Campbell Whyte is an Australian artist whose work is infused with pop culture nostalgia and a stylish sense of whimsy. He’s probably most well known for his 8 Bit Dreams project where he’s doing an illustration for each of the original 799 games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. He’s already finished illustrations for each game made in 1985, 1986, 1987 and he’s just recently wrapped up 1988 which you can peep here.
Hit the jump for our full interview with this bad dude.
When did you first get into art and how long after that did you begin to take it seriously and pursue it as a career?
I’ve always drawn and created things.
I think all people are inherently creative, all humans, I challenge you to find a child that doesn’t sing, dance, draw and sculpt. It’s just that over time, people get shamed in to not exploring those skills. Very early in life, people get pigeon holed in to certain roles based on their most obvious qualities. You can see it happening in classrooms all over the world. There’ll be a sporty kid, a funny one, an artist one and so on.
In terms of a career, I still feel that I’m establishing one. My visual interests lay in so many different areas that I sometimes think I spread myself a little broad. I guess I’m constantly planting seeds all over the place and am just waiting for them to grow.
Who are some of your favorite artists? Who or what has been the strongest driving force behind your work?
I love the written work of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. The figure work of Australian artist Norman Lindsay, the watercolours and films of Hayao Miyazaki. The town scapes of Hieronymus Bosch and the amazing scenes of Martin Handford. Finally, British children’s book illustrator Emma Chichester Clark is a wizard of colour.
Traditional Ukiyo-e prints are also a joy for me, with their flattened perspective and wonderful line work. A lot of my favorite games share that sort of perspective. The visual relationship between this art form and video games is really interesting to me.
In terms of musical influences, I’m a huge fan of mash-ups with The Kleptones being one of my favorite artists. I feel it’s one of the most exciting art movements at the moment. It perfectly captures the current tension between artists, publishers, and audience. These roles are increasingly becoming blurred, as the old boundaries are being dissolved.
A lot of my own personal work is about sense of place and identity. My painting practice primarily visualizes an imagined artist led revolution that took place in my home town. Where I live, there is a very strong mining and sporting culture, with little interest in the arts. Things are getting better, but within this practice, I explore my frustrations and anger at the society that I feel does not value or support me.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel which also explores my home town. It focuses on a group of primary school age children who fall in to the main river system and awaken in a land that plays host to all the lost things from our side of the world. All the old buildings that were destroyed, extinct animals, missing socks and abandoned hopes wind up there. It’s more optimistic than my painting practice, sort of a sister project.
And then there’s a raft of side projects where I look at some of my early obsessions, NES games (with my 8 Bit Dreams series), Fighting Fantasy books (with a planned book with the amazing Luke Milton), Dungeons and Dragons illustrations and so on. There’s a portion of the global population that grew up removed from “traditional” cultural practices and beliefs. For some of these people, they hold on to the stories with the same amount of conviction and affection.
“Zora” illustration from Whyte’s Zelda Map Project
What are the steps involved in getting into your art-making groove? Is there a certain kind of music you listen to, ritualistic chants, massive thumbnail sketching sessions, etc? What kinds of tools do you use?
There are no rituals, steps or anything like that, there’s just getting down to work. Being the father of a young son, I need to make the most of any opportunities I have for making work. In terms of tools, I illustrate with watercolours and felt tip pens. I’m not loyal to any brand and am constantly trying new manufacturers. I usually do minimal adjustments digitally with my illustrations. I used to do a lot more digital work, but I kind of hit a wall with it and really hungered for the error and dirt involved in analog processes. When painting, I use a really broad range of materials. I usually work on to linen, but I use acrylic paints, oils, pencils, pens, lots of glitter and metallic sprays and stitches. It all goes on there.
Out of all the paintings you’ve done for your 8 Bit Dreams project, which idea was the hardest to come up with? How do you come up with each scenario in the first place?
I find the space ships and planes really hard to do. Firstly because there’s no figures visible, and secondly because it’s hard to show dynamic action of objects when they’re just floating in a vacuum. In terms of the scenarios I illustrate, it usually comes down to a few steps. If I’m really familiar with the game, I usually just dive in to it. If not, I’ll read the wiki article on the game to get an overview of what it’s about. Then if there’s a strategy wiki on it, I’ll read that. There’s usually a wealth of information on the game there, with a break down of enemies, characters, items, stages and game mechanics. I’ll then watch a couple of YouTube clips of gameplay and if I feel I still don’t really get it, I’ll play the game. It’s a pretty lengthy process really, but what I’m hunting for is the most unique element of the game, how do you compress the essence of the game down to one image. Sometimes it’s the most crazy or strange thing you can do in that game, other times it’s the most iconic character, enemy or item.
“A character being defeated is a pretty strong image. I think we can empathize with losing.”
Which one has been the most fun to work on?
They’re all fun, I make sure they are. But In terms of the one I’m most proud of, it’s probably the illustration for Baseball Stars. I’m just really happy with the colours, the forms and the emotion of the character. For the same reason, I really like Mike Tyson’s Punch out. A character being defeated is a pretty strong image. I think we can empathize with losing. I certainly remember throwing my NES controller in a fit of rage, playing through tears and grinding of teeth and so on. My poor parents.
Have you been playing any new stuff, or are you strictly a retro kind of guy? What was the last game that truly blew your mind?
I don’t really make much time to play video games at the moment. It’s mainly games on the DS and iPad/Phone, games that I can play in quick bursts. With a young son, I don’t really have the time to sit down and devote an hour or so to sinking in to a game. The last console that I really invested time in like that was the Game Cube. I’ve pretty much hit a point where all the games I want to play are just variations on existing Nintendo games. It’s kind of sad in a way. The problem is this, how can a new game compete with 20 odd years of positive memories? The pleasure I get from the sound of collecting a Mario coin, or a Zelda treasure chest, it’s really ingrained in my mind. Wind Waker was one of the last games that really blew me away, at least in terms of visuals. It’s so incredibly beautiful. Naturalistic graphics can be really impressive as well, but that heavy stylisation is gorgeous. Phantom Hourglass was a great continuation of that as well. Along those same lines, Limbo really impressed me as well, that was a fantastic experience. I play games as a social activity with some of my friends every other week, we play a bunch of different games that our host (James Pontifex) picks. Some cooperative, some competitive, it’s a mixed bag. Mainly it’s about hanging out with friends.
Aside from your retro-fueled 8 Bit Dreams project, you’re also doing something called The C-List which also has an 80’s vibe. Can you tell us a bit more about that project?
Yea sure, the C-List is a series of illustrations done for the podcast of the same name. It’s hosted by Luke Milton and Mike Taylor. The original format had them discussing two C-List characters from films, it’s changed a bit now, but it’s the same basic premise. They’re both funny as all hell, and talk trash about trashy bit parts from films. There’s a ton of ridiculous speculation on their part, which I really enjoy.
Now, you and I were both born in ‘84, which I personally think was a pretty fuckin’ rad time to be born. We had Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles, Karate Kid – pretty much all the good shit. What do you think it is about the 80’s that gives it such a stronger nostalgia factor than other decades? I mean, the 90’s were cool, but you don’t see whole lot of fan art dedicated to The Mighty Ducks, Nicktoons, and Jim Carrey movies.
I don’t really know for sure. I think the 80’s was probably the first time there was a really intense convergence of electronic media, youth culture, consumerism and disposable manufacturing. I could be totally off base, but it seems like everything kind of came to a head in this amazing explosion of plastic and neon and obnoxious cartoons and bizzare illustration and so on. And because this was a new beginning of this sort of thing, there weren’t the traditional rules which dictated what would succeed and what wouldn’t, so there was a lot of risk taking going on. I was born in 1984, which means I was under 5 for most of the decade, I really wasn’t present for the 80’s in a meaningful way. But the 90’s was all about vhs, so all of that media, film and television was made available to me in a way that previous decades media wasn’t to previous generations.
Were you into any other geeky stuff as a kid besides games, like comics or action figure collecting?
Lego, Fighting Fantasy books, Lord of the Rings, Games Workshop, Heavy Metal comics, 2000AD, all the cliches of geekery, I was there.
What do you like doing when you’re not making rad art?
I work at the state museum, in the children’s section as my day job, and when I’m not doing that I’m with my son and wonderful partner in art and life Elizabeth Marruffo.
If you could travel back in time and deliver one message to your 10 year-old self, what would it be?
Relax, be nice to people, focus. (I guess that’s three things, but I’d be sneaky about it and get them in)
Final and most important question of all: when a friend comes over to play some games, do you let them play as Player One or Player Two?
Player One, I like to watch them fumble with the menus.