The art of Hoang Nguyen

A talented and versatile artist, Hoang Nguyen was born in Vietnam, August 1966. Before his tenth birthday, he moved to the US, where he eventually landed a job with Dark Horse comics. Now he works for EA.


Marcel Proust believed that art could be used as a key to unlock memories hidden from our recollections. Hoang Nguyen is coming round to the same conclusion. “Lately, I like to paint pictures that capture a certain mood or an emotional state, usually someone in deep thought or sadness,” he says.
Currently working as a character modeller at Electronic Arts, Hoang’s previous incarnations include illustrator and comic book artist. His daydreams are filled with one question: “How I can paint all day and travel the world, absorbing all the different cultures, taking pictures and documenting places that I’ve been to?”
Hoang’s personal work, recently
collected in a hardbound edition, reveals an amazing imagination twinned with a great insight into what makes art reach into our heads and draw out something special.

Always Brooding
Born and raised in Vietnam during the war, Hoang’s family migrated to the US when he was nine. “I remember seeing tanks and military jeeps rolling down the street,” he says. It’s amazing what you get used to, though: “Except for the bombing raids at night, life went on as normal.”
To some extent, we are our memories – in this sense, Hoang has a very rich, interesting perspective. “When I was in high school and through my college days, my paintings were very dark and violent. I was always brooding,” he says. But an artist makes sense of the world through his work and Hoang’s underlying view of the world eventually asserted itself. “Now all I want to do is paint flowers!” he laughs.
Sensitivity is essential if your artwork is to engage with its viewer at all; this is true whether you paint flowers or fighting robots. Hoang works on another level too. He manages to capture the feeling of recollection, to be simply evocative without forcing a particular story on you. This is a strange talent. “It might have something to do with the birth of my two sons,” he speculates. “They’re the biggest joy in my life.”

Feeling of place
Though he started his professional career as a comic book artist, Hoang has a fine appreciation of vintage, of how time and repeated viewing can add meaning to an object. Things that have endured have something special. “There are certain qualities about them that you can’t replace,” he explains. “I’ll look at something old and wonder how people lived before, what it was like and how time has passed.”
Hoang rolls such objects around to feel the memories they are holding. “Every piece of a thing, every object can be traced back to someone or someplace.” Doing this gives you an inside out picture of a things, but this can be a difficult experience. “Nowadays, lots of buildings and high-rises are popping up and I feel that they don’t really have a soul; it’s all too sterile.”
It’s all about the grease under the fingernails of life for Hoang. He’s looking for the details that tell the story, such as a torn photo on a dirty newspaper. “These memories are reflected in my paintings. Tendencies to hold on to the past.” It’s natural that this type of thing will lead to introspection: “Maybe I’m just getting old...”

“As a little kid I started out with a piece of chalk and eventually grabbed on to anything I could find. I’d draw on walls, chalkboards, and anything else I could draw on. Mostly it was doodles and chicken scratches but my love was always comics.” Despite this, when going to college, Hoang had set his sights on architecture.
Unfortunately, this plan had a serious flaw. “My mathematics wasn’t going any further than pluses and minuses.” So he switched to illustration, which made more sense. “As a little kid I would spend most
of my time copying or creating my own comics. Creating all sorts of characters
and their scenarios. At high school I experimented with colour, chalk, acrylic, oils and watercolours, anything I could get my hands on.”
Pocket money was precious: “All the money I could save up went toward buying art supplies.” At this point Hoang started to paint, sometimes producing three canvasses a month, and rapidly built up a portfolio. “Then, after seeing Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo’s work, I decided that this was the career that I would pursue. I wanted to be a cover artist and to this day it’s still a dream of mine,” he says.

A fervent believer in daydreaming, Hoang has a story about the power of persistence. “When I was in high school, all I wanted was to become a comic book artist. Every summer, I’d spend most of my time creating my own comics.”
Nothing else mattered: “I didn’t care about money; all I wanted was to do what I loved the most. So in my senior year of high school, I told my dad I wanted to go to New York and work for Marvel.” Mr Nguyen realised that resistance was futile. “My poor dad probably didn’t have the heart to say no, so he took me up to the Big Apple.” Big brother came along for moral support.
On arrival, the Nguyen men headed straight for Marvel HQ: “I told the receptionist that I wanted to see Jim Shooters.” The then editor-in-chief was unavailable. “What a dumbass!” laughs Hoang. “I had no clue; I thought you could just drop in and ask to see whomever.” Fortunately, the receptionist was kind-hearted, so she checked with the submissions editor who suggested Hoang leave his portfolio. This had all the hallmarks of a brush with a stony and uncaring world.
 “I was pissed off. It had been a long journey. I told her that I’d come all the way from Virginia, but it didn’t help. I went home and feeling so tired and disappointed I almost gave up.” A week later Hoang called up the editor. “He gave me a nice speech and rejection letter and told me to keep trying.” Moral of the story? “Never give up. Five years later I got my break.”

After graduating as an illustration major, Hoang went to work at a design shop, doing advertising work. He stayed there a full five years. “Must have been the free beer every Friday! I can’t believe I stayed so long.” After that came comics. “I sent out tons of submissions and got a lot of rejection letters. But persistence ruled the day. I got my first gig with Dark Horse working on a RoboCop movie adaptation.”
Next up was DC comics. “They were trying to bring back those old characters from the past. A gallant attempt, but it fell by the wayside.” Then Marvel came calling and Hoang got to work on Carl Potts’s Alien Legion. “That series was so much fun.” And while he was at the Marvel office, it made sense to show a few people his portfolio: “That’s how I got in touch with the Punisher editors. It didn’t take long to convince them to let me have a stab at it.”
Hoang is proud of this latest work for Marvel. “Granted the anatomy is horrible, but there were some really dynamic and fore-shortened camera shots.” Malibu came next, but after just nine months the company went belly up and Hoang left comics behind. It’s just as well, he muses, because: “If I was working on a comic today it would take me forever to finish. I over-analyse everything.”

Without that habit however, there would be no progress. “Mostly I try to work on my weak areas,” says Hoang. “The tendency is to fall back on something we’re familiar with, so I like to experiment and go out of my comfort zone.”
As for style, this is something that just evolves over the years, never fully coming to rest. But, Hoang is quick to add, “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get comfortable with my techniques and style.”
A significant factor in Hoang’s work is the fact that he rarely produces just ‘a picture of X’ – there’s usually more to it than that. “Composition is important, mainly because I’m doing a lot more paintings. Years ago when I was working on comics, there really wasn’t time to think or make an effort, since the deadlines were so tight.” But when the opportunity presents itself, an artist should take his time.
“It’s a process of deciding what it is that I want to convey and how I can draw the viewer into my world. As time goes by you begin to see improvement. You look back on your work and think ‘those works were awful’, but it’s the experiences that you can’t replace. Mistakes are a great way to learn: the road to improvement is paved with will, persistence and the passion for art.”