Neon cyber-punk fantasy and the streaming artist

Artist and illustrator Nen Chang talks about the nature of her work, taking advantage of the Twitch community, and building a fan-base outside of the gallery scene.

Published: July 10, 2018Words: Nen Chang & J.Scott StrattonArtist Link: @retromortisTwitch: @killerNEN

There is no point in burying the lead in pontification in this piece. Nen Chang’s illustrations and painting are an absolutely phenomenal example of skill and imagination. Chang’s work isn’t powered by a high level of conceptual meaning which could propel it onto the walls of the Venice Biennale or MoMa. Her work that can be taken at face value, and simply admired for its beauty, technique, and artistry. It doesn’t need to be deeper than that.

The attention to detail and the level of progression (which you can see with the pieces that are shown in this article) expresses the true level of Nen Chang’s patience and skill. Her use of linework, particularly in the piece ‘Dirge’ (shown below), has this Alphonse Mucha-meets-Anime vibe to it. It gives me the impression that I’m starting into the concept art for some futuristic Neo-Toyko video game – I’m talking to you CD Projekt Red.

Beyond Nen Chang’s obvious skill and artistic craftsmanship, my other point of interest in her work was where I initially encountered it – on Twitch.

For those who might not be familiar with the massive live-stream video platform, you might want to crawl out of the cave. Sold to Amazon in 2014 for $970 million, Twitch is the only heavy-weight platform rivaling the YoutTube goliath for live-streaming video service.

While Twitch is largely populated and supported by the gaming community, there are a small batch of artists that have begun using the platform to connect more directly with their fans and admirers. Nen Chang is one of those artists.

Working under the Twitch handle ‘killerNen’, you can tune it to her channel and dive into her streaming videos where she takes you through her live process of working – the longest of which is a marathon 17 hours long.

While Twitch is making moves trying to expand its scope, it is still populated used by gamers and gaming enthusiasts. So when I accidentally stumbled upon the fantastic work of Nen Chang, and the small community of artists that are utilizing the platform, it illuminated a path of inquiry that I had to follow.

Progression of Nen Chang's work 'Dirge' • 19.5 x 26 oil on isolated mixed media
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To give some context, can you give me a little background about your artistic career?

I started very young– I started selling work at conventions when I was 15 years old. Upon graduating high school, I began to install collections of my work in galleries. The work was very dark, very much geared toward invoking the grotesque and wrapping it in a veneer of surreal beauty. It was generally really violent. I was on this hunt to portray emotional pain in physical form, to give grief a dismantled body, to tell a character’s story in wounds and scars.

Eventually, I scored a full scholarship at SCAD and graduated with a BFA in Sequential Art, which I pursued explicitly to push myself as a draftsman and a storyteller. Subsequently, I began working commercially, invariably staying true to my roots in traditional media. I’ve illustrated for several tabletop gaming titles (Legend of the Five Rings, Shinobi Clans, Six of Swords, Eclipse Phase) and produce covers for comics with Titan Comics (Dark Souls, Dishonoured, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Marvel (Jessica Jones, Mockingbird, Captain America), Black Mask (Godkiller), and several others.

As a creator, you jump between commercial work and conceptual work, can you tell me how you balance the two?

I developed independently of a desire to be published in a mainstream format. All I wanted was to adequately communicate this intense duality that I felt and nothing else really mattered. Money, popularity, recognition– none of it really mattered if my work was compromised. I was able to develop a very distinctive look and feel that became desirable in my commercial work. I was always really adamant that they had to want it my way. I still am. In light of that, there’s not really a huge difference in my commercial work versus my own personal work. I’m usually able to tell my own stories on book covers and comic covers because existing characters are just shortcuts for despair– if someone knows their story, then they are able to deduce the emotional scenario more briskly and connect with it on the basis of the story they love. But even for someone who knows nothing of the character I’ve painted, they’ll be able to feel the full force of it, even without the benefit of an existing narrative.

I try not to overload myself with cover work regardless. Maybe three or four covers a year. Doing too many takes me away from my wonderful community of artists and collectors who support me and my work on Twitch.

Speaking of the devil, you are a part of a small group of artists taking advantage of the Twitch platform. What lead you to start using that as a resource?

I was actually recruited to start streaming on there by another streamer, Ashley Paramore. I had been looking for solutions to try and tour less, to create more. It was just a right place at the right time scenario that really went well from the outset.

Progression of Nen Chang's work 'Reverie' • 13 x 19 watercolor, gouache, acrylic
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As Twitch is largely populated by gaming culture, how do you feel people response has been to your stream where you focus solely on live streaming as you paint and draw?

The existing community on Twitch is primarily focused on gaming culture. When an artist enters the arena on Twitch via the Creative community, they generally tend to bring an audience with them. There is a crossover, there always is. You attract new viewers from other artist communities, you attract a small number of viewers from the gaming side of things, but I don’t think the crossover from gaming stream to creative stream is particularly high.

The response to my work on Twitch has been overwhelmingly positive. I have a robust community of collectors and artists, both professional and blossoming, who watch me work, paint along with me, and engage in discussions about technique. It’s a very casual atmosphere that’s become a safe space for many artists to share their work, to celebrate their achievements, to learn that their time has value, and have a place to chat where they feel welcomed. My activities are just a backdrop to a much more important development on Twitch. My work may be what brings people to the stream, but the stream isn’t about me– it’s about my community.

I think my acknowledgment of that fact is what has really transformed Twitch into something meaningful for me. Online communities were really important to me when I was young. I grew up sharing my work in supportive communities like Julie Dillon’s Solace forums, made friends in writing groups like Improfanfic, and was mentored and supported by professional illustrators on Nate Peikos’ Blambot forums. Hearing that what I was doing was good and valuable over the constant drone of noise in real life that devalued my efforts made the uphill battle a little easier and helped me develop the confidence to tell people to fuck right off when they told me I wasn’t worth it.

Twitch helps me teach developing artists to tell people to go fuck themselves. I think that’s the greatest thing I can do for anybody.

Getting back to speaking about your work, when I look at your use of line thickness and technique, I get this “Alphonse Munch meets Akira cyber-punk” vibe. How did you develop your style?

I’ve never really controlled where the work has gone. Style develops over time as the way we view the world and therefore simplify it into abstracts, changes. Traditionally, there is a focus on linework in comics and I feel like the artists who influenced me when I was young were predominantly comic artists. I come and go with lines– I don’t ink anymore, but the lines of my sketches are important in holding my paintings together, even if you don’t see them in the end. Now it’s developed that I’m starting to treat lines as a textural element in paintings. So there is always an evolution. It’s just important not to force a style or else it’s not natural, it’s not genuine.

Progression of Nen Chang's work 'Vespine Sound'
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Tell me about the mediums and the techniques that you use?

For me, media usage evolves in the same way. I started out primarily using ink and watercolor. Eventually, I added white gouache. Then later, I added colored gouache, acryla gouache, acrylic. I was chasing something that I wanted to see in my work, and I did it by experimenting with media and developing unique applications as a result. Most recently, I’ve begun expanding into oil. So really, when it comes down to it, I’ll use anything to get the job done, whatever the painting needs to exist– that’s what I’ll do.

I’ve never been particularly concerned with doing things “right,” so long as the archival integrity of the piece isn’t compromised. I just need to do it to my standards, which are far more exacting than “right” could ever really be.

Your tour with your work through many of Comic conventions and Fan expos, as it’s clear that you’ve garnered a lot of attention and respect within that community. Do you also present your work in Gallery settings?

I haven’t mainly felt the need to install in a gallery setting. Most of my paintings sell before they’re done these days, so I don’t really need them in order to sell. I’ve been cultivating a few paintings here and there to perhaps show in the near future, as it is very prestigious if you can get into the right shows– but it’s not something that I aggressively pursue because I don’t particularly need to. It’s just like covers for me. They’re not necessary for survival, especially not with Twitch in the equation.

Would you have any advice for other artists that want to begin utilizing streaming as a platform for exposing more people to their work?

Do not go into Twitch expecting to garner a community from the platform alone. Most artists who find success in streaming bring a robust online presence along with them that bring their streams success right out the gate. If you want to utilize stream without a community, think of it as a way to keep yourself honest about your time, to help you maintain a schedule, and to begin creating a following. Don’t be disheartened when it doesn’t get high numbers right out the gate, or even in the first year or two.

Don’t get distracted by popularity or success. Don’t worry about what others consider is good enough. Don’t think about what other people say will sell or what people say you have to do in order to be successful as a streamer. Concern yourself with creating genuine work, being an authentic and engaging personality when people do show up, and eventually, people will stick around.

Do you have any famous last words?

“Fuck it, let’s do the thing.” – Invariably said right before I do something to a painting that’s either a really good idea or a really, really, really terrible one.