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Dedication to the Craft
A look at the visual legacy of Kim Jung Gi.
The world lost another legend today with the passing of Korean artist Kim Jung Gi at the young age of 47. Born in 1975 in the town of Goyang-Si, he showed promise as an illustrator from an early age. He described his childhood days as consisting of mainly two things: kicking a ball and drawing. By kindergarten, at a time when his classmates were drawing simple two-dimensional objects, he was already able to portray items in 3D, a talent that got noticed.
When he was 19, he enrolled at a fine arts school before attending Busan’s Dong-Eui University for three years. A great influence on his work came when he did his obligatory two-year stint in the South Korean Army’s Special Forces Unit, there he was exposed to a variety of military weapons, uniforms, and vehicles that would become a recurring theme in his work. Of this experience, Jung Gi remembers an instance where he was in a military aircraft, waiting to parachute down, and he mentally drew the interior of it to help him commit it to memory.
Known for his hand-drawn friezes and frescoes, what separated Jung Gi’s work from his contemporaries was his prodigious ability to draw from a seemingly endless array of influences from memory. It was as if any object, person, or place he’d ever encountered existed in picture-perfect form in his head, giving him an extraordinary ability to draw it down to the last detail.
Jung Gi never needed any references to put brush pen to paper, and yet was consistently able to recall the most minute details from military uniforms to rich cityscapes. Among his works are six original sketchbooks documenting his work in chronological order from 2007-2017. Part of his process was consistency; it seems he hardly ever stopped drawing. He got his start in comics with Funny Funny in the early 2000s, rising to prominence with his work on Korean webcomic Tiger the Long Tail, SpyGames, and Paradis.
When he tries to explain his process, it becomes clearer how much his art is truly second nature to him. It’s not that it comes easy, but rather his incessant need to draw is simply necessary for him to express himself.
“I had developed my habit like so from the start. I had always thought that it was the right way. I’ve always drawn from memory; whether it was something I heard from people around me, or the animals I’ve seen from TV, or the scenes I saw from a movie,” he said in an interview with Visual Atelier 8. “For simple images, I have about 80~90% of the image completed in my head. I just move my hands to transfer those ideas...I place the important images first and then I improvise the rest. The rest just follows naturally while I work on the major parts of the image.”
Jung Gi’s sweeping pieces are among his most recognized works, and the reason he holds a Guinness World Record for the longest drawing by an individual. The offical attempt took place on June 7, 2015, and the work itself is inspired by what Jung Gi called “the living heritage of Penang,” the multicultural Malaysian state and port of trade.
He’s also been tapped by major American comic publishers, doing work for both Marvel and DC Comics. For the latter, Jung Gi even hosted one of his famous live drawing demonstrations, where you could witness firsthand how unreal his level of talent was. What’s more unfortunate is he died while en route to New York for Comic Con this weekend, where he no doubt would have continued to exhibit his uncanny abilities at the show.
“I'm able to remember and recall images for a much longer period of time than most people, but I also drew so much,” said Jung Gi in an interview with Proko. “I never cared for academics so while I was attending school I would be drawing from first period to the very last.”
Two of the skills that separate Jung Gi from his contemporaries are his observational skills and the fact that he genuinely still has a passion for drawing. For the former, it’s how he reinforces his mental visual library. In the army, he would get hands-on with weapons and equipment to memorize each detail, his personal interest outweighing any fear he might’ve had. He also is no stranger to frequenting public bath houses to better understand human anatomy, or looking at museums to get further references for equipment and uniforms.
Much of his work isn’t a direct representation of something in real life, but rather a fusion of different elements that he intentionally weaves together. It’s a way of visual trickery that isn’t done to compensate for any missing gaps, but rather add an extra layer of Jung Gi’s own individual expression.
“Nowadays I draw like it’s a habit. I sit down, and I draw. So it’s as natural for me as breathing. I’m not even thinking about what I’m drawing most of the time. If I can’t think of anything to draw, I just draw a person first and keep adding to it,” he said.
Jung Gi’s loss is even more tragic when you realize how much he loved being an artist. Unlike other successful creatives who can feel burdened by their success or pressured to always create perfect work, a lesson anyone can learn from Jung Gi is that falling in love with the process over the result is a surefire way to never get jaded. As he said: “I still find drawing fun, and I hope I don’t lose that sense of joy for a long time.”