10 Questions with Concept Designer and Illustrator Humza Khan
Illustrator and Designer Humza Khan talks about his meditation practice, mindset and daily rituals for attaining creative flow.
1. Freelancing for many artists is a continual struggle between making work, pitching work, following up with potential clients and chasing down payments. You mentioned that you have chosen to work for studios in order to alleviate the stress and uncertainty that comes with freelancing. Can you talk about how you made the transition to a studio job and what it took to create that space for yourself?
You know it’s interesting, often times the difference between success and failure can be a tiny two percent shift. I had worked on a portfolio, shown it to a few professional friends to get some feedback, sent out applications, gotten a bunch of interviews, though it was really the emotional shift that triggered or snowballed the desirable result.
On top of that, make sure you are taking action in a flow like, excited, or even meditative emotional state is usually the most beneficial. Trying to stress success your way to the top, in my experience and from what I’ve heard, winds up causing more problems than it solves.
2. Storytelling is a strong theme in your work, from concepts for characters, through to the environments. What kind of stories do you most enjoy working on and why?
I grew up on the superhero stuff and like the grounded science fiction. Projects that shape the future in broad strokes, that inspire what could be from a technology standpoint or even culturally.
Syd Mead’s work has been about that, Ralph McQuarrie’s work had a lot of that in it with his time on “Star Wars,” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is a good example of that done from a sociological and cultural standpoint.
You could argue “Black Panther” did that for the African American community by planting seeds of what could be, fantastical as it may seem to some. Something science-fiction that could make an engineer go yes! I want to build that, or could we build that, or why don’t we build that?
I like the idea of science fiction and or fantasy as setting an ideal to strive toward or reach. I had an engineer friend years ago that said that he would watch “Iron Man” once a week to hype him up for his vertical take-off and landing aircraft prototype he wanted to develop.
3. We talked about the flow of storytelling in games in particular. Can you share with us how stories play into creating a great character concept or environment? How do you add your own flavor to the projects you are a part of?
Iain McCaig in his gnomon DVD series does a great job of going into story in character design. Syd Mead often talks about scenario or an “iconic cliche” that one can then overlay “weird stuff” on top of.
I was recently talking with an art director about how creating a story triggers something subconscious or creates an allure that’s beyond words for an audience.
As far as adding my own flair, I’ve focused on craft and doing the best job possible at the task at hand. The “flare” almost comes out naturally when successful.
4. Game design is evolving to help players enjoy a more unique experience every time. You mentioned that the new games tend to offer multiple story paths and are less linear than the typical fight-fight-big boss- fight formula that many of us are used to. How has this complicated your work, or made it more fun? Do you feel enthusiastic about this change and what it offers to the artists behind the scenes?
I think it offers more immersive worlds for the player to explore and more opportunities for concept artists and artists in general to build. It’s great that because right now I get to work with game designers, art directors, and 3d artists who are super enthusiastic in their pushing of level of mood, immersion, lighting, storytelling.
That also doesn’t even include the advent know of VR and all the opportunities that are happening in that space.
5. Living a joyful life is something everyone desires. You’ve created personal rituals that help you maintain a healthy emotional space and outlook. Can you share some of these with us and why they work for you?
For years I did a ritual I got from an audio program called Ultimate Edge by Tony Robbins. It involved 5 minutes of breathing exercises, 5 minutes of gratitude, 5 minutes of gratitude for the future, as well as 5 minutes of affirmation/incantations (usually did 15), followed by 40 to an hour of exercise.
I did this while practicing a meditation practice I started doing after reading “Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra, which includes twice-daily meditation, 1 to 2 hours in silence (or low-level monotonous activity usually done while driving or doing laundry), regular time in nature, general good karma as well as some practical action.
Currently, in the morning I do a 2 hour heart sutra meditation found in Ultimate Deepak Collection, then ideally I do an hour or so of kundalini meditation which involve various breathing exercises, transcendental meditation twice daily, listening to a relaxing audio track twice daily for about 8 minutes that helps me focus as well. Then there is also an hour to 40 minutes to an hour of exercise, usually around 4 days a week of exercise and 2 days of yoga.
The days that I do them and don’t do them tend to make a difference.
The point of these rituals is to create a sense of certainty, confidence, and an emotional peak and sharp state that you can then turbocharge your actions as you move into the day.
6. Personal improvement seems to be a theme in your life (and my own!) You’ve looked to Creativity Inc’s philosophy on criticism and applied it to your personal projects. Can you tell us what has worked and how it’s played out for you? Why did you decide to explore this, and would you recommend it to others?
I’m still in the early stages of applying it. If your readers ever get a chance to look into any personal development, a lot of comes down to mirroring the beliefs, actions, and thought processes of those who are successful.
Pixar has had multiple successes critically and commercially and has successfully implemented that process at Disney and Marvel with measurable results.
Right now my schedule is working 5 days a week, one day a week for personal work, and one day a week to learn new software, so it’s still taking some time to nail down. That being said, it’s also important to have something measurable to base your success on as well. So it’s an ongoing process.
7. Let’s talk about the reality of receiving criticism and feedback, as it is a major part of being a professional artist. We are going to give and take a lot of criticism throughout the course of our careers. How have you built your personal belief system around criticism? In other words, how much do you take to heart, how much do you see as instructional, how much do you take as mere opinion, and how do you choose to weigh the input of others?
The one thing I can say is to know your craft and manage your emotions.
The craft is the concrete thing you can control and emotion shapes our logical thought process, actions, and follow through toward our dreams/goals. After that, it’s a lot of opinion and subjectivity.
I’ve sought up multiple points of view and generally look or make sure to take action on the things that you may hear over and over again.
8. What are some things you enjoy outside of the studio that keep your life interesting and inspiring? You mentioned yoga and meditation, and that you are in a new city this year. What pastimes keep you connected to the world at large and your community?
I’ve had a friend or two tease me for being a hermit. In addition to my rituals to shape my mood and emotions, I try to regularly volunteer as well. A lot of research has shown it can create an endorphin boost equivalent to exercise not to mention makes you grateful for what you already have. Other than that, I’m still in the process of building a social circle/life/new friends and also am in the process of planning trips out to visit family and friends out of state.
9. In leadership training you learned that 80% of our success is governed by emotions and 20% by mechanical skill. I agree that emotions play a major part in our experiences, contributing to the actions we take and the ways we apply our skills. I really enjoyed your take on this. Can you talk more about your experience of this concept and how you apply it to your life?
I previously had mentioned the rituals that I do daily to get into the right mental and emotional state. I’ve had these work great, work ok, and not work as well.
The one thing I’ve been taught and have learned was when you keep on repeating a problem in your life, it’s usually because there’s something you’re not learning. So far me I’ve had to fine-tune my particular rituals quite a bit.
Aside from that, emotions shapes are decision making and follow through on a daily basis. Our beliefs shape and perception shape our lives in the long term because they determine what things mean to us and how we respond when things don’t go our way.
For someone who is perpetually fearful, negative, or angry on a daily basis, taking action can almost feel like trying to sprint through quicksand. For most people, that is not fun or productive.
Martin Seligman is a psychologist who has studied optimism and positive psychology and goes into this more in his own work. You can view his Ted talk online or get his book “Learned Optimism.”
10. When we talked about creative block you had some interesting solutions that I really liked – one of them was doing a master study to reset your emotions and allow you to see where your mechanical skills play out in a more objective way. Can you describe your process in breaking out of creative block and keeping an even emotional keel?
Again, I would say a daily ritual to make sure your ramped up to be in the best mental and emotional state possible. Doing that daily can build substantial momentum over time. The studies are great because they can give you an objective base to measure your skill by.
If you ever read the book called “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author talks about one of the keys to being in flow, aside from loss of sense of time and total present moment awareness, is being able to get instant feedback if you are doing something right or wrong. So studies can be helpful that way as well.
11. BONUS: What is the message you would like to convey to the world through your art, or through the way you show up for your art? Is there a soul purpose to your work, and if so, what would you like us to know?
I always like the idea of painting the future in broad strokes, creating possibility, contributing love and passion, as well as the idea of using entertainment design as a kind of vision board for the world. A big goal that even if we don’t reach pushes us to be more than what we would have been.
Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” talked about how having a higher vision for their life was the thing that separated people from surviving or dying in the nazi concentration camps. Burt Rutan, a famous aerospace engineer who I believe had collaborated with Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic, talked about how people need a wild out-there idea to inspire them. He has a TED talk which you can view online : https://www.ted.com/talks/burt_rutan_sees_the_future_of_space\
You can see more of Humza Khan's work on his personal website.
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