Sishir Bommakanti is a speculative fiction illustrator based in Richmond, VA. He has worked with The Pitch, This Land Press, and the Ringling Museum. He provided art for this week's story, "The Visitor" by Karen Myers. This interview was conducted by email in June 2015.
Tory Hoke: Your work is impressionistic, geometric, and surreal all at once. How did you arrive at this style?
Sishir Bommakanti: It's the way my mind processes things, I guess. I tend to approach a piece in the most chaotic way possible of painting, and then try to build up detail through implied shapes and such. I started drawing at an atelier as a teen. Then, when I attended Ringling College of Art and Design, I had the opportunity to learn from a lot of amazing painters (George Pratt, Fiore Custode, Hodges Soileau, and even a couple of my friends). During my schooling, I learned to incorporate collage into my work and understand how to balance the chaos of traditional and digital. Currently I am trying to work more digitally, just because I neglected the process during my schooling, and I feel that my painting skills need a lot of work. I use a lot of pre-made brushes, but I'm also learning to make my own brushes and brush settings.
I was always told to work with opposites: light shapes on dark shapes, warm on cool, chaos over order, and vice versa. Of course you always tilt the balance to make the composition a bit more exciting!
Tory Hoke: Your paintings with glitch art elements must take intense planning. What is your process for these?
Sishir Bommakanti: When I started, the "glitch" aesthetic took time. Now that I understand how that media works, it's easier. The process is different depending on what effect I am going for. Photoshop lets you now work with 3D elements and even stereoscopic imagery. Taking random static meshes in Sculptris and then mashing them until they look "glitched" and finally dragging them into PS for image editing is one way. Another is to take a JPEG, convert it into Notepad format, and then delete random lines of code to generate some chaotic distortions.
Finally, dragging an iPad against a scanner while a video is playing is another process that yields some very interesting results.
It all boils down to collage at that point. I can glitch an image all the way to Hightown, but I have to compose it and carefully control it within my compositions.
Tory Hoke: I've never seen anything like that time-slip effect. And splashing around in the JPEG data itself sounds like wild fun. Any hints you'd give someone trying them for the first time? Staying out of Hightown can be hard.
Sishir Bommakanti: Expect a lot of trial and error. I went through hundreds of hours of understanding how it works before I found a way to experiment with it. Even now I have no real form with the process; it's still a very volatile medium. One really fun thing to do is take a glass plane, place it over a scanner so you don't damage your scanner's glass, then add paint and smear it while it's running at a high DPI. The distortions and "glitch" aesthetic are pretty amazing. It can also be used for texture for painting. Explore the Deep Roads!
Tory Hoke: You've lived in a huge variety of places. How do you deal with moving?
Sishir Bommakanti: I was moving because my dad was an immigrant and was looking for better opportunities and jobs. His contract would last at the most for a year. I guess my being in so many places in a short time gave me a unique childhood—a lot of time to daydream. I was content not playing with other kids because I would be in my head all the time. I don't remember a lot of my moving as a child, but I do remember daydreaming a lot. I got in trouble in school a lot because I never paid attention.
Tory Hoke: Annoying for teachers, but good for you! If kids don't have old haunts, they have to make their own. I imagine there was a lot of drawing in the margins, too.
Sishir Bommakanti: Yeah, lots of drawing. While in India, my dad would encourage me to draw and explore art, which was cool because that was rare, being Indian. My parents are cool enough to support me in my journey within the arts. They were strict, but also great parents who wanted me to have opportunities, rather than forcing me to give up on them. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
Tory Hoke: What kinds of things make you nostalgic for a place you've left behind?
Sishir Bommakanti: Usually the smell of food makes me nostalgic for Indian cooking.
The town I grew up in was called Picket Colony. Everyone on that road knew each other, and I was free to explore within the limits. I was familiar with almost everyone there.
In India, urban decay is a very normal thing to experience, with trash and a lack of care for infrastructure everywhere. This has made me nostalgic for urban decay and abandoned architecture.
Although I have not gotten the chance to explore in a long while, I hope to go to Europe next.
Tory Hoke: Where will you go in Europe? What do you hope to find?
Sishir Bommakanti: Anywhere really! Just avoiding the tourism route. I would like to travel Eastern Europe to see old remnants of Soviet era buildings. It's kind of cool to see structures from another era and explore them—kind of like in all the RPGs I play, where you see remnants of an ancient civilization that fell apart due to this or that. Causes a weird and interesting juxtaposition. For artists, juxtapositions are good.
Tory Hoke: How was your experience at Ringling College? How did it influence your work?
Sishir Bommakanti: When I was at Ringling, I went there to learn "concept art" and "visual development." Then I was introduced to painting, and I wanted to be that guy who made awesome paintings with showings all over the world. Then my senior year I got to go to the Illustration Academy, which exposed me to the editorial world. I became fixated on experimental mixed media illustration and narrative compositions.
I was a bit disenfranchised by the grueling process of concept art, and painting was just too chaotic for me.
My comfort zone is in my sketchbook and media experimentation, which could become a finished piece once scanned and edited. Ringling professors taught me a lot about experimenting as much as I can with my media. As an illustrator, I need to learn a lot more than drawing and painting. I learned photography to understand composition, I learned glitch art to see how far I can push an image, and I learned printmaking to understand the history of print.
Tory Hoke: What other artists inspire or interest you?
Sishir Bommakanti: Right this second? The Bioware artists that made those Tarot Decks for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Tory Hoke: I was just talking about this with last month's artist, Vlada Monakhova! What is it about those tarot cards that's so appealing? What influences do you see in them, and what influence do you think they'll have on future speculative fiction art?
Sishir Bommakanti: I followed [Vlada] on Tumblr after seeing her interview!
First thing that really struck me was that the DA team possibly had some creative freedom to do what they wished, because I can identify a few ranges of styles within them. By giving the concept artists creative freedom, they were able to create unique, original assets for Dragon Age that really stood out. It didn't have that concept art school of thought.
I think game design is an art, perhaps closer to film than illustration. But there's also a similar problem with games and film in popular contemporary entertainment. If something original becomes an instant hit, investors and higher-ups try to use that formula over and over. Then you start having franchises like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and a lot of the recent SF movies that keep getting produced until people get sick of it, or they burn it to the ground, and they try to find the next "big thing." Which is very unhealthy thinking, and often leaves the generation with a lot of great ideas that turned into mediocre burn-outs. That often adds very little to the culture of F/SF.
But there are exceptions that become successful and are able to preserve their integrity, such as Dragon Age, Witcher, and GTA [Grand Theft Auto]. Biggest thing about these games though is not only that you have a great team, but also they are given a very comfortable amount of time to make something. Good art takes time.
As an illustrator, I need to be constantly innovating, and building upon my work, or else I may fall.
Tory Hoke: What would you like to see more of in contemporary F/SF art?
Sishir Bommakanti: Diversity. Which is happening. I am actually glad to see that art directors are willing to risk an original illustration that doesn't fit the tropes or stereotypes of F/SF. I've been to the Spectrum Fantastic Art Awards twice, and I always see a diverse range of art being shown. I hope things will go more toward this direction with a diversity in styles and artists, too. Great examples of that are what Jeffrey Alan Love, Richie Pope, and Victo Ngai are doing.
Tory Hoke: What's your dream project?
Sishir Bommakanti: To work on my own fictional world. Oh, and somehow get paid while doing it! As much as I have a hard time with visual development, I wish to build a world and perhaps even learn 3D and game design, so I could potentially visualize what I created. But that's an incredibly long-term goal, reserved to be worked on during my nights and weekends.
Tory Hoke: Very true. May game development keep calling you. It will be extremely exciting to see the wall between creating and programming keep coming down.
Sishir Bommakanti: Artists who work in the field all have their own personal projects all the time. During my lifetime, I hope to make something really detailed and awesome that would fall into one massive nerdy universe. I will be posting progress soon on my Tumblr in a couple months! I'm currently building a 3'x3' map that can be printed out!
Tory Hoke: Thank you for your time, Sishir! It was great to talk to you.
Sishir Bommakanti: It was great to have this conversation! Keep in touch.