Artist Snapshot: Umakanth Thumrugoti

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.

Umakanth Thumrugoti interview
Umakanth Thumrugoti, Artist at Work, 2021

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
It was never a deliberate decision. It just crept up on me slowly and is still skulking around the corners of my life. During first and second grade, my father read us stories from daily newspaper comic strips (Tarzan, Phantom). I remember being mesmerized by the drawings of Joe Kubert and Sy Barry. The thing that did it for me was a daily comic strip I saw during fourth grade in a newspaper fragment used for wrapping groceries. The strip contained a drawing of a kung-fu master throwing a karate punch. I didn’t t know the artist; I still don’t. The artwork showed dynamic gesture of action, surprise and resolve on the facial expressions of the characters, and strong lighting. At that time I didn’t know, but the composition and placement of figures was very dramatic. I remember copying that drawing so many times trying to get it right (though unsuccessfully). Starting with my first and fully illustrated story, every story I did that year had at least one character trying to pull off that karate punch.

Another local magazine (in my native Telugu language) that pushed me into drawing and storytelling at a very young age was a children’s publication that my father subscribed for many years called Chandamama. Each issue was a collection of short stories, mostly set in the olden times of kings and queens, with one illustration per page. I loved the stories and the artwork of that magazine, especially the artwork by three artists: Vaddadi Papayya, Chitra, and Sankar. The magazine doesn’t exist anymore but the old issues are archived online.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I never told them. Growing up in India in those days, pursuing art as a career wasn’t an option for many. Besides I loved math and the sciences. I did a few comic books as a hobby while attending regular math, science, and engineering classes. Engineering drawing was the easiest class for me, and it made me wonder if one could make a living as an artist. But, in all fairness, the rest of the classes weren’t that difficult either, which is one of the reasons I stuck with the sciences and engineering.

Who are your favorite artists?
I have so many! Here’s just a partial list.

• Graphic artists: Otomo, Kubert, and Moebius.
• Daily comic strip artists: David Wright, Alex Raymond, John Prentice.
• Mad magazine artists: Jack Davis and Mort Drucker.
• Cartoonists: AB Frost, Kley, and Oliphant.
• Children’s book illustrators: Rachev, Dulac, Harry Rountree.
• Illustrators: Cornwell, Briggs, Dorne, Gruger, LaGata, Rockwell.
• Modern Impressionists: Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn, Fechin.
• Impressionists: Monet, Degas, Lautrec.
• Russian Itinerants: Kramskoi, Repin, Aivazovsky, Vrubel, Sishkin.
• Orientalists: Ingres, Delacroix, Gérôme.
• Old Masters: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Bernini, Vermeer.
• Colleagues from Disney/Dreamworks Feature Animation: too many to list.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Katsuhiro Otomo. The complexity of his drawings and attention to detail, without losing fundamentals of storytelling, is something I admire immensely.

Art book you cannot live without?
Impossible to list. However, when I left India to pursue a masters degree in engineering in the US, given the constrains of baggage weight and in a conscious attempt to keep focus only on engineering studies, I allowed myself to bring only three books not related to engineering: Aesthetics by Yuri Borev, Asterix at the Olympic Games by René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and Mad Super Special Movies II compendium by the Usual Gang of Idiots.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Assuming the artist possesses exceptional, unparalleled craftsmanship and originality, lack of hubris.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes. It helps make the world even more interesting.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
At this moment, it’s the Met. I thought Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid was my favorite when I was visiting Spain. The first time I was in the Louvre, I thought that was my favorite. Then I went to visit Musée d’Orsay. I’m also convinced that when I visit State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, I’d rate that as my favorite, too.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal at the Morgan Library. The Sistine Chapel—is that an exhibit? There was also an exhibit of Sargent watercolors at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Museo Sorolla in Madrid.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A computer scientist, mathematician, engineer, cartoonist, animator, visual effects technical director, screenwriter, novelist, film director, stock analyst, statistician, teacher, real estate developer, crime scene investigator…

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Learning to draw and paint wasn’t a deliberate effort while growing up in India; it was a hobby. My father, who drew very well in his younger years, got busy with life making a living and stopped drawing completely. My mom had aspirations of becoming a classical singer and was very good in her youth, but life interfered with her, too. The general atmosphere at home nurtured our little forays into the art—as long as we were good in academic studies—so I never stopped doodling. At home, there were frequent discussions on music, dance, and visual arts. I used to visit local art exhibitions and hear artists speak—though there were very few who could make a living as artists in the towns I grew up. Most of what I learned on the craft of drawing, painting, and storytelling was from books. Not only art books but books on philosophy, mathematics, sciences, and of course artists and their life-stories. So, I will have to say my main cohort was simply books. In my younger days, I identified with the quote “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” I spent a lot of money and time on books.

I also learned a lot at Disney Feature Animation, with the help of gracious friends and colleagues. The depth and breadth of artistic talent at Disney Feature Animation was beyond anything I could’ve imagined before.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I didn’t learn anything in art school because I didn’t attend one. I went to engineering school.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Any artwork that displays an exceptional level of craftsmanship and originality. Whether it is painting, writing, making films, or designing furniture, practitioners who respect the craft and persevere for a long time, seem to cross a threshold, after which their work appears superhuman.

I’m reminded of a quote by Hokusai:

From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself “The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Watching the world around me: people, machines, buildings, trees, animals, insects, seeds and flowers, mountains. I also spend a lot of time looking at comics, watching movies and sitcoms, searching for new ways of telling stories visually. I love stories and storytelling. But none of these is a secret though.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Sometimes, but I can only focus on one thing at a time. If I were playing music while drawing/painting/writing, I would have no idea of what songs were playing as the task at hand will have my complete attention. My multi-tasking abilities are fairly limited – usually to those that don’t demand much brain power.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The Met.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Many of my friends. I’d list Bapu, an artist from South India. He is well-known in that region but not here. He would have been a great addition to Mad magazine in the company of Jack Davis, Mort Druckers of the world.

What art materials can you not live without?
I guess a drawing surface and anything to draw/paint with.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Yes. It’s second only to breathing. No, sorry. It’s third only to breathing and eating. Hmm.., It’s fourth, fourth only to breathing, eating, and sleeping…. I should stop binge-watching Monty Python.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I don’t recall.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Draw, paint, read, write, watch movies or television, talk to friends/family. I don’t remember the last time I felt uninspired, but I remember being bored or tired while doing something. I would just start doing something else until the feeling passed.

One of the tricks I learned when I was young and preparing for competitive exams in India was to keep all my textbooks open, notebooks ready in the study corner of my room. I never tidied up the area and shelved the books. That way, every time I walked into the room, all I had to do was sit at the desk to get going. On days when I didn’t want to study, I’d just sit there and after a few minutes, out of sheer boredom, I’d start studying. I do the same now (as much as I can) with work— keep one corner of the room with open drawing pads, charcoal, and other art materials ready to go. There is always a sketchbook next to the couch in the living room for doodling while watching TV (unless what I’m watching on TV requires my full attention). These days there are a few too many fabulous distractions. The entire art world is at your fingertips, literally. It’s easy to keep swiping through hundreds and thousands of amazing artworks on Instagram, Google images, etc., for hours on end. But if it informs your work, it’s all good.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Usually “When is the deadline?” Or “Can I convey on paper, canvas, or in digital media what I have in mind?”

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Assuming exceptional, unparalleled craftsmanship and originality is a given, lack of hubris.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Exceptional, unparalleled craftsmanship and originality.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Social media provides easy access to a wider audience. No matter how niche the focus of your art, you are assured of company out there in digital world.

Umakanth Thumrugoti (@povmatters) teaches Drawing from Life: An In-Depth Course in Figure Drawing at the Art Students League of New York. He is the author of Figure It Out: A Thin Book on Figure Drawing.


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