Neon Sunset Girl: Alena Aenami on Becoming an ArtStation Sensation

Alena Aenami Art talks about chasing the dream of turning art into a job that brings a good amount of money, becoming one of ArtStation's top artists, and collaborating with various creators including MrSuicideSheep and the famous Lofi Girl.

Introduction The first question, before making an introduction, you are one of the most popular artists on ArtStation, you are not among the top ten who have more than a hundred thousand followers there, but you are somewhere in middle. How does this affect your life when you are so popular in this artist community?

Aenami Art: It doesn’t really affect it, in my professional life, yes, of course, it does, I have some interesting, large, commercial orders, but I live practically the same way as I lived before, except that I can afford more than when I was a poor student, before ArtStation. Generally, now I only have plans to drastically change my life, move somewhere maybe, but for now, I just work how I used to work and try not to think too much about popularity, money, and all that. Can you tell us a little about how it all started for you, that is, when did you start drawing, how did it all begin, did you go to an art school or maybe studied professionally at a university, where did this whole story grow from?

Aenami Art: Yes, of course, let's start from the very beginning, I loved to draw since childhood, I enjoyed all sorts of coloring books, drew little men, lines, I was constantly doing this. I didn’t have many friends; I devoted a lot of time to drawing and reading books, I was really into fiction. But I had no idea where to apply it. When as a child I went to an art school, I thought that when I grew up, I would be sitting somewhere on an avenue, you know, at a place where artists sell pictures, so I would be selling something, drawing portraits. There was no Internet, I had no clear vision at all, I had no plans and hopes for the future, but I continued to do this, entered the university to specialize in art and 3D, I was engaged in 3D interiors, design, and painting, but I have always loved graphics. That is, something black and white, graphic, gloomy, I was a rather difficult teenager, listened to punk rock, and did not know what would happen in the future. And then the Internet came along and everything changed drastically. I started communicating with other artists, there were several people who helped me a lot to find out what ArtStation, Patreon, and some other resources were, and everything really started from there.

Finding the Style If we just look at your ArtStation, the first work was posted 5 years ago, so it means that in 5 years you have built this style of yours, right?

Aenami Art: I’d also like to comment on my first work a little: I didn’t like painting at all when I studied at the art school, that was my least favorite part, and at that time, I devoted many years to designing illustrations, trying to sell stock images, but it somehow didn’t work, my heart wasn’t in it. And then I went to the cinema to see the movie called "The Revenant" with Leonardo DiCaprio, and after it, I was under a great impression after seeing the landscapes of Canada, so I made a drawing, which is one of the first ones on ArtStation, it is called "The Revenant" just like the movie, and I realized that this was something that I liked, I enjoyed the way it looked, it turned everything in my head upside down. It all started with this drawing, with this trip to see the movie. Roughly speaking, "The Revenant" is the drawing with which you began the search for your style, correct?

Aenami Art: Yes, it was the starting point, where I thought that this was it, that I liked it, I felt it, I wanted to continue. Could you tell us how you made the choice in favor of these colors, this design, which you usually use in your composition? I mean, it is clear from your work that you had played with them before. You always had some kind of a sunset, some kind of dying light, you know, and gradually it grew into some new urban style, you had more there, even some sci-fi elements. How did it work out for you, did you just realize that it looked good, you liked it, and decided to continue to work in this direction, or, on the contrary, did you want to abandon it, but it always came back anyway? How did you go along this artistic path?

Aenami Art: Most likely it originated from the fact that I always liked the urban aesthetics, sitting on the roof watching the sunset, this general dullness of the city, especially the city where I live, there is absolutely nothing remarkable in it, but there are the same sunsets and sunrises that can be seen from anywhere in the world, it is amazing, it is such a bright spot, and I wanted to somehow dilute everything that surrounds me, this grayness, with something bright, and I liked it in works too, when they grab your attention, when they have a special atmosphere to express some kind of emotion so that it evokes some feelings in people who are looking at it so they're not simply a beautiful picture. I just want to interrupt you to say that compared to the city where I come from, Zaporozhie is still a capital: there’s a dam, this giant huge avenue we looked at, and some other places.

Aenami Art: It's still an industrial city, which is far from art, and therefore it is rather difficult to live here. You usually do this story when a girl and a boy are sitting in some city and looking at the sky and so on. When you came up with these stories, did you think that they would be so popular, did you even assume that they would resonate with so many people?

Aenami Art: No, I didn't think about it, at first, as I said, I was engaged in designs, stock images, I specifically wanted to make money, since I was a poor student, I didn't have much to live on, I didn't want to get a regular job, I wanted to create. So, then I left it all and decided that I would just do what I loved, what I liked, it was what I believed in and I just would not think about anything else, and that's how it happened. I did not expect any popularity, I started drawing stories, and at some point, it became Daily Deviation on DeviantArt, posts in different groups on appeared. When it all started, I realized that my work was turning into something more, before I just drew for ten hours straight every day and didn't even think about anything like that.

Going Commercial I'll tell you honestly, the first time I saw it, I even didn’t know it was your art, I just listened to music on YouTube, I like this stuff, and once of course I got to MrSuicideSheep's channel and there I saw your art, I didn't even know it was from the same author. And it was really interesting to look at. I think this combo when this music, you listen to it very often while you’re doing some kind of work in the evening or just chilling, relaxing, it worked really well with this art. And after that, I also saw millions of videos on YouTube which used your art, you know, chill-hop and millions of other videos like that. Usually, it is your story, some girl is sitting, there is sunset, and some beat and melody. Of course, it’s a bit hypnotic. You know, previously, there were clips, people of my age remember old MTV and things like that, and it was almost the same but it didn't give this, I don't even know how to say, emotional feed when you're emotionally in tune with something and it gives you additional pleasure. The question is how did you start or how did you see that this art started to live along with the music? Was it a deliberate decision or people just began to publish it and you couldn’t do it much about it?

Aenami Art: It wasn’t a deliberate decision, at some point in time I started to see my works on YouTube, I started to get lots of emails from different YouTube channels asking whether they could publish my art in their video with links to me and my art, and I got an offer from MrSuicideSheep to work for them, I drew about 10 works specifically for them on a commercial basis. So, they just spread on YouTube by themselves. So you don’t really know if it was some angel or a person who was the first to add your work to their video?

Aenami Art: As my works were also spreading on the Internet, they were there often without a link to the author, and at some point, they absolutely logically got into a combo with the music. On YouTube.

Aenami Art: Yes, I’m actively cooperating with Lofi Girl channel, previously it was called Chilledcow, this is a famous artwork with the girl sitting in headphones and there’s a cat on the windowsill. So, I started cooperating with lo-fi radio about 3 years ago. And today it is kind of the main commercial thing for me, I rarely do commissions now, mainly for Patreon and Lofi Girl. We have a very cool collaboration based on mutual understanding, I really like the admin of this channel, he’s a great guy.

Source of Inspiration Listen, all my questions are not mostly about the artistic side but more of what it says about us if we like your art. You have art that mostly shows an isolated person and, well, I don’t know about your idea and you may correct me, but to me, it looks like a person that still hasn’t found their place, they're still looking around and connecting with nature, with the city, maybe with some sci-fi things, and personally, it is something I feel deep down inside, even though I am grown-up and I found my place, and I understand most of it, but still, it resonates with me. I’m interested in what you think about this mood being appealing to so many people, does that mean that we’re all a bit lost inside or we just need a minute when we’re alone with the world, do you understand what I’m talking about?

Aenami Art: Yes, of course, the theme of loneliness and melancholy is as close to me as it can be, I probably even unconsciously weave it into many of my works. I felt lonely for most of my adult life, lived alone since I was 16, and only recently I got a cat, family and all that, that is, for me it’s a very personal topic: when I sit somewhere alone and think while looking at the sunset. So, you still do it, right? 

Aenami Art: Yes.

Creating Art That Sells So, it is greatly inspired by your personal life, that’s cool. Let’s talk a bit about your attempts to work more on a commercial basis. I will list it now; you may correct me if I miss something. You have several platforms where you try to monetize, you have a platform on ArtStation where you sell, you have a website where you also sell prints and art, you have Patreon where people pay you monthly, and you collect some sum of money, and you also have commissions which you take from other clients. From all this, which is the most commercially profitable for you? Where do you earn the most?

Aenami Art: Currently, it’s ArtStation, I’m in top-20 sellers of prints, and not only on ArtStation but also on such websites as S6 and in several other printshops with which I have contracts. Also, I sell themes and wallpapers on PlayStation through intermediates, on ArtStation there are 4K files as well. Basically, my works are in demand as prints and wallpapers, and they bring me passive income so I may even stop working, not take commissions, it allows me to concentrate on art and not get distracted by anything.

80 Level: And if you publish new work right now, do you know how many times you can sell it? Ten times or a hundred times, do you have a number?

Aenami Art: Generally, I have an idea where it will look good, but it’s just according to my taste, I don’t think more about it, it’s difficult to tell. I draw what I like, what I want to say, I don’t think only about sales, about profit, but overall, I have an understanding that this would be great as a print or as a wallpaper, yes.

80 Level: Roughly speaking, when you draw, you understand which format suits best, whether it would be a painting on the wall or a wallpaper for your phone, or something else.

Aenami Art: Yes, but it was more of an exception for me, when what I like and what I want coincided with what was in demand and what people would like, some type of synergy.

Promoting the Art Tell us a bit about your Patreon. First of all, did they offer you to participate in their marketing themselves? Or are you not the biggest player on that platform when it comes to art? 

Aenami Art: I’m definitely not the biggest player and I have never banked solely on it, my good friend recommended it to me but I would say that I don’t promote it as I don’t do ads, and there I don’t have a big audience. I sometimes stop posting there for 3 months and concentrate on something else, so for me, it is not something essential at the moment, even though I want to develop it more. The very concept of Patreon itself which helps people concentrate on art, where other people support artists, is very great. You have 200 subscribers there, that is not a huge amount, there are people who have a thousand subscribers for example. I’m just saying that on ArtStation you have more than 55 thousand people, that's quite a big number, so I think you could increase this number on Patreon, I don’t say you have to, I’m just contemplating.

Aenami Art: I meant that I didn’t want to be tied to the idea that I had to publish a work once or several times a month, that is why I didn’t do active promoting on ArtStation, Patreon, etc. I feel a great responsibility to people who are subscribed to me, who support me, because they’re waiting for something each month and I don’t always feel that I can give them something of really high quality.

Art as a Source of Income Can you tell us a little bit about how you work with ArtStation. I don’t know if I can ask you how much you earn there, but could you say at least an approximate amount or how much you sell just to show others if it can be monetizable or not. I know a lot of people who work more in 3D and they all sell something on ArtStation, and there are absolutely different things, they sell on Gumroad and other platforms as well. They usually sell educational materials and maybe some illustrations or something like that, but most of them sell education. And you are coming from the other side, you don’t sell education, you sell art. And it is really interesting to understand how many people are buying it and how it all happens there. Do people buy more on some holidays, Valentine’s Day, for example, New Year or Christmas, or you have a stable flow of purchases, or there are some ups and downs maybe? How does it all work?

Aenami Art: Strangely enough it’s quite a stable flow, which stays at some particular level and increases a bit each month, mostly these are sales of both prints and wallpapers. It can be 100 sales per month, it can be more, but taking into account the percentage that is taken by the website, I get quite a good amount, up to several thousand dollars. Just by selling prints and wallpapers, right?

Aenami Art: Right, just some passive secondary income. I think that’s great. Based on this, I have another question. On your page, there aren’t many illustrations that you made for a client. I’ve seen, you have MrSuicideSheep and Magic: The Gathering. Firstly, please, tell us how did you work with Wizards of the Coast, and after that can you tell us how you work with these external clients?

Aenami Art: Speaking of Wizards, they just contacted me and said that in the future they would release a new pack of cards, so they offered me to draw some of the cards. Everything was quite quick and easy. It was more interesting when the cards were released and when people in my town started to recognize me, ask to sign their card or just get an autograph, take a photo. It was very nice and a bit awkward, strange, since I usually work just online and don’t see results of my work in real life. It was a new experience for me. So, they just messaged you?

Aenami Art: Yes, they just sent me an email, asked if I was interested, I said yes, they sent me the contract, some design briefs and approved one of my first design options. When you worked with them on the design, did you have a feeling that they wanted something different from you or they just wanted the illustration to feature your style?

Aenami Art: Just as with most commercial clients, there’s a problem that they don’t fully understand what the artist they are contacting is oriented towards, what the artist does best, and why people like them if it is a popular artist if they were specifically looking for something. That is why they gave me an illustration of an object and wanted me to draw it in close-up which is something I don’t usually do. I think because it was for the card.

Aenami Art: Yes, but this card was canceled, in the end, they didn’t have any individual approach. They liked everything in general and they didn’t demand anything really specific, didn’t make any changes. The approach is not very personalized, it’s clear they work with a large number of artists. The main thing for them is that everything should be finished. And it really freshens up their product, right? Since they order millions of illustrations from different people. Firstly, I think that’s pretty cool to have a Magic: The Gathering card in your portfolio. Not every artist can show off something like that. And secondly, it’s recognition from the point of view of your talent because, well, I don’t know much about Magic: The Gathering, but I know how Wizards of the Coast work. It’s like Disney, you know. It’s a corporation, I think they are a part of Hasbro, and Hasbro is a gigantic company that makes Barbie.

Aenami Art: Yes, you can even find them in any store. Of course, Wizards of the Coast compared to Hasbro is a small volume but still it’s significant. Okay, after you worked with such a large company, did you get any other clients in this direction or are you waiting for another email?

Aenami Art: Yeah, I worked for various studios, I got many offers regarding book illustrations, but these were mostly large volumes, we didn’t come to an agreement on a contract. Books for western or Russian publishers?

Aenami Art: I get almost no offers from our Russian publishers. Do you work with games, gaming industry?

Aenami Art: Yes, recently I made concepts for Apex Legends, other smaller projects, but on the whole, games are my biggest passion, my biggest hobby, I spend lots of time playing them, and I always wanted to work in the game industry. But soon I understood that I wouldn’t really be able to show any of my own creative vision, since there are some pre-existing projects already and you just fit into them, into their design, concepts, work at a certain pace, in a team. This is a bit different from what I usually do and what I want to do. But you mostly make concepts, right? This is something that is done at earlier stages of production when there is no game yet. This is just some visual style, locations, lighting, etc.

Aenami Art: The problem is that in gaming not many specific illustrations are needed. If you compare them to the number of concepts and 3D artworks, illustrations are the very minimum of the entire creative process, unfortunately.

Intellectual Property in the World of Art Yes, I get it. You play a lot, am I right? 

Aenami Art: Yes, a lot! Did you have those situations when you saw a project, and you thought: “Ugh, I think they saw my art and got some inspiration from it”?

Aenami Art: To be honest, when my works became popular, I saw lots of artists on the Internet who definitely saw my art. At some point I understood that I was copied deliberately, they worked in the program I used, they made art with the same brushes, they even took some parts of my works. It was an interesting discovery. I can’t be so sure about games though. You have illustrations of a neon city with a crescent in the sky, I think it was definitely (I don’t want to say that it was stolen), but definitely all those neon elements that are on Steam got some inspiration from it. Some simple ones, when there’s a car going in a line or something like that. And that’s 100%. It’s everywhere. And when I looked at it, I really liked the style of Sayonara Wild Hearts, it’s an indie game, it’s quite popular, it even won some awards on Dice. And I also thought about the similarity, even the colors there are the same as in your work, you know. I understand that it is not a unique combination of colors, of course, and sunsets, neon city, there are millions of works with it, but there it seemed to me that it was definitely copied. It was very similar. What do you think about that? How do you feel about that?

Aenami Art: It can be both a coincidence and a collective mind work. When you open Pinterest at the early stages and choose several mood boards with designs, everything can get there, so it’s a collection of many ideas, among which your idea is born. I can’t say it’s directly related to me but it’s possible that they could see my works. Basically, you are okay with this, if people are inspired by your work, then it's fine, right?

Aenami Art: Of course, it’s okay, I also take inspiration from everything I see on the screen, both from games and works of other artists, especially, photographers. This is how people make progress, by creating something better and better, something of their own based on what they saw. This is how it should be. We were discussing the fact that you like to spend some time on the balcony, and how you reflect it in your illustrations when there’s a cat, a girl, some books, the sun is setting, the supernova. Personally, I really like it, and I always think that if I were 16, I would just die from happiness, I would put these illustrations everywhere in my room. And my question is, apart from these sittings on the balcony, do you maybe travel somewhere or you get your inspiration from somewhere else? Where are these locations which attract you and are your places of power? Do you have any?

Aenami Art: Once I traveled to the Carpathians, this is a very nice place, there you are surrounded by pure nature, it is very calming after the hustle and bustle of the city. And I always really wanted to live in a place like this, somewhere far beyond the city, closer to nature, to the mountains. I also went to Spain, but mostly I'm a stay-at-home person, I rarely leave the house, I just work, play games, and live in my own world, parallel to the real world, I can admit it. So in my hometown, I basically do not have locations where I would come to sit on a stone by the river, get inspired, so, inspiration mostly comes from books, games, something more detached from reality.

Art Inspires Art And about books, which ones do you like, what do you usually read?

Aenami Art: I mostly read science fiction, fantasy books, something like Isaac Asimov, it impresses me, just breaks my brain, I completely immerse myself in this world, and it creates a lot of vivid pictures in my head, which later help in creative work. That is, I consider books to be the most interesting way to live another kind of life, and since you do not see anything in front of your eyes, everything you are reading about feeds your imagination. This greatly stimulates creative vision, imagination. Have you ever had cases when someone wrote to you and said that they looked at your illustration and wrote a story, novel, or something similar based on it?

Aenami Art: Yes, by the way, there were many such cases, I saw somewhere on Reddit in the comments, and people sent me poems, stories that were written under the influence of my work, some music that they wrote, paintings, even people who didn’t draw at all told me they started to do it under the influence of my art, that they decided they also wanted to do something like that, it’s really nice. Some emails even moved me to tears. By the way, this is a good illustration of the fact that art is, first of all, universal, almost everyone understands it, and probably this applies to any art, abstract or not. And secondly, it’s, I don’t want to say it during the pandemic (ahem), but it’s contagious, you know? If you see something like that somewhere, then you also want to do it. If you can’t, for example, draw, then you will use the tool that you understand, you will make a sculpture, write a poem, a story, or make a film. And here I have a natural question. So just imagine, I looked at the picture, and then I sit down and start writing something, compose something, draw something and I bring it all the way to the end, which is very important because as an artist, you have a million ideas, but not every one of them survives to the end, so do you have some kind of ambition to have something developed? Maybe you would like to make a storyboard for a movie or for a movie to be shot based on your story, or you can come up with your own world and make books like "Tales from the Loop" by Simon Stålenhag, or maybe have an animation based on your art, or come up with your own fantasy world and make some postcards, coloring books, etc.? Do you have any idea how to connect this whole story about a boy and a girl and this neon city or place with sunsets into a single universe, roughly speaking?

Aenami Art: Yes, I definitely have such an idea, I want to do it first in the form of an art book, that is, put all my concepts, all my thoughts into it; probably the main character could even be a reflection of me, as I usually imagine, many works are quite personal. I'm working on it now, trying to come up with a concept that would satisfy me, I’d definitely like to release an art book. And then as it goes, I used to imagine it would be in the form of a game, but now I realized that I shouldn't start with this, this is the next, more complex level. It seems to me that a game would also be cool, but the first options that you will be offered in terms of a game will be some visual novels, you know, or a quest of some kind, like drawing fifty anime characters, and they will have some kind of action with your sceneries in the background, which is not bad, although this is not your level.

Aenami Art: I think that the fewer people work on a project, the more personal it turns out, and the more successfully it conveys the initial idea, so I’d like to do everything on my own from start to finish. I think it's very cool, firstly, that you have such an idea, I want to wish you all the best. You could dive deeper into these fantasy, sci-fi elements you have in your works. I'm not saying you need to draw some kind of a cybernetic version of Zaporozhie, but some big city, you know, something you can see in Eastern Europe, in combination with all of your elements, this will be very interesting. Although I see you have elements not only from Eastern Europe, there are international ones, you have some American and European motives, and sometimes just some things from Miyazaki and something like that. 

Alena Aenami, Freelance Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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