When Justin Sweet picks up a paint brush, he’s preparing for a voyage of discovery: “I really don’t know where I’m going when I start a piece,” he says. But that’s okay, because he has a general plan of action: “I just kind of have an idea in my mind, a feeling, and I sort of chase that feeling.” Like a creative bloodhound, one sniff of a concept and he’s off across the fantastical moors.
In other fields, this admittedly ‘organic’ approach might be considered a hindrance, but for a fantasy artist it’s the source of rare magic. It’s what defines the genre: “You get to make everything up.” There are no guidelines: “You’re the god of a new world.” And if it’s your world, you’re not lost, you’re just having fun.
It was through comic books that Justin first got into art. “It was the 1970s,” he recalls, “and I collected John Buscema.” But it wasn’t Buscema’s take on the slick Marvel superheroes that caught this youngster’s imagination. No, it was the likes of Conan, Tarzan and the Hulk, “guys that didn’t really have a superpower, but were just tough guys”.
This tendency towards visceral subjects and pursuits found its first outlet in junior high where Justin and a friend started to create their own role-playing game. They called it ‘Treasures and Traps’. “We played D&D and that kind of thing,” explains Justin, “and we tended to draw our characters.” And after pausing for recollection, White Tiger gets special mention. “I drew him a lot when I was a kid.”
He may have been a favourite but White Tiger didn’t have the legs for it and he soon gave way to a new icon, American football player, Earl Campbell. “He was my biggest hero when I was a kid,” says Justin. “He was this big running back. His whole style was to just run people
over.” And for the next six years, all the former role-playing pencil jockey could think about was running somebody over, just like Earl did.
Flattening opponents like an out of control juggernaut was beyond Justin’s weight class, but he did make some progress. “I began to figure out what it meant to be aggressive, what it meant not to hesitate, and I think I’ve brought that with me through the rest of my career and my art,” he says. If something catches him, “it gets every bit of blood in me.”Cowboys and Indians
By the time our errant football star began applying to colleges, painting was back on the agenda. Not being one for too much rigidity in his routine, Justin opted for fine art and found a school with the kind of course where, “you could pretty much go in there and paint whenever you wanted”.
This was lucky because in those early days Justin had a clear picture of what he wanted to paint: Indians throwing tomahawks. Unfortunately, the bottom had dropped out of the whole cowboys and Indians market so Justin found himself going straight into video games. Over the next five years Justin began to develop an interest in spontaneity and mood, as a creative counterpoint to his enjoyment of a good old-fashioned dust up.
“Most of the stuff you do as a concept artist isn’t really finished” explains Justin, “so my style was always quick and spontaneous.” For this, digital was the perfect medium because it has the advantage of immediacy, but, as Justin points out, “it can be like eating a meal and never getting full.”
Justin’s ideal involves a cross-over between media: “My better digital stuff,” he says, “is sort of like watercolour in a way, because it has that same quick and rushed control to it.” Balance is everything: “When you mix spontaneity with deliberateness in the right balance it can really…” The word is ‘transcend’, but Justin doesn’t say it because he’s thinking about it. “It’s a difficult one to talk about,” he says finally. “I could paint about it though.” And so he does.Soul seeker
Capturing these two seemingly divergent elements gives Justin’s images a rare power, like trapping something living in amber. This is never truer than when you’re painting character: “You want to get the soul in there.” It’s not just a checklist of traits and gestures but real mood and feeling that’s the goal. “I struggle with that,” admits Justin. “I know when I get it and I know when I miss it.” Neither outcome is entirely at the command of any artist.
The semi-autonomous, inspirational nature of art can leave its Earth-bound conduits (artists) asking themselves that endlessly difficult question: is it finished yet? Justin firmly believes that there’s little you can do when this occurs. “The problem is you’re wanting to change something because you’re tired of it, when in fact maybe it wasn’t so bad.” It just wasn’t inspired by the gods. It wasn’t one of those occasions when, “you hit something that sparks and you just feel it”.
Justin leads with his intuition, searching not so much for the right expression for his pirate or embattled hero, but for some internal nature. What the philosophers call haecceity – that which defines an individual. That this happens in commercial art is inspiring, “It’s one of my favourite things,” nods Justin, “if I can really ‘get’ a main character.” It’s what makes art exciting. “I care about that more than anything else – more than rendering the whole thing out or anything.” This is what it’s all about: “getting that feeling right”. Drawing some thread of connection between that world and this.