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