Mukesh Singh was born in Mumbai, India in 1976. He received a BFA in painting from the Sir J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai in 1997. Since then, he has been working as a freelance illustrator, motion graphics artist, senior game artist, CG modeler and animator, and senior illustrator and concept artist for various comics, game, and film and television projects. He was awarded Best Colorist at the Comic Critique Awards in 2008, was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer at the International ComicCon San Diego 2008, and was featured in an exhibition entitled “Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010. He currently works as a freelance illustrator and concept artist. He lives in Mumbai. His website is http://nisachar.deviantart.com.
The uniting visual motif in all your work appears to be the exuberant ornamental designs that you incorporate into almost every painting. From armor to headdresses, to defensive shields of laser light, the images always seem to come from a world where people value forms as well as function. Are these designs specifically Indian in origin and is their inclusion conscious?
“[T]he images always seem to come from a world where people value forms as well as function.” What a wonderful inference! The land of Bharat [India] has been described as a massive super continent, possibly the only major landmass of its time. I played with that description by making the 18 Days world [Singh’s reimagining of the Indian folkloric masterpiece the Mahabharata, published by Liquid Comics] the progenitor of virtually every civilization that has ever existed since, its influence finding echoes in the eras of our collective human history. Thus, even though a large portion of the design themes are decidedly Indian in nature, there are shades of other cultural influences too. Throw a hint of steampunk into the mix, but one that is fused with an Indian design sense rather than the classical Victorian, and we get a nice retro touch. 18 Days had to feel like it had happened in a fantastic, bygone age when mighty beasts roared challenges to ponderous battle cruisers, when super warriors smote hundreds with one blow.
One of my “hidden in plain sight” themes for 18 Days was that its technology had advanced to a point where it was, to borrow from an eminent author, indistinguishable from magic. But the advance in technology didn’t bring forth the inevitable mass production system and its consumer culture. There was a sense of personal reverence for all that they obtained from the gods, from mighty sages, or from their own heroic quests.
Our instinctive desire for form to go with function, to endow the objects we possess, lifeless as they are, with personalities, to recreate them in our minds as extensions of our own selves exists even in the ostensibly impersonal but deadly theatre of war. If it doesn’t, why do pilots paint their warplanes? Why do warriors give exotic names to their swords and bows and guns? Why are deadly missiles named after gods and dead warriors and decorated for military parades? Why do common soldiers and army generals alike festoon their uniforms with symbolic buttons?
The 18 Days age was an age of proud warriors. It is given then that this pride would find its voice in everything from arrowheads to gunships. It seems form here is a force multiplier of a different kind—the ego.
Talk to us about the use of color. The color schemes sound so wild and garish on paper, especially with the collision between golds and reds and turquoises and oranges, etc. Yet they never overwhelm, because as bright as they are, you never seem to use too many colors in the same painting, or else they are accents that are repeated in an orderly pattern, usually in an ornamental armor design. Again, would you say that this restrained use of wild color was conscious?
Color is probably the trickiest of painting devices. Color accents help to establish contrast or to draw attention to small but important areas in a busy layout, since the shifts in value of my color works tend to be gradual and shallow. There is probably no great need for sharp value differences for an ink and color workflow because the inked lines already help define the forms. Color can do the rest.
By employing one dominant hue for my illustrations, I hope to give them a certain mood that helps illustrate the idea. At times color is used simply to make the art stand out. Other times, the color shifts gradually for the sake of harmony. Sometimes it is all of the above.
Also, since most of my works are intended for printing on low quality paper, saturation helps to deal with the loss of the subtle hues. They usually come out just right on paper.
If you were afflicted by some disorder such that you could only see, and create work with, two colors ever again, what two colors would they be?
Black. And white. Technically they aren’t colors, but if I could create artwork in only two, they would be the ones. You don’t need anything else.
What is the technique used for your work? It looks all hand drawn and colored but some of the lighting effects are so sophisticated that they look like they were digitally enhanced. Do you have a preference for working by hand or digitally?
Although I have no preference one way or the other, most of my commercial works have been done digitally. A typical workflow goes something like this: I do my sketches either traditionally on paper or digital, or at times a combination of both. Lately it has been mostly paper. Once I feel I am getting somewhere, I proceed to the layout, pencils/ink, and color stages in Photoshop.
The hand-drawn look could well be due to my tendency to recreate a traditional workflow in a digital one. Layouts use the time-honored approach of the foreground, middle ground, and background parts. Photoshop layers become light-boxes and tracing sheets, digital brushes become markers and sponges and color pencils. If a line strays or is flawed, I might let it be, just to simulate that traditional feel.
One benefit of the digital medium is that it does away with the whole scanning process, no messy colors, no running out of ink or that crucial shade of color midway into the artwork process only to find that the local art shop has run out of stock as well. Those and chemical fumes.
Tell us about some of the material that inspired you the most to want to create imagery. Is it fair to assume that the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Indian folkloric tradition are the prime inspirations for your work?
For Indian mythology-based works, yes. But I have tried to have my own take on things. For 18 Days, I had a certain feel in mind and I have tried to employ it in the concept drawings. If I were to re-do it in a different context, I might shift the angle and use a different approach. Mahabharata is the story of all ages. Change the look and design and it will still ring true. We humans are remarkably consistent that way!
The traditional imageries of Indian mythology have been filtered through the cultural and artistic prisms of their respective times. I have tried to inform them with mine. For 18 Days, I wanted my version of Bheem to look like he has the strength of 1,000 elephants, as has been suggested in the original text. Like every warrior’s costume in the story, his own costume augments his manifold natural abilities. When the armies launch at each other, I wanted to put the audience in the middle of the chaos, with screaming missiles and burning craters. There are no orderly and graceful figures in repose here. When Krishna reveals his true self to Arjun, I wanted to depict him shredding the fabric of the universe. Durga rides ominous war clouds and mythical lions. When Bheeshma blesses, he is all heart and grandfatherly pride. I wanted to depict what a war of super beings, with their false prides and doomed fates, could look like.
For other works, if it is a book or a graphic novel, it is usually the story that inspires me.
What about other influences? Where do you look? Fashion, film, literature, music, architecture, video games?
My influences draw from the great American illustrators of old to American and European comics artists to literature and art masterpieces in the science fiction and fantasy genres. I can stare at a Klimt or Sargent painting for hours or read a Gene Wolfe book for the umpteenth time. But I am not sure how much of an influence they have had on my work. Maybe it is lingering somewhere, waiting to burst out. That would be something!
While playing video games, one is too busy fragging the next guy or scampering to ward off a rush of zerglings to notice the art on the screen. At least I am.
Finally, I love nature. Her genius puts us all to shame.
If you could go in cosplay disguise as a character from one of your works, which character would it be?
Haha . . . I am not sure, but maybe Jayadrath [second to final image]? I think he has a really cool costume. Or if I could turn somehow myself into a two-ton, forty-foot long Allosaur, then maybe Scar from Dinosaurs vs. Aliens [final image].
What would be your dream project to work on as an artist?
I would love to throw away what little I know, stomp all over the rules and just do something really weird and out there, common sense notwithstanding.
To speak more truthfully, though, anything that rocks my imagination is a dream project.
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