John Orion Young on Bringing Joy to People via Virtual Reality

splash and colorful bouquet, illustrations

John Orion Young’s initials spell “joy,” which happens to perfectly align with his mission to evoke that emotion using digital art. Classically trained in drawing, painting and sculpting, Young has merged his artistic background and skills with an intense love of technology.

Recently, Young’s work has turned towards self-portraiture in order to explore personal connection and experience. Although his art has multiple outlets (painting, Apple Messages stickers, VR drawing), a common thread of playfulness exists across all his mediums. Read on to learn about Young’s work, his inspiration, and how he sees the future of immersive virtual reality.

Above: Young’s VR paintings are “a way to convey pure emotions.”
Bouquets and flowers are a common theme in Young’s work.

Tell us a little about your background—how did you get into VR drawing?

I’ve been classically trained from childhood in traditional drawing, painting and sculpting master techniques by my father who is a wildlife artist working in lost-wax bronze casting and oil painting. Dualistically, I love technology and have been obsessed with the internet from the day my friend dialed up and showed me the promise the internet held. I’ve always found making physical art more exhilarating than digital, until experiencing virtual reality. With this new experience, my perspective and the potential of digital art as an outlet and medium for creativity has been elevated.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Oh man! I trip on about anything and everything no matter where I go. This is my duty. Creativity is an unlimited resource that you can tap over and over as long as you remove mental limitations and barriers. Material and environmental distinctions of what is good or bad can be useful for improving a design experience, but carrying it with you through the entire creative process limits your scope of possibilities. It’s important to keep my eyes, mind, heart and spirit open and ready to accept inspiration from all sources in the universe.

Alternate answer: Best Buy and Home Depot.

Young preferred making physical art to digital … until he discovered VR.

What’s it like being immersed in a 3D, VR drawing?

Very personal. Much more so than looking at a drawing on a piece of paper. You feel like you are stepping into a thought or a feeling the artist had. I wish you were all here right now and I could show you. If we were all in Virtual Reality it would be simple for us to be together in my drawing, experiencing it in real time all together. You can walk through it and it really feels like you can reach out and touch it. Some drawings are 40 feet tall and some just float like a little bubble in the air. This shift from atoms to light creates a lot of new possibilities and the scale makes it feel obvious and intuitive in a great way.

What kinds of emotions or messages do you want to convey with your pieces?

Joy. A sense of personal perspective and future possibility. Over time I’ve simplified my subjects down and more recently a lot of the large physical paintings and virtual paintings are self-portraiture. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience and as an artist I want to show my experience and explore how similar it is to yours and this earthly connection we all share. The VR paintings have been a really special way to convey pure emotions. It’s kinda creepy but you plug your computer’s GPU (graphical processing unit) into your GPU (eyeballs) and have a symbiotic experience inside a machine, removed from reality. Sometimes you feel like you’re in the box painting on the side of the hard drive. Ha! In a way you become a spiritual being in a physical body having a spiritual out of body experience.

Are there any other forms of digital art you like to create?

Yes! My other new obsession is making stickers for Apple Messages. People really love the “Shark Head” and “Dolphins XL” packs. It’s so fun to make these very small, contained, hand crafted animations and see them used in conversations with loved ones.

This piece is titled, “Squiggle and Splash.”

Digital art—in the form of GIFs especially—is typically consumed via phone or computer. How do you see digital art developing a larger presence in exhibits and galleries?

We are at a very unique point in time. The computer has existed for decades and the modern smartphone for almost a decade. In this time we have, as a society, built amazing digital worlds like Ello. Now with VR we are finally stepping into these worlds but right on the horizon is Augmented Reality and before we all step into the virtual worlds, we may just instead overlay and mesh the digital world into the physical world. Our beloved screens will go away and be replaced with glasses or contacts and digital art is going to become almost no different than physical art to view. It could be more tailored to an individual, we could block specific images or artworks from our view or change what we see based on preferences and permissions.

The deeper rabbit hole to go down will also be AI’s impact on art. From all the consumer data that has been collected on you, AI could have a deeper root and ability to tap into your psyche and give you an artistic experience that could fill you with incredible joy or paralyze you with fear.

Artists using these new tools could potentially become dream creators beyond anything that has ever been possible. Imagine if Dali was an artificial intelligence that controlled your augmented reality contacts!

Young uses self-portraiture to explore connection and emotion.

What’s next for you, or how do you see your pieces evolving?

I’m going to continue down the Augmented/Virtual Reality path for a bit. I’m building some really, really big worlds that haven’t been shared yet. I started out calling them painted rooms but they are becoming entire worlds. The experience of seeing these flat on a screen or through low-end phone is not the right experience for VR, so this will be released a bit later as consumer VR and as AR becomes more ubiquitous.

I’m also working on a new creative agency that has some really interesting projects that will be announced soon.

How do you see VR drawing and technology changing the art world?

VR drawing (especially collaboratively) is changing every industry. You will be able to draw a dress onto a model in real time and print out the fabric. Or a virtual room full of designers could draw a motorcycle to scale and work on it together. Creatives who work in these mediums will continue to carry the torch and show the world the future just as the painters, photographers and screen scrawlers have done before them.

Each flower in this arrangement was painted at room scale in VR.

What do you do when you’re not wearing a VR headset?

I listen to audio books and draw on a screen.

Follow the artist on Ello and Instagram.

Images © John Orion Young