One-on-One with Karlen Tam

Today, Boneshaker Press is proud to introduce you to Karlen Tam of Staten Island, NY! You can find her portfolio here or contact her here.

What’s your background?

My parents are Chinese immigrants, so I was raised with the idea that everything I did had to count. Get a good, stable job because my mother risked her life to escape the Cultural Revolution and have a better life in the United States. With zero aspirations towards a career path, I was a good kid. I did the science and math courses, all the way through the first year of college.  After a hodgepodge of technology courses which included 3D animation, audio and image editing, and game development, I ended up with no specialized skillset or job-worthy portfolio. I worked at a startup (for exposure and free Chipotle) doing storyboards, color scripts, character modeling, motion capture data cleanup, and animation.

Eventually, I realized I should be investing in myself rather than another person’s dream. So I quit to study art on my own and build a portfolio. Now I work at a software company as a game artist, doing character modeling, texturing, rigging, and animation.

Urashima Tarou and the Tamatebako

What got you interested in the arts to begin with?

I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t draw. When I was young, I had a cousin who really liked Dragon Ball Z so we drew those. Like any other kid, I loved cartoons and my way of expressing it was by drawing the characters. My father also drew as a hobby, but he didn’t like cartoons so we drew realistic animals together. In high school, I joined an art club where I drew still life for the first time.

While there, someone told a story about student getting accepted into Cooper Union’s art school (a competitive university that offered full scholarship) by drawing of a stamp on her application letter and fooling the post office. I never made it to Cooper Union but I never stopped making art.   

When did you decide to dedicate yourself to art?

I had enrolled at my university as an “undecided” and then as a Mechanical Engineer. I was still drawing and painting but realized after my first year that I would barely have any time to work on my art with my workload. It was then, with some encouragement from a friend (now, boyfriend) and my advisor that I should switch to Digital Media. While it was not what most people would consider a typical art education, it allowed me the opportunity to be creative with every assignment without having to switch schools.


Nine Fishes, but not really (2008)


Do you remember your first piece of art you were really proud of? The one that made you say yes I am an artist!

I never had any doubt that I was an artist, but I do have a painting that really pushed me to switching to art full-time. It was something of a commission from my dad. He wanted a painting of nine fishes to hang on his blue door because a feng shui master said that it would bring him good fortune. In the end he ended up buying art for his door because I took too long to make it, and he needed the energies of his room to be aligned ASAP. The piece I made turned out way different than what he wanted anyway.

At the time, though, I was still taking Mech E. classes and the differential equations professor often brought his daughter to class. He would let her rollerskate back and forth in the hallways or give her scrap paper to draw on. Sometimes she was fussy and he would have to hold her while he was teaching, and she’d fall asleep like that. I incorporated this little girl into my final painting, and I think this was the first painting where I learned to use reference.

Do you collect anything?

I used to collect a lot of toys but I think I grew out of that phase. Like most other artists, I collect art books and art supplies. I also like to collect objects that feel like they were from a time long forgotten. This can mean ornate keys, stones, folk instruments, and other rustic objects with an appealing shape or design. I have an ocarina collection that I’m pretty proud of. Basically, I’m like the Little Mermaid, but living in the big city.

ocarina collection
My ocarina collection.

What sacrifices have you made on behalf of your art career?

I used to watch more shows and play more video games than I do now. Sometimes I feel left out and irrelevant nowadays. It’s really hard for me to keep up with all the things people are into these days while still working on my craft.

Do you ever feel like giving up and doing something else? If so, why and how have you overcome that feeling?

Career-wise, I never felt that I should give up. It’s not that I have unshakeable resolve, but the idea doing something else is scarier than failing at making good art. To answer the question, though, I don’t think there is any project I’ve done where I didn’t want to give up. I trick myself into pushing through by thinking that the rest will be easy after this obstacle is worked out. Rinse and repeat. After a while, things always seem to work themselves out.

What is your dream project? If there were no time/money restrictions what would you create?

My dream project is to create a video game–one with poignant stories, set in a fantasy world with an amazing soundtrack. Right now I only have time to make pictures. Illustration is just one still frame of a world. But I would love to build  a world with its own history that can be explored interactively.

What advice would you have given yourself ten years ago?

Not making a decision is a decision in itself. Make your own choices because your parents don’t know what is best for you. Look things up.

How has your practice changed over time?

I’ve become much more disciplined in my workflow. I used to go into an illustration without any planning or structure. Now I spend probably 70% of my time doing studies, sketches, thumbnails and color comps; and 30% actually painting. The main change is that I now know to “set myself up for success” (in the words of Chris Oatley) before diving into a piece.


How do you keep your creative spark? What keeps you motivated?

There were times where I was not creating, and those were absolutely miserable. I feel like it’s not something that I do that keeps a creative spark, but the creative spark that keeps me going

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Do the unpleasant stuff first.

What was your first step towards being a professional?

My first step was building a portfolio. At the time, it consisted of fanart illustrations to sell at a local convention, but I was able to get other work from there.

What are you working on right now? (Other than this project) What are you currently obsessed with?

I just finished a really big personal project–an 80-page book of sketches and paintings based on Japanese Folktales. I learned a lot from it, and now I am focused on improving my fundamentals. I have a long list of courses that I need to go through. I’m obsessed with leveling up.

Would you eat the moon if it were made of spare ribs?

I really like spare ribs but the Moon is pretty important. It regulates the oceans, so I don’t want to mess that up.

The Boy Who Drew Cats

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