Art from Odd Internet Memes
The Millennial generation is known for many things, including craft beer, skinny jeans, and “destroying” seemingly every industry (if you believe cynical clickbait articles). As someone who straddles that zone between Generation X and Millennial (i.e. “Xennial“, “Oregon Trail Generation“), I have traits of both. I really enjoy one development from the first “digital native” generation in particular: Memes. If you aren’t very familiar with the concept, the term was originally used by Richard Dawkins to describe the way cultural information spreads. Internet memes have over-taken his original definition, and now “meme” usually just refers to captioned images, obscure sub-culture reference, or non-sensical inside jokes.
There are different categories and tons of sites, but some popular ones are Memebase (miscellaneous stuff), I Can Has Cheezburger (mostly cats), Failblog (people doing dumb things), and various sub-Reddits. You can also research the history and origins of more popular memes using Know Your Meme. Because they are created quickly and by any person, the quality varies wildly; some are hilarious, but just as many are terrible. Most sites use a voting system, so users determine what is funny and makes it to the “front page.” The concept is interesting, because content is always fresh and often reflects news or cultural topics of the day.
In previous posts, I’ve written about giving credit to original photographers when drawing from a photo, and how some image sharing Twitter accounts have poor track records for crediting people. Thinking about memes brought these concepts to mind again. Meme-makers pull images from millions of sources (social media, news, ads, etc.), slap captions on them, and then share over and over using fake screen names. Once a meme has passed through untold thousands of anonymous people, how do you determine where it started? How do you give an originator (likely a photographer) credit? It’s sometimes an impossible question to answer.
While browsing through some of the stranger meme images I’ve saved, I thought it might be fun to draw one. Before picking a subject though, I thought it might be nice to be able to talk about where the image came from. I’ve included an assortment of bizarre, nonsensical images above. I researched these weird scenes, but for most I was unable to determine an origin. The top-left image of the tuxedo sewing machine guy is actually one of the more famous older memes, and has some articles written about it. And the laughing woman by the fire appears to have a thread on Reddit about its origins. But the rest are a mystery, which I suspect is true for most of your average, not-extremely-popular memes.
I decided to give the “carefree lady by the raging fire” a try. This is such a bizarre scene, it seemed like it could be an interesting drawing. I thought about sketching the sewing machine tuxedo guy too, but he has an odd expression on his face, and I wasn’t sure if it’s one I could portray accurately. I know I can handle a smile though. The original plan was to do my usual detailed subject, but minimal background. Here’s how it started:
As I worked on this, I realized that unlike most of my sketches, the background was actually pretty important here. My original plan for a roughly sketched background without color didn’t seem to make sense…the fire and scenery are what makes it weird! So, I added color to the fire…and it turned out well! I don’t think I had ever drawn a fire before, and certainly not one in color. Much to my surprise, I believe I was able to capture the brightness of the fire and some impression that it’s raging. It doesn’t exactly have a natural looking waviness, but that’s alright for a first time.
I really think it would have been fine to leave it here. With the fire and the people detailed and in color, the gist of the scene comes through. But for some reason, I got a wild impulse to fill in more background. I ended up coloring the buildings, fences, grass, and even the road! I was absolutely sure I would end up wrecking it, but somehow it turned out okay:
It might not be the best, but this is definitely the most complete drawing I’ve ever done. I’ve never filled in so much color on a page! It took longer than my usual drawing, but was somehow a bit more satisfying having done so much work to fill in detail. After I was finished, the thought crossed my mind, “is this how real artists feel?” Well, real artists probably don’t draw memes, but this looks more finished than I’m accustomed to seeing from myself.
As I mentioned, I’m pretty happy with the fire, which looks bright and hot (which is really hard to portray in my opinion). The grass isn’t great, because it’s lacking detail and the perspective is poor, but at least I conveyed the color well. The road isn’t very good either, though I consider it a win that it doesn’t destroy the overall drawing. The lady turned out fine, which wasn’t a source of worry for this piece since I have so much practice drawing people close-up. The background people are okay; they definitely could have used some sharper detail though.
And last thing, I’ve got my standard progression .gif below. This one includes quite a few images (seven frames) because I was unsure of how far I could go without messing it up…I wanted photo evidence that it looked better at some point. Here’s the progression:
As I’m fond of doing occasionally, I actually worked on another drawing at the same time as this one. Sometimes it’s fun to switch between two as you go along; it can keep things fresh. The “companion piece” to this meme artwork, which is quite unrelated thematically, is a sketch of Einstein. Once I finish a write-up for it, I’ll share that as well. I’m not exactly sure what to write about Einstein, so it might be a short one…I just think Einstein is cool looking, so I drew him. Not too much to discuss there, he is just an iconic figure worthy of a sketch.