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Artist Focus: James Bender of Sandstar Creative

In this, Animefringe's first Artist Focus, Neil interviews James Bender. James is a successful and well-known anime fan artist who has been drawing for many years, and has won a number of competitions with his art at conventions. Many anime fans know of his work through the popular CG Shrines site which displays regular and hentai art from many artists. Until recently, this has been James' main presence online, but just last month James revealed his new web site Sandstar Creative. This signals a brave move forward, and a hint that James intends to crank up his production of anime art.

In this interview, Animefringe delves into James' world and reveals some fascinating insights about what it's like to be an anime fan artist, and what it takes to succeed at this craft.

Animefringe: James, thank you for taking the time to speak with Animefringe, you must be very busy with your new site. What do you hope to achieve with creating your online presence, and how will this affect the volume of your work anime fans can see?

James Bender: You're quite welcome. Well I'd say that in the short time Sandstar Creative was in the making that I've acquired a bit more work than I'm normally used to, but I'm happy with the results Neil and I have achieved. I think that the purpose of my online presence as an artist is to feed my constant want of having an audience. [Laughs] The one thing I've learned over the years as an artist is the importance of being on display first and foremost. After producing a piece the first thing I want to know what people think of it, hear their opinion, or see their reaction. That's the icing on the cake. [Grins] In regard to volume I'd have to say that we'll just have to see how things go since this is my first site and more people, other than the conventions I attend, will have a chance to see my works.

AF: How long have you been creating art, and when did you start drawing anime?

JB: I've been drawing and creating art going on 29 years now, but mind you not all of it was anime. [Laughs] I believe I started drawing anime in the mid 80's after attending a Star Trek convention and seeing a very small line art of Lum in the program guide. I basically cut my teeth on anime such as Star Blazers, Robotech, G Force, and the Transformers and though there was a lot of raw influence there, it was that one small simple picture of Lum that opened the door for me to start drawing anime characters.

AF: Your style uniquely combines obvious and clear elements from the original anime title that inspire your work, but also have a common style of your own. Do you make conscious decisions about preserving the look of a character, or is the final look simply the result of your own artistic vision?

JB: I'd have to say it is a combination of the two. I want the character fully recognizable, of course, while adding nuance to their character that puts them in a new light never seen before. Even the slightest alteration of a familiar image can give it a whole new flavor that appeals to not only myself but to other fans. After all, we can't see Lum in her tiger-striped bikini all the time when you have a universe of imagination to draw from. Diversity is a powerful tool indeed.

AF: How do you determine the look of your crossover pics?

JB: Usually it has to do with imagining a certain character from a different perspective. As fans we get very comfortable with the notion that the characters we love will always be unchanged in their pure form. Well, as an artist I don't have that sort of advantage. [Grins] With an imagination, the rules will always be bent, resculpted, and even totally broken because striving to produce something different from the familiar is always a challenge. For instance, say take Sailor Moon, a very familiar anime icon that still has a very strong fan following and cross her with a another character so opposite her own like Wesley Snipes's Blade. Suddenly the pretty soldier of good and love is transformed into a vampire slaying hunter of darkness. The more diverse the idea, the more interesting it can become and in doing so, gets peoples attention.

AF: You haven't always drawn anime fan art. What other genres have you drawn, and how have they influenced your work today?

JB: Before I started to draw anime I began with an alien character that I had created from the age of 6. It was an art form that definitely, and still does, fall into the Science fiction category. A powerful extra-dimensional species far beyond the range of human kind was what they evolved into over time. They are the first characters I've devoted the largest percentage of time into before anime. I still draw them but not as much as I used to. However, they'll never leave the scene in my works. The other genre I had dabbled in from time to time is the world of Furry Art. I had read comics here and there and slowly became curious so I gave it a try and happily produced some memorable works. One particular piece entitled simply as "Serra" is a depiction of a pure white female unicorn with pale soft leopard spots riding a black horse. I worked mostly with horse girls and cat girls for a short time until anime once again took hold. [Grins]

AF: Can you describe the typical process of creating a picture from concept to completion?

JB: [Laughs] Hmmm, how to put that into perspective? Well I'd say for starters it involves encasing myself in the right frame of mind, making sure I have uninterrupted time, plenty of Pepsi, the right materials, and the usual familiar music. The one weakness I'm afraid I do have is that I cannot truly enjoy working on a piece without the right music. I believe that's what gives me the drive and the work it's own life.
I consider the process of creating a picture a "Mixed Media" which is not as simple as it may sound. First I find a reference image to modify by resketching it after making a quick traced line art. After that is done I scan it into the computer using Photoshop to darken the lines and resize the image that I'll work with. After printing it out I retrace the image onto Bristol Board paper. At this stage I can still make alterations to the image to my satisfaction. Next is the filling in and rendering stage which can take from as little as an hour and up to a few weeks depending on the composition of the piece.
A lot of times it depends highly on if I have the right amount of energy and desire to work on a particular drawing. Sometimes I think my tendencies are rather cat-like in the drive department, because I can go for a number of days and leave a project sitting there and then suddenly one day it's done in an hour or less. After the piece is complete it's documented in my book of lists, sprayed with workable fixative to protect the surface, scanned and saved on my computer, and then either matted and put on the wall or placed for safe keeping in the cache of drawings I have. I'd say that pretty much sums it up. [Grins]

AF: Several of your pictures were done on commission. What is your experience drawing to someone else's request? Do you find clients to generally be friendly, or are they more often demanding and inflexible? Can you give an example of a good and a bad commissioned work experience?

JB: I haven't really had many commissions to be truthful. I've not had one commission that has gone sour in any way because the people I've conversed with so far have been concise, civil, and above all patient. I think this is due to fact that I only accept payment after the piece is done. Having this kind of control on my part defuses any chance of the client of becoming demanding or inflexible while a commission is in progress.

About a year ago a very nice couple from England, who had attended the west coast Fanime, asked for a drawing of Iczer One in a wedding dress. I found this to be very intriguing and accepted their request. It took me about +3 weeks to complete the piece that turned out better than I'd hoped. They didn't make demands of any kind because they implicitly trusted my judgment in creating the piece after they saw my other works, many of which they had purchased. So, aside from not having accepted many commissions, I've done rather well in that department and believe in keeping those personal guidelines for future requests.

AF: Can you tell us which are some of your favorite works and why?

JB: There were 2 pieces that were in the 2002 Nan Desu Kan anime convention here in Colorado that became favorites. The first was one called "Avatar of Duality" and it was one of my most in-depth pieces considering its composition. Dealing with the elements of good and evil has always fascinated me because of the conflict that arises from the two. Creating a personification of the two elements into one character was a very appealing and challenging concept to produce. The successful blending of darkness and light into one being makes it one of the more eye-catching images I've created in a while and I still enjoy just looking at it every time.
The second is the depiction of Priss Asagiri of Bubblegum Crisis as a Jedi Knight. This one is a favorite because of it's crossover universe quality and my affinity for Star Wars. Considering Priss's strong personality and obvious beauty, I asked myself one day what if she were drawn as a Jedi. This was totally, as far as I know, unheard-of and that fueled my desire to bring this idea into reality. She stands out like a true warrior with her flowing cape and at the ready light saber and the fact that she is a Jedi simply makes me like the piece even more.

AF: You are a fan of ecchi and hentai fan art. What is the attraction for you of drawing these pictures?

JB: The attraction is stepping over the line and putting into perspective for people that these characters will not stay virgins forever. [Laughs] In the market the one rule that is etched in stone is that sexuality is a great attractor, and of course sells every time. Curiosity is also a very strong element that makes fans show a type of obvious eagerness to see their favorite or even common anime characters in sexual situations. It's part of the bending, resculpting, and breaking of rules I mentioned when it comes to ecchi and hentai art. When the imagination comes into play, there are no boundaries. I personally like it because it's like the "next step" in the lives of anime characters and particularly because of discovering the beloved 'shower scenes' from past animes. [Grins]

AF: What advice would you give to budding anime fan artists?

JB: Perservere, expect a lean period, be open to criticism, listen to other artists; it's really important that you learn to listen to all of your feedback and begin to process it. Basically, never give up. There was one artist who hit the nail right on the head with his advice and that was David Cronenberg: "As an artist, your responsibility is to be irresponsible. As soon as you talk about social or political responsibility, you've amputated the best limbs you've got as an artist. You are plugging into a very restrictive system that is going to push and mold you, and is going to make your art totally useless and ineffective."

AF: Who are your favorite artists and inspirations, and why?

JB: Some of my favorite artists that inspire me the most are Shirow Masamune, Adam Warren, Yukito Kishiro, Kenichi Sonoda, and Fred Perry. Their works are alive and seriously dynamic in character composition. I know that in their own right they are several levels above me, but that doesn't dull my drive to make my art better every time. An artist like myself needs to have idols to gain inspiration from so that my skills will grow. I'm not trying to compete with them or to surpass them, because then I'd be drawing for the wrong reasons.

AF: As a fan, what can I do if I want to commission a piece of art from you, or purchase some prints or merchandise of your art?

JB: Well, my site, Sandstar Creative, has an online store where you can buy merchandise and prints featuring some of my original art, including the popular site mascot, Sandy. Regarding commissions, contact me and we'll talk about it. There's nothing complex in making a request because I'll always listen first. There's also a page on the site with more detailed instructions for requesting a commission I recommend you read.
If you would like to purchase prints of well known characters I have drawn, I'd recommend check out the galleries in the site and tell me which one you would like to buy a print of. The galleries are the best format by which you can pick an image.

Once again, Animefringe would like to thank James for taking the time to answer our questions, and let us into his head. If you would like to contact James and ask him any questions, you can email him care of Animefringe (neil@animefringe.com, or you can visit his site, Sandstar Creative to view the extensive galleries, join the discussion on the forum, shop in the online store or commission a work of James'.

James is planning to put some of his original art on auction at ebay shortly, so visit his site regularly for more information if you are interested.