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The art of Dehong He

With Dehong He, fantasy art regains its purpose: he helps us grapple with the human condition by picturing a universe that’s rich with human meaning…

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Favourite artists:
Craig Mullins, Dusso, John Wallin Liberto
Current Location:
Jilin City, China
Average time per image: Between one week and one month

 Web: www.hdhcg.com

What makes the work of Dehong He compelling is that man has a meaningful role at the centre of a world alive with mythological significance. Whether it’s among the battling dragons or raging seas, there’s always a story to be gleaned, one with grand scale and human implications. “Fantasy,” he says, “gives me the biggest possible stage to work with. It’s as if you’re God, you can create a new world.”

Truth and beauty

“Everything seems true.” Dehong is talking about the need for fantasy art to retain a sense of coherence. Without this, the fantasy is lost and the image becomes something else – surreal, absurd or even just annoying. “When everything is in accordance, ” he explains, “It can be fantastic too.”
What’s needed is the ability to create a snapshot, taken at a decisive moment, in an alternative universe. But to do that you have to create another reality, one called forth only for the purpose of that snap. It’s weirdly elliptical; everything hinges on what kind of worlds you can call up. “But, of course, when the image is finished, it will make a deeper impression.”
This isn’t the first time Dehong has made a deep impression on people. “When I was seven I became a famous star in my town,” he recalls, telling the story with obvious pleasure. “I was very interested in some paintings my parents bought for new year.” They made such an impression on the youngster that he had no truck with the usual childhood pastimes: “I spent most of my time imitating them instead of playing.”
The paintings themselves were of “amazing stuff – beautiful ladies, Chinese dragons, deer, flowers, birds and peafowl”. Dehong’s parents backed their tiny artist all the way. “They stopped buying new year pictures, and just hung my paintings on the wall for new year.”
Naturally, the young star went on to study fine art at university; meanwhile, his tastes shifted towards fantasy art via comic books. “I did some work for a comic company when I was still in school” recalls Dehong. “After I graduated, I drew comics for a year.” Then it was over to games, where he began working as a concept artist.

Organic approach

Dehong began to notice his style developing, but promised himself never to interfere with this process. “I let it develop freely,” he says. “I liked comics, so my early works had an intense comic book style.” Subsequently, interest in CG has led the charge stylistically.
“I put my work’s quality and the themes which I express first,” Dehong explains. “Style comes second. With the passage of time, I think, my own style will emerge naturally.”
Dehong extends this organic approach to the creation of new work. So, for example, “When I created a new image I often forgot to use a set process.” Each image somehow found its own way from his head on to the screen. This has had consequences though. “Because I haven’t cultivated good habits in this respect, and I put all my energy into painting effects, I’ve neglected to develop a set process.” This has been brought home by his latest job: “I now have to care about setting processes on account that I’m producing a book about painting!”
One thing this artist won’t succumb to is the temptation of laziness. Preferring to broaden his skills rather than rely on those already acquired, “I often attempt to create a new image that’s different from previous ones, and which captures a new feeling.”
It’s a noble ambition, and one that requires perseverance. “Although it may be harder, it will give you a new enthusiasm and a sense of success,” adds Dehong enthusiastically. “To draw a new story, study a new colour, a new texture or painting skill – these are the privileges of the artist.”

Storytelling skill

Another privilege is that of telling stories. Not every artist likes to do so, but Dehong relishes it. “Almost all my images have a story,” he emphasises. Partly as a motivator and a guide, the story acts as a substructure around which the artist then builds an image.
The story itself is the seed: “It may be partly from my former work in comics. Some of them are long, some of short.” The main thing is that they inspire the artist. “I always think over a theme and a story to express before I create a new image,” insists Dehong. “It’s helpful when organising the tableau – everything can be derived from that central theme.”
Dehong sees no contradiction in then taming his narrative flame by adding: “Some images are only used to express the texture or action for figure designs.” And in a way that’s what’s important – just going with the flow. Not in a complacent way, but rather feeling the direction things are going and really leaning into it.

Life is art

The underlying message Dehong wants to convey is this: “Art comes originally from life.” Inspiration may come from games, films or comics but, “If you observe everything around you, you’ll find that you can freely imagine a small story and a tableau based on them.”
That leads to the often divisive question of visual reference. For a comic book artist, Dehong finds himself on the wrong side of the fence: “A person’s memory is so limited that he cannot remember all the details of everything,” he says. Reference is essential.
Even if you’re not working out a story, the real world should be closely observed for its textures and structures. “Usually,” says Dehong, “I like collecting pictures from the internet. First, I collect the textures that I would like to draw. Next, I’ll combine them and study them.” And then there are the past masters: “I often look at traditional oil paintings of the famous artists and try to figure out their way of handling things.” Most problems aren’t original, only the solutions are.

Global connections

This lesson is something China is finding out at this moment in time, making conditions far from ideal for artists. “China is not a very good place for illustrators” says Dehong. “But it is a place developing at full speed.”
Most Chinese illustrators depend on game developers for a stable income, and after that comes books and animation: it’s a bit like a creative Wild West. There’s one important difference though: the internet has been there from the start. “We are in a big country,” observes Dehong, “but the internet shortens the distance between us.”
“In my daydreams,” the artist goes on, “I often want to write my own plays, direct films and create games.” As China continues to barrel into the future, its artists will be carried along for good or bad. The fact that they have lines of communication open and can therefore support and encourage one another will enable artists such as Dehong to imagine more freely.

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