Daniel Karlsson is an autodidact illustrator living in Sweden who believes that “nothing is ever 100% pure/evil.” His pop surrealist and horror art, both digital and traditional, is primarily made for self-expression rather than income.
Daniel, if I’m understanding things correctly, you only rarely illustrate for income, yes? So most of the rather grotesque and even sexually twisted imagery we see in your portfolio is not just a visualization of someone else’s fiction or franchise, but rather a raw fruit of your own psyche. It’s largely pretty disturbing. What does this process do for you? And do you worry about being personally judged by your family, friends, coworkers?
Socially, I’m not always allowed to doubt or question other people’s idea of happiness, beauty, and normality—not without risk of alienating them—but through my art it’s possible for me to criticize, violate, and expose those things. It’s a way for me to communicate my emotions and thoughts without forcing anything upon anyone. It’s there for anyone to listen to, and if they understand or relate to it then there is a meaningful connection between us. I’m not worried about what people close to me think because I’m confident that most of my other traits disarm any worries my art might stir up.
Much of your work is sexually graphic, and not in a pleasant or positively erotic way. What has the reaction been to that? Is it comparable to horror art with regard to public judgment?
I’ve had many different reactions. Some people think it’s beautiful, some find it funny, and some think it’s disturbing and distasteful. If I look at the worst or/and strongest reactions I’ve ever gotten, then the majority of them are probably related to pieces that have some kind of sexual reference. Any reaction is better than no reaction at all, yet I tend to become a bit disappointed when people get angry or upset.
Additionally, your warped plays on pop culture, typically video game and cartoon characters, are discomfiting, to say the least. What is the purpose of integrating Megaman or Donald Duck into your work?
Taking something familiar that a lot of people can relate to, like Megaman or Donald Duck, is an easy way of establishing a connection and an interest with the audience. The hard part, but also the most fun, is to do something original and interesting with it. Some people have great skill and they produce great pop culture fan-art, but they don’t always take it to an interesting place, and a lot of the time it simply becomes reproduction.
Illustration is a side venture for you. What is your day job?
Technically I don’t have a day job, because I only work nights. I’m employed as a guard at a low security prison. I have been doing this for five years now. It’s not very stimulating and it’s certainly not great, but it pays the bills and has some perks.
You report having been rejected from art schools, but it’s clear to me that you didn’t need to be taught a thing. Reviewing your massive output from the past few years, your skills have consistently leveled up. How do you manage to produce so much in your spare time? How long does a typical piece take you to complete?
One of the perks of my day/night job is the long twelve-hour shifts. I’m basically paid to sit awake at night and just watch the place so, unless anything happens, I have a lot of time on my hands. I always bring my laptop and wacom-tablet to work, and I keep myself busy with those in order to stay awake. Also, longer shifts mean I work fewer shifts and have more days off, and that’s when I go to my studio and paint in traditional media. Combine all that with a lot of discipline, motivation and being somewhat of a social hermit, then you have an explanation for the high output.
In regards to how long a piece takes to produce, it’s hard to say. Some pieces are done in a session or two, while some of the traditional pieces can take months.
In addition, your work has been featured in an exhibition, is that right? Can you tell us about it?
It was actually two exhibitions/shows during the course of two years. Both at the same gallery here in Stockholm. I went to the gallery and asked them if I could possibly have an exhibition there, and they said yes. They took a fee and a percentage of the sales, so it’s not a big scale event where some gallery found me and showcased me to the world.
I wanted the experience and it motivated me to paint approximately eighty paintings in two years time, which was very good for me. I sold more than I had expected, but then again my expectations were low.
The first show was just about the experience, so the paintings were kind of random in tone and subject. The second show had a theme and a direction, and I might have been trying to please the audience a bit too much. I’m considering having a third one eventually, in which I’ll just go full out and uncensored. Sort of a big middle finger to any rules or ideas of what sells, devoid of any sort of compromise.
You work in both digital painting and traditional painting media, correct? Do you have a preference?
Yes, that’s correct. I enjoy them both and don’t really have a preference. There are different perks to both media. I can experiment more easily with color and composition in the digital format, and it’s a lot faster. The biggest downside is that I don’t get a physical painting that I can sell or put in a gallery. Traditional media offers a lot more randomness, like drips and textures, that can lead to great and unexpected results.
Sometimes I feel that if I can’t produce at the same level traditionally as I am producing digitally, then I’m cheating somehow. So, somewhere in me there is a deep rooted sense that traditional media is worth more than digital. But I know that that’s not true. Artists have always used whatever tools are available to produce the best results possible, and it’s stupid to let prestige get in the way of a great piece being realized.
Do you still draw ideas from fiction?
I draw inspiration from fiction all the time. Not so much clean-cut ideas, but small impressions that generate emotions that I later try to reproduce. I don’t read as much as I used to, so it’s hard to name any specific inspiring author. Most of my intake of fiction consists of video games, movies, and TV. The other day I saw a Belgian movie called Bullhead, in which there is a disturbing scene involving a young boy’s testicles getting smashed with rocks over and over again. I cringed and moaned when I saw that, and that’s the kind of feeling that I’d try to reproduce and capitalize on as a result of consuming fiction.
Other artists I that I admire and find inspiring are Egon Schiele, Gustave Courbet and Anders Zorn. In the living section of inspirational artists I’d like to put James Jean, Ashley Wood and Mattias Snygg as some of the more important influences.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I have a commission for a digital piece, sort of a classical portrait but with a twist. Nothing too disturbing, really. I also have a several traditional pieces going. Some are more experimental in terms of color and brushwork, while others are more typically dark and weird with a more controlled and planned process. I like to switch between different ways of working as to avoid getting bored or too frustrated.
What’s your dream illustration job?
I’d love to do character design/concept art for video games. I remember watching a video of the artists behind Silent Hill 2 doing concept art for the Pyramid Head character and that filled me with awe and admiration. I could definitely see myself working in that type of environment.
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