Interview with James Ng – Part 2

Concluding our interview with award winning freelance artist, James Ng.

AA: Focusing now on your Chinese steampunk series, how do you describe steampunk?

JN: A genre of fantasy that tries to create a “what if” scenario, kind of like clashing the past with the future.

AA: When I first came across the series after reading your interview with Jaymee Goh I was amazed and intrigued by the design, the techniques and the topics. How did this series initially come about?

JN: I did not even know of the term “steampunk” until I started posting my work online and people kept calling it that. I will quote an interview I did for DPI about the series if you don’t mind. “I am very interested in the Chinese Qing Dynasty and the modernization of non European countries. The standard of modernization is basically Westernization, as China becomes more modern, it also becomes more like the West. (Living in Hong Kong is probably why I noticed this trend, as Hong Kong is the most Westernized city in all of China.)

I began to wonder, what if China was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China was the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today? Perhaps China will still be in imperial rule? Maybe skyscrapers would look like Chinese temples? Cars would look like carriages? And maybe we would have fantastical machines that look both futuristic and historic. That’s the idea behind my personal project. I always think from the standpoint of the “what if” question. It is also important to reflect a bit of my culture in the image, so it’s not just some random robot killing things. Though those are cool too (laughs).When I have this make believe world more developed, I hope to sell it as an entire concept to companies that would be interested in making it into a setting for a computer game or perhaps a movie.”

AA: Creating a complete setting and theme is a great goal! Do you have a favorite piece in the series?

JN: My favorite is the Airship and the Empress. The Airship because it was my first piece and also the most iconic and decorated image in my series. The Empress because it was the most challenging and frustrating piece that I have survived through.

AA: Do you have any plans for a subsequent series?

JN: I will be continuously expanding the series, and have a bunch of ideas right now but zero time. I haven’t thought of a new series yet however. But I will start to depict things of other cultures since the project was intended to reflect the era where the East and West clashed for a power struggle.

AA: What can you tell us about your current and planned future projects?

JN: I am working on a childrens/young adult book cover, and a fantasy novel book cover. Pending commissions are a DVD cover for an indie music video, and illustration graphics for a small budget iPhone game. Also, the inside drawings for the young adult book. And always pending are more pieces for my personal series.

AA: If you had unlimited access, time and budget, what is one piece you’d leap at to create?

JN: I would, of course, work on my own series. There is this big book of Chinese fairy tales and myths my mom used to read to me when I was really little. I recently found it again in my room. There is this story about a man who invented Chinese herbal medicine. He had a stomach made from crystal, so he could see what plants did to him when he ate them. I think it would be cool to transfer that idea into my project. So it would be female doctor/alchemist this time, who has a machine torso with a glass stomach to test her herbal brews.

I have another idea about the Forbidden Palace of the Imperial family. It’s got this huge underground prison to hold all the rebels. With so many prison cells, there would be so many keys. The key keeper for the prison is the only one is in charge of organizing all the keys, but he recently passed away. So now only this family of cats, that’s been with the key keeper all his life, can remember which key goes with which door. But they refused to go to work without their master. So the court had the Imperial Inventor reanimate the key keeper’s skeleton with machines, to trick the cats to continue working until they find a better solution. Here is the sketch for this idea. But I might not color it. I have a lot of ideas, but these two seem the most interesting.

AA: Aside from presenting your work at the Steampunk World’s Fair in May, and a possible showing at Steamcon in November, what other steampunk things are you involved with?

JN: I might be featured in a coffee table book later this year that’s all about steampunk. Like I said before, the term “steampunk” is very new to me, but I have been looking at more and more steampunk artwork and media to take in inspiration.

AA: Looking beyond your artwork, what other interests keep you occupied in your free time?

JN: I know nothing about music, but I really want to learn an instrument. Visual arts have become such a huge part of my life, work, ambition, hobby, that I think I need a new hobby to take me away from drawing/painting sometimes. Plus, girls love a man who can serenade them with music (laughs).

I enjoy doing sports a lot. Soccer is my favorite, though surprisingly I don’t really follow any of the leagues. I am more of a “do” person than a “watch” person. If I have time to watch a game of soccer, I’d rather go outside and play soccer. Exercise is very important to me too. I run, swim, or go to the gym 6 days a week. I’ve also been reading books on how to invest in stocks. I will begin learning full contact karate soon. I think I just really like learning and challenging myself in general. Not just in my artwork, but with everything. Music is probably the last thing I am talented in, yet I want to learn it because of that. I also think standing in front of another person and trying to beat the crap out of each other is very nerve wracking, and that’s why I want to confront this by taking full contact karate.

I think a very common thing with people is they stop wanting to learn new things as they get older, in fear of failing. If you ask an adult to ride a bicycle, but he does not know how to yet, he would rather not try in fear of falling down. But that same person, as a child, they would probably have hopped on the bike before you even asked him to try it. I was really enlightened on this subject by [English poet] William Blake‘s “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. It talks about the maturing of human beings. I can’t pretend to be smart enough to understand it all, but that’s what I concluded after the reading.

AA: Those are all great reasons to learn something new and learn more about yourself at the same time. Are you finding any overlap or influence from those interests with your art or steampunk?

JN: Mmm, not really, no. Although, I have recently developed more and more interest in martial arts (karate), I started liking Bruce Lee more and more. I was thinking of making a steampunk Bruce Lee as a super-hero type character in the world I am creating. But then I think the real Bruce Lee is so bad ass that he doesn’t need to be steam-punkified (laughs). Maybe I will just give him some crazy numchucks.

AA: You’ve done a lot of traveling and lived in a number of cities. You are back in Vancouver, British Columbia for awhile; are there any plans for where your nomadic traveling will take you next?

JN: I REALLY want to live in Argentina for a few months while I work. I always have this image of Argentina of being a passionate place, where people really know how to enjoy every day life. Where neighbors are real nice to each other, and kick it on the steps with some red wine (laughs).I probably been influenced by movies, but still I really want to check it out.

AA: Thank you so much for sharing your time and your ideas with us today. Do you have any final thoughts to share?

JN: Would it be okay to quote my “artist/career statement” from a previous interview?

“If I chose something more stable and “normal” as my career path, maybe my life would be safer and more steady. There is a huge risk being a professional artist. I knew there will be a chance I could fail and that nobody would like my art, or hire me to draw. But I think without the chance to fail, without taking risk, there is no room for success. After all, you can not win when there is no possibility of losing.”

AA: Thanks again, James, we look forward to seeing your future work and hearing from you again soon.  James’ Chinese Steampunk series is available in his online store.

UPDATE: James did a project with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed a few months ago. He mixed their assassin with his Chinese steampunk style and the result is here.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 8:14 am  Comments (3)  
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Interview With James Ng – Part 1

Without much of a spoiler preamble, presented today is part 1 of 2 of an interview with James Ng, an award winning artist who created a series of Chinese Steampunk images amongst his other commercial and personal works.

Airship Ambassador: Welcome James! You are a very busy and successful freelance artist these days and I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule for this interview. Let’s start right at the beginning: how did you get started as an artist?

James NG: I always wanted to be artist when I was young. My mom told me I learned to use crayons to draw before I learned how to use the chopsticks to eat. So even until now, I get made fun of at family dinners because I don’t know how to hold the chopsticks properly. I hold them like pencils and just kind of squish them around to get food (laughs). I took art classes since I was three, up until the end of high school. After that, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago on a scholarship, and later transferred to School of Visual Arts in New York to finish my Bachelor in Fine Arts. I did two internships during my college years as a graphic designer and an illustrator. During my first year in college I did my first freelance commission, and they slowly increased in number through my years in college. In my last semester in college, I was spending half my time doing commissions and half my time doing school work and my own portfolio work. Freelancing just continued after I graduated till now.

AA: Now I don’t feel so bad for not being able to use chopsticks, either!With that lifetime of training and real world experience, was there anything in particular which helped prepare and lead you to where you are now?

JN: I think entering contests really helped promote myself as an artist. I entered a ton of contests when I was about to graduate from college. The most important one that I competed in and won was probably the Society of Illustrators 2008 show, in which the piece “Angry Bee” got into the exhibition. The next year, “Immortal Empress” and “Imperial Airship” were in the 2009 show, with the ship winning a scholarship award. Last year, I was honored with the Digital Artist 2009 award for the piece “Night Patrol”. It also allowed me to travel to London for the exhibition and ceremony, where I was able to meet David Gibbons who was the host for the show. Contests are a great way to get your work out there, even though some cost a little money, its a great way to get into books and shows to help spread your name.

AA: Over the years, what have you found to be important qualities or characteristics necessary to be a successful freelance artist?

JN: I think the most important thing in being a freelance artist is determination and discipline. It is very competitive, and to be successful you would have to devote a lot of time to your craft. It is like a never ending challenge to improve your work. It is also important to enjoy the challenge that you present yourself so you can truly give your best shot at each piece.

AA: What advice or suggestions would you offer to people who want to make a career being an artist?

JN: Love learning new things. Practice does not make perfect. If you are doing something wrong constantly, it will just create a bad habit. Apply knowledge into practice to try to achieve perfection. This knowledge is gained from being critical of your own work, find something to improve on. And be critical of other’s work and find something you can learn from. I don’t mean to say that I think my work is perfect, matter of fact I don’t think I ever will create anything that I feel is perfect. But that’s okay, that means there is always something to learn, and that’s the fun part!

AA: Learning new things is a beneficial lesson for everyone of every age and background. While working on school, commissioned and personal works, what challenges have you faced?

JN: The most challenging for me, personally, is knowing when to stop and move on. A piece of art is never really done, as there is always room for improvement. But sometimes it’s better to just stop and start a new piece instead of fussing over little things for days. Even though I understand this, I still tend to revise my “finished” paintings for days after its completion.

AA: Following up on your comment about enjoying your own challenges, what do you look forward to when creating and finishing a project?

JN: Rewards of my work would definitely be what I learned during the process of the creation. To me, the creation process and problem solving is what I enjoy the most. The painting is just a by product by the time I am done. I guess I could say I look forward to figuring out the problems I present myself with, because after that I will know that my knowledge in my craft has expanded. There is no greater reward than that. But of course, recognition from others serves as a great encouragement too!

AA: In learning new things before, during and after a given project, do you talk with other artists to trade ideas or discuss techniques?

JN: Not that often. Though I do search through forums to look at work by other artists for ideas and eye candy, I don’t really talk to that many artists besides my friends from college. Most of the time my commissions have non-disclosure agreements, so even if I am stuck on something, I can’t really send it to my fellow illustrator friends to ask for help or comments. When I work on my personal works, I actually prefer asking people who are not proficient in the arts. Their comments would point me in the right direction, and they have a “common” eye which often spots the problem right away that I overlook, because I am being too technical when critiquing my own work.

AA: How varied have your projects been? With different demands for school, contests and businesses, what kinds of topics and media have you worked on?

JN: Professionally, I’ve worked on a range of things. Pre-production concept art, game art, book covers, motion graphics (where I provided the images in layers and someone else animated it). A very different commission I did was a large painting for a tram wrap in Hong Kong about 30feet wide. I have also just completed a double decker bus wrap at an even larger size. The file crashed my computer a few times (laughs). But to summarize, it’s always been 2D graphics that I am commissioned for. In my own time I am constantly working to expand my series of Chinese steampunk images. I also used to do sculptures but haven’t had the time to do that lately. I would love to turn one of my concept art paintings into a little figurine.

AA: That’s quite a variety with extremes in form and substance. Is there anything in particular that you look for in a subject or topic?

JN: Well commission wise, I think more business orientated. Things like budget and exposure are important, as I look at it more like a job, and I need money to pay rent and eat (laughs). On my personal time when I create a piece for myself, I look for a connection to myself. The Chinese series is very evident of this. Not just because of it being Chinese, but the mixture of East and West in my artwork is very descriptive of my growing up as a child, since I moved between the East and West equally during my studies. I also make sure there is something new I haven’t done before. Though it might not be very evident to someone looking at my gallery, I try to add in something I have never drawn before to each piece. Sometimes it fails but I always learn something new.

AA: With all of that external and internal drive for variety and trying new things, what is your process to create new works?

JN: I’ve never found myself in a spot where I have time but don’t have an idea or something I want to work on. It is ALWAYS the other way around, where I have a bunch of ideas but not enough time to work on them. When I finally do get time to create a new piece, I pick an idea from the bunch and start researching. I think the more I understand something the better I can depict it. I read a lot of Chinese history books before I began on my Chinese Steampunk series. I also read about the Industrial Revolution in England. I learned that it started because farmers were getting smarter and had better tools. No longer needing so many men to tend to the farms, allowing the extra people to have time to learn new crafts and go to school. That eventually led to new knowledge and invention in machinery that paved way for the Industrial Revolution. So farming tools were an important part of the industrial revolution, and this is why I created the piece “Harvester” as my second image in the series. I kind of went off track from the question, but I guess it shows how much I value research when creating new works. The rest of the process is just reference gathering, sketches after sketches, then coloring on the computer.

AA: With a lifetime of drawing and creating, from crayon to computer, what differences have you seen in your work and techniques over time?

JN: I see my work becoming more ambitious. My painting technique has improved, but I realize that there is more to learn. It is a weird thing. It seems every time I learn one thing, it teaches me that I do not know three other things.

End of Part One

Please join us for Part Two, where we ask James more about his Chinese Steampunk series.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2


Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 7:38 am  Comments (17)  
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Facets of the Steampunk Community

The steampunk community is wide and varied, with participants from every walk of life, every corner of the globe, and every level of interest, exposure and experience.

Within our community there are a handful of areas of interest and entry points whereby a person discovers steampunk and finds their interests fulfilled. As I’ve met more people, read more articles, blogs, and forums, and generally became more involved over the years, I feel that there are four (very) general categories which describe how people express their interests in steampunk.

  • Narrative – literature, movies, fanzines, blogs
  • Cosplay – fashions, seamstresses and tailors
  • Makers – artists, musicians, builders
  • Ideology – politics, lifestyle

First, I admit that these are very general terms which encompass more granular detail, and that they really function as a simplistic label in communication to give people a common ground within which to work.

Second, each describes an area of interest in steampunk, not a person. A person might have an interest in only one area, or perhaps in all, and that person would still self-identify as a steampunk.

Which leads to a thought about the use of the word ‘steampunk’. As a single word, I have seen it used with multiple meanings and forms. It can be a noun, adjective and a verb.

  • I am a steampunk. (As in “I am a fan of ‘X’ ” Whovian, Trekker, Lostie, etc)
  • The steampunk aesthetic.
  • One might steampunk their computer.

Of course, the appropriateness and accuracy of such usage is open for a completely different discussion.

The Great Steampunk Debate site has had a number of interesting discussions since the forum opened on May 1, 2010. Topics range from reading lists to cosplay to politics and everything in between. Relating to this blog topic, there is one post by Jack Horner describing his impression of the various facets of the community and the details of each as he sees them.

When I first thought about the facets of the community, the mental image I had was of Steampunk City, where each type on interest was a neighborhood, all centering around a common park in the center. OK, yeah, I’m weird that way.

My initial official point of entry to steampunk was through the original gateway which started everything – narratives. For me, it was the 1990 release of The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I was fresh off reading Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and kept thinking “How cool would it be to have these cyberpunk stories set in the world of my favorite book ever, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?” And as fortune would have it, there it was.

K.W.Jeter’s term for such a story was already three years old by then, but even with my first computer, I still had to dig long and extensively to find other stories to read and other references for information. These days with the Googleization of all online data, there are a gazillion results to peruse for ‘steampunk’. Since my initial introduction two decades ago, there have been more books, movies, fanzines, comics, blogs, and in the last few years, mainstream media articles.

Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon, listed his top ten definitive steampunk books on this Debate site post.

  1. The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James Blaylock
  2. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 1 – Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
  3. Steampunk (anthology) – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
  4. Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon
  5. The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
  6. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  7. The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
  8. The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
  9. Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Stirling
  10. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola (because it makes a great way to compare the original and the steampunked version!)

There are threads on Brass Goggles listing people’s steampunk movie lists.

Such a list would include, among others:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  • Captain Nemo and the Underwater City
  • Steamboy
  • The Time Machine

With more local meet-ups and conventions happening each year, more and more people are entering the community via the cosplay and fashion expression of steampunk. Within this group, there are seamstresses and tailors, custom made outfits and off the shelf wear, and people who just dress up to look good along with those who come complete with a character and back story.

People indulge their fashion interests for a wide variety of reasons, all very personal. For some, it’s their way of expressing their interest in steampunk, just like an author writes a story. For another group, it’s coming to the party in great looking outfit. For others, it’s about acting, becoming a character, a chance to step outside their own daily lives and be someone different.

My experiences with people who dress have always been positive. People’s creativity is amazing, how a common theme or archetype can be expressed in so many different and spectacular ways. Some people can pull together approval-winning outfits from pieces already in the closet. Some of us have no fashion sense beyond t-shirts and jeans but with a little inspiration from others can create a fun outfit, too.

However, other people have expressed negative experiences with cosplay and its participants. Some people’s ‘acting’ isn’t seen as a character performance but as real personal interaction, which has led to misunderstandings, and perceptions of all sorts of negative, offensive, and demeaning ‘–isms’. Also, there are people who find various outfits themselves intrinsically offensive as seen through a lens of stereotyping, and that an outfit means that the person wearing it completely supports and endorses the behavior of that given role in the nineteenth century – people who wear aristocratic dress are elitists seeking to control others, those in military uniforms believe in warfare and subjugation, those in street urchin/ruffian attire are engaged in unethical behaviors…

While people are people, with all the good or bad characteristics that may be accurately applied to them, steampunk cosplay and dress per se are not strict Victorian recreations, nor are steampunk attitudes and beliefs completely Victorian in substance. A steampunk wears their outfit of choice for their own reasons which usually have more to do with resources, abilities, and a desire to look good than to advance any display of or support for outdated, non-inclusive sociological or cultural views. If a person is inherently a jerk, they will still be a jerk if they wear a steampunk outfit or not.

In the last few years, online images of the steampunk technological design aesthetic have been another way for people to first experience steampunk. Artists and builders have created images, props and technology which entice the curiosity and imagination. The recently concluded Museum of Oxford Steampunk Art Exhibition drew crowds to see objects from the future that never was. Conventions this last year were also venues to display this form of creativity, such as Tom Sepe’s motorcycle at Nova Albion.

There’s always a discussion somewhere about how this design aesthetic started, how important it is and where it’s headed. Check out the Great Steampunk Debate site, and the forums on Brass Goggles, and Steampunk Empire, among others.

More recently, there’s a growing group of people who see or promote an action oriented, or political, agenda within the steampunk community. This ideology is as varied and wide ranging as the people in the community. Some follow the philosophy of reuse and recycle in every aspect of their daily life. Others encourage more self-reliance, personal accountability, and self determination over government assistance programs and perceived forms of interference. There are philosophies to buy locally, avoid excessive consumption, and resist crass commercialization; engage in conservation and cooperation.

Are these ideas, values and actions necessarily part of the evolving steampunk community, or should they reside as a choice of the individual? Is a political agenda the expected result of how a person adopts those Victorian, neo-Victorian, and steampunk attitudes and philosophies into their daily lives? Is it important that the community have any stated or defined political agenda or actions? Or is it sufficient that members will find others of a similar temperament to talk with about issues of the day? Is it even possible to have one set of political ideas that the whole community could agree upon?

There’s also a small group of people who say they live a steampunk lifestyle. I don’t see it, personally, but that’s how they describe how they live their own lives. There are a few threads on the Great Steampunk Debate site which discuss this and how one considers their life to be steampunk in nature. I also came across this post from 2008 where many of the comments relate to a lifestyle, or not. This other post had several good ideas and was more convincing that other postings which seem to indicate that wearing Victorian clothes, having antiques in the house and using a straight razor constituted a lifestyle instead of being a decorative veneer or affectation.

The steampunk community has grown and changed over the years in some significant ways, not always to everyone’s satisfaction, and chances are that it will continue to evolve. Whatever one’s initial entry point and interests are, there are other facets of the community to explore.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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