Artist Dave DeVries’ monumental art project transforms conceptual children’s drawings into some of strangest looking monsters ever conceived.
When professional illustrator Dave DeVries opened his sketchbook and found a number of doodles composed by his niece, he wondered to himself, what would children’s drawings look like if they were painted realistically?
DeVries has illustrated for both Marvel and DC Comics, and upon finding his young niece’s sketches, he couldn’t help but entertain the idea of applying the same professional techniques he uses in comics to drawings done by children. DeVries decided to collect numerous drawings of monsters composed by children, and being sure to stay faithful to the original content, he traced each line using an opaque projector and then administered logic and professional method such as coloring, texturing, and shading to reproduce the images as realistically as possible, with an added 3D effect.
The outcome is The Monster Engine, a 48-page collection of wonderfully frightening and memorable images, conceptualized by children and made over by DeVries. DeVries has found a way to bring the wildly imaginative constructs of a child’s mind to life using his seasoned artistic skill. The Monster Engine provides us with not only unique artwork, but also an intimate look into the creative minds of today’s children and the monsters inside of them.
We caught up with DeVries to discuss The Monster Engine, the minds of children, and “The Good Man.”
What has The Monster Engine taught you about the creative mindedness of children?
They follow logic, but it’s not a linear logic. I call it circular logic, because it can go off on these long tangents – just the most wild ride you can imagine, and somehow it comes back and makes sense. But if your mind functions in a very linear, engineering-minded logic, you’re not going to follow it.
Also, there’s no embarrassment in their world. They’ll lay an idea on you that if an adult said the very same thing, they’d be embarrassed. Young kids aren’t worried about feeling foolish, silly or stupid – there’s no filter.
Here’s a good example: I’ve always said that in order to really access that creativity, you’ve got to be willing to embarrass yourself – appear foolish, stupid. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, have you ever noticed that little kids charge the dance floor? My theory is that when they look out onto a dance floor, they see adults acting like they do. A dance floor is the one place where it’s okay to behave like a child physically, and that’s why they’re drawn to it. That’s the whole embarrassment factor. People do things on the dance floor that are just utterly ridiculous in any other context. On that little square patch of wood flooring, adults let their guard down and behave like children. Kids are just like that 24/7.
Was it your intent to make the images frightening?
No. It was not my intent. They are monsters, and monsters can appear funny. First of all, I don’t think my paintings are frightening at all. When people say that, I just don’t know what they’re talking about. I recognize that I use dark, dramatic lighting that could be used in horror, adventure or sci-fi movies. That kind of lighting comes from my concept art and comic book art experience. When you apply it to a kid’s drawing that is bumpy and distorted, it naturally becomes dark and in some people’s opinions scary. If I was using diffused lighting on a cloudy day without a lot of shadows or on a sunny day and I didn’t pay attention to every bump and I softened everything up, it would look less scary.
I also think there’s humor in what I depict. I could easily take things and make them look scary. Take the painting “Ninja School.” In the child’s drawing, the girl’s not punching her way out of the box. If I had left her in the box it would have been oppressive and scary. Instead, I gave her a way out. I don’t want to make dark, oppressive pieces. I want to make thought-provoking pieces that are fun and a little dark. I am, in my new paintings, experimenting with some different and more whimsical palettes and that’s going to be a lot of fun for people to see.
“The Good Man” piece in particular is both compelling and eerie, even in its original form. What did you think when you first came across this picture?
DD: It stopped me in my tracks. A lot of things come into play when you’re looking at a kid’s drawing – the child’s personality behind it, what they’re trying to say. Max, the boy who drew the good man, depicted a guy nailed to a cross with a skull head. I wanted to explore the piece’s religious context. You’ll have to read the child’s interview to discover Max’s intent. Over the years, the painting’s become a lightning rod for controversy. There are people who love it, and some who are disturbed by it. I think people are disturbed by it because of their religious backgrounds. I was raised Catholic and walked away from the church when I started reading Joseph Campbell, so to me, the symbols aren’t so personal—they’re just symbols, certainly not making fun of Christ and all that he sacrificed. The interview I did with Max, who did the drawing, was enlightening to say the least.
So you are aware of the children’s reactions to your paintings?
Yes. Once the painting’s done I do an interview with each child. When I do the paintings, I’m basically taking control of their work. When I do the interview, they take that control back. No matter my interpretation, it ultimately doesn’t matter. The final context and concept is theirs. That kind of tug o’ war creates an interesting dynamic.
There have been some mixed reviews about the project, and some people who see the “perfection” of a child’s drawing as being negative for their self-esteem. How do you combat those statements?
Specifically what I’ve read in many of those comments are from child psychologists stating that my rendition is going to discourage children from drawing because the professional rendering techniques demonstrated in the paintings are beyond them.
What I’ve found with my own family—and I was advised not to do a painting with my young son by a child psychologist—I’ve found that the opposite was true. And I found this was true with every child I worked with. When we do a painting together, kids usually come back to me afterwards with reams of additional drawings—they’re even more inspired to create. If I sat down next to a kid and said “I’m going to draw a fire truck and you’re going to draw a fire truck—then we’re competing,” that scenario can deflate a child’s enthusiasm for art—and, in that instance I agree with the therapists. In fact, that happened with my own son, Aiden—and I never did that again.
However, the difference between that paradigm and The Monster Engine is that their drawing is the foundation of my painting and the painting cannot exist without their foundation. On some level they know that their drawing is crucial to the work. In addition, my interview with them afterward reinforces that idea. Case in point, I worked with my son on an illustration for T-post magazine—the image was printed on a t-shirt. When the t-shirt finally came in the mail, my son put it on and wanted to see it in the mirror. He looked down and there was a moment of silence and then a smile crossed his face and he just barely whispered under his breath, “Cool!”
In general, the kids always want to do more paintings because someone is taking them seriously. I’m not just putting their drawings on my refrigerator. I’m putting them on canvas and in books, displaying them in galleries, and they know that. That’s a rare opportunity for children’s art.
Describe a typical day working on The Monster Engine.
My day is split in thirds between teaching, illustration work, and responding to The Monster Engine fans, gallery, and media requests, plus incorporating my family life into that time. Usually I do The Monster Engine pieces as private commissions or for gallery shows, and not as every day painting projects. Once the paintings are done, I set up appointments, interview the children and transcribe and document their interviews. I also spend my time writing the script for The Monster Engine: Engine World.
I am doing concept art for Activision, some advertising work, and teaching. I did the concept art for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse video game that’s coming out (in videogame and comic book form), so you can see my fingerprints over a few of the high profile characters. I recently finished up an expansive project called BlueShift, which is an eco-thriller, high-octane adventure – lots of action, lots of global warming. We did two issues of the graphic novel – it’s on MTV Geek. I’m proud of that project.