“Are we all avatars now?” asks digital painter Zak Keene

11 December 2018

London-based illustrator Zak Keene trained as an architect and consequently has self-professed “OCD compulsions”. In architecture, “everything has to be precise to the millimetre”, Zak tells It’s Nice That. If measurements aren’t accurate, somewhere down the line “it could lead to big complications and the builders could call to say the staircase doesn’t reach the second floor!” Zak has become obsessed with the smallest details in his illustration work. His hyperreal digital drawings utilise architectural ratios that see the work totally to scale. When working, Zak asks himself, “am I drawing a 1:1, intimate close up of a hand clutching an object? Or am I drawing a zoomed out elevation encompassing an entire scene with figures against a landscape?”

Zak’s digital paintings have a video game aesthetic and presence. The compositions project a first-person perspective and immerse the viewer into an “uncanny valley of contemporary life” in the digital age. He illustrates figures “drowned in a world where technology has become the pre-eminent state” where the Sims-like protagonists choose to interact with objects over humans and in turn, there is an element of “melancholy and loneliness” in the character’s actions.

Zak uses his work to question whether we “are we all avatars now?” While we increasingly consume more and more information via digital screens, Zak’s work enhances the interaction between reality and the digital world “through the eyes of fictional characters”. In these first-perspective compositions, often, the only part of the body you can see is the hands: “I guess you could call me a hand fetishist!”, jokes the illustrator.

In addition to his attraction to video game aesthetics, Zak is also influenced by painting. For instance, Gerhard Richter’s Ella demonstrates “an artist’s interpretation of visual data” that Zak similarly expresses through digital drawing. Additionally, Edward Hopper’s cinematic paintings which also convey a sense of isolation and a loss of urbanity influences the emotive intentions of Zak’s work. He applies techniques learnt from these painting masters to evoke loneliness through his brightly-lit and candid drawings.

Furries & Looners saw Zak delve into a “Youtube and Tumblr blackhole” which led the artist to discovering a unique community of fetishists “that love to dress up as animals and create an alter ego.” From his understanding, the community choose to dress in this way to create “a stronger alternative version of themselves” which brings out a strength in confidence. In a similar way, avatars are adopted in all kinds of ways to release people from their everyday monotonies and Zak’s work highlights these temptations to relieve stresses. He trawls through hours of online footage to find a still image that stands out. Then, he appropriates the image on Illustrator, painstakingly drawing over the still to create a hyperreal, video game render of vectors that looks almost real, eventually delivering Zak’s trademark style that examines the boundary between fantasy and reality.


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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.


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