Trained as a classical animator, Derek Stenning has spent the last two decades working as a concept artist in the game development field.
Over the years he has worked on projects for companies like Nintendo, Microsoft and Activision to name a few. He has also worked as a freelance illustrator for various clients, including Random House and Simon and Schuster. His personal artwork, The EK Series, has been translated into art books and model kits. His new book, EK2 - The Lost Years, is published by Design Studio Press and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at other fine book retailers.
Ji: Hi Derek, your impressive personal work has led to some remarkable commercial projects with notable companies such as Nintendo, Microsoft, and Marvel Entertainment etc, Can you tell me about the beginning of your journey? And how did you get started as a freelance artist?
Derek:I always drew and created art as a kid, but I guess my journey really started when I went to art school to learn 2D animation. That led to a short stint in animation before I jumped over to games, and I’ve been working as a concept artist in that industry ever since. After focusing on my career in games for close to a decade I decided to start working on my own personal artwork again, and out of this my "Entartete Kunst" or “EK Series" project was created. This project has been the basis for art books, model kits, prints, magazine covers and a handful of other things. It also raised the awareness of my work and I started to get job offers from various people and companies. That is how the freelance thing started, and I did that for 6-7 years, but for the last few years I’ve been working full time with NLG/Nintendo.
Ji:You recently released a book called EK2, which is an amazing artbook. Could you introduce the book to us and tell us what the differences are compared to the first one?
Derek:The full title of the book is EK2 - The Lost Years. “The Lost Years” is a reference to stressful period in my life where due to various circumstances, including taking on too much work and becoming the primary caregiver for a family member with a terminal disease, I had little or no time to pursue the personal artwork that had become so important to my creative wellbeing. During those years I would sketch out designs, and maybe start a painting to let off some steam, but they would remain unfinished, as I had no time to complete them. It wasn’t until my life settled down that I had the time to go back and complete that unfinished body of work, and put it together as an art book. So while my first book, Born In Concrete: The EK Series was about getting back to my creative roots, the second book is about getting a sense of closure on a stressful period of my life.
Ji: Can you tell us your favourite characters or designs from EK series and Why?
Derek:Some of my favourite pieces from the new book include “Baggage”, “Overwhelmed”, “The Navigator” and “Farewell”. These pieces seem to capture the feeling I was going for and came together fairly well. I can still look at them today and not only see the things that I would have done differently or wish that I had done better!
Ji:What is your thought about Chat GPT? Is it dangerous to the future of Artists?
Derek:Programs like Chat GPT, or image generators like Midjourney or Stable Diffusion are pretty amazing pieces of technology, but I have no interest in using them. I create art because I am compelled to, and I’m interested in the learning, the struggle, the feeling of getting into a flow state and all the other stuff that happens during the process of making art. I wouldn’t be satisfied by typing some words into a text to image generator and having it do all the work for me. It wouldn’t feel like my art, and there would be no growth, no sense of accomplishment. This along with the ethical concerns over the training sets used by these programs all contribute to my complete lack of interest in them.
As for the dangers that these programs pose, I think they have the potential to be very harmful to the livelihood of commercial artists. Given the power of these programs it is possible to create high quality content with far fewer people. So it may become much more cost effective for companies to adopt these tools and cut down their workforce. I’ve seen some companies take a stand against using these technologies, while others may be hesitant to adopt them at the moment due to some of legalities around using them (copyright for example), but we’ll see how that pans out in the coming years.
Ji:What are your thoughts on Cyberpunk nowadays?
Derek:I’m not too familiar with contemporary cyberpunk, literature or artwork, so I can’t really comment on it. Most of my cyberpunk influences come from my past. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (especially the animated film version), Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (particularly the 1995 film adaptation by Mamoru Oshii) as well as the cyberpunk work of Hajime Sorayama really inspired my work when I was younger, and in some ways, continue to today.
Ji:Our Cyberpunk spider lamp takes inspiration from Alexander Trufanov, Concept artist on Artstation and Clarkesworld magazine, and we use the art of remaking to turn it into an Assembled toy. What do you think about this combination?Is it possible for us to collaborate?( I think the moon astronaut toy would be a perfect fit.)
Derek:I think this collaboration is very cool. You did a great job translating Trufanov’s concept into a metal toy/puzzle. I love it!
As for a collaboration with me, I’m always interested in collaborating with creative people that do good work…so I’d love to talk about that further. I think I a Moon Astronaut Toy sounds awesome!
Ji:Steve Jobs said technology alone is not enough. Its technology married with liberal arts married with humanity that makes our heart sings,What do you think of this concept?
Derek:I would agree with that. Technology alone is definitely not enough. When digital art tools like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Painter came along and made painting faster and easier, you still needed to know how to draw and paint, the tools wouldn't do the job for you. Even these text to image generators that we mentioned earlier need human input. Midjourney can’t be inspired, or decide what it wants to create, it needs a human to guide it. And from what I’ve seen, at least at the moment, someone with artistic abilities and sensibilities can get better results with these text to image generation tools than someone that doesn’t.
Ji:Are you working on any new or upcoming projects? Can you introduce them to our readers?
Derek:I’m really busy with several commercial projects right now, but unfortunately I cannot talk about any of them due to contractual restrictions. On the personal work side, I have some new EK resin model kits in the works, and hopefully they will be ready to be revealed in a couple months. I have some new EK pieces on the go as well, and I’m looking forward to get moving on so new personal stuff when the work lightens up a bit.
Ji:Is inspiration necessary in creating art? Why or why not?
Derek:Inspiration isn’t necessary, but it sure makes things easier. I find that when I am inspired I’m much more engaged, things flow better and the process is more enjoyable. Most of my personal work is done only when I feel inspired. There are some exceptions, like having to hit a book deadline or get something done for a collaboration deadline, but this is infrequent. With the commercial art/concept art stuff, especially when you are working on big projects over the course of several years, you don’t always have the luxury of being inspired. So part of being a professional is being able to find aspects, however small, in everything that you work on that interest you and that can use to fuel your enthusiasm for that particular job or task.
Ji:Has your creation been influenced by anyone? Can you recommend some artists and works that you like?
Derek:Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in the past, as my art influences are largely the same as they were when I was younger. So in addition to the artists mentioned above in the answer to the cyberpunk question, some of the artists that have influenced/inspired me include: Alphonse Mucha, Frank Frazetta, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, Mike Mignola, Jack Kirby,Massimiliano Frezzato, Dave Gibbons, HR Giger, Akira Toriyama, Paul Bonner and Sergio Toppi…to name a few.