A serpentine blue dragon with a silver mane.

Interviews with Artists: Erik Ly (Orbital Bloom) at Anime Expo 2023

Interview With Erik Ly
Location: Anime Expo 2023
Interview Date: 7/2/2023

Anime Herald: How would you say the artist Celtis has inspired you?

Erik Ly: Oh. I think she’s made my art way worse. I was doing really well, and then I met her and everything went down the drain really fast.

(Editor’s note: This is Erik ball-busting a good friend.)

Anime Herald: How did you meet her?

Erik Ly: Genuinely? I met her at CTN, which is an anime and animation expo. And I was tabling there in 2015. She came by, and she handed me her card. The artwork was pretty good, So I just asked her, “are you Instafamous?”

She wasn’t at the time, but she blew up later. So, I predicted her success. I just didn’t think that she would, you know, stoop to AI.

(Editor’s note: See previous editor’s note.)

Anime Herald: Let’s go back to the beginning with your origin story. How did you get from being a little boy to tabling in a place like this?

Erik Ly: Realistically, I always wanted to do art. I was always inspired by Japanese animation, but, mostly videogames. I went to Laguna College of Art Design, but I guess it’s a big jump, if we’re going back to like high school and such. I didn’t have much else. It was the only thing that I was praised for. Academically, I wasn’t quite there. Asians are good at math. Not me!

Anime Herald: I don’t mean to profile here, but were you the kid who was always drawing in class?

Erik Ly: Yes, I was. I was always doodling on the little side panels of the homework and such. But yeah, I wouldn’t say I ran with a good crowd in high school. But, I had a high school teacher named Miss Keller. She was able to give me some extra praise that I needed.

There was this program at USC called Ryman Arts, which is the scholarship program where kids can go on Saturdays to USC. They can take really good art classes, which is what my high school lacked. After I took those classes, those free classes mind you, which is really cool. It gave me enough confidence to apply to art school. I went to Laguna College of Art Design for two years.

And then I dropped out. Because of a failed romance.

A painting of a woman dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, laying on a bed with a pink bedspread as slats of light fall over her.
Day, courtesy of Orbital Bloom

Anime Herald: Oh, wow!

Erik Ly: My girlfriend at the time was planning to leave art school. And I’m like, “You know what, who needs art school?”

But it was also that I was into game art. Because I love video games. So I applied to school and I wanted to be a concept artist. But the school actually, really pushed for 3D modelers, because job-wise, that’s what’s way easy to do.

Yeah. No, I wouldn’t say it’s way easier to do. But I will say that’s way more in demand. They need way more 3D artists in the pipeline of a video game. They need few concept artists. One really good concept artist can supply all the artwork, and then you just need 3D modelers to create everything. I wasn’t interested in that.

They were really pushing our students for that. I wanted to draw. I wanted to get better at drawing and, aside from the failed romance, that was a thing that was a part of it. But I also felt like this wasn’t the place for me. So I left. And then for the next couple of years, maybe like three, four, I went back to my parents.

My room was gone, because I had left college and they were upset about that. So I ended up living in their garage. And I practice. I practice. I studied on my own for rigor, just like nothing else really mattered at the time.

Anime Herald: Roughly what year was this?

Erik Ly: This was roughly 2012. I practiced really hard. By 2014, I went to WonderCon in Anaheim, just for kicks, I just wanted to see what’s out there. Because, I saw some of my colleagues were tabling. I’m like, “What’s going on here?” And I’m like, “I want to do this,” because the talent level was so high. I was like, “This is this is what I want to do.”

In 2015, I applied to WonderCon. The same convention that I went to. I got in and it was such a rush. I created. I had some originals, but mostly fan art of Mega Man and such. Just a feeling of people being so happy, from this piece of paper that you created. I felt good. That felt really good. And that’s the start of my convention.

Alphonse Elric, presented in gold, sits under a tree, surrounded by woodland animals
Heart of Gold, courtesy of Orbital Bloom

Anime Herald: Was that what you were expecting?

Erik Ly: I was not expecting anything. I feel like all artists have to be a bit of a narcissist. I had no idea how it was gonna go. I didn’t know how much money I would get. I didn’t make much money. I mean, it’s my first show; I must have made, like, a thousand bucks. And apparently, that was really high for first show, because I talked to a lot of artists. “I made a few bucks here,” “I made 1,000.”

I was over the moon. My mom was super stoked too, because this whole time, I’d just been doing nothing. Drawing from the garage. She was like “you gotta get a job. You gotta go back to college.” I’m like “let me just draw, mom.”

Anime Herald: Good for your mom for letting you.

Erik Ly: Luckily, she didn’t kick me out or anything. I know, some parents would just be like, “I don’t want to deal with you. Go off and do your own thing.” But yeah, luckily, I had… I really needed that safety net. I don’t know how that would have been… because in college, I had a part-time job and even balancing school and a part-time job was tough. It was so hard, “Now I have a day off, okay. I get to do other things that I wasn’t able to because I was working.” Just being able to literally not worry about the money and just hone in on my skills for a little while did wonders for my career. Yeah.

Anime Herald: Over the last eight years you’ve kept going.

Erik Ly: Yeah. It definitely took some time to get things off the ground, especially since I couldn’t see myself in a studio. I really enjoy freedom. I enjoy being able to create what I want, when I want, how I want, and then rolling the dice and hoping that it’s successful. Rather than, having a nine-to-five. Nothing against that, but if I if I can make this work, I’d rather be doing this.

It wasn’t profitable for quite some time, I still stayed with my parents for quite some time. But, they were definitely happy to see that, “wow, will people actually buy this stuff.” And it just kind of grew exponentially. Just the shows, the clients I was able to get. Because, aside from conventions, I also freelance, and I’ve been lucky enough to, in 2018 or 2017, I was able to get with an agency called Illozoo. They were able to get me jobs with Amazon, Serif Affinity. I was able to work with some game companies like Digital Extreme, who do the “Warframe” series.

I have other things that I can’t talk about right now, NDA stuff. But, just doing conventions allowed me to get in touch with companies, and they would come by with their business cards. I’m like, “Wow, you want to work with me?” It’s crazy. Because like the internet is so huge. And it’s so easy to find everyone, right? But these convention settings really just narrows it down. It’s almost like a juried process already. So when people seeking talent go to these shows, it’s almost like a streamlined process. They just show up and “You, you, and you. So it’s really good for that for sure.

Anime Herald: What you’re describing is a situation where they walk by and they say, “Okay, this guy is good enough.” How did you develop the proverbial “skills to pay the bills?” How did you develop into the artist you are today?

Erik Ly: Time. Time, and getting into the community. When I first started, I didn’t know anyone. I was talking about this with Celtis. I was able to meet so many talented people. Hard working individuals. I was like “I want to do what you do.” And through these shows, just introducing myself, and getting into their group, into their circle, it allowed me to… the goal just kept getting higher.

At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or more accurately, I didn’t know how to get there. In terms of table setup. In terms of presentation. All of that. I was able to learn so much from the people that were doing these shows already. In terms of my actual illustration, that’s a process of its own.

That one’s tough. That would be my style, yeah. I think It just develops over time. I grow. When I first started illustration, I wanted to be a painter, like Kekai Kotaki. He’s a Hawaiian concept artist. He worked at ArenaNet, the same guys that did Guild Wars. Then as time went on, I was made aware of contemporary artists like James Jean, Tomer Hanuka. And then, the Japanese manga artists. Katsuya Terada, one of my favorites. Also, Kentaro Miura. So, that just kind of changes as time goes on. But as long as you stay consistent with it, it just grows and blooms.

Because the thing about shows, is it’s very different, right? Because before, when I was talking about, essentially, how to pay the bills. And the skills to pay the bills. But before, I was thinking about art for myself. I still have a lot of originals now. But the way I think about art is different. Because now, when I create something, I also think about the audience, whereas before, I’m creating this for me, and if other people like it, that’d be great.

Now, I know my audience. I know what they like. So if I create something, it has to be for me, but at the same time, I’m thinking about it from other perspectives. Because those are the people who support me, the people that buy my work. They know me for a certain look, a certain style. And that’s what I try to provide now, as well.

Anime Herald: Now that you’ve been doing this for eight years, you and Celtis, you’re kind of the veterans in this little guild, or whatever you would like to call it.

Erik Ly: Yeah.

Anime Herald: What advice do you give to the noobs, when you start seeing them around in their first few conventions. What advice can you give to them?

Erik Ly: My advice, and just from a convention standpoint, and nothing else, is, sometimes you have to be… oh gosh, it shouldn’t come from my mouth… but… the customer doesn’t always know exactly what they want. For example, when I first started doing shows, people would always ask me for different sizes of prints. Because people are trying to spend the least amount of money as possible. So if they see an illustration of mine that they really like, their first question is “Do you have this in a smaller size?”

I have learned that you can generate much more money by not having a smaller size. You want one size. If they like it enough, they will definitely get it. I’ve done the math, in terms of the quote unquote “missed opportunities,” when people that walk away, there’s way more people that would be like, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” So that’s a big thing.

Before, I had multiple sizes. I thought I had to do what the customer wanted. I had three sizes of the same print. And every single time they would get the one that cost five dollars. So that’s a big thing. I would say, just have one size, one good size. The second thing is definitely presentation. Presentation means so much. Having a table that looks wonky… I mean, if it’s good art, it speaks for itself, but having a nice way of presenting your stuff.

You can get inspired by just literally walking the halls. That changes things. Once your table and presentation is good, you can price at the appropriate amount. I’m not gonna say a feeling of luxury, but it adds another level to it, and people don’t question “why would you price this high?” Because there’s a lot of people to undersell themselves. And I guess the big one is knowing your own value.

Guts from Berserk stands, holding his massive sword as a skeletal warrior looms behind.
Black Swordsman, courtesy of Orbital Bloom

Anime Herald: That’s pretty interesting and pretty helpful. And now a different question for people who are not yet at this level. The people who are considering going to art school or just doodling in their notebooks in school. Do you have any advice for them?

Erik Ly: I have no idea how this world is going to be with things like AI and such. It’s a crazy thing, honestly. But if I’m going to ignore that fact, the only thing you can really do is grind. Stick with it. My big thing I wish I knew when I was younger is, don’t be so caught up about styles. And also social media. I know that’s impossible, because it’s such a different age. People grow up with numbers in mind, ever since you’re a little kid. But the best thing to do is ignore it for quite some time.

Once you have the appropriate amount of skill, that that’s when you should come out swinging. But obviously, I’m not saying hide you work and never show it. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying, when you’re younger, that shouldn’t be a priority. The priority should be getting better rather than “Oh my God, I need to do what’s hot right now” and getting like clicks and stuff. Just be consistent. Eventually it will come, if your skill level grows to the appropriate level.

Anime Herald: What is your creation process?

Erik Ly: I used to sketch things traditionally, and then afterwards, I would finish everything digitally. But at this point, if I’m on the go, I will use my iPad, that I got in 2019. So it’s not the newest model. You don’t need the newest model. But that’s what I use on the go for sketches and stuff. But I always want to finish my work at my home station, which is at this moment, Wacom 27 inch Pro.

I use Photoshop, I have used Serif Affinity before. I also use that program while doing promotional work for them. But most of the time, I am sticking to Photoshop. There’s a lot of other programs out there, but you get so used to one thing. It just works.

Anime Herald: I heard that a lot with Photoshop

Erik Ly: Yeah. It’s weird, isn’t it? The claws just kind of sink in. There’s Corel Painter and stuff like that. Things that are made specifically for artists. I’m just like, I’ll take the thing that’s just supposed to be for photo editing. I’ve just gotten so used to it. So that’s really my pipeline. I would start out with a sketch. If I’m thinking about a piece, an illustration piece, I usually start off with multiple sketches. After that, it would get a cleaner sketch. Still kind of rough. But then, the first sketch is literally just scribbles. Right? It’s like, I see it. But if someone else saw it, they’re like “What is this? It’s like a smudge? So, first, a super rough sketch, then a rough sketch, and then I would do to line art. And then after that I would play with the colors. And then I would start rendering everything. And then, that’s the finished piece.

Anime Herald: How long do your pieces take you from very rough sketch, to completion?

Erik Ly: Oh… It really depends on the complexity of the piece. If we’re talking about a character, probably five hours or six hours, if I’m taking in more. But for my illustrations, I could take over 30 hours, or even 60 hours, depending on how big and how detailed.

Sometimes I take it easy. If it’s a personal piece, and I, like a lot of artists, they have a lot of things just stored away. I work on this periodically, you know what I mean? When I’m not doing freelance or things specific that I want to sell. It can take so long that I don’t even keep track of time. It’s just like “I hope to finish this by this month. And you know, I wish for the best.” But I would say generally like 30, 40, but if it gets bigger, then up to 60. Yeah.

Anime Herald: Do you have any questions for us or anything else you’d like to say to our audience?

Erik Ly: Don’t support Celtis’ work. No, I’m kidding.

A squid wearing a metallic structure as armor.
Squid Safe Zone, courtesy of Orbital Bloom

Anime Herald: That’s actually going to be the headline. That, or “AI is the way to go.”

Erik Ly: Gosh. It’s off topic, but.. AI… it’s a weird thing. It’s kind of like, in a few years, I’m curious. Because the thing about AI is that they’ve adopted a certain look. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. It’s shiny, overly saturated. There’s usually really hard light hitting it. But the thing for someone like me that is very line focused, they can’t quite get that yet. They can’t quite get lines because the image itself is just generated, just shot out there.

They don’t actually go through the process of creating every individual line. I’ve noticed that they just can’t get it yet. If there’s an artist who uses a lot of lines, let’s say like Katsuya Terada. It looks like a gibberish of lines, but you can see that there is no start and no end. It’s a mess.

They’ve been able to get the painterly style very well though. But for me, I’m lucky, at the moment because they can’t mimic me yet. So I am quite pleased. But in time, what’s gonna be the difference? That’s my closing thing. Traditional art is more important than ever, actually, especially for the shows.

Erik is known professionally as Orbital Bloom. His work can be found on his website, as well as Instagram.

Header Image: Ascension, courtesy of Orbital Bloom

Edited by: Samantha Ferreira

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