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“Only Observe”: Remembering the life and lessons of Kim Jung Gi

Recently deceased South Korean artist Kim Jung Gi's lessons for young artists.

Kim Jung Gi booth at New York Comic Con 2022
Image credit: Steve Prue (Popverse)

In the midst of the rush of adrenaline and joy that is Artist Alley on the first day of New York Comic Con sits one table all by itself. It was meant to be the place to which fans could come to meet South Korean artist Kim Jung Gi, the Guinness Book of World Records holder of the longest drawing by an individual and one of the world’s most extraordinary cartoonists.

But on Wednesday in Paris, where he’d been doing live shows as part of an exhibition of his work, he had sudden chest pains. He died soon thereafter at a local hospital. And so now his seat sits empty, and his table has been established as a place of memorial. People leave flowers, write words of thanks. Some bow or make the sign of the cross.

“I bought one of his works,” remembers fan Chuck Itagaki, who took a moment to stop at the table. “He had sketched in it this incredible drawing of this astronaut. It was so otherworldly, the detail and the imagination that was behind the artwork. It was so striking, so different.”

Kim Jung Gi
Image credit: Steve Prue (Popverse)

As incredible as Kim was an artist, every image an explosion of memory, fantasy and imagination, his life has many similarities with so many others. As a child he loved two things: “kicking a ball around,” he said in a 2018 interview with Proko, “and drawing.” Though he was already drawing in three dimensions in kindergarten, and school teachers frequently told his parents his talent was unusual and should be encouraged, they resisted. “My parents never let me take any art classes,” he remembers. But that did not stop him; in fact he approached drawing with as much disciple as he would have found in any class. “I started off with copying,” he said in an interview this summer. “I liked copying my favorite comic characters or animals. At some point, my interested moved on to things in real life that I liked. For example, I wanted to have a bicycle. But I couldn’t, so I kept drawing it.” When he mastered one object, he would move on. “Once it reaches a level of satisfaction, I don’t like it anymore and move on. I thought I mastered drawing a bicycle and moved on to a car or a girlfriend, though I didn’t have a girlfriend of my own.”

Eventually his parents relented, he says because they saw that if they didn’t support his drawing he wouldn’t end up going to college at all. After school, he, like all South Koreans, was mandated to serve for a time in the military. And when he wasn’t actually drawing, he was imagining drawing in his head. “When I was in a military aircraft waiting to parachute down, I would observe the internal structure of the aircraft and draw it in my mind,” he recalls. “Of course it was a little scary, but my interests overrode any fear. I would keenly observe the gears and the guns, and try to touch them and feel them if I could.”

While he grew up surrounded by Japanese manga and was pressured early on to consider adjusting his art to make it more manga in style, his favorite artist was Norman Rockwell. Anytime he needed inspiration, or got stuck, he turned to Rockwell. “I used to carry around a book of his drawings everywhere,” he said in a 2019 interview with Kazone. “I would read it in buses and cars, between errands. The more you look at his work, the more there is to notice…. I learned a lot about facial expression, hands, space composition, and the use of little props. I would study why each little detail had to be included in the drawing.”

Standing at Kim’s memorial table, BMCC/CUNY animation and art professor Carlo Diego told me that Kim’s work held a similar place in his life; he would find pieces of Kim’s online when he was looking for inspiration. “He had a very dynamic approach to composition,” he said. “There was always a very multifaceted storytelling happening in each panel that he would draw.”

Diego believes his ability to stimulate the imagination of others that might have been the greatest gift Kim offered as an artist. “More than anything I think of the inspiration that he passed on to others, through his own work and his classes.” And in his own life Kim certainly felt the same. Because of his incredible talent at generating photo-realistic images from his memory at incredible speed, fans and critics tended to focus on what made him unique. But, Kim himself had little interest in such matters, focusing instead on helping other artists to achieve their own talent.

Among the many things he had to say to young artists, three lessons stand out:

Screenshot image of Kim Jung Gi drawing on a large sheet of paper with pen
Image credit: Super Ani

1) Learn the Fundamentals:

Kim worried that the rise of computer-based art has brought it with an “atrophying” in young artists’ basic skills. “Because they don’t draw with their hands anymore,” Kim said in 2019, artists “lose dexterity in their hands and eyes.”

Talking to Visual Atelier 8 in 2018, Kim described relying on computers as “like building a sand castle. You might reach a certain height, but you will not be able to go beyond that.”

“I had a motto when I was a student,” he recalls. “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.” In other words, take the time to prepare to be a great artist, so that you will able to be.

2) Stay Open:

Kim admits that when he was young, he thought he knew how to draw well. But time and experience taught him differently. I used to have rules when I was younger about how things should be drawn,” he said in 2019. “But now that I’m older, I’ve met many different people and seen their works, and my thoughts have changed considerably. There were things that I was right about, of course, but I was wrong about so much more.”

The goal, Kim tells students, is to see as much as you can and learn from it, rather than either idolize it or reject it. “You can only draw as much as you know,” he said. “You should take what is helpful to you and disregard the rest. That’s the smart way to learn.”

3) ‘Only Observe’:

When Kim was young, his references were often movies and videos. But over time he came to draw greater inspiration from taking the time to consider the world around him. And as a teacher he would push students to look back on recent events in their life. “I usually ask my students this question: ‘Hey, your dad gave you a ride to school this morning. Think of your way to school,’ he said this summer. The students would respond, “‘I don’t know.’ ‘I don’t remember.’”

To actually see the moments of our ordinary life, what he described in 2020 as “those things that might flash by,” is the hardest thing to learn, he says. But for him it’s that skill, rather than some special talent or trick, that is the key to being a great artist. “There is no secret method. Only observe.”

Today it seems like it is Kim’s life that has flashed by us. It's far too soon and hard to comprehend, especially at a convention that is meant to be a celebration of the kind of generosity and creativity that Kim offered. As we mourn his loss, perhaps the best way we can honor him is by continuing to to sharpen our own axes, keep open to new ideas and observe the beauty all around us.