I recently had the chance to speak with digital artist Darren Tan, a Malaysian creator who has made it big in the board game and RPG scene. His dynamic and dramatic artwork is seen around the world in games like Star Wars: X-Wing, Star Wars: Armada, Star Wars: Destiny, the Star Wars RPGs, Star Wars: Rebellion, Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, Android: Netrunner, Legend of the Five Rings, the CthulhuTech RPG, and various sci-fi, fantasy and history books. He now works (and lives with his family) in Singapore.
How did you get into illustration?
Mostly through animation. I actually studied animation in LimKokWing University. I majored in traditional animation in LimKokWing, then went to Canada to study computer animation. That’s when I discovered digital painting. And so I did that in my free time between classes. The whole digital painting thing is self-taught.
So after I graduated I took some small jobs in the 3D animation field. Then I came to Singapore and found this job with Imaginary Friends, and you can say the rest is history! That’s how I sort of went down the path of completely digital illustration, completely digital painting.
Admiral Daala ends infighting among Imperial Warlords, from Star Wars: Essential Reader’s Companion [source].
Imaginary Friends did licensed properties like Star Wars books, right?
Most of the Star Wars stuff done at Imaginary Friends was done by me or two other artists, but I’m the point man lah, pretty much, because I’m the Star Wars guy in that studio. So when I left, I sort of continued what I did when I was at Imaginary, continued working with the same clients.
So who were some of your creative inspirations, you know, whom do you look to?
Well when I was learning digital painting, there were a few like Craig Mullins, Jason Chan and a number of artists from Massive Black studios, an illustration group in the US that I referenced a lot and learned a lot from. Those are the few I can think of off the top of my head.
Various stages of work in progress for the back cover of a Star Wars: Force and Destiny RPG sourcebook [source].
How has your process and your style changed over time?
In terms of workflow and methodology it hasn’t changed all that much, although every now and then I just sort of switch up how I paint. In general, it’s still very much, start with a sketch, then go to rough colours, and then finish up with detailing. But in between, how do I lay out my layers and stuff like that, that sort of changes from time to time, so it’s a bit hard to say.
Detail from the cover of Cadian Honour, a Warhammer 40,000 novel from Black Library [source].
Sometimes I might go back to the old way or I might try something new, but I think the general workflow is still pretty much the same. How I improved over the years is more in the level of detail, and not level of detail overall, but more like level of detail where it needs to be. And maybe improved in speed a little bit, but overall I’m generally not one of those speed painters.
Two Super Star Destroyers blast each other at the Battle of Orinda, from Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare [source].
Your Star Destroyer Dreadnought battle, it’s what, a couple of weeks to do?
That one might be a week or two. If I were to do it now again, the Star Destroyers would have more detail, that’s for sure. Probably now I would not draw them from scratch, because now I do a lot of ship art for Fantasy Flight Games, for X-Wing and Armada.
Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Star Destroyer Chimaera from Star Wars: Armada is just one of the many ships Darren has illustrated [source].
Yeah, all their cards and cards and cards.
Yeah, these days I use either 3D, or if I have the Bandai models, I take photographs of them. I’ll use that as a base. So I don’t waste a lot of time constructing the ship. But sometimes I have to draw it from scratch. If I were to do the two-Star Destroyer piece again you would definitely see a lot more detail. More like the, if you have seen my Instagram, there’s one that’s of the Chimaera, Thrawn’s flagship, it’ll probably look more like that. Just more detail.
Sketch for the Battle of Agincourt for Medieval Warfare Magazine [source]. For this project Darren worked closely with medieval scholar Tobias Capwell and talked about it on DeviantArt.
You’ve done art for sci-fi, fantasy and historical. What are some of your favourites in each category?
Well, let’s do historical first because that’s the easiest. I think the Battle of Agincourt piece that I did for a Dutch medieval history magazine, that one’s my favourite.
Darren’s iconic fan art of Grand Admiral Thrawn, a popular villain from the Star Wars Legends stories [source].
Sci-fi, I don’t know which one to pick.
Just pick a few.
I guess the one I posted recently, an old piece but still one of my favourite ones, the inside of the TIE Fighter cockpit. More recent piece would be the Thrawn one, That one is in general my most popular piece. And I do like my Chimaera, kind of proud of that one.
Cover art for Orc Warfare, from Osprey Publishing [source]. Darren talks about the historical armour and weapons that inspired him at his DeviantArt.
Fantasy, I did this one, I kind of like this guy. From Orc Warfare. I kind of like how he turned out, the look. He’s not based off any specific franchise, just a generic orc I was commissioned to do. There was a lot of references to Lord of the Rings but I added my own spin to it.
What would you say was the most challenging piece you’ve done?
Anything to do with interiors. I hate those. Only interiors.
Fantasy Flight Games’ Disciples of Harmony, a Force and Destiny RPG sourcebook, featured Darren Tan’s background art (not the figure in front) [source].
Not fond of interiors?
Not really. If I have to do them, I do them, but I don’t have sort of a workable system to tackle that sort of thing yet. Some artists are good at interiors. I’m not one of those artists. I’m trying to find an example…the cover of Disciples of Harmony, not the figure, the figure is not done by me, but the background. Some kind of interior. That was challenging. I mean I think could have done it better, but oh well. Clients are okay with it, so I just left it go. But yeah, I think anything to do with interiors. If I can get away with just not covering as much of the interior as possible, I would do it.
Darren at his home workspace in Singapore.
What’s it like to work from home?
It’s not really a studio, it’s more like a man cave. Okay, call it a studio. What’s it like? Good and bad. I have flexibility; some people find working from home boring, but for me I kind of like it. The cons would be, there are distractions (laughs).
You have a family, right?
Uh, yeah. I mean, when they are at a home, yes they can be a distraction, but, I mean, that’s a necessary distraction. That’s my responsibility as a father. But more like, the PC I work on is also the PC I use to play my games (laughing).
I would say one of my weaknesses is doing things according to schedule. I mean I manage it, but things could be better. For me, getting jobs is not a problem, it’s getting them done in time. I think most artists have that struggle. I don’t think it has affected me negatively.
Not long after we recorded the interview, Darren unveiled his stunning rendition of bounty hunter Boba Fett, his first official fine art print for Sideshow Collectibles.
You have worked on a lot of different media properties. What would you like to do that you have not worked on yet? Whether someone else’s IP or your own?
Well, I’m partly already doing what I dreamt of doing. But I guess the next step would be doing more higher-profile Star Wars jobs. I mean, I really enjoy doing it for Fantasy Flight Games and everything, but I’m trying also to do official fine prints. Because a lot of people who follow me, they always want to buy my Star Wars art, especially the official ones I do for FFG. But the current arrangement is that people can’t really buy those things. It’s just that FFG does not have the license as far as I understand to sell fine art prints. So right now I am currently also trying to do Star Wars artworks that people can buy. Because a lot of people tell me they would like to buy my artwork. I myself would want them to have it.
Any other big projects? I dunno, maybe doing concept art for a big video game company. But nothing very specific. Because for the moment I have so much things on my hands that I don’t have – thinking about what’s next is not my concern.
Admiral Raddus’ ship Profundity, as seen in the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, illustrated by Darren for Star Wars: Armada [source].
Because I’ve come to know you through these games, and because I’m a gamer, just wondering, have you played X-Wing or any of these other games you’ve done artwork for?
Oh yeah, I’m a big X-Wing miniatures gamer. I also play Star Wars: Armada. In terms of tabletop games, I’m more into miniatures. I know FFG does a lot of Star Wars tabletop games, I think I’ve contributed artwork to all of them. Except Star Wars: Legion, so far I have not done anything for Legion. But I think everything else I have. Star Wars Destiny – I do a lot for Star Wars Destiny, actually, but I have not played the game. I’ve done quite a number for the Star Wars RPG but I don’t play RPGs.
A TIE Fighter cockpit view of the Battle of Tingel, from Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare [source].
Is there a big X-Wing scene in Singapore?
Yeah, relatively big. I mean, if you compare the ratio of players to the population of Singapore, I think it’s pretty decent. I know Malaysia has quite a few players as well, but the Singaporeans are more competitive (laughs). The 2016 world champion is from Singapore, so yeah, they’re pretty competitive right here. At the moment I just play to have fun, I get crushed, never mind.
The site of Stanley “Artgerm” Lau, one of Darren’s former bosses [source].
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists who want to get into doing art for these games and media properties?
Well, there’s no short cuts, that’s for sure. You still have to work hard. Nowadays you have a lot more options for those people who are interested in this sort of thing. Even back when I was studying, yes, I had to study animation but I don’t think in Malaysia they had a proper digital painting or digital illustration course. Nowadays, my ex-bosses run a world-class digital illustration programme (in Singapore), at 3dsense Media School an animation sort of university with a lot of courses in animation and 3D.
Do you know Artgerm? You may have seen his stuff. He’s extremely popular, one of the most popular in the world. So he’s one of my ex-bosses. He and his two other friends – partners – run this digital illustration programme. Aside from theirs there are other schools in Singapore that have similar digital art programmes. There are a lot more options now.
Darren Tan’s instagram account @wraithdt
The thing with social media, Instagram and everything now, if you want to break out on your own, it’s easier. But as I have learned over the years, being a good painter does not necessarily help you make a lot of money. You have to learn to put yourself and put your work out there. Which is the reason I’m on Instagram now and going to conventions every year now.
Your Instagram is quite recent considering I know you’ve been working for several years.
I’m slow on that because I’m not a big social media guy. I got on Instagram because I recognise that to be a successful artist you have to engage with your fans. So I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned in the past few years. And definitely that is something young artists should know about. You know in the last couple of year I’ve gone to conventions, and I see that the people who are the most successful are not necessary, like, the most fantastic artists, but they really know how to market themselves and market their work. And they usually make a lot more than those artists who in terms of workmanship are a lot better but don’t put themselves out there.
Darren’s ArtStation site.
Lastly, my blog’s kind of a small blog, I don’t know how much of a reach there is, but is there anything you want to mention to my readers, how they can find your work and reach out to you? Do you want to promote any new project you may be doing?
First thing, you can just follow me on Instagram, because I’m trying to grow my Instagram audience/presence. So any new stuff that I can post and reveal to the public, I’ll post it there. I also have a Facebook, you can follow me. For my professional portfolio, I have my ArtStation website. If you want to see my work in all its glory, ArtStation is the place. It’s the best place to see full, high-resolution. Yeah, as far as current works I can talk about, not much that I can say. A lot of them are, I do a lot of Star Wars and I can’t really say in detail what I’m working on. There’s always stuff I’ve done for X-Wing.
I also recently did some stuff for Magic: the Gathering, but I don’t think they’ll announce it anytime soon. I think it is slated for next year. I just got into it, and someone told me, I don’t know how true this is, but apparently I’m the first local artist that has done for M:tG. It’s never occurred to me that it’s the case, but if it is, that’s kind of cool.
(We later contacted Wizards of the Coast to enquire if Darren was indeed the first Malaysian artist for M:tG, but received no reply)
I also liked your Legend of the Five Rings art as well.
Oh yeah, that’s the only one I’ve done so far. I do like that piece as well because the way FFG works, they will assign artists based on their style. They’ll match the style of a specific artist to a specific project. I suspect the reason I haven’t done any more for L5R is maybe my style doesn’t quite match well. I did do the main box and who knows I may do more in the future but at the moment doesn’t seem likely. They have got so much artists they can pick and choose which artist goes to which project. I’m pretty much forever glued to Star Wars. I don’t mind that. If I want to do a bit more fantasy or historical, I have Osprey Publishing.
A Nazi sorcerer makes a mistake, from The Nazi Occult, published under the Osprey Adventures label [source].
I actually first found you through The Nazi Occult. I follow Ken Hite and I heard he was doing this fake Nazi history book. I found it in the History section of MPH! Which was pretty ridiculous!
Well where else would you put it right? (laughs) It’s a bit of an awkward thing because Osprey in general is known for historical material. They have scrapped that line, Osprey Adventures; they are not doing any more of that already. That’s why I have managed to switch over to Osprey Military, the historical branch, which is what they’re known for. The most recent one I just did is about the Mongols which is what I’m more interested in because I like medieval stuff. I don’t know why they keep giving me WW2 stuff but I’ll keep doing the WW2 stuff. But I hope they give me more medieval stuff. I’ll still do WW2 stuff but it’s not something that I’m well-versed on.
A big thanks to Darren for speaking with us about his work! You can find him on Instagram (@wraithdt), Facebook, Deviantart, and Artstation. If you are interested in fine print collectible artwork, Darren’s first Sideshow Collectibles poster of famed bounty hunter Boba Fett is now available for order!
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