Ken Wong is an Australian artist with a varied repertoire and background. He has worked in Australia, Hong Kong and China. He’s been on both sides of the art direction equation and shares the wisdom of experience in the following interview.
Tell us your name. Tell us your alias (if you have one) and how you chose it.
My name is Ken Wong. No fancy nicknames, sadly.
What is Adelaide like? How has it nurtured you creatively?
It’s a quiet city. I grew up in a middle class suburb. I guess you could say the do-it-yourself attitude of Australia is encouraging for creativity. Backyards, bicycles and being able to explore without adult supervision is important for the imagination.
How has it been working at Spicy Horse Games? How have you been challenged working for them?
I was there from the beginning. It’s always been a bit of a garage operation – saving money where we can, trying to out-design rather than simply out-perform the competition. The challenge for me personally was just learning to work collaboratively with other people. For the team, I think making Alice, a gothic Victorian multi-platform game for Western audience was about the hardest possible project you could come up with for a young, mostly Chinese crew.
What has been your favorite project there?
There was a couple of months when EA was panicking about money, and the Alice business deal came apart. To keep the studio busy, we worked on a small prototype, a racing game featuring everyday Chinese people, with everyday vehicles like tricycles and home-made motorbikes. We did the demo in three months, using the Unreal Engine. It was a great concept and it looked gorgeous, but it ultimately got shelved.
What challenges do you face as an Art Director? How has your position helped you develop artistically?
I leapt into the position of Art Director straight out of university, which is pretty unusual. It meant learning on the job, which meant learning from making mistakes. It forced me to really think about how different artists work and think. What makes sense or looks cool and appealing to me might not for one of the artists I’m working with.
Explain your technique as an Art Director. How do you get what you want out of an artist without compromising their creative control?
I guess I come at it from a design perspective. You establish your design brief, do your research, come up with a bunch of solutions, and discuss with the relevant team members in order to pick the best solution. It’s my job to help the artists immerse themselves in the material, whether it’s traditional Japanese prints, deep-sea biology, or Victorian vernacular architecture. I need to encourage them to submit lots of creative ideas, even though ultimately we’ll only use one. Sometimes we need to ‘push’ an idea further, to add more awesome. I try to do this by encouraging discussion. Sometimes I need to let go of the reins and let someone passionate chase a particular line of thought. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert at this process though… I’m still learning.
What was it like to move from Australia to China?
I spent the first two years in Hong Kong, which is like ‘China Lite’. It was a bit like learning to walk again – relearning basic things like where to buy food, how to communicate, how to make new friends. It was humbling, exotic, and energizing. Learning to work with Chinese people was challenging, despite my Chinese heritage. Asians think more in terms of relationships, groups and harmony, compared to the Western focus on individual achievement and independence. Then I moved to Shanghai, which is this incredible melting pot of history and money and the poor and the rich. The population of Shanghai is roughly the same as the whole of Australia.
Tell us about “Dragon”. The idea, the process, the girl.
I made that very quickly, during a very creative phase when I was having really some interesting conversations with another creative. It just came from a visceral place. Veins or branching forms coming out of the body seem to recur in my work – I don’t think too much about why this is. I prefer to hide the eyes of girls, because they can take so much focus.
I drew it relatively small in my sketchbook, then scanned it. You can still see some of the original pencil lines in the finished piece. Beneath the lines, I start not with a blank canvas, but with a bunch of overlayed photos, to give a bit of texture, and a starting palette. Then I paint, in Photoshop. The little bits of red and the hair clip are sort of little bits of spice for the eyes.
How did you approach “The Mock Turtle’s Story”? What parts of the story did you find most interesting?
You know, I’m not really sure where this came from. I think I just had some ideas for how the Mock Turtle and Gryphon could look. I love the big heads that some of the muppets have, like the ones in the movie, The Labyrinth. I remember being inspired by a photo I’d seen of this scene at sunset, done by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
How do you decide on the colors you use in a piece?
I have a few different approaches. Colors always work together. Sometimes I have an idea in my head of how I want the colors to work together, like a pastel palette, or neon colors. The great thing about working digitally is you can try lots of stuff out. Often I’ll use a mix of photographs as my canvas to generate a starting palette. Sometimes I’ll use techniques more typically used in photoediting, like I’ll shift all the shadows towards red, or the highlights towards cyan, or add a gradient with blend mode set to ‘soft light’. It’s always with the aim of evoking certain emotions or ideas.
Where do you find inspiration? Where do you go to find inspiration when you’re feeling drained?
Everywhere. Life is inspiration. If you train yourself to notice beautiful awesome things in life, you’ll never be short of ideas. I have far more ideas than I know what to do with. The thing I struggle with is staying creatively focussed for eight or more hours a day.
Of your own work what is your favorite piece?
Aw c’mon they’re all my babies. They all say different things about me.
Name three artists who have been influential to you. How has their work changed your own art?
1. Billy Corgan, of the Smashing Pumpkins. Not a visual artist, but his writing, and his attitude towards beauty, love and creativity have had a lasting impact on me.
2. Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy. Even though my art doesn’t look much like his, his approach to form, contrast and storytelling are masterful. I learn so much just from reading a single page of Hellboy.
3. Jim Henson and his cohorts really imbued me with a love of fantasy and magic, through their work in the Dark Crystal and the Labyrinth.
What artists are you currently following? What about their work do you like?
There’s this sort of geek art uprising going on. The generation that grew up on Mario Bros. and Back to the Future and Star Wars are now professional graphic designers, illustrators and comics artists. I love seeing tributes to the myths of our childhood. In particular, I’m watching the trajectories of Mike Mitchell and Scott C.
I’m finding all sorts of weird and wonderful artists on DeviantArt, from all over the world. I know dA is kind of frowned upon, but these days it’s just overflowing with talent. Check out my favourites here:
What is your favorite kind of cuisine? Why is it your favorite?
If I had to pick, I’d say Japanese. There’s a lot of Japanese food I don’t like, like any with tentacles. But I can never get sick of ramen, udon, Japanese curry, or the cheese/ham/cucumber/mayo sandwiches they have at Family Mart.