started to feel disconnected or stuck on one, we were supposed to flip to the next drawing and cycle through every time we lost energy for one. We would work on the three for around 15 minutes. Now I think I do something similar in my work over a larger time scale. I think flipping between projects can be helpful to keep me engaged and also perhaps one can fuel the other.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I’ll go through something I made recently. In a forum about learning to code, I saw these little generative structures coded by a designer, Armin Hofman, in the 1970s. As I am learning to code, sometimes I will see something interesting and try to figure out how to replicate the design with my own code. I essentially create a little problem for myself to solve during which I learn a lot.
However, my coding skills aren’t great and in trying to replicate Hofman’s structures, I ended up with totally different structures. They were unexpected and my own. I plotted them in a variety of ways, but most recently, I was looking in the glass window near my house that belongs to a school and saw the kids’ artwork. They were these houses and landscapes in scratchboard, rainbow crayon underlay with black on top. They were beautiful! And I realized I could try this with the plotter. So I made my own scratchboard—I needed to experiment a bit with what worked best as an underlayer as well as what paint was easily scratch-able—and then I put a tool in that could scratch away and ran my code. The end result is both organic looking due to the nature of scratchboard and machined looking because it has all these perfect circles with perfect tangent lines. I appreciate this juxtaposition of the perfection of the machine alongside the unpredictable nature of the materials.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
I don’t really do anything. If I stopped being interested or motivated by it, I will stop. When I used to write, the act of creating was actually painful, and I just thought that is simply part of the struggle of the artist, the fear of the blank page, and all of that. But now, I have changed my opinion. I think that if it is such a struggle then it isn’t worth it even if I am good at it. I do this for the joy. If the joy goes, then I will try to follow the joy to wherever else it brings me instead of trying to force joy out of something no longer joyful.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
I don’t believe there are creative people and not creative people. Look at children. Who isn’t creative at two, at five? I do think though that some people stray from that part of themselves, but it is accessible to everyone if they want to get back to it.
For me personally, I think the one trait that I have actually nurtured (or tried to return to) that has significantly impacted my own creativity is willingness to tolerate the unknown which is directly tied to the willingness to fail. I think to find real surprise in your work, you must be able to risk failure—the small failures are more important here than the big ones, you must be willing to make something so hideously ugly alone in your home with no witnesses, and I actually think for a lot of people—or let me speak for myself, earlier in my life, that was an intolerable prospect. I couldn’t face being mediocre simply by myself. But the reality is if you can’t tolerate being awful, you can’t tolerate the risk of doing something where you don’t know the result, and genius, surprise, and growth emerge from those risks. You must be willing to take them. And that willingness is not some inherent trait but something that can be practiced. You can get better at it!
Where can people see your work?
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website www.lizmelchor.com has my work, but it also has a couple articles that serve as resources for people that want to get into pen plotting. I built a wall hanging drawing robot—it was a true challenge as I had almost no experience in doing this sort of project—and I wrote up instructions for others if they want to suffer a bit less than I did building one. And I have a page that is full of resources for people who want to get into pen plotting.
In the software and programming world, an open source approach is common. This means people share their work, projects, and resources so that others can use their work to further their own. I very much appreciate this, and I try in a way to be an open-source artist. I like to share my experiments, process, resources, so that other people can explore in their own way as well.
Interview published July 2023
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