When the competition uses brilliant flashing colors and sound that rattles the bone, it can be hard to get people to pay attention to a drawing for very long. But if said drawing is 6.5' tall and you've spent 12 hours a day filling in its wildly detailed scenery, then you might have a chance. Take the art of Ben Tolman: here's a body of drawing that someone could lose themselves in, poring over the dense urban landscapes full of debris, graffiti, and swarms of people or buildings.
His work features surreal construction formations, endless shanty towns, and cityscapes that disappear into the haze. Sometimes garbage fills the page, other times hordes of people do. Regardless of the subject, each is packed with microscopic consideration. To look at a single corner is to discover countless objects. Some projects are bigger than others, but fevered details always abound.
The fact that his subject is the urban environment is a growth from his style's origins. Following the death of his father and the subsequent sale of his childhood home, Tolman threw himself into his work, meditating on the neighborhood he grew up in with the piece, Suburbs. An isometric rendition of repetitive single family homes on gridded streets, it was a means for him to process a way of life he never liked, but would never see again, complete with the Mormon church his parents made him go to as a child. "I grew up in a really conservative family," he tells Creators Project. "So I didn't really think of it as nostalgic at all, but then I spent six months carefully and lovingly recreating this space." From there on, his art was never the same.
As a kid he always gravitated to drawing, but he never took it seriously until entering art school in his later life. Going to school in Washington, DC, he experienced the built environment like never before, which seeped into the new, place-based output. The work is often very dark, full of struggling humans, crumbling infrastructure, and marred by vandalism. The graffiti is so accurate, one might even think he took a spray can to a wall or two himself, but it's just a keen eye for his surroundings. "Graffiti often is in my drawings because it's completely ubiquitous in the city. It seems like it would be a strange omission if I left it out," he explains. "I usually won't invent the graffiti in my drawings, and instead pull it directly from photos I have taken. It has been a cool experience to have a graffiti writer contact me after having found their tag in my drawing."
The ominous themes running through much of his work are similarly not a negative view of urbanity in general, but really more of a stream of consciousness flow from his psyche to the page. Armed with a ruler, a slightly worn pencil, and a drawer full of Micron pens, Tolman sets to work on each page with only some general ideas to guide him. "I tend to work in series, and I will have a set of loose rules for that particular series as a starting point," he says. "Then I will just pick a place to start—part of a building or a scenario with a couple people—and from that starting point I will just slowly uncover it piece by piece. It's more a process of searching rather than rendering something already in mind."
He’s not overly critical of what he sees around him, and finds the city complex and beautiful, but the economic issues surrounding him are hard to deny: "I don't want to ever preach with my drawings, like things should be this way or that. But maybe I just want to yell, ‘This is crazy, what the fuck is going on?'"
See more of Ben Tolman's work on Instagram.