George Bates's Sketchbooks

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday July 6, 2017

The 2017 Summer Invitational: Pimp Your Sketchbook, in which artists show their personal work and open a window onto their creative process, continues with George Bates, who lives and works in Brooklyn, and surfs whenever he has the time.

I’ve always had something akin to a sketchbook but the thinking about it as a place for comprehensive research and development, and also fully realized finished art, all changed back in 1989. Then, as a student in Frank Olinsky’s class at Parsons, I met Heinrick Dresher, who was invited to lecture. He looked at our books and told us to make every page a work of art. Simple, effective and done.

It was interesting because the first job I got exclusively from my sketchbooks was for a website project for Sony Music. I was told that some of my favorite illustrators and former teachers were up for the job, so I thought I had no chance getting this gig. So I decided to put my sketchbooks in with my portfolio and take a chance. I then got the call from Nicky Lindeman, who was art directing the project, and she said that the client didn’t like my portfolio but loved my sketchbooks.

Sketchbook page in the book dropped off for the Sony website project and the original art for the client.

I was hired to create the images for the project based on my sketchbooks, with the tape, paint spills, expressive and experimental image making and torn paper hanging all over the pieces. This was during a time of great economic optimism and the Internet’s infancy (before the music companies had economically collapsed) and the fees on the job were simply incredible by today’s standards. That job led me being included in the Art Directors Club Young Guns show, which has traditionally been a showcase for innovative voices in the creative field who are under 30. From then on I’ve always included a sketchbook or two in with any portfolio request.

In fact, the best opportunities I've had have come out of my sketchbook practice, which amounts to at least 15 different sketchbooks at this point. The first time I was published in the New Yorker was because they saw a sketchbook page that they wanted to publish with a Steven King story; when I dropped of the sketchbook for scanning at their offices they saw a page they liked even better for the story and wound up publishing that one.

I’ve found my way to Public Art because of my sketchbooks because someone up at the MTA had typed “Brooklyn Surfer Artist” into Google and what came up in the search were images of my sketchbook pages pertaining to surfing on a website out of England and I was encouraged to apply to an open Call to Artists. The first MTA public art commission I received consisted of images taken directly out of my sketchbooks that were then realized, at a scale of about 8 feet high, in hand-painted and fired glass by artisans in Germany and then permanently installed at the A-Line subway platform at 36th street in Rockaway, Queens, NY.

Sketchbook art [left] and final Permanently installed MTA public art [right] for the  A Line subway station 36th Street, Rockaway, Queens, 2009

And about that image, I was invited to show a group of students my sketchbooks before it became a public art piece and their teacher said “You spent so much time on this image and for what, you weren’t getting paid...” In addition to the MTA mural, that single image has been used for a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Robert Wright about society in terms of a Non-Zero sum game, for a band’s concert series booklet and it also led to what will be four permanently installed public art pieces in the USA.

Blue Trees—Published in the New Yorker and used by MTV, The N, and for Alan Grubner's record art.

I tell my students that nobody cares how well you draw, what they care about is what an image can bring a person to think or feel, and the sketchbooks represent a limitless boundary for exploring what the limits are so you can decide how or if you will push or bend these limits to reveal something. At Parsons I was trained to challenge what visual culture is and to bring new visions and thinking to the world. For me it was a great encouragement, and exactly what I was looking for, so I’ve been very lucky to have collaborated with adventurous art directors (some absolutely legendary, some unsung) who have published and produced some really interesting and thoughtful projects.

Some of George's sketchbooks




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