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Assembling a Reality

Digital printmaker explores precision in debut show



A man stands with a hammer in his right hand, arms casually slung at his sides. His jacket, a deep gray-black, blooms with bulgy pockets. Behind him, a mountain of sunflower yellow rises up just past shoulder height to a peak haloed with soft cinnamon, olive and foggy gray. His gaze is focused into the distance, calm and intense. 

Steve Coppin's digital print, "When the Day's Work is Done," exudes that 5 o'clock feeling. The common person is Coppin's muse, and this man has the glow of hard work, successfully concluded. The shadows on his jacket move effortlessly from dark to light. The line work is immaculate, going thick to thin and back again with the accuracy of a master calligrapher. The magnifying glass precision and compass-smooth curves suggest that this print was not created entirely by hand.

Since 1997, Coppin has exclusively used computers to create his art. He is a digital printmaker. His work lives entirely on the computer until the instant pigment is sprayed onto smooth, 300-weight rag paper by his Epson Stylus 4880 eight-color printer. He's been at it a long time, and now, 40 years after graduating from Humboldt State University's art program, he is finally making his artistic debut at the Upstairs Art Gallery during Arts! Arcata this Friday. 

The 18 prints in his show are a lesson in contrast. Angular elements crash into the soft corners of a woman's arm. The firm, clean contours of an auto hood are held hostage by the complexity of a fireman's respirator. Relaxed black hoodies and bulging white T-shirts in one print sit comfortably next to another with business suits sharp enough to cut.

A Humboldt native, Coppin initially thought engineering was his calling. The boredom of drafting class changed his mind. "It was all guys and everybody was quiet. [We just] sat there for an hour." It was the early 1970s and Coppin had just returned from two years in the Army. He needed something more exciting, livelier, so he turned to art. With a glint in his eye and a touch of boyish charm, he recalls, "In the art classes there were women, and it was loud and noisy and just a lot more fun!"

He's never looked back. Armed with his art degree and an airbrush, he ended up in Seattle in 1981 with an excellent agent and a keen sense of design. Coppin settled in as a freelance illustrator, creating ads for high-profile clients in the bustling boardrooms of companies like Microsoft and Toyota.

After 25 years in advertising, Coppin returned to Humboldt in 2007, "mostly retired," and eventually settled into a slate-gray house in Eureka, next door to the one he grew up in. We met there on a foggy afternoon late last month, and nestled into overstuffed red leather chairs. Originals from his advertising days and fine art prints adorned taupe walls. Old-fashioned metal tractors from his boyhood sat stoutly in a glass-fronted armoire.

As Coppin talked about why he creates portraits, he wove a big hand through his silver hair, his squinted eyes creasing his temples. "I was never very good at [drawing] people," he confessed. "I love artists who do people well, so I've tried to concentrate on that."

Concentrate he has. Coppin works tirelessly, sometime 10 hours a day, five or six days a week. It's obvious he's enjoying making work for himself now, not for clients. He went on: "When I came back from Seattle ... I probably went a year or longer before I could do anything I was happy with." 

Now, with a new body of work and a fresh style, Coppin is ready to show it off. Since his freelance days, he's wanted to do a series of "people working different jobs. It doesn't have to be somebody special. Just ordinary people doing ordinary things can be interesting." Many of his distinctive portraits spotlight athletes, builders, farmers, tourists and even banal morning routines.

Coppin's process is borne out of a love for shape. Maybe it's that small triangle that forms when a woman's arm is set akimbo. Sometimes it's the way two hands rest, reflected on the surface of a table. In fact, the shape is so important that little else matters. Those hands? They're from a stock photograph. That eye? From an advertisement. Each part is simply a building block for an ideal composition that starts in Coppin's mind and sometimes is roughed out freehand, using soft lead pencil on paper.

Next, he says, "I use photographs a lot. I've got a big selection of people and faces, and I'll go through them and combine parts. Sometimes I'll put a different head on a different figure." 

An eye here, a hand there; perhaps a jacket pulled from a manufacturer's catalog. Coppin has literally hundreds of reference images. Once he finds the proper source, Coppin uses Adobe Illustrator to layer it over his sketch. Commanding a Wacom digital drawing pad, his favorite stylus becomes a scalpel, stripping away the intricate real-life details and leaving only those lines necessary to reveal his subject. 

Clearly enjoying demonstrating his technique, Coppin stares intently into his 27 inch screen, the shape of an eye filling it entirely. He leans in, squinting and breathing out slowly. In front of him lines appear from quiet taps, strokes and clicks made on the tablet below his right wrist. As Bob Dylan warbles in the background what was once a digital photograph transforms into a unique drawing, precisely crafted in his exacting, minimalist style. 

With the eye details taken care of, Coppin closes the source image (saving it for later reference if needed) and begins stitching another image into the drawing. The result is essentially a quilted portrait, expertly assembled from pieced-together parts.   

All that might change though. Coppin has just bought a camera and plans to start photographing models. One of his prints offers a hint of the future.

"Firefigher," placed squarely in the middle of the exhibit by gallery curator Suk Choo Kim, is the only print that came entirely from one photograph. Every detail is carefully rendered. The myriad shapes and textures mirror the minimalist style of the other prints, yet retain a photographic quality. The spiky shapes and half-dozen grays that make up the fireman's helmet buckle must have taken at least three to four hours. It's a tour-de-force in digital imagery; a pure declaration of skill as well as an homage to the profession of firefighting.

Whatever his next path, it's sure to involve working with computers. Coppin is a man in search of scientific precision. "You can't just do it by hand," he declares, pointing at a fast stroke of icy white elegantly positioned over one of his portraits. "It'd be really tough to do that perfectly" without using a computer. That crafty glint comes back to his eyes, and he looks over the top of his glasses. With a computer, "you can always mess with something. There's no excuse for not making it perfect."



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