Interview with Cover Artist Thomas Tan

April 20, 2021

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Russell Dickerson has been a published illustrator and designer since the previous millennium, creating works for many genre publications and authors. He has also written many articles for various organizations in that time including Apex.

This month’s cover artist is Thomas Tan, an illustrator who has created pieces for magazines, custom tabletop gaming paraphernalia, and various commissioned art. Strongly influenced while growing up by colorful anime and many storybooks, his work reflects a colorful vision of fantasy lives and worlds.

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APEX MAGAZINE:  Many of your works, including the cover art for this month’s issue, feature individual characters within enormous mythological settings. How do you balance the vision of a massive Trojan horse with something more personal, like the character in yellow on top of it? How does the existence of a character, no matter how small, change the emotional balance of the piece?

THOMAS TAN: There’s a lot of consideration when it comes to such things. Adding a character always changes the piece in some way, and there are many reasons for adding one. It humanizes the piece and allows the viewer to have a much stronger emotional connection to it. I’ve read somewhere that due to how the brain is wired, the eyes will naturally seek out humanoid figures or faces first. I’m not sure how true that is, but I do feel that is the case. 

What are the character(s) doing? What is the story, the action, or the intent? To have a strong painting I need to constantly ask myself questions like this during the process and essentially sell a story to the viewer without using words. Other, more technical considerations like visual composition, color composition, scale of the setting, and the order of focus have to be dealt with as well. Depending on the confines I’m often working with and what the painting is for, I try to tick as many boxes as I can. 

The theme of the piece used for the cover art was the “spirit of youth and adventure.” During the initial sketching stages I like to get into the mood of what I want the piece to possess and let the idea slowly manifest itself on the canvas. I wanted a sense of progress, of moving forward, of celebration and discovery. In this case the theme is expressed by having children eagerly climbing or perched on the structure, looking to the horizon as the parade advances below. Some of the characters have capes and that invokes the image of adventurers and superheroes in fantasy. The capes and banners flowing in the wind also give a sense of forward momentum.

AM:  You mention on your website’s About page (thomastanart.com/about) that you’ve had to become adept at dealing with pressure. How does working under pressure affect your creative vision? Do you feel similar pressures, things like speed or performance, when you are creating personal works?

TT: Pressure has the tendency to affect my work in both positive and negative ways. Sometimes having the pressure of a deadline spurs me to step on the accelerator, and I’m often pleasantly surprised by the end result. It feels really good when I pull it off. Other times with a much closer deadline I have to keep that in mind and aim for something that is more realistic, compared to a more explorative and creative end product if I had extra time.

For personal works I have the tendency to be a perfectionist, so I do constantly feel the pressure to execute well. If it’s not good enough, if I’m not feeling a piece, or if I’m not satisfied with the direction I don’t hesitate to scrap what I have. I’ve learned over the years that trying to salvage a “bad piece” burns too much time and energy when compared to starting anew. It is sometimes hard to do so because I invest a bit of myself in every piece. But in life, one needs to learn when to let go. I have a folder full of half-finished pieces that I might return to or re-explore the concepts occasionally.

AM: The Game of Thrones card designs featured in your galleries offer a unique vision of the popular series, particularly within a genre featuring so many artists with their own spin on the series. Is it difficult to come up with designs that are different from the works of others in a crowded field? How do you approach creating designs that are unique and yet still can be recognizable to the series?

Game of Thrones card back design
Game of Thrones card designs by Thomas Tan

TT:  I think for many artists there is always some pressure to conform to the usual style of the rest of the industry, especially since illustration is more of a commercial environment when compared to the fine arts. For me, I try not to look at the work of other artists too excessively, and I feel that helps with maintaining a different voice when it comes to painting; it’s not difficult for me. But, of course, there are pros and cons to it. If one’s style/designs are too different it would be hard to market, and sometimes clients have an exact look or design they want me to follow. In that case I try my best to match that.

I always imagine the source material in my head and try to execute based on that interpretation. That’s the beauty of books; the reader conjures up his own imagination. A painting of a character need not be exact to what is shown in a TV or movie adaptation. Some elements can be maintained, but other parts can be changed to make it more interesting. Regarding those cards, me and the client who commissioned them wanted something different, and I’m glad to have that freedom.

My painting style has evolved largely because I like the look of traditional oil painting. Oil paintings with rough and prominent brush strokes. I think many forms of classical work (not just art) are sorely under-appreciated in our digital age.

AM: In one of your Facebook posts from December (facebook.com/ttys12) you mentioned that you were trying to streamline your process and not overthink things so much. What is the danger of either having a loose process or of overthinking a piece? When you see the work of another artist that has maybe overthought something, how does that affect what you think of the work?

TT: Having a loose process or overthinking a piece are similar, but they are two different things. A loose, freeform process is good for creativity because it allows for happy accidents, and its more enjoyable to work on as a creative. It’s actually one of my most favorite parts of it. But the quirk of it is that often the end product is not 100% what I initially envisioned, and sometimes by having detours, exploring new ideas takes longer to get to the final product. Overthinking also makes the process take longer but for different questions (self-questioning, worrying too much about small details, going back and forth over design decisions). It can reflect in the work as a vague feeling of tightness and lack of liveliness/energy. It doesn’t really affect how I think of the piece when I see it, but it can be obvious to a viewer, at least as a fellow artist or maybe because it’s something I had to get over and still do to a certain extent as well.

AM: Your piece “Absolution” was featured in the prestigious Spectrum 23 annual of the year’s best contemporary genre art. Has being recognized in such a vaunted publication changed your career outlook at all or affected how others perceive your work? What did it feel like when you were told you’d made it into Spectrum?

Absolution by Thomas Tan
“Absolution” by Thomas Tan

TT:  To be honest I did not expect to be selected, as it was my first time submitting an entry to Spectrum and I’d only submitted one piece (they allow up to five). So it was really a pleasant surprise when I received their email. There was a feeling of slight surrealness followed by elation. It did give a boost to my career outlook but it’s more of a feather in my cap. I’ve been painting for about ten-plus years now, the vast majority of it is mostly self-taught. To be featured in such a publication felt like a validation of all those years and long nights in my room painting away. 

My close friends are glad for me, but I don’t want to let anything go to my head or think I’m “good enough.” I still have a long way to go and room for improvement. I’m not satisfied with my ability yet, I want to paint more and keep climbing. It feels like scaling a really huge mountain, and there is always another ledge, another peak beyond this one. Pursuing a craft largely alone can feel scary but also exhilarating, and that is why I chose this path in life.

Once you lose that hunger or become content, improvement in skill slows down greatly or even stops. I think countless other artists feel the same fire inside and I have great admiration for their works—many are far better than me and I hope to reach their level one day. Personally I don’t feel there will or should ever be an end to the push for constant self-improvement. 

Thank you, Russell, and Apex Magazine for hosting this interview. The questions were all very thoughtful and I spent quite some time mulling over them.

AM: Thank you, Thomas, for the insightful interview!

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Readers can explore more of Tan’s wonderful art on his DeviantArt (deviantart.com/rustypulley) and ArtStation (artstation.com/thomastan) profiles.

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