Engineering impressionist art

'Princess' was created by Elliott during his Year 12 studies. Photo James Noonan.
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Elliott Kuhlmann has found a harmony between electrical engineering and impressionist art. James Noonan reports.

At first glance engineering and art appear different worlds, engineering typically attracting analytical, logical minds, with art best suited to those with a penchant for abstract thinking and creative visualisation. Sometimes, however, there are those with a talent for both. Leonardo Da Vinci crafted timeless works of art alongside his prominence as a great engineer and inventor, and physicist Brian Cox still dedicates his life to theoretical science while practicing professional music. Elliott Kuhlmann also embodies the bridge between these seemingly vastly different landscapes, doing so with humility.

“I really don’t view the two schools as separate,” says the 23-year-old electrical engineer and digital artist. “I think math is fairly creative. In engineering there’s never one solution to a problem, and generally the route to that answer is a creative one. In my job there might be menial and repetitive tasks like never-ending equations or analytics, but those small things could mean something huge like a solar farm being built somewhere. Similarly, in art I’ll be drawing these time-consuming tiny intricate details that eventually become an image that I and hopefully others can appreciate as a whole.”

Elliott describes his art as distorted and emotionally descriptive representations of his own experiences and desires, with images ranging from surrealist and cubist figures to impressionist interpretations of himself, friends and family. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Vincent Van Gogh, the main concerns in his images are texture and specific, anecdotal emotion. He uploads his works regularly to his Instagram page @ellykuhl and sells framed prints. His artwork Louis and Alex is a finalist in the $30,000 2018 Jacaranda Acquisitive Drawing Award, one of 55 pieces chosen from 498 submissions.

Elliott’s friend Julia Darcy says he is a modest person who doesn’t brag about his art. “Whenever I return to his house he’s got a new framed piece of art on a wall and amazing sketches lying around, but he never mentions them, you have to ask. He’s the same with engineering, he never brings it up or shows off. His humility is his most admirable trait and I think anyone who knows him would agree. One thing that drives me crazy is he’s constantly thinking forwards and considering the flow-on effect of his decisions.”

Elliott began to explore different forms of art at secondary school as a means of stress relief and creative output. He spent all his money on pastels, charcoals, paints, and canvases, but eventually settled on a completely digital style. It’s described by cuttings of early 20th century black and white photographs, distorted and rearranged to evoke modern anxieties and dystopian visions. Later, at RMIT University, he completed an electrical engineering degree with honours while transitioning to a completely original artistic style, opting for digital freehand pieces using a graphic tablet. After graduating with stellar results and faced with the choice of either accepting a PhD offer or one of several job offers, Elliott’s output became prolific in his indecision.

“The time I spent considering what I was going to do was the hardest month of my life,” he recalls. “Producing massive amounts of art became a huge release. I was very aware that no matter which of the two I chose I’d wonder how my path would have unfolded if I’d taken the other. I settled on full-time work, but the process of choosing left me unsure of my ambitions. I think that fuelled a desire to prove that no choice was going to define the extent of what I could achieve. That lead me to properly pursuing art, which I now view as a second job.”

Elliott spends endless hours at his desk creating digital artwork. Photo James Noonan.

Elliott seems mysterious, likely a result of both his hesitation to share his accomplishments and tendency to work all day in the city and all night in his room. Someone closest to unravelling this mystery may be his sister Elsa, who sometimes won’t see him for days save for when he gets home from work or takes dinner to his room. “Sometimes Elliott is a puzzle to me as much as anybody else,” she says. “He tackles everything like a completely calm and unstoppable force, and where most people would burn out he seems to just keep going.

“He’s always been introverted, which I think aided in his studies and now art. He just doesn’t require validation in the traditional sense, and when he’s proud of something he’s made and wants to share it he’ll do something weird and bashful like a little dance in the kitchen before saying ‘look at my Instagram.’”

The anecdotes, fantasies and feelings found in Elliott’s works are often deliberately abstract and open to interpretation, though at times also specific to the point of vulnerability. In one self-portrait he presents himself with a fragility he doesn’t betray in person. His bright blonde hair is darkened, his hands fidget nervously in his lap, and his skinny legs are crossed while he sits on a chair in the corner of a room that’s empty save for a vase and some flowers.

“He expresses his views of people and feelings in images in a way that can’t be done with just words,” Julia believes. “When he draws someone, whether that’s himself or family, I feel he really captures the essence of a person. His understanding of the world really comes through in his art.”

As a graduate engineer at Australian Energy Market Operator, Elliott works full time in network development, writing scripts and assessing the performance of installations and power grids across Australia, a job in which attention to detail and passion are essential, qualities also seen in his favourite artists’ work as well as his own. His current favourite artwork is Francis Bacon’s 1944 triptych piece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. His favourite piece of his own? The one he’s working on.