Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Billy Norrby is one more reason the Swedes are the best. He’s also the living proof that you can do anything you set your mind and ambition to. Billy started out as a game designer in Stockholm, but within a few short years he became a painting master in NYC, without ever having painted in his life! His hyper-realistic style is reminiscent of the Neo-Raphaelites or John Singleton Copley’s famous painting of a man overboard about to be eaten by a shark, “Watson and the Shark”. All of his images depict the second right before or after some major shit went down. Ray sat down with Billy this week to talk about the creative process, moving to America, and how you never know how great you can be at something until you try.
BILLY NORRBY: I’m from Stockholm, Sweden.
SHANON WELTMAN: I knew it.
BN: I’ve lived here for awhile now, but the accent is definitely there, if y’know where to look for it.
RJ: When did you move?
BN: 2006. I came here as a student, SVA was my entry ticket to the states.
RJ: First question: Life overseas. What was your very first freelance gig? Did you start freelancing when you were back home?
BN: No, I started out in the videogame industry. I was hired just after high school… I started out game testing, which basically is like the lowest type of intern at a videogame company that was working very closely with Sega of europe at the time. I started as a game tester and quickly moved on to storyboarding and game design, which basically meant that I sat in a room and was one of the guys that kind of figured out how the game would play essentially. With drawing, sketching, arrows, documents… basically, how high does the character jump? How many bullets are in the gun? How does the enemy behave? A game theorist essentially, or whatever you want to call it. That was my first real job, which was maybe more than I was expecting at 18, so I ended up staying there for 5 years. Which is kind of one of the main reasons why I moved to the states at the time I did. The plan was always to study, get a higher education after high school, but having landed my dream job sooner than I expected I got stuck there. When Sega went downhill and Dreamcast folded, my company crashed and burned at the same time. I was kind of left with a choice. I’m 25… am I going to pursue an education? Because at that point I wasn’t drawing at all or painting. I’d been doing it for years, I’d become like an office guy, writing documents, going to meetings. I could sort of feel my childhood ambition for drawing and painting kind of slipping away, so I did some soul searching. I decided if I was going to go from being a paid worker to like a poor student, it has to be at an interesting location at least. So New York it was.
RJ: Just curious, when you were working at the gaming company, what games did you work on?
BN: I worked on five projects, but only two of them materialized. They were called “Headhunter” 1 and 2. it was a short lived franchise. There were a couple of other projects that never saw the light of day. Making games is not the quickest thing, you’ll spend like two and a half years working on the same thing. Working at a company like that with professionals, even though the imagery I do is not too similar to what was going on as a team effort, having seen what it’s like to work at a company like that and being a cog in a bigger machine has certainly made the individualistic or solitary lifestyle of the artist more attractive. Like I already got my taste. One of the things I realized when you’re working at a company with 50 or 200 people, whatever, you’ll only get so much say. You will only get to influence the product so much and as a team effort. You’re only one person in the choir. If you really want to do something that’s more personal… by yourself… you have to do it, essentially. It was very influential as a 18 year old, clueless, getting to work with people like 10-15 years older, I started to get my first inclination of taste. Also, working with screenwriters…
One of the guys that was kind of influential was a screenwriter called Philip Lawrence, who had written a bunch of movies and now we had hired him to write a script for the videogame. He had me analyse action movies, or read action scripts. He was one of the first people who really got me to think of how things are structured, y’know the thematic basis of different works are. Symbols, even if it was stuff like, “Die Hard”. Hans Gruber clutching at the Rolex just before he falls out the window, what does that say about his character? Just growing up a fanboy, I never really thought about the non direct storytelling that takes place in movies like that. In a very crude fashion, that was kind of the start of the fine art thinking. How do I express an idea in a non-direct manner. A symbolic manner. Making me gravitate towards work with a narrative, storytelling in a way that is complex and multi-layered.
RJ: So you were drawing before you became a game tester?
BN: Yeah yeah as a kid I was always drawing, never painting, only drawing. Art education in Sweden is getting better, but it was severely lacking, it was like a modernist hellhole? They don’t teach any rudimentary drawing skills whatsoever, any level, essentially. All of the artists that were working at that company, none of them had gone through any art education whatsoever back home. They were all self-taught. So for me, learning how to draw and paint really well was almost like a super power. You either went to Russia to do it or the United States or down to Italy. I was basically weighing Russia, which felt a little off… it was either the States or Italy. But I felt a closer cultural connection to New York and at least knew what that was from movies and growing up, but not so much about the day to day though. Plus I kinda got the impression that Italy, even though you could find amazing atelier and learn how to paint and what not, I didn’t get the impression of the same type of job opportunities there. Coming from a pop culture background growing up, never painting, always drawing: I was coming from a background where you were drawing spaceships and aliens and stuff like that. Painting hadn’t entered my mind at all. If you’re into that type of stuff, then its like London or NY or LA, because that’s where that shit comes from essentially. I did a little bit of freelancing when my company was down in the dumps or as it was going down in flames, I did some rudimentary illustrations for newspapers back home.
RJ: What motivated that transition from gaming to painting? What knowledge has carried over from gaming to your aesthetic as a painter?
BN: When I started in SVA, I was still steeped in pop culture illustration mindset. I was going to become a concept artist or something like that. I was going to work for a studio or I was going to become a comic book artist or animator essentially. And I had a really bad drawing teacher and a really good painting teacher… so the first year, my drawing wasn’t progressing that much. I wasn’t really getting much out of those classes. But I was getting a lot of painting classes. For some reason, since I’d never met anyone who was really good at painting before– all the guys at the office before were really good at drawing– and I never painted before growing up, looking at paintings: I had no idea how they were made. Looking at drawings I could understand. A nice drawing kind of looked like what was in a sketchbook only nicer, whereas a painting if you don’t know anything about painting and see James Gurney or Frank Frazetta or whatever, you have no idea how it was made. I was under the impression that if you wanted to become a good painter you had to start when you were 7 or 8, and then I was taking these classes and I started to realize, anyone can learn to paint really. That changed my mindset a little bit. Then I started to re-evaluate the type of artwork I wanted to do. My initial plan was alright, I’m going to learn traditional painting technique and then I’m going to switch to digital… soon. As I was falling in love with the materials and the brushes, working on canvas, the sort of tangible realness of that, I kept putting off the switch. ‘Next semester I’m switching to digital…’ And I just couldn’t do it. It just felt so hollow after working with something you could hold and grasp and touch. When I was in school of course, 2008 happened… the whole crash, I got the impression that the illustration business sort of hollowed out?
RJ: It definitely did.
BN: Yeah yeah, and being more caught up in painting, I started to hangout with painters and fine artists. I was introduced to the gallery world or the pop-surreal art scene, which is kind of the entry point for a lot of figurative painters that come from an illustration background. Towards the end of the school period I was in a tricky spot, because I had a portfolio that had one foot in the illustration world and one foot in the fine art world to sort of try to cater to both, which is a really bad idea. You kind of end up with something that’s not either one of them really, y’know? But a year before I graduated I was picked up by a gallery and started to show my work there. That made the choice easier. Nothing had happened yet on the illustration front, but I already had an in to the gallery scene. So that’s where it kind of took off a little bit. I had my first show at Copro shortly after I graduated and I did well. Beyond the whole material switch from going from pencil to brush or digital to traditional technique, a bigger hurdle is the mental thing, it’s like if you were ever intent on being an illustrator and doing book covers with wizards and stuff like that, to do fine art is like a whole other way of doing storytelling really. Its like studying to be a copywriter and then being told to do poetry all of a sudden? It’s like an ongoing process of …tearing of hair, just to figure out how to approach fine art, especially if it’s not something that I was steeped in growing up. My heroes were illustrators, painters and comic book artists and movie makers, not fine artists. So there’s been a lot of figuring out and catching up to do in the years since. Just trying to define what fine art is for a person like me and how to approach it. Which is why the first couple of paintings I did after college until now, there’s been a gradual shift. Sort of just figuring out exactly what it is I want to do. It’s going from “What are the fantasies/ narratives I want to create?” to “What is it I want to express?”, y’know really get to the core of it. Which has been a little scary too, because it’s very therapeutic as well, you kind of have to face yourself a little bit, or become a lot more introspective than I ever intended on being.
RJ: Yeah, you can’t make some authentic unless you’re completely being…
BN: Yeah, it was a little tricky at first, because ah… you know, you studied illustration too, when you do that, you’re told to approach it kind of like it’s a problem to solve? Like here’s the assignment, solve it. So when I first got the “You’re getting a solo show.”, what I did first was to approach it like I had been given a series of illustration. Alright, problem? Show. Solve it. And that kind of mindset isn’t ideal if you’re trying to do an honest body of work or something that’s kind of you, y’know? What I was trying to do initially was to find some type of imagery that, A) would be my excuse for fine art and B) somehow would let me play with the visual elements I enjoy painting, and somehow make that fit into a fine art scene.
The first series I did was all based on riots and demonstrations, coming from an entertainment, sci-fi background, whatever. In that background you have a lot of drama, action, horses and smoke, knights, whatever. I was looking at the elements that were in demonstrations and riots, you have cops on horseback that look sort of like knights, you have the flags and banners of the demonstrators, you have the bouncing can of tear gas, that almost look like, if you squint, King Arthur. Again, looking at what other painters were doing and what my friends were doing in the art scene, a lot of the artwork they were doing seemed very concerned with environmental issues. Like animals or destruction of the forest, and two frequent kind of news stories I would see when looking through the news were either environmental concerns, global warming, etc or demonstrations. At the time there was a lot of fighting of G8, NJ20, I thought, that’s an interesting subject matter, riots. That whole language of imagery. As I was looking around I didn’t see a lot of other artists dealing with that subject matter. When I was almost done with the series, Occupy Wall Street and The Arab Spring started to go off, so some of my friends were congratulating me on the perfect timing? I was actually a bit more concerned with those types of images all of a sudden thrown in the spotlight, thrown into the forefront. That subject matter became deadly serious all of a sudden. I was added by a couple of hundred egyptians all of a sudden and I was getting emails from anarchist groups. Young Arabs asking me and telling me, there were fliers swirling around in Cairo with some of my images on it.
RJ: What?? That’s amazing.
BN: It had me a little spooked. Am I really an activist artist? Is this really who I am? Am I really speaking for these issues? I felt a little bit like if I don’t go all in, given the seriousness of the matter, then maybe I should “stop being a tourist”? So, I gently backed off from the subject matter, even though it was certainly “now” or contemporary. Timing was very good for getting me out there quickly, in the spotlight as a new artist.
RJ: What lessons have you learned from SVA or continued to learn after SVA?
BN: You will probably agree Ray, being in NY I’ve learned as much or more after I graduated. It’s like an ongoing thing, especially if you’re in Brooklyn. You’re directly in a pretty big artist community, with many of the people I actually met at SVA, continuing to hangout with the amazing artists on a daily basis. With all their experience, you learn a lot. When you graduate you also start to move around, start to meet people, start to go to other cities, meet editors, meet gallery owners and directors… you get to see a whole bunch of stuff. You also see stuff that doesn’t directly relate to technique or drawing skills or whatever they’re pushing in a school environment. It’s a lot, I’m very grateful that I’ve spent the last couple of years after school in a place as vibrant and diverse as NY where I’ve gotten to learn from these amazing artists over the last couple of years. It’s been just as satisfying, just as deep and knowledge dense as any class at SVA.
RJ: I think they do a good job preparing you, then there’s that whole chunk of interpersonal people psychology that you experience right after..
BN: Yeah and that’s part of the joy and process of being here.
RJ: What parts of your daily routine allow you to create great work?
BN: I haven’t found any of that yet [laughs] …does making coffee count?
RJ: [Laughs] Yeah, why not. What’s the average day? Or night?
BN: Really it depends on what time of year we’re talking, days are quite different from each other if it’s just before or just after a show. I can’t keep a steady schedule. Once or twice a month I completely turn the day around and I go to bed at 10 in the morning, wake up at 8 at night. And I keep doing that. I have… no internal clock whatsoever, which might have something to do with the gallons of coffee I digest every day. I very easily go into like total recluse mode when I’m under stress. Creating great work is more about just getting the hours in there, I don’t have like a magic routine. I don’t go up on the rooftop and look at the sun or do anything to prepare myself. We have a great library here; I’m constantly flipping through books, trying to get the juices going. The only way I know to make a painting good is to keep going at it until it looks good. Its very non-glamourous. Every day I get when working or painting, 2/3’s of the process feels like your job, like you’re not particularly enjoying it. You might as well be shoveling coal or something, but then there’s the sweet spot of the day when you’re really feeling it. The brush is kind of just moving and you’re feeling inspired. You’re not pushing or working against yourself, your technique is really starting to click. But you kind of have to work yourself towards that spot? I wish I could just turn that on, but I just know it will happen. If I’m working on a big painting for instance, I know that the first couple hours working on it, I will suck until I get going, so I try to work on non-essential stuff like the background or whatever. Then when I find a sweet spot, usually later in the day — 10 in the evening to 4 in the morning or whatever, when I’m at my BEST. That’s when I move on and work on the hands and faces, the really complex elements of the painting that require me to be really sharp. It’s a slog, but it’s also fun. There’s like an ebb and flow each day. I don’t have any magic tricks, I’d love to learn a few though. [Laughs] Not a very structured guy.
RJ: Your non-structure sounds pretty structured…
BN: [Laughs] It’s just… you get started, there’s a 10 hour stretch, 2 or 3 of those will be awesome, the rest will be like your rusty and creaky. That’s the way it works for me.
RJ: Alright. We’re on the last question… Terminator or Robocop?
BN: [Laughs] That’s something that comes up often. That’s really difficult! I’ll have to say Robocop.
RJ: [Laughs] Why Robocop? Is it the world? Is it his spirit?
BN: I like his nihilistic Dutch…..well, not nihilistic. The satirical, European bend to it. I’ll have to go with Robocop. Even though I absolutely adore the first Terminator.