Interview with The Dark Inker: Stephen Sampson

Stephen Sampson, who goes by the alias The Dark Inker, is a freelance illustrator and concept artist. His work caught my attention because it tread that fine line between illustration/painting and graphic arts, and managed to pull me in with his bold renderings.

I’ve enjoyed all our interviews thus far, and this one was no exception. If only I could just post the random email exchange back and forth, but that’d just be bad form. Stephen was very gracious and answered all the questions in detail. I thought about asking a few more follow-up questions and splitting the interview to two parts, but in the end I felt that this was the appropriate length, plus it leaves the possibility for a catch-up interview later on down the line. Hopefully you guys enjoy reading his answers as much as I did.

For more of Stephen’s work, you can visit his website or follow him on his blog.

Hi Stephen! I’m very excited to have this chat with you. I only recently discovered your work when I stumbled onto The Edge of Extinction, but I’ve been a fan ever since! So, let’s get this started. Please introduce us in your own words, what you do for a living, how you got to where you are, and especially what you’d like people to know about you.

Hi Riki, Hi Folks. First can I just say thanks for inviting me to have this chat and big respect to you for all your hard work on The Round Tablet. It truly is a wicked and inspiring site!!

A brief run down on my working life: After a couple of years as a sheet metal worker I decided to try my hand as a freelance illustrator and quickly found myself working in the comics industry, mostly for the British comic 2000AD featuring Judge Dredd. After a few years doing comics I moved into the games industry as a concept artist. In truth I ended up doing more 3D game art than concepting, not through my own choice, it’s just the way things turned out. I’d much rather do 2D illustration and concept art than 3D game art, so while working in the games industry I managed to keep getting freelance illustration jobs, which helped feed my creative needs. Up until around four months ago I was working full time for Blackrock Studio, part of the Disney Interactive group. After four years with the studio being part of Disney they decided to close the studio :( The last two published games I worked on were Pure and SplitSecond. I’m now working as a freelance Illustrator/Concept Artist, so I guess you could say I’ve come full circle.

Sorry to hear that the studio closed. Looking on the bright side, at least you’re now forced into the illustration/concept art field, which is what you say you’re most passionate about, so perhaps it’s an accidental luck. Are you enjoying the freedom of your freelancing situation, or are you seeking a full time gig?

You’re spot on, mate! I am loving doing what I’m doing right now, and in hindsight I should have made the move ages ago. For now working freelance is cool, of course if some incredible full time gig came along then maybe things would change. One thing that is on the radar at some point in the future is the possibility of starting up a concept/design studio with Calum Alexander Watt. Before we both left Blackrock we did talk about it and even picked a name for the studio, 101DEGREES. Right now we are both busy with other stuff but hopefully before long we can make this happen.

You started out in the illustration field as a comic book artist. Did you grow up dreaming that you’d be a comic book illustrator one day? Did the reality of the industry shatter that dream, or was it what you expected?

Yeah I did grow up dreaming of being a comic illustrator and it was a dream come true to get into the industry. I wouldn’t say my dreams were shattered, but of course things are different from what you imagine they are going to be. Illustrating comics was for the most part great fun and I met loads of incredible and talented people, but back then illustrating everything by hand meant long hard hours and when I made the move to games it just felt the right thing to do at the time.

Any thoughts on releasing your own comic book in the future?

Well I have dipped my toe back into the comics world doing a few pin-ups and I’m always open to the possibility of doing a full strip. To do something based on my own characters would be wicked. I would need to work with a writer though; I have ideas but I’m not really a “words” man.

Do you still read comic books? Any recommendations?

I don’t read as many as I’d like. A couple worth checking out are Forty Five by Andi Ewington and published by comX, and Marvel did a version of The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by Eric Shanower and beautifully illustrated by Skottie Young. And one to watch out for is Bluespear by Andi Ewington, Eddie Deighton and Cosmo White published by comX.

Please tell us about some of your recently finished projects, and perhaps some projects that you’re allowed to disclose that you’re working on at the moment?

Most of the paid work I’ve been doing for the last few months I’m sorry to say I can’t give too much details on. For the most part the work has been for games companies. The projects are a mix, everything from character concept work to in game assets, including logos and icons — a real mix of stuff. One of the main projects has been for a mobile app which should be out in a couple of months, then hopefully I’ll be able to post all the character concept art on my blog.

One job I can talk about is the Edge of Extinction pin-up you featured on this site before. A mate from my comics days (Baden James Mellonie) is writing a Horror comic called Edge of Extinction. The story features zombies and he asked if I’d do a pin-up for the comic, which I was very excited to do. I had an open brief so it was great fun. Originally I was going to do an image that focused of the main character but then I thought it would be a blast to just zoom right in close on a Zombie.

When I’m not working on the paid stuff I try and do as much personal work as possible and I’ve just been really lucky to have three of my images included in Ballistic Publishing’s EXOTIQUE 7 art book, which is available for pre-order now.

My personal works are inspired by all kinds of things: movies, comics, games, music, books — whatever grabs me. At the moment I’m reading all the books by the fantasy author David Gemmell and my latest image is strongly inspired by his writing. The image (shown below) is called The Quest and features a Spartan warrior. I’ve already started a new image that has a similar theme. The working title is Raven Horn and the main focus of the image is a close up on a Viking warrior. After that I may do a picture based on characters from a book called Fox & the Peach, for which I was lucky enough to do the cover.

Speaking of The Fox & the Peach book. Can you talk about how this project came to be, and what it was like working on the book? I can’t tell if this is a novel, or if this is a graphic novel of some sort. How much artwork went into this book?

Fox & the Peach is a novel written by the author Nick Thaler and published by the US publisher Madness Books. This was a dream job!! A while ago I did a pin-up for a graphic novel called Forty Five written by Andi Ewington and published by comX. The pin-up was of a character called Katrin The Rose Angel. Jim Strader, the owner of Madness books saw the pin-up and comX put us in touch. Jim really seemed to like my art style and asked if I’d be interested in doing a cover for a book he was going to publish. If I remember rightly he said in a mail that the story was sort of like Howl’s Moving Castle meets Lord of the Rings set in Feudal Japan called Fox & the Peach!!!! That was enough for me. I wanted this job so bad, I don’t think I did a very good job of staying cool as we discussed the work.

It really did turn out to be a dream to work on, both Jim and Nick were fantastic to work with. I did a number of roughs of the cover and some character sketches and they picked the one they liked best with just a few minor changes. The main character is a young girl called Momo (Peach) and she has the ability to change into a fox. The book is part one of a trilogy and I’m hoping I’ll be doing the other covers. It’s a great book set in a wonderful world with rich and colourful characters, I really hope it’s a smash hit for both Nick and Jim.

You have a unique art style that really caught my eye. Browsing through literally hundreds of images a day, it takes quite a bit to catch my eye, and your illustrations certainly does that! It has this digital painting plus vector illustration look to it — a mix of anime, graphic design, children’s books, and painting all in one! Absolutely amazing. Can you speak briefly about your illustration process, and all the softwares you use to create your pieces?

Thanks Riki, you have summed up my style perfectly! Over the years it’s given me much food for thought, it seems to me that people just don’t know what to make of my style. I have portfolios on most of the concept art websites and I never really seem to get much reaction when I post stuff up. From time to time I’ve thought maybe I need to change the way I do stuff and paint more in a “concept” style but then I do keep getting work and maybe it’s because I have my own style. So I’ve kind of embraced the way I do my art and am just trying day by day to get better.

I’ve always really been into graphic design and most of my early digital work was mostly vector based. One of my all time favourite games is Wipe Out and I just love all the graphic design that The Designers Republic did on games. As I’ve got more into digital painting I still like to get some graphical elements into my work.

The process is pretty straight forward. I start with a sketch, which up until a few months back I always did on tracing paper with a pencil, but now I do everything digitally. After being made redundant by Disney I used some of the money to buy a Wacom 21UX Cintiq and it’s just fantastic!! As well as the Cintiq I have another widescreen monitor that I use for reference material and email!! I had one at the games studio and I know they are a bit expensive but well worth having one if you can afford it. After I’ve roughly sketched the image out I just start blocking in the areas. I use Photoshop CS3 and try to keep the image in separate groups with layers for the background, characters, and foreground. The graphical elements that I like to add are created in Illustrator CS3. I have a bank of graphics, from flowers to skulls and everything in between that I’ve created over time, and I have both programs open and just drag-and-drop stuff from Illustrator into Photoshop to see what works. Once I have something I’m happy with I will then use the element as a selection and paint into it. I have a few custom brushes that I like to use, some created by myself, others by other artists that I’ve downloaded, but I tend to use one main brush for most of the colouring, and for the past few images I’ve been using a brush that I downloaded from a tutorial by Charlie Bowater (Download .abr file here), she’s an artist that works for AtomHawk Concept studio. I’m a big fan of her work and after watching the tutorial I thought I’d give the brush a go and I really love it!!

When the image is fully painted sometimes I might want to add a little “texture” and I have two ways to get the effect I’m after, either a custom brush that’s has a random kind of shape and play with the brush settings or I have a load of photos of all kinds of stuff like rusty metal, peeling paint, old worn paper — all kinds of interesting image textures. I’ll drag some into the image then play around with the layer settings, colour dodge, colour burn, stuff like that, and just see what happens. Or another way would be to grey-scale the texture, then just wand select one tone and use that as a selection to paint onto the image. It just helps to give the image a bit of a random feel to it.

Personally, I find it refreshing to see a distinct art style such as yours. No doubt you’ll continue to grow as an artist and your art will grow and evolve along with you, and I’m excited to see what that will be like, so for purely selfish reasons I hope you much success so that you’ll never have to force yourself to settle for a specific style to cater to the market!

Thanks Riki for the kind words you made me blush. :) I really am at the point now where I feel I have to stay true to my own style. I love some of the wicked “concept” styles that artists are doing these days and maybe there’s more work to be found if you’re using that kind of style, but I’ll keep plugging away doing things my way and keep a small dream alive that maybe one day someone like Tim Burton will get in touch and say “love your style man, can you work on my latest project!!!” Just a dream :)

Any plans to create tutorials in the future?

I have done one walk through tutorial. One of my images titled RedRum was included in Ballistic Publishing’s EXOTIQUE 6 art book and I was very excited to be asked to do the Red Rum tutorial for the CGSociety. It was fun to do and I’d love to do some more. A video tutorial would be cool :)

Do you create much traditional (pen and ink, oil painting, etc.) artwork, or do you stick mainly to digital? What are your thoughts on the differences between digital painting and traditional? Is mastering traditional methods necessary still?

I used to do loads of traditional artwork, most of my early comic work was hand-drawn and hand-painted, but these days it’s just so much quicker to work digitally. It’s a shame really, because I loved to paint and draw. Personally I think it’s a big help if you have an understanding and some level of skill using traditional methods of creating art, but using a computer and tablet is really just another tool. I’m sure there are artists out there that are brilliant and have never used pencil and paper :)

Who are some of your artistic influences past and present?

A couple of traditional artist that have always been a big inspiration for me are Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt. Frank Frazetta made traditional style artwork more relevant to me because of the kind of things I was beginning to get into. Then from my early comic days: Barry Windsor-Smith, Mick Mcmahon and Bill Sienkiewicz. The present day list is always changing as I stumble across new and exciting artists, but a special mention goes to Calum Alexander Watt, not only is he one of the best concept artist on the planet, but he’s also a good mate whom I was lucky enough to work with at Blackrock Studio. Another artist that I’ve followed for a few years is Bengal. Love Charlie Bowater’s Art. And more recently I found an artist whose style I completely love: Reynan Sanchez

What movies/comics/etc made an impact on your creative mind while growing up?

So many movies made a big impression on me while growing up but four that stand out are: Blade Runner, Alien, Asterix the Gaul (animation), Laputa: Castle in the Sky (anime). For comics, the list would be endless, but a few that stick in my mind and helped shape my desire to become a comic book artist were:

- Asterix: Rene Goscinny, Albert Uderzo
- Conan the Barbarian: The Tower of the Elephant: Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith
- Mister Miracle: Jack Kirby
- The Judge Child: Alan Grant, John Wagner, Mick McMahon
- Elektra Assassin: Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz
- Elektra Lives Again: Frank Miller
- DareDevil Love and War: Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz
- Silver Surfer Parable: Stan Lee, Moebius

Also the novels of Robert E. Howard made a big impression on me while growing up and helped me discover the legend that is Frank Frazetta.

If you could select any intellectual property to work on, what would it be?

Great question and really hard to answer. Firstly Fox & the Peach!! Fingers crossed I get to do the other covers. Also right now I’d love the chance to illustrate the covers for David Gemmells books. And from my comic days I always dreamed of illustrating Elektra, DareDevil, and The Silver Surfer.

Are there any art books and/or tutorials that greatly affected you?

There are tons of great tutorials out there that you can get inspiration and knowledge from. The one I mentioned earlier by Charlie Bowater is a recent favourite. And I have a Gnomon Workshop DVD called Digital Illustration Techniques with Christian Alzmann that’s wicked. I do tend to buy loads of art books — they are so inspiring, I have quite a collection now. One early book I bought that still stands out was called The Studio published by Dragons Dreams. It featured the work of four outstanding artists Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson and Barry Windsor-Smith. It made a massive inspiration to me when I first bought it and still blows me away today.

What’s the most memorable moment(s) you’ve had in your working career?

This is a hard one, as I tend not to do too much looking back, and always look to the future and the next exciting project. But I do remember my first comic work, it was for a comic that I loved called Mr. X, published by Vortex comics. I did three covers for them and the day the first one came out was a proper Wow!! moment. Also my first published work for 2000AD and more recently getting my image Hunted included in Ballistic Publishing’s Book Expose 8. I’ve loved their books for a while now and it was my first attempt at submitting, so it was a great honour and very exciting to have the image accepted :) And I can’t wait to hold the Fox & the Peach in my hands, which should be any day soon!! There is one bizarre thing that’s happened. A few years ago I did a set of 60 Manga illustrations for Getty Images. The images have turned up in all sorts of places over the years. One evening I was watching an episode of CSI: Miami and the scene was set on a tube train in Japan, as the camera panned up you could clearly see one of my manga illustrations as an advert on the train!!! It was a proper OMG moment and a great thrill.

Well, you can now put in “Set Design for CSI: Miami” on your CV. I kid. Of course, lastly we ask this from all our interviews, would you share a photo of your work area?

Of course, not very exciting but you can see a few of my large collection of vinyl figures!!

Any parting words for our readers?

My parting words are simple: Practice, Practice, Practice!! And stay true to yourself :)

So easy to say and yet oh so hard to do, much to the dismay of so many artists! Well, that’s a wrap. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us!

You’re welcome, mate. Thanks for asking me and thanks for the truly inspiring posts on The Round Tablet!!!