Artist Interview: Sean Nakamura on Star Wars & Imaginary Creature Design

Sean Nakamura, a Hawaii-raised, San Francisco-based game artist, chatted with us about the teacher whose process influenced his new collection, "Venus Creatures," and the family member that started him on his path as an artist. 


Tell us how you got started as an artist.

I used to draw all the time as a kid. My parents thought something with wrong with me because I drew monsters all the time. I started getting into graffiti in Hawaii, where I grew up, then got into live-painting during concerts as musicians performed. I even painted during one of DJ Z-trip’s shows! After a few years, I decided to get formal training and went to San Francisco’s Academy of Art. It was a big move, a huge risk, plus really expensive.

My surfing friends were like, “Dude, are you serious, you are going to leave?

I was like, “Yea, man.

Why would you ever leave Hawaii? We see that it’s inspired some of your work.

Growing up in Hawaii did inspire my work. Though, most of my inspiration came from my Uncle Morris. He’d painted these awesome ocean scenes. He had muscular dystrophy, and when he couldn’t paint with his hands anymore, he started to paint with the brush in his mouth from his wheelchair. He taught me basics about painting, and from there it sparked my imagination.

I thought, “Hey, we’re related, so maybe I’m an artist too.

Sean's Uncle Morris

Sean's Uncle Morris

What are your favorite mediums?

I love traditional mediums like oil paints and acrylics. Pencils (6B), a dark heavy pencil, are my favorite.

I do a lot of digital painting now, though; I barely get to touch traditional mediums at work. I picked up digital tools very quickly. But, I had to get used to how color and technique translate to the computer. Digital is a lot more forgiving than traditional because you can erase. It's always good to have a traditional foundation before you start going digital.

Tell us about your NeonMob collection Venus Creatures. How did you come up with the concept?

I created this collection while I was in school, actually, where I took an online class with Teryl Whitlach, a famous illustrator I really admire. She designed the creatures for Star Wars, and for this series, I followed some of her methods for creating fantasy creatures. Basically, I took the anatomy of existing creatures and gave them a little twist, such as with humor or darkness, to create believable creatures that could possibly exist in real life. I started with the anatomy and then the bone structure and muscles. Next, I’d figure out what the creature would eat, whether they were a predator or prey, what kind of environment they live in (fur or hard skin), and so on.

For example, I’d ask myself, “Oh, what would they eat?” If they ate grass, they’d need small teeth and a long snout to grab the grass.

How long did it take you to create the collection?

A month and a half. Three a day. An hour per creature!

Now that I see them, I wish that I could go back and retouch them. An artist is never really done with their work, unless you tell them that there is a deadline. I learned a lot from creating all of these creatures. It made me a better artist and able to work really fast.

Which print is your favorite?

I like the guy who has a cave for a mouth. He was inspired by the Star Wars creature from when Hans Sol is flying the millennium falcon into the meteorite, and they fly into the mouth of the worm.

"Moving Mountain," Sean's print from "Venus Creatures" which was inspired by the Star Wars creature below.

"Moving Mountain," Sean's print from "Venus Creatures" which was inspired by the Star Wars creature below.

Star Wars' exogorth, aka space slug (source). 

Star Wars' exogorth, aka space slug (source). 

You designed this collection back in 2011, back when NoenMob was just getting started. What do you think of NeonMob now?

It’s pretty cool. I like the idea of digital trading cards. I used to collect Pokemon and baseball cards as a kid, and it’s cool that it’s still a hobby for people. When I used to collect cards, I knew that there was a rare one, like a gold-foil Wolverine. NeonMob brings back the excitement from when I was a little kid.

NeonMob is more important than that, though. Artists and music help drive the generation. Back in the day, it was all Renaissance painters -  the world was driven by the artistic community. It would be cool to see artists be in the spotlight again.