Steampunk Month

Catching Up With Steampunk Artist Dan Hillier

By combining Victorian sensibilities with a fascination for animal attributes, Dan Hillier has become well-known for black line engravings that embody the steampunk aesthetic. He often depicts realistic poses of late-1800s people who have been altered by having animal elements added. Or perhaps the fantastical hybrids are the exact opposite, animals with the human elements added. 

His subjects range from reclining women to skulls resting on plates, but the archetypal and iconic effect of the black lines blurs the distinctions that are normally implied by reality. His art looks like diagrams from ancient textbooks but reveal a world that doesn’t exist yet…

Dan Hillier is English. He was raised in Oxford and then studied Graphic Arts and Illustration at Ruskin University in Cambridge. After graduating, Hillier spent several years traveling India, Nepal, Thailand, and Australia, doing henna tattoos and murals, before settling in London in 1999. Once in London, he worked various jobs for several years before making the leap, two years ago, to full-time art.

Hillier has had shows around London, including being part of Soup at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and has recently shown work at The Strychnin Gallery. Hillier has also been featured in the magazine Dazed and Confused and the arts journal Phoebe. As mentioned in the interview below, Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow are among the many who praise his work. When not running his stall at the Sunday Upmarket at the Old Truman Brewery off Brick Lane, Hillier attends art galleries frequently. Further examples of his artwork are available at [Translator’s note: Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards was the only British ski-jumper to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics. He came in so far last in his events that qualifying standards were made tougher for all future ski-jumpers…but he was adored by many despite being ridiculed. Monster Munch is a British corn snack.]

What was the first piece of visual art that you created and liked?  Is your style something that evolved over time?  Where did it start?

Probably the paintings of flames I did down the side of a go-cart at primary school which saw me and my boys cruise to victory in style at the Cumnor Primary School go-cart contest.  The stuff I’m doing now has evolved over the last few years from tinkering about with old scanned prints in Photoshop and playing about with pen and ink.

How do you feel after a day of working on your art?  Tired?  Accomplished?  Are you satisfied or unsatisfied with it most of the time?

Usually mainly pleased that I’m not doing a real job.  How good do you think you are? Eddie the Eagle.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Giacometti, Max Ernst, Romio Shrestha, Sebastian Gogel, Howard Hodgkin, Agamemnon Otero, Anthony Gormley, erm…

Your work is mostly black on white with lines that are reminiscent of engravings and ink.  Is it digital collage?  What sort of source materials do you use?  How much is done by hand and how much is done with technology?

The ‘altered engravings’ are indeed digital collages, sourced from old books, encyclopaedias, Dover archives and various places and are mostly done using Photoshop with a sprinkling of my own ink drawing when required.

On boing boing, Cory Doctorow described your art as “marvelous Cthuloid tentacled Victorian beauty-strosities.”  How do you describe it?

I think that’ll do for now.

Does your interest in the macabre, as evident in your art, especially its balance between the classical and the unnerving and its use of skulls, cross over to other disciplines as well?  Do you read?  What are some of your favorite albums and films?

I’ve finally bought an H.P. Lovecraft collection after a couple of years of people urging me to do so.  The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is the best book I’ve read this year; it’s amazing.  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Dracula, everything by Kurt Vonnegut, Bukowski and Herman Hesse…too many to list off here…  Filmwise I’ll take a swing at Secrets and Lies, Mulholland Drive, Withnail and I, Festen, Baraka, There Will Be Blood…and so on…

One can presume that you have studied anatomy.  What has your training in art been like?

Erratic.  Ill-attended.  Steeped in non-artistic pursuits.

You sell your drawings, in person, at the Sunday Upmarket at the Truman Brewery.  Please describe the venue, the clientele and how long you have you done it.

A somewhat dark and bustling concrete bunker peopled by generally lovely folk and visited by the same for the most part too.  I’ve been there for 3 years now.

You often combine human and animal characteristics.  Are you a fan of monsters?

I’m a fan of Monster Munch and the monster from Cloverfield and also Frankenstein’s monster.

If you are willing to share some of your techniques and tricks, are your blue paintings done differently than the digital colleges?  Separately, how are the prints done on wood?

Yes, they’re ink paintings using lots of water, lots of Daler-Rowney Calli ink and lots of delicate scratching with a dip nib pen.  The wood grains are digital prints from scans, except for the Buddha and Self With Self which are ink drawings on lovely old mahogany.

In 1997 and 1998, you traveled in India and Nepal.  Is it fair to say that some of your engravings and your journals show a sense of spiritual longing?

Or spiritual shortcomings, yes.

A company makes Moleskine journals that are etched with your designs and now there are T-shirts.  Is this only the beginning?  How did Neil Gaiman discover your work?

This is indeed only the beginning, though I don’t know what of. I don’t know how Neil Gaiman found my work but I’m glad he did, for he is a very talented and interesting gentleman.

What are your thoughts on the phrase “weird visual erotica” and do you think that your creations qualify?

Can I see some?  Maybe my pictures do qualify if you have a thing for women with tentacles or a lady with lobster hands attacking a man with the eyes of a prawn or something…

Geoffrey H. Goodwin is a former bookseller and academic who now writes full-time. His non-fiction appears in Weird Tales and and his fiction has appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Rabid Transit and the upcoming anthology Phantom, among other places.


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