Under a blood red sun, through the polluted fog, marches the demonic saint of pestilence, raising multiple clawed arms in triumph. A fevered nightmare? A vision of the apocalypse? For conceptual artist Keith Thompson of Ontario, Canada, it’s what he delivers on a deadline. A freelance artist, he sketched the creatures from last summer’s Pacific Rim, and will work with Guillermo Del Toro again as an art director on his upcoming film Pinocchio. His work can be seen in the characters and weapons of the video game Borderlands and Scott Westerfeld’s alternate history novel Leviathan.
With his motifs of sleeping titans, clanking iron and bolts, nozzles, armor and guns, Thompson turns to a bygone era for his inspiration. Re-imagining the frightening power of airplanes and poison gas as they were first witnessed in the First World War, the intimidation and danger of the roaring factory machines 19th-century workers must have felt at the dawn of the Industrial Age. “I love art from any culture that predates late industrialization. After the first World War, most things that hold any interest to me moved into commercial art and illustration.”
It all hearkens to a world old yet young – when modern technology began to take wing, but at the same time, the world was full of the wonder of what was yet to be discovered – Troy had only been recently unearthed. There was still the possibility of the existence of an Atlantis, of continents and civilizations unknown, not far from our reach. It is a world that seems to be the collective dream-realm of Goya and Sir John Tenniel, with shades of H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger.
The earliest images I can remember vividly are many of Arthur Rackham’s fairy tale illustrations and Patrick Woodroffe’s paintings and drawings. Some of my earliest memories are of drawn and painted images that captivated me. Before I went off to kindergarten my mother would take me to a small 19th century school house for little art workshops where I would paint my own invented zoology. In kindergarten I would use these grotesque fruit scented markers to make whole books of an imaginary bestiary and then take them to the teacher to bind with staples. I’d built up a little chemical reeking library by the end of the year.”
He never stopped building up his library, or collecting his specimens. “The time I spend thinking about the artwork can often be greater than the time spent actually making it. The nature of my living means I have to sometimes complete something in a day, other times I can get months. I pace around a lot, and often draw standing up. I’m never allowed to finish anything. My website and everything could be viewed as my ongoing work, and I’ll be fiddling with that until I croak. I’ll see when I finally get around to piecing it all together into a big book. They should all coexist in the same world along different time lines.”
In his work, Thompson sometimes feels not so much as an artist, but as a frustrated archaeologist trying to uncover a long forgotten empire. His sketches are not so much imagined as discovered. “I like it when people feel like they’ve visited another world or vision. I really sink into artwork and can find myself getting lost in it, so it’s important to me that I can make something experiential.” Each piece has its own story and history.
It is nearly impossible to not conjure up a story behind each of his frames, a quality that makes him reminiscent of a modern day William Blake who has devised his own mythology. “I try to do everything myself if possible (from design to writing to typography). Colours are strange and one of the more subjective elements of art. My eyes are sensitive to light and hues so I like things subdued and foggy. Some of my work has been described as crepuscular, which I think is nice.”
So where does it all happen and how much more of this world will we see? “I have my computer setup facing one wall, and a drawing desk on the opposite so I can flip back and forth between the two. A fireplace is at an adjoining face for the winter (it’s great to have the studio freezing cold with a single source of radiant heat). I need a lofty expanse to daydream, so the studio has a 20 foot ceiling. The walls are covered in reproductions of Parmigianinos, Hogarths, Goyas, Gericaults, Bruegels, and Bassell tapestries. My ideal workspace is an ancient overgrown ruin by the sea, overseen by birds under a grey sky. It’s like a trance.”
The description seems to conjure up the incensed thrones to strange gods that Lovecraft described in the bohemian lair of St. John and his companion, where the macabre aesthetics leap onto their canvases. “It’s tough to do in studio environments, and it’s tough to do in the day time. When I’m all alone and everyone nearby is asleep I can really sink into my work. There’s a lot of really fun stuff underway, and there’s going to be more occult themed things coming up in the near while.”