Seeing Art through a New Lens with VR: An Interview with The Sabby Life

Recent months have seen an uptick in the number of VR apps created in Tilt Brush that have been released to the regular game distribution platforms. At the same time, many of us have been witnessing the expressive progression of visual artists using VR as a tool and the Metaverse as a canvas. In the less than three years since Tilt Brush’s release, we’ve seen artists who are prolifically creating within VR transition from competence to mastery. The piece that captured me most recently was Da Vinci Paints the Mona Lisa for both the beauty of the piece and also the message I saw in (or perhaps projected onto) the work. Rather than speculate as to the meaning behind Da Vinci, I immediately reached out to the artist, The Sabby Life , and put my questions to her directly.

I came to learn about your work through Da Vinci Paints the Mona Lisa made in Tilt Brush. Can you tell me about yourself along with the art and content you create?

I am a self-taught artist and I found a Tilt Brush introduction video on YouTube while I was researching how to achieve a 3-D effect in my acrylic canvas paintings. Since that day, I have been in love with this new virtual-reality art medium and have spent all my time creating VR art. I have branched out to other VR art tools such as Masterpiece VR, Gravity Sketch, and Tvori which are virtual reality sculpting, designing, and animation tools respectively. The art I create is used for visual storytelling as I try to capture a sort of behind the scenes perspective to enrich the story. I also create animations to enhance my live stream on Twitch and for other streamers in the community. These animations allow viewers to interact with the live stream.

What was your inspiration for recreating the scene of Mona Lisa’s painting? Does it have symbolic value for you as it relates to art within VR or were you motivated to create an homage to the old masterpiece?

The inspiration for recreating the scene of Mona Lisa’s painting was to reveal this sort of behind-the-scene spotlight on Da Vinci at work. I wondered how many people think about Da Vinci actually painting the Mona Lisa. I wondered what he was imagining as he captured Lisa del Giocondo’s image on the canvas. I think he already knew what the background would be for her portrait. I love to show the hidden activities beyond what is actually seen. I believe this can reveal something that is mysterious and unreachable as something very attainable. This is also my thought process behind why I stream live and share my time, energy, even my life, and techniques with my audience.

What was your process for painting Da Vinci Paints the Mona Lisa? How does it relate to art you’ve created previously in and outside VR?

For creating Da Vinci Paints the Mona Lisa, first, I planned the layout as if it were an installation art piece. I then used reference photos and studied the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo as well as Leonardo de Vinci, imagining the shape and size of their bodies according to what I could see in their photo. I started with a basic sketch to capture the proportions and outlines in each plane — the sagittal, coronal, and transverse — as if it were a drawing from every angle. Once this sort of wire frame existed, I was able to start adding fine contour lines to define the 3D shapes as if I were sculpting. Then I started painting over this frame with brush strokes like paper mache strips because they don’t blend together. I started with the 2D Mona Lisa portrait then onto Lisa del Giocondo and Da Vinci in 3D, then ended with the environment. The environment represents Da Vinci’s imagination while making this painting. There is a light source inside Tilt Brush, so I set it to match the lighting shown in the Mona Lisa reference photo. Then I painted shadows for the finishing touch. So my initial focus was the shape and volume of my subject then shadows and coloring.

A few interactive VR apps made in Tilt Brush have been made available recently (e.g. The Art Theft). What do you think about the interactive potential of art in VR?

The interactive potential of art in VR is huge. I think people would love to have those experiences because it empowers you to be creative. I recently experienced The Art Theft and I was impressed by its interactive story telling. It gets you directly involved in the story and gives the viewer a sense of being a part of something rather than being an idle observer. The message I got from the experience was, Let’s make a story together, which gets people involved and makes you feel good to see your ideas being used. I have collaborated with other artists in Masterpiece VR, and as we sculpt, we talk together in the same VR studio room. Sometimes we have a theme to use in our sculpting and we make a scene together. To see the collaborated art piece come together as we play off each other’s ideas bonds us as we create these stories together. I also cultivate an interactive community on my Twitch channel where the viewers can become a customized Easter egg in the art pieces that I paint. As they become part of my artwork, we learn about each other and create stories together. One thing I would love to see is multi-player in Tilt Brush and, really, all the VR art software tools so that artists can socialize more and so that our audience can have a unique viewing position during our process.

When you’re creating art in VR, do you consider the practice fundamentally different than traditional painting and sculpture? How does technology change the process?

For my art pieces, the art creation process inside VR is a combination of painting, and sculpting fundamentals. My virtual reality art is closest to 3D digital art and sculpting when it comes to planning content of the art piece because I consider all the viewing angles, but the creation of the art piece feels like traditional art with all the hand movements. Technology definitely changes my process from traditional art to VR. The execution of the artwork can be done in so many ways because it is digital and things can be moved around at will or worked on in layers depending on which program you are using. This new medium is not subjected to the limitations of chemical processes like traditional art is, but there are unique issues that come along with it, like glitches or file load considerations, and things of a digital nature. So just as with any art medium, I have to learn about it and its limitations. For the most part, VR art is so liberating and provides freedom to create anything I want and in whatever scale I desire, which is normally limited with traditional art mediums. Because of this technology, in my mind, my art pieces have no limits compared to traditional canvases.

Do you think that art education could formally adopt VR as a visual art medium and include it in their curriculum? Are there signs of this happening already?

I am definitely for art education formally adopting VR art into their curriculum as a visual arts medium. Currently, there are some VR art class workshops going on around the world, and a fellow artist is teaching in a VR art program at Idyllwild Arts Academy in California. So, the formal education has begun and it’s very exciting to see where this goes!

How do you personally want to see art within VR develop? Are there other hopes that you have for VR in the future?

To see the developments happening now within the VR art communities is astonishing. There are many talented artists emerging in this scene who are pushing the limits of these VR art tools and we are all learning from each other every day. I think the social aspect of this new type of artist is so important because it is so different than anything we’ve known. We need to support each other and learn from each other. I would love to see more multi-player capabilities in all the VR art software and I’m very excited to see this update for Tilt Brush since it’s my first love in VR art. I do have some future plans that have stemmed from discovering this new art medium. There is a huge 3-ring binder that I add details to everyday for a dream business involving VR art, and I’ve heard that dreams sometimes come true so I keep at it.

The Sabby Life has a YouTube Channel and Twitch Stream where you can find her past and latest work. You can also connect through her social media page.

Graduate of Cognitive Science, SocialVR Researcher/Designer/Enthusiast. Also, a Writer of Books and Father of One.