Dear James, what series of events had an impact on your decision making process to start working on visualizing and creating the alternative world depicted in Imperial Steam & Light?
The inspiration for Imperial Steam & Light came from my fascination with history and my home in Hong Kong. In 1760, the English Industrial Revolution propelled Western Europe to become the first real world power, allowing it to colonize a majority of the world. My homeland Hong Kong was one of those colonies.
Since the era of New Imperialism, the rest of the world has tried to catch up with the West. Technological motivations follow the ideals of the culture that created them; the standard of modernization is basically Westernization, and as the rest of the world becomes more modern, it also becomes more like the West. I often see the tearing down of traditional architecture to make way for modern constructions.
What if the ideals and values of a different culture inspired today's technology? What if another culture was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century? If China was the standard that other countries had to emulate, what would things look like today? Would skyscrapers resemble temples? Would cars be more like carriages? Would China still be in Imperial rule, and how would that affect society, imagination, science, and technology?
Each piece in my Imperial Steam & Light series is my attempt to visualize this alternative world.
As globalization continues, the world grows closer and more alike. But perhaps we can continue to modernize without forgetting the character and traditions that made us unique.
Your plan is to extend your art into a comic book. Did you consider the comic book idea after seeing the feedback your work has received or was that your goal from the beginning?
It was always my plan to create a book centered on Imperial Steam & Light, but I didn't have a narrative in mind when I started. The original goal was a picture book that illustrated this alternative world. But as I grew older, there were thoughts that I wanted to convey besides showcasing a "Chinese Steampunk" world, and a narrative was the best way to do so.
I found that I create the best work when I can put myself in the artwork, and telling my own story would really bring this to the next level.
Do you rely solely on your imagination when creating such a fantastical world with extraordinary characters, buildings, machinery or is there a research process that you dwell in beforehand?
Absolutely not (on relying only on imagination). Reference from real life and history is a must. Imagination of the fantastical is best paired with things that already exist in real life.
To make something unbelievable seem possible to the viewer, the designs and concepts should at least look like they could function in a real life setting. This is true not only for visuals but also for my narrative in the upcoming story. I based a lot of elements of the story on actual Chinese history.
How does the political atmosphere in Hong Kong or in the West factor in the way your work is interpreted? What’s your take on how your art is perceived if there are political tones to it or not?
Hong Kong is a unique place. It is part of China, but also very different because of its history as a British colony until 1997. It is without a doubt the most Westernized Asian city. As I mentioned before, I notice that as places modernize they also become more like the West, since the standard of modernization was created by the West. I think my work is more of a reflection and reminder that we could modernize without losing our own culture and character.
The more people learn about each other, the easier it is for all to understand and collaborate in a number of productive ways. What’s the role of artists in this progression?
It is hard to define the "role of artists". Every artist is different, some create visuals that amuse them, some do it for money, and some feel that they have social responsibility to critique the world around them.
I have to admit my reasons for creating artwork can be seen as selfish, my main drive to draw everyday is simply to become a better artist. I really enjoy the process of improving. My artwork is just a byproduct of this process. As I developed Imperial Steam & Light, my drive became the desire to share this alternative world with others.
However, as my audience grew and I started having exhibitions around the world, I realized that my artwork could introduce Chinese culture to people that have no experience in it. In Hollywood and most Western media, Chinese culture is somewhat reduced to Kung Fu and Dimsum. I wanted to show more with my artwork, such as wedding traditions, superstition, history, Chinese medicine, and music. I hope with my comic book I can share more things about my culture to a wider audience. In addition to imagination, talent, dedication, what else is necessary to build upon a budding idea that might grow into a fantastical journey for the author as well as a larger audience?
An amazing idea is just an idea. Execution and craftsmanship are required to build the idea into something more. Imagination, talent, and dedication that you already mentioned are of course important, but I learned 2 things that are crucial in the process of executing an idea. They are being critical, and working smart.
Being critical means that we have to be critical of our own work to see what we can improve on, in every single step, and also be critical of other's work to see what we can learn from it.
Working smart is something that took me a long time to learn. Being busy, working hard, and even being dedicated does not equal being productive. We only have 24 hours a day, so we have to decide what to work on that will yield the most results that can further the execution of our idea. This means eliminating small tasks and being selective on what to invest our time and effort. The Imperial Airship is big enough to block the sun demonstrating the overwhelming power of the Imperial Power. Is the underlying message one of warning against immense power concentrated in the hands of a few people?
That caption was written as a reflection of how much power the Imperial family had during the Dynastic days of Imperial China. As with all my pieces, they are a blend of past history and modern technology, and I would want them to be relevant to both the past and present.
Though most modern countries do not have a monarchy anymore, the hierarchy of unbalanced power and wealth is still very much there. Tying this back to my artwork and upcoming comic, the powerful few versus the powerless many is theme that will be explored. Without giving out too much spoilers... if power is left unchecked for too long, someone powerful might do just that, and block out the sun! The Harvester is the ultimate farming solution. Who’d be on the driver seat there? Farming is generally associated with a simpler way of life but maybe not so. What would be the equivalent of it in your fantasy world?
Farming and mining are the two things that are often associated with the production of resource. However when there is a greed, even the simple ways of life can be corrupted.
In the Imperial Steam & Light world, resource is an elite form of currency and mining became very lucrative but dangerous due to merchants taking shortcuts. Our characters in the comic will have to venture through polluted abandoned mines and contend with creatures born from pollution itself. A prototype of a Bridal Carriage would probably be very much in demand. Do you see that or any other of your drawings as ever being produced even as prototype models? I have had a handful of 3D artists model their work after my designs. It is very flattering that another artist wants to dedicate their time to model my artwork. I've seen some great 3D models, but an actual prototype of the Bridal Carriage might not be feasible. I actually designed it to look somewhat awkward and almost "unnecessary", I wanted the metal to clash with the gentle fabrics of a traditional bridal carriage. I imagined a family wanting to show off their wealth in constructing this vehicle but the results corrupted the pure idea of two people coming together in love. Plus, the wheels are barely cushioned, and the smoke would blow into the carriage. It would make a very uncomfortable ride! When is the expected date of getting a copy of your comic book? Is that the goal that makes you work hard every day or do you have other projects we can all look forward to? I am so glad you asked! I'm working with a writer now who is helping me refine and pace the story and we are almost done with the writing of the first arc. I will launch a kickstarter to help me publish the first 3 chapters, we plan to have that up and running early next year, in the meantime there are some character design previews on my website jamesngart.com
Thanks everyone for the interest in my work. I'm very opened to criticism and feedback, feel free to drop me a message and connect via social media!