Epic Level Artistry: Michelle Nguyen

Here we are at the end of May with another installment of Epic Level Artistry! This time we have another Portland local, Michelle Nguyen! Again, with the hilarious stories of how Portland is a Big Small Town. My Spouse and I were hanging at the Stumptown Comic Festival when lo and behold, we ran into Michelle, who was sharing a booth with another ELA artist. Back in days of yore, we were property managers and they were among our residents. After an exchange of business cards and tumblr sites, I asked Michelle if she would be down with being interviewed for ELA, especially after I found out she likes Gloom (one of my favourite card games); much to my delight, she agreed to be interviewed. Let’s see what Michelle had to say about art, old school consoles and RPGs!

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And For All It's Worth by Michelle Nguyen
And For All It’s Worth by Michelle Nguyen

So, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with art in games and RPGs.
Well, I’ve been drawing since I could remember, and as a kid the majority of my art was focused around what I really loved: video games, cartoons, and comics. Having four older brothers, I was being constantly bombarded with new genres in all sorts of games and comics, and that really helped shape my artistic style. They were very supportive in taking me to comic shops, video game competitions, and conventions. Honestly, without my family’s support, I would never have pursued art like I did. RPGs came into my interest more recently, so I am still learning.

What’s your favourite system to play? Is there a setting/system you love making art for in particular? What is it about this world/system that inspires you?
I am a sucker for old systems, especially systems by Sega. I am definitely a three-button heathen. Nostalgia runs strong for me, so I am more inclined to blow the dust off of my Saturn and play something I know well. Anything in the realm of Fantasy of Sci-Fi has always been my jam. I especially enjoy worlds that may seem normal on the surface, but has something fantastic and whimsical deeper within!

Do you prefer to GM or play as a PC? Do you find this affects your art?
Like I said, I’ve only begun to dabble in RPGs, but I definitely gravitate towards being a PC. I love seeing what worlds a GM can cook up, and being part of that. My art is a melting pot of all my loves and interests, and I feel playing a PC allows me to find more interests.

Do you find yourself more drawn to drawing locations or people? Do you have them fleshed out before you bring pencil to paper (to use an old idiom) or do the ideas and the image kind of grow side by side?
People and more organic things are definitely more in my comfort zone. Locations have always been a challenge for me. This is something I am working on currently. Sketching is something I am constantly doing, and I am definitely a planner. Going with the flow on a piece of work and just randomly adding to it makes me nervous. So many things could go wrong.

Centaur bu Michelle Nguyen
Centaur bu Michelle Nguyen

What’s your preferred medium to work with? Do you work digitally, on paper or some mix?
I have definitely been working more digitally over the last few years, but recently have rediscovered my love for graphite. Spending intimate time with pencil and paper is just so comforting to me, and I find myself getting lost in art for hours on end this way. I have found that starting traditionally with graphite then adding to the piece in Photoshop is definitely becoming my favorite method!

How much time would you say you spend in a week making art? How much time in a week would you say you spend gaming?
Oh jeez, this really varies. I wish I could say I work a lot more on artwork than I do. Right before a big event, like Stumptown, I will literally hunker down and spend 8-10 hours a day on art for days on end. But then I get super burnt-out and uninspired, and take a break.

The same can be said for games — I am the type of person that needs to finish a game to its fullest extent, and get everything there is to get. I have burnt myself out on so many series that way, and it’s really too bad. My intense love for a game can literally ruin it for me in the long run.

Are there any trends, either genre-wise or technique-wise that you’re seeing in RPG/game art that you’re enjoying now? Is there anything you want to see more of or things you don’t like?
I am getting real damn tired of vampires and zombies. The amazing amount of output in these genres were great at first, and zombies are definitely still one of my favorite horror and sci-fi based entities. However, they have both been so glamorized and overdone recently that I can’t help but roll my eyes when I see anything vampire or zombie. I’m hoping the trends will move on to something else soon, and leave them be.

Honestly, I love post-apocalyptic stories like The Road and The Windup Girl and would love to see more comics and RPGs based on those worlds. But, just, maybe not too much more. I could see that getting ruined as well.

Legend of Zelda by Michelle Nguyen
Legend of Zelda by Michelle Nguyen

Whose art do you like the most? Whose art would you say has influenced you or do you try to emulate?
This is a difficult thing to answer, as I feel like I am moved in so many ways by so many people. I went to school for fine arts and painting, and so have many traditional painters that influenced my work, like Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, and Lucian Freud. Contemporary artists that drive me are James Jean, Audrey Kawasaki, Josh Keyes, Nimit Malavia, and Lois Van Barle. Comic artists that inspire me are Jen Wang, Der-Shing Helmer, Mike Holmes, Shaun Tan, Craig Thompson, and Yuko Ota.

I find that I constantly surround myself with these peoples’ pieces and am constantly being shaped by them. It’s almost like thanking everyone who has ever touched your life!

What tools do you use to make art? What tools/items do you need to game?
I find that I am very picky about the types of sketchbooks and pencils I use. Definitely cannot work without a soft cover Moleskine, Sumo mechanical pencil, or my favorite Faber Castell pencils. Otherwise, just good old Photoshop and my (very) old Wacom tablet, and I am set.

Gaming, as it is a very serious activity for me, requires every single ounce of my attention. I don’t require anything special.

What projects have you worked on in the past? Can you tell us what you’re currently working on or have in the queue?
I have yet to work on any big project (yet!), but I have been working on a longer, one-shot comic I wrote a few years ago and will hopefully release sometime soon. Other than that, I have completed a few short comics and quite a few stand-alone single pieces. Bartkira was a great project that I worked on for five pages, and am so glad I could partake in that. Recently, I started working with a writer to illustrate his space opera graphic novel. More details soon, I promise!

Mononoke by Michelle Nguyen
Mononoke by Michelle Nguyen

Are there any pieces you’re particularly proud of? A favourite character you managed to pin down or something really funny/touching/dramatic you captured?
I am really proud of my recent graphite pieces. Before working on them, I had forgotten how much control I had over graphite and how awesome it felt to sit and work on. My mind would get so focused and in a sense thrilled to be working.

What would be a dream job/commission?
My dream job would to be a freelancer that got to work on awesome comic pages and stories, and maybe some concept or background art for video games. Being tied to a team like Laika has been a major driving factor for me recently! Working with Laika would be my end-all, be-all.

When you’re not making art or gaming, what are you doing?
I read quite a bit, explore the depths of the internet, and enjoy sewing as well, but honestly my day-job keeps me away from home the most. That job allows me to pay my bills and enjoy my hobbies, so I can’t complain much. I just cannot wait until I have a job where I can use my artistic abilities more often.

Standby by Michelle Nguyen
Standby by Michelle Nguyen

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to find artists to hire? To artists trying to get their work out there?
Please, just find an artist that fits your project well. There is nothing more difficult and honestly degrading than getting excited about a job only to find out they don’t want you to complete a project in your artistic style, but to emulate someone else. Literally, one of the most difficult experiences of my artistic career. Find someone that is hard working, and will produce work to your standards. It will make everyone happy in the long run!

As for artists, you have to put yourself out there. Create work that you want to create! If you want to create comics, then start drawing comics. No one is going to hire you if you say you want to do comics, but only have a portfolio filled with paintings of flowers. Do the work for the job that you want, and work hard. Never give up! You can do it!

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If you dig Michelle’s art you can check out more on her website or her tumblr.

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