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What’s in your bag, Simon Stålenhag?

Don’t be afraid to make horrible art

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

What’s in your bag? is a recurring feature where we ask people to tell us a bit more about their everyday gadgets by opening their bags and hearts to us. This week, we’re featuring digital artist Simon Stålenhag.

Simon Stålenhag has had a busy couple of years. His nostalgic artwork depicting a vivid, alternate Sweden in which dinosaurs and robots roamed the countryside has garnered him legions of fans. He’s since released those images in a trio of fantastic art books — Tales from the Loop, Things from the Flood, and most recently, Electric State.

We might get to see his incredible artwork make the jump from book to screen, too. Avengers: Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo recently optioned Electric State, the tale of a girl and a robot on a road trip through a desolate and broken American West. Meanwhile, Amazon studios recently ordered a series based on Tales from the Loop, to be adapted by Legion writer Nathaniel Halpern, although that series will reportedly be set in the United States rather than Sweden.

In October, Stålenhag made the trek over to the United States to attend New York Comic Con, where we caught up with him to chat about what he carries with him on a regular basis.

So, let’s start with your bag. Where did you find it, and why did you pick it up while you were bag hunting?

I like the color, the yellow color. It looks like something my parents would have used in the ‘70s in Sweden, when they were out hiking. I come from a family we were always hiking and camping and skiing. So I have an affinity for that kind of aesthetic, from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

We couldn’t tell.

[Laughs] Well, I wouldn’t expect it to. When it comes to pop culture, I’m much more into ‘80s stuff, and also when it comes to clothes and fashion, I like ‘80s stuff, but then when I saw this, I’m like “oh, I love this, I just love it so much.”

Where did you find it and how long have you had it?

So, at a place called... oh, I don’t remember what it’s called. A mall in Sweden. It’s a Swedish-made canvas bag. I think I got it last summer.

You’ve got some headphones here.

My hearing is sensitive, I would say. For a while I thought I had — there’s a name for when it’s hypersensitive, hyper-acoustic, I don’t know. So when I’m out on the street, I feel much better wearing ear plugs, but also with conventions, I wear ear plugs all the time, even if it’s not that loud — if your initial reaction is that this is not too bad, after five hours, you start to get worn out, so if you have ear plugs, you’re much more alert than everyone else.

Tell me a bit about your camera.

Lumix is my go-to brand. It’s Panasonic that makes this fairly cheap. It’s a super-zoom, I think they call them, which has a built-in lens, but it has this very long lens so you can zoom and it’s very good for collecting reference material. I can take scenes, like landscape shots, and I can also capture the little details close up, so I don’t have to walk up to everything. I’ve been using these for ten years. This is the latest version of it. They’re fairly cheap, and they shoot in RAW, so I can get all the data. It’s a good compromise between an expensive DSLR and a compact camera.

So when you go out on the street, and if you’re walking around here, what’s something that you’d pull your camera out to shoot?

Right now, I’m not working on a project featuring New York, but if I was, when I have a project that I need specific stuff for, then it’s anything I see on the street or some particular car or something. Older vehicles are something that I always document. So maybe here, I would see some vehicle I could use, separately, so I’d take pictures of that. I always bring it just in case, but when i go out to gather photos, like a proper photo trick, I use it all the time. For more private stuff, like family dinners, when you normally use a camera, I use my iPhone, because I carry it around all the time.

Alrighty, tell me about your phone.

It’s an old iPhone SE, but I’ve got all my stuff in [the case]. I’ve got business cards, my bank card, ID, room key. Also, which I don’t have here because it’s expired, my ticket for the subway. I don’t have a driver’s license, because I don’t drive. You really don’t need to in Stockholm. We don’t have kids, and there’s no reason to drive a car. We go everywhere with public transportation.

What do you like about this particular phone?

I like not having to pay for a new one! That’s what’s so good about this. On this, — this isn’t really what I have in my bag anymore, but what’s on my phone — there are things here that I use all the time. One app, you can create your own combination of soothing sounds. It’s kind of the same thing with my ear plugs. These sounds are also something very good for getting through a convention, if you don’t have to talk that much. It’s very good to have some soothing sounds to recharge your batteries, and I’ve become addicted to that.

It’s called Relax Melodies — here’s something I made, it’s like rain sounds and wind chimes. Sometimes, I can just lay down in bed and fall asleep. That’s something I use every day. I have some games that I never play, but I do watch films all the time, like to help me fall asleep. Weirdly, I watch old horror films, and also something that I’ve been watching almost every night now is Dune, the David Lynch version. It’s a good comfort for me.

You’ve got a notebook here.

Yeah, that’s my sketchbook. It’s very cheap. I like it because it doesn’t put pressure on you. I prefer cheap. I don’t like the moleskins or those other notebooks because they’re so expensive. They look like a book with no printing inside, and it puts the pressure of getting something that a real book, which people have been editing for a year, that’s the kind of pressure you get for every little line you put in.

I’ve felt that — you feel bad for crossing out some little mistake.

Yeah, ruining it! I try to buy these sketch pads and just throw them away, because they’re full of bad drawings. And that’s because people ask “how do I improve this skill, like sketching creatures or something?” I’m like, “you have to do a thousand really bad ones, don’t be scared of throwing stuff away. You should just have piles of garbage.” That’s how you get better.

I like how you’ve highlighted these — I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use a highlighter with these types of drawings.

A friend of mine who introduced me to this brand of markers, like two weeks ago. They have like a thousand different shades — he told me to try begonia pink — it looks kinda red when you apply it, but when it dries, it gets more pink. So I had to buy it because I love it. This is also one of my favorite colors, so instead of buying a hundred different shades, I bought these different shades of gray and some other cool colors for various drawings. These are the only drawings that I’ve done so far, because I mostly work digital.

What about these markers appeals to you the most?

It’s kinda close to watercolor, the finished result. I’ve always loved watercolor, especially for drawing organic or biological creatures with fur or reptiles, those sorts of things. Watercolor to me is how I first saw animals drawn, when I was a kid. Dinosaurs — especially feathered dinosaurs — I think I have this idea where I’ll do proper watercolors of feathered dinosaurs. It’s like a dream project that’ll probably never happen, but I’ll probably, in the end, create a digital watercolor. But yeah, this is very quick, compared to digital. It’s very fast, and you can just throw it away.

You’ve got these other pens — I’ve seen artists use these before.

Yeah, this is a very standard felt tip. I think one of them might be a brush tip. No. Sometimes I have one of those. These are a little thicker, and these I use for signing books. Last week, I was in a book fair in Gothenburg, and they last for an hour or so. It’s good for posters or black covers, so the gold goes on very well.

You have all the pens in this plastic bag.

Oh yeah! That’s where I got the pens. It’s a pen store in Stockholm.

Do you go there a lot?

No, this was like the second time. These will probably dry up before they run out of ink, because while I would love to draw more, I just don’t get around to it. I start working every day, and the work is on the computer. I’m not that guy who does warmups or do circles for an hour.

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