My job is full of attention deficit disorder. I need an artist for a book cover so I go to Spectrum, something else there catches my eye and I look up a website, something shiny distracts me into another.... Soon, I have no idea where I started and it’s difficult to remember what the initial project was. (Don’t tell my boss.)
And so, somehow, I ended up on Thomas Tenery’s site. Once there, I realized I had seen his work on various sites but hadn’t placed a name to it. His rich color and thick atmosphere creates truly unearthly environments that make me feel as though I am swimming through them. Everything seems to be alive and growing, even the ships and hardware.
I also saw that he, and a handful of other concept artists, have what looks like a really fun book, Alien Race, coming out this fall from Design Studio Press.
A perfect excuse to hassle him with a few questions and ask him to be in our gallery.
Can you summarize Alien Race and explain how it came about?
Alien Race is an epic off-world adventure, centered around an intergalactic racing competition featuring the fastest, most powerful, genetically engineered racing creatures in the known universe. Human riders on hybrid beasts go head to head against bizarre alien competitors in a high-speed race across extreme terrain, through weird and wonderful alien environments, in the most dangerous race ever seen!
In the summer of 2006 Scott Robertson invited myself, Peter Chan, and Justin Pichetrungsi to begin visual development on his story, a clever spin on the classic sci-fi scenario of “first contact.” Alien Race was all about having fun with the idea of an intergalactic creature race. Scott gave us a huge amount of latitude to explore both in terms of subject matter and design process, resulting in a very laid-back, creatively-inspired studio environment. It was a time of experimentation and enormous artistic growth for me. We pushed things in a very stylized visual direction and added a lot of quirkiness and humor to the project. It continued to evolve over the next year, and with the addition of Ben Mauro and John Park to the team, it became something even more interesting and alien than originally conceived. I think the fun we had as a group really shows in the final art. The visual development work done for Alien Race is being published soon as an art book by Design Studio Press.
Favorite painting you did in the past year?
I really enjoyed doing “The Ark [image at the top of this post],” an establishing shot for Alien Race. In an inspired moment, I spontaneously kitbashed a couple of color sketches that I had done about a year and a half earlier, sketches that I liked but that had never really gone anywhere, and then added the elements necessary for the storytelling aspect of the scene depicting a huge space vessel in port delivering cargo and race animals to the alien planet. It came together very quickly and managed to hit the stylistic sweet spot that I often try to achieve somewhere between loose concept art and a more finished illustration.
I love the richness of China Mieville’s worlds. Visual development for a Tales of New Crobuzon trilogy would be very high on my list. In general, what I’m most passionate about as a designer is worldbuilding. I’ve found there are a lot of ways to realize that core desire, whether the assignment is a single illustration, a dozen shots for a film pitch, a year long story vis dev, or years doing game development.
Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Music was my obsession throughout high school and what I studied initially in college. I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing in bands during those years. A couple of weeks before my junior year a good friend of mine, who was in architecture school, showed me a studio design exercise he was working on. They were required to analyze a modern painting (in this case a Cubist work by Braque), extract the grid system, proportions, shapes, etc., from that artwork and translate those elements into the design of a house. Essentially, build a painting. I was stunned when I saw that. It was sort of a “lightning bolt” experience for me, a revelation about the connections between the arts, the complexity and depth of ideas possible through design, and the sheer cleverness of it all. I dropped music instantly and enrolled in architecture school two weeks later.
Do you have to like the book/comic/movie to be excited about the project?
I think that depends on how long you’re going to be spending on the project. As a concept artist diving in to a two or three year videogame production, I think that liking the project is a necessity. It’s a huge commitment. Investing that amount of your time and life in a project has to be about more than just the loot and experience points. For short-term work, like covers, card illustrations, or game/movie pitches, I don’t think that liking the story is critical to getting excited. Even if the subject matter is uninspiring, there is always something that will keep me engaged, from basic 2d problem-solving to the challenges of interesting storytelling or of trying to find a fresh interpretation of the material.
What painting do you wish you painted?
There are thousands of paintings on that list. It’s staggering the number of incredible artists/designers out there, past and present. I’ll avoid the temptation to name a dozen Masters and contemporary artists that inspire me day to day, and say that there are 50+ drawings in Lebbeus Woods’ The New City that have haunted and inspired me for the last fifteen years. I return to that book all the time to recenter myself artistically. It’s a reminder of what is most important to me about art/design.