In her piece Spiderweb City, digital artist Rylen depicts the repeated design of high rise apartment complexes above the boxed roofs of a crowded city at dusk. Crossing overhead, taut power cables divide the cityscape. She colors the landscape in the soft pastels of a living dream.
As specific to her home as this piece may be, she layers a tone of heightened fantasy over it all. The viewer can hear the evening rumble of the city. Taste the cold mist in the air. Spiderweb City is Rylen’s city but it is also yours, and it is mine.
Her catalog of work is a testament to writer as visual artist, to the written word as impetus for world creation. At times, Rylen’s final pieces are text boxes illustrated to live on a ’90s PC monitor. Then, the next piece will feed off the first, the narrative evolving but also talking to itself in dialogue.
An academically trained painter, Rylen has the skillset to craft realist landscapes but has found her way into digital art, choosing to exist inside of the computer meaning: her process begins in pixels and ends in pixels, art without a tangible artifact.
CJ: Your work takes the visual language specific to 16-bit video games – more detail than the 8-bit but offers a strict set of rules for creating. The pieces in Dream Journal and especially Infinite Money showcase your incredible painterly style. Is there a reality, or honesty, that one style offers over the other? Does the concept and style go hand in hand?
RY: I’d say that in my personal art I combine a limited set of ideas that I think about all the time with a variety of visual styles, just because I’ve enjoyed pretty much the same things for my whole life, but I also get bored if I have to repeat the same process over and over. If you look at my earlier art from university and then things like Infinite Money or DELETE you’ll see a line connecting them.
There are certain things that I genuinely want to draw all the time. I love drawing spaces, preferably ones that feel a little weird, lonely melancholic ones. These days there’s a term liminal spaces but I’ve been gathering pictures of places like that for as long as I can remember, long before I heard the term. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in spaces like that. Late night buses, empty shopping malls, gas stations, neon signs that don’t work properly or have letters missing.. It’s the reality of small town life and I love it more than anything in the world. I love drawing computers and other technology and things inspired by retro sci-fi because I used to watch ’80s and ’90s sci-fi movies as a kid. I also love a kind of lighthearted gothic things like early Tim Burton films, I like skeletons, bats, old castles, overgrown ruins, stuff like that. It’s a childish fascination with dark fairy tales and horror stories but I suppose it’s also a way for me to have a safe space to confront mortality and fear as an adult. All these topics and influences create a strange mix but somehow it all coexists in absolute harmony in my head.
As for visual style, I do enjoy experimenting with it. My personal art journey took me everywhere: from black and white graphic work of my teenage years to oil painting and academic realism that I was taught in art university and then back again to flat graphic style and even pixel art. And I always pick up something new along the way. It’s a development of taste, vision and personal voice. I went from trying to capture the physical reality of things to capturing my personal view of them. Maybe I’ll drift towards abstraction later on, maybe I’ll get back to a more painterly style, one can never know where this journey of learning and self-discovery will lead in the future!
Your work explores the idea of memory – the methods of recording and saving of moments. Ghost is very direct. The piece includes text that explains itself, as where a piece like Web of Thoughts is not so direct. Does creating art centered around memory help to make them more concrete for you? What draws you to the exploration of memory?
The question of memory is an interesting one. I have a bad memory. It’s perfect when it comes to work things, but outside of work I forget everything. Events, conversations, birthdays, it all just gets lost. But I never journal or anything like that. Memories stay with me like pictures, I can never remember the exact sequences of events but I do get those short vivid flashes, visuals and my own thoughts and feelings about them. But the more you play a memory in your head the more it turns from a memory into a fantasy and you build a mythology of your life in your own mind. I find it fascinating. What stays in my memory seems random, but I can choose what to make an emphasis on or how to feel about it after some time passes. I choose a story of my life to tell myself, of who I am, who I was and where I’m going, and it evolves constantly. It’s not something I share with anyone, it’s just for me to enjoy and reflect upon.
I’m also very prone to nostalgia. It has to do with mental health issues I suppose and continuous search for safety. Present can be dull or painful, future is scary and not something I like to think of most days. But the golden past is always here to offer some solace. The past is familiar, it already happened and I can hide in the cozy comfort of knowing all about it. I’ve always felt that time moves too fast, even as a child, and that life is just a very brief moment. I’d love to linger in it a little longer. It’s hard for me to accept the passage of time and the change that comes with it. Even though I prefer dwelling in fantasies rather than memories, but I still sometimes dream of reliving the past. Not to change it, just to go through it all again and see places that no longer exist and feel things I no longer feel.
The style of pieces like Games and Home Alone feel like moments from 16-bit video games – there’s a clarity of shape beyond common 8-bit art, but not as smooth and polished as modern digital art allows you to be. The technology binds your work to the ‘90s. They read as nostalgia, a love letter to the first tech of video games and PCs. Is that the era of your childhood? What attracts you to that generation?
I’m an early ’90s kid. I grew up in a place that was reached by modern technology with a delay but also in a kinda tech obsessed family. I didn’t have things like Game Boy or PlayStation in my childhood but my family did have a PC, not a lot of people I knew did. I’d say my cultural experiences were a mix of those that ’80s and ’90s American kids had so I can relate to both generations. So of course it’s nostalgia and trying to return to happy days of my childhood.
I’ve been playing with computers since I could hold a mouse and I vividly remember that I didn’t just want to play games, I wanted to create using technology. I’d always draw in MS Paint or type some stories, it felt different than scribbling in my notebooks, more exciting. I remember a black and white version of MS Paint (or maybe it wasn’t even called it back then), I even remember pre-Windows days. I still think that chunky square designs of the ’80s and ’90s are much more stylish that today’s sleek and thin devices. Nothing is more boring than minimalism and white color to me. I could say the same about game dev. I’ve always been a gamer but I mostly abandoned AAA titles because for me personally playing an interactive photorealistic movie isn’t particularly interesting, these days I prefer indie games. I think technical limitations and small budgets forced people to be more creative with what they had. So I’d say that childhood awe I had for tech overall and tech as a creative tool was probably a basis for what I’m doing today. And also a big influence on forming my personal aesthetics.
With the love of old technology I was wondering if you’re using current art software or vintage ones to match the era of your work?
I only use iPad and Procreate these days but it’s a dream of mine to use vintage tech in my work and to have a small museum of old computers at home. Sadly it’s just not possible at the moment but who knows how things will change in the future! I’d really love to create some art in early Paint, there are some emulators online and they’re fun but working on a real PC like the one I had as a kid would elevate this experience to a whole new level.
You take an interesting approach to marketing your work – you barely do it at all. You’ll share a piece on Twitter once or twice, but then you rely on word of mouth. This is the opposite of what most NFT creators do, which is constant promotion, working towards engagement. Is this an approach you set on at the start of your art career?
You mentioned the start of a career, but I’ve been an artist long before NFTs and I will be one even if I won’t be able to do NFT stuff anymore. And maybe entering this space as a more experienced artist and just a more mature person in general is a blessing because I’m consciously choosing ways to present my art to the public that don’t contradict the work I create and aren’t damaging to my mental health. I don’t do traditional marketing for one simple reason: I don’t want to. I’ve always known that I need much less human interaction than most people I know. I’m not a misanthrope, I genuinely like almost everyone I meet, but interacting even with the most wonderful people drains me and leads to burnout. But even if I don’t need praise or engagement on an emotional level, I still need some on a practical level, I don’t have any grand goals career-wise but I have to sell things to be able to pay my bills. This led me to developing my own technique that’s not as damaging to my mental health as traditional social media use but still seems to work (magically).
A lot of what I write on social media is a part of the worlds I create, not my direct thoughts. I have no interest in sharing my personality or events of my life with an audience. But I suppose we’re so used to a narrative of a person wishing to be seen that we don’t even assume someone wants to stay hidden, and not for any malicious purpose, just because their personality is like that. Things I write in captions for my work on social media aren’t usually describing my experiences, they’re mostly something I use to create a certain feeling to accompany the artwork. But I’ve had some people assume it’s me, the artist, always talking about my real life. Still, I never bother to confirm or deny. I find that this involuntary mystification fits my visuals and storytelling style really well. Is this marketing? In a weird way it may be, just not the traditional type. But it still works to attract exactly the kind of audience I’m interested in. I have wonderful people in my audience, very thoughtful, deep and respectful.
How did your collectors find you? I know that’s the hardest part for artists — finding anyone to buy.
It is extremely difficult! And the most exhausting thing with social media is that previous “success” doesn’t not guarantee future “success”. I go from 600 likes on a post to 6 likes, then maybe to 20 and then back to 5, not exaggerating. Same quality of art, same style, similar topic. That’s why I take the word success in quotes, it’s not real success, just dumb luck.
I’m not sure how exactly my collectors find me, it surprises me every time. I became friends with a few but for the most part I prefer to limit our interactions to polite thank you tweets and maybe short conversations in the comments. Although I have this huge warm feeling of gratitude towards each of my collectors, but I want them to have their own stories with my art, not with me personally. So I suppose it’s the same dumb luck. I just try to create things I enjoy myself and then just put them out there. And the key is that then I repeat that over and over, no matter how much attention any particular thing gets, I’ll always make another one and another one. I’m incredibly stubborn. Maybe this magic luck will run out and no one will ever buy anything from me ever again, but in that case I’ll still keep creating the same things. Just a lot less of them though, since I’d have to look for other ways to make a living. So hopefully that day never comes!
You used to have prints of your work available online, but that shop recently shut down. What prompted you to stop offering prints?
I don’t think this is going to be a very interesting thing to discuss, the only reason I did prints before was because there were no NFTs. I never really wanted to have it in the first place. I’ve always preferred digital art over physical but there were no real ways to sell digital art before. And I stubbornly tried to make that dream of being an independent artist come true so my only hope was to get big on social media and sell prints. I closed my print shop this year. Trying to sell prints was the only way to make money as an indie artist back then, not that I made any real money from it. Just didn’t work for me, it’s funny how you can be a small artist in the NFT community and still sell your work but to sell prints you need at least 10k followers and I never got anywhere near those numbers. Plus I had a rule of not selling my 1/1 NFTs as prints, seemed more fair towards collectors. And with no new art being added to the print shop there was not much point to keep it alive. I had it for two years I think, maybe more, and barely made $300 from it. Then again, I used to live on like $100 most months during my Instagram artist days…so God bless NFTs.
I love the story unfolding in Infinite Money. The title seems to ask, “what would you do with infinite money?” with the answer being – create more art. Each of your pieces acts as a short visual poem. Are you writing the story as you go, or is each fully formed before you begin?
Visual poetry is exactly what my art is in my opinion. I have a poetic worldview and I see everything as a story, including my own mundane daily life. I’ve heard from multiple people that even in private conversations I speak in the same manner I write descriptions for my art. I write the way I think and my visuals are the way I see and interpret the world around me so it’s a natural process. Like a continuation of my thoughts in a visual form. I’d say I have a very text-oriented mind. During my childhood and teenage years, literature was the most important form of art for me, both prose and poetry, and of course, it affected the way I think. I can conjure up very vivid visuals in my mind but most of the time I think in text, in a non-stop inner dialogue. I always write something in my notes, I just write freely in a stream-of-consciousness type of way, not about daily events, just capturing ideas that come to mind.
Sometimes I dig up one of those notes later on and it inspires a visual image and I start sketching from there. Sometimes I start with visuals but there’s always some kind of story or thought process unfolding in my mind as I work so when I finish painting I just write down some parts of it. So the story may come first or it may appear later but it’s always an important part of my art. I’ve always loved works of art that need additional explanation. I enjoy art that mesmerizes you at first glance but that also opens up new facets as you read on about it. I love art that requires the viewer to do some extra work. Even small work like taking time to read the description properly. But it’s something that’s important for me personally, it doesn’t have to be important for others. And even though I think the stories I write are an important part of the overall experience I provide as a creator, people are free to interact with whatever I create the way they want to.
Going through your Instagram and seeing all the sketches and one-off pieces, you can see just how strong your drawing skills are. You’ve gone through quite a few different styles before landing on where you are at now. They move from cartoonish to a more realistic approach. Is it difficult to stick with one style when you can be that broad with your work?
I’d say I have a very distinct style. But it’s not a visual style, it’s a thinking style. I’ve been interested in more or less the same things for my whole life. People usually recognize my hand even if they see my art in very different styles because there’s a set of topics I’m always interested in and a set of visual tools I always go for. A lot of my Instagram art isn’t very representative of who I am as an artist since I made it in the pre-NFT days when the only way to get an independent artist career was to get a big following on social media and have a merch shop. So I had to cater to the public taste at least partially and it led to a lot of inner conflict that I’m still dealing with and still shaking off consequences of trying to make my art more commercially appealing. Some habits just stick with you. Now I can experiment much more and try going in different directions. In terms of visual style, I think it’s something that will keep evolving for my whole life. I’ve always gravitated more towards a graphic style but I’ve spent years learning classic academic oil painting which is the opposite of that and of course affected me too.
I’d say right now I’m pretty happy with a more expressive and less realistic style with a heavy emphasis on line. It fits my clear and logical type of thinking more I suppose, I always want every little detail to be visible and I don’t like anything to be lost in paint strokes. Creative chaos and accidents aren’t my thing at all. I like making visual puzzles, I like fragments, pictures inside pictures, I love adding lots of small details, patterns, etc. But that impression of a puzzle that some of my artworks have is not random, it is engineered. I like pictures that you look at and don’t quite understand at first glance what you’re seeing. It’s like inviting the viewer to step into a sort of visual maze and it’s up to them whether they want to roam around it and look for their own way out or just leave and not enter it at all.
Is NFTs your main gig? Looking at your work I could easily see you doing illustrated books, editorials, and character design. What does your art current look like from your perspective?
Yes, NFTs are the only thing I’m doing right now, it’s basically a dream come true for me. Although I’d be happy to do everything you mentioned except I’d switch character design for environment art. Telling stories through places and objects is my true passion. But I’d only be happy doing all those things if I had some room to play rather than a strict brief that tells me exactly what to do. I think my strength as an artist is more in my ideas and vision, in my ability to brainstorm, gather reference and create worlds rather than my drawing and painting skill. I believe what I’m best at is art direction, even in my own personal art. I’m much more of a thinker-artist than a “great painting skill” artist. So it would just be a waste of my skills to make me work on someone else’s ideas without any possibility to add anything. In the future we’ll have AI tools for people who know exactly what they want and just need someone to draw it for them I think. Ideally I’d love to work with other people from time to time on projects I find inspiring, preferably as a co-creator and art director rather than just a hired artist, both in the NFT world and outside of it. It’s the way I’m working on a project right now and I’m having a lot of fun! So I’m open to anything as long as I find it inspiring and preferably challenging.
But if I’m being honest, my dream and ultimate goal has always been to be an independent artist, create my own worlds and sell my own art. A dream that would be impossible without this technology we have now. Also true decentralization is something that really aligns with my personal values. Being a hired worker, building a proper career or working for some big studio just isn’t something I enjoy because it doesn’t offer enough creative freedom. And realizing my own creative potential is my number one priority in life, not financial or any other kind of stability.