EK Interview: Derek Stenning

Thank GOD the Russians didn’t have Derek Stenning during the Cold War or shit would have been insane! Derek Stenning’s work is mind blowing. Cosmonauts, flying, more cosmonauts, awesome suits, intense detail and the technology is riveting. And he’s been out of the game for a damn long time. But he’s back and in full force so bow down COMRADES, Derek Stenning is here to stay. And so is his badass artwork.

What was it like growing up in Vancouver?  What was your favorite subject?

I actually grew up in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, which is south west from Vancouver, across the Straight of Georgia. Victoria is a lot smaller than Vancouver, with a slower pace, and growing up over there was a lot of fun. We lived in a suburb of Victoria that was undergoing development, so there were both forests and construction sites to play in and explore. My mother worked from home and was around a lot, so our house was kind of a hub, the place my friends, my older brother’s friends and other neighborhood kids came to after school to play and hang out. My parents were also pretty chill, and didn’t stack all of our free time with activities, so there was always time for exploring interests like drawing and reading. So my childhood was great. But when I was older, and once I made the decision to pursue a career in art, I knew had to move on. There wasn’t much going on in the area of commercial art in Victoria so I came over to Vancouver, about 15 years ago, to go to animation school and to get into the commercial art field.

My favorite subject in school was always art. I’ve always loved drawing and being creative in a visual way, so getting to do that instead of math, science and all that other stuff was always my favorite time at school.


Tell us a distinct memory.

When I was around 4 or 5 years old, I fell into a swimming pool. I had yet to learn how to swim, so I sank like a rock! I can remember sinking down and floating in place for what seemed like an eternity (but was just a few seconds I’m sure), staring up at the light reflecting off the surface of the water. As far as I can recall, I wasn’t struggling, I was calm and just taking in the visuals and the sensations. My dad, after realizing I was gone, jumped in and hauled me out. To this day I can still see that view from the bottom of the pool in my head. The reflections, the light passing through the water, and the silhouettes of balls and pool toys floating above. Maybe that gives some context to why so many of the characters from my work seem to be floating in space.

Is there a particular reason so many of your astronauts have the six pointed star, or Star of David, on their helmets?  What is your connection to Jewish mystical and qabalistic symbolism?  How has it influenced your art?

The hexagram/Star of David (used in the place of the Bolshevik red star), together with the Soviet inspired helmets, is a symbol of the concept of Judeo-Bolshivism. Judeo-Bolshivism is an idea that the Jews were the driving force behind Russian Communism. For the Nazi’s and others, the social decay that they saw being expressed in modern forms of art was largely the result of a corruptive Judeo-Bolshevist influence on European society. The Nazi’s used the term Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), to label art and artists that they felt were  “un-German” or Judeo-Bolshevist in nature. I find these ideas absurd, but I’ve adopted the term Entartete Kunst for this series because for me this work is about shedding my own discriminating ideas about art and to break out of my own preconceived notions of what my art should be. The characters in this series wear this mark of discrimination, but for them it is more of a badge of honour, as they represent freedom, openness, the throwing off of convention, and the throwing off of establishment ideas.

As for my connection to Jewish mysticism, and qabalah, it is limited, as I’m not Jewish, or a practicing qabalist. That being said, I am interested in the symbolism of Hermetic Qabalah. I find that the Tree of Life diagram, with it’s correspondences of tarot, astrology, mythology etc., holds some underlying truths and is an interesting roadmap for growth. I often mix the symbolism from the tree into these pieces. Usually in the form of tertiary graphic elements, but there are a few pieces in the series that are based on larger aspects, like a path on the tree, or a tarot association.


What is the basis for the spacesuits that you design?

The suits worn in the EK pieces do have several design elements inspired by Soviet era cosmonaut outfits, but they are largely creations pulled out of my head. The environment these characters inhabit is more of cloudy, hazy sky or void (I really don’t know what it is!), so it is kind of like an environmentalsurvival suit, and not really a space suit.  Anyways, the suits evolve from piece to piece, with parts added or accentuated in way that looks good, feels right and/or makes sense to that particular image.

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

What intrigues you about retro sci-fi and Soviet inspired designs?

I’ve always looked to, and been interested in history, including the visual aspects of history: costumes, regalia, antiquated technology, etc. This extends to a lot of retro sci-fi, and post WW2 Soviet era rocket/space, and military design, with their focus on simpler shapes and a more utilitarian look and feel. For me there is a powerful sense of meaning and nostalgia to these items, and I’m drawn to them.

What is your favorite book?  Why?  How has it affected/influenced/shaped you?

That is a hard one to answer. I read a fair bit, on a number of subjects, so I find it hard to narrow it down to just one. I like the outlook/philosophy of Colin Wilson, as described in his books “The Outsider” and “Mysteries”. These books helped me put my own experiences/feelings in perspective, and taught me how to obtain more meaning and understanding from those experiences. In addition I just find Wilson’s writing style warm and inviting (his non-fiction work). I also like the historical work of authors like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Gwynne Dyer. These guys offer a critical, well informed, commonsensical and humanist perspective on historical events (In the case of Dyer, sometimes a Canadian perspective as well), that helps cut through nationalist, and political bullshit.

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

How did you get in contact with the ARTISHOX Art Agency?  What advice can you give novice artists seeking representation?

Ben Wouters, the owner of the ARTISHOX Art Agency contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working with them. Ben’s criteria of originality, substance, quality, open and honest communication and focusing on long term cooperations appealed to me, so we started working together. It didn’t hurt that he was working with some great artists, so I felt honoured he would ask me to come on board. So far the cooperation has been good. Some of my work has a permanent spot in the ARTISHOX gallery in Belgium, I exhibited with other ARTISHOX artists at the Blooom Art Show in Cologne, and prints of my work are available at the ARTISHOX online gallery, called ARTISHOPIX.

As far as advice on seeking representation, I’m not sure. I really never intended to take this work in the direction of exhibits, representation etc., it just happened. So I’m pretty new to this, and you’ll have to ask me that question in the future when I have a little more experience under my belt!

Of the different Exhibitions that you’ve had, which one is the most memorable and why?  Which was the worst/hardest?  What did you learn from it?

So far the most memorable has been the first State of the Art exhibit I took part in up in Whistler, B.C.. This was largely due to the fact that is was my first real exhibit. The feedback was positive, and it inspired me to keep working on my own art. Plus a lot of my friends came up from Vancouver so it was more like a big party.

As for the worst, I can’t say.They have all been pretty positive, and I don’t have any horror stories to tell….not yet anyway!

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

How has working on video game design changed your approach to your own work?  What have you learned during paid work that you can apply to personal work?

There have been both positive and negative affects to my approach due to my work on video games. Developing a number of processes to tackle a piece, and building up my skills and confidence by just working on the sheer amount of work that goes into a game project are among the positives. The biggest negative was that it narrowed my view of art. I became so immersed in concept work that my personal work began to take the form of concept art. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but I began to feel that I had lost touch with a part of my creative being. So I looked back to the kind of work I created before I went to animation school, and before I started a career as a “professional” artist. I began to just let the art come out of me instead of trying to use it as vehicle to tell a story, or to give shape to an intellectual property.


Tell us about the genesis of the name “Born In Concrete”?

Born In Concrete is meant to represent the idea that this work, my art, is something I have to create. That I have no choice. It just comes out of me and that following an artistic path is what I’m meant to do.
Of all your work which if your favorite piece?  Why?

That is another hard one to answer. There are pieces that I feel turned out better than others, but I don’t think I can narrow it down to one piece. Pieces like “Drifting”, “ARARITA”, “The Bridge”, “Uncovered” and “Dsytopic” really seemed to hit the mark visually for me, and captured the emotion I was going for. I think the Hexagram images turned out really well. They are quite simple, not over worked and are somewhat iconic. I’m also pretty happy with ‘Insolent Mockery of the Divine Under Centrist Rule”, the last one I completed. I struggled a bit with the content on that one, and I was working with a colour scheme I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it all came together.

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

How do you emotionally prepare yourself for a piece?  How much does the emotion you’re feeling at the time influence how a piece is translated from your mind to paper?

I don’t really have to emotionally prepare for these personal pieces. They are pure release. This is the stuff I work on after all the work stuff is done, all the family stuff is done (and with my two kids that is a lot!), and all the other stuff that crops up during the day is done. So it is the other way around. Working on these pieces helps to emotionally prepare me for all the other stuff in my life.


Some of the pieces in the EK series are heavily influenced by emotions, while others are more conceptual and others are just images that pop in my head. I find the ones that do have that emotional connection are generally easier work on, as you can feel what is working, what is hitting that emotion, and all the questions that pop up while working on a piece are easy to answer because you have that criteria in place.


What current artists are are you following?  Whom would you want to collaborate the most given the opportunity?

I don’t really keep a finger on the pulse of the art world. I do have an account at CGHUB, so everyonce and awhile I’ll go there and check it out, and I always see amazing, inspiring work, but I don’t troll the site downloading images and taking names. That being said, Ian McQue and this guy Felideus, are two artists that I met through the site that have art styles that I just love. Beyond that, I follow, and I am inspired by my peers, guys I’ve worked with like Nigel Quarless, Tony Iammarino and DEDOS.

I would love to collaborate with any of the guys mentioned above, but if it could be anybody, I would maybe chose Hayao Miyazaki. The worlds he creates, the imagination, the design sense etc.,I think I could learn a lot from that guy. Or if we had access to a time machine I would love to see Alphonse Much do his thing. His draftsmanship, the design, the use of colour are all aspects of his art that I’ve always loved.

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

How do you think that digital media is changing the world of art?  What are the benefits of digital media?  What are the limitations?

I view digital media as just another tool for art production, another tool for translating ideas. In my own experience of moving from traditional media to digital the benefits are mainly speed and ease of production. Not having to wait for paint to dry, way more forgiving in terms of fixing mistakes, and your studio can be more compact and much cleaner! I don’t think that there are really any limitations to it. I know there are perceptions about digital art, that it isn’t “real” art, or that it doesn’t hold the same value as art created with traditional media. I’ve had several people inquire about purchasing my art, having seen my work online and thinking it was created with traditional media, change their minds after realizing that it was created digitally. Then they would say, let me know if and when you create something traditionally! Fair enough, everyone is entitled to their personal preferences, but I find it a little odd. But I think that that attitude is changing, as digital art becomes more widespread, and as more “established”, or well known artists use digital media.


How did it feel to return to your own art in 2009, after what you described as a 12 year absence?  How had your approach, your process and your vision changed?

It felt great to create artwork again that wasn’t so bound up in design, story, or game design requirements. I was inspired. It rejuvenated me creatively, in my personal work and in my “9 to 5” concept work. The vision, or the place where the art comes from hadn’t changed too much from before, but the approach and process certainly had. Animation school and 10 years as a production artist had made me a much more competent artist, much better equipped to translate the ideas and images that come into my mind. So I find it easier to express myself this time around.

art blog - Derek Stenning - Empty Kingdom

What are your plans for this year?

This is going to be a busy year. I’m moving back to Victoria to take a concept art position at the new Microsoft studio there. So it’s a going to be a big transition moving the family over, getting settled and starting a new job. But it is exciting opportunity and I’m looking forward to it. On the personal front I’m planning to start a new series of work for the ARTISHOX gallery. I’ve been brewing this idea in my head over last few months so I’m excited about moving forward with that. I’m also going to finish the last few pieces of the first series of the Entartete Kunst project. I don’t know if and when I”ll get around to a second series, but I can’t imagine not drawing huge helmets anymore! So maybe sometime in the future it will be resurrected. The first model kits based on my work, put together by Industria Mechanika, will be coming out this year, so that will be cool to see. Beyond that I’ll be spending as much time with the family and my kids as possible, as they trump everything else in my life.