Known for creating art that blends hyper-realistic biology with some of fantasy’s most popular creatures, Christopher Stoll’s work is as fascinating as it is intelligent. He has turned his pen to many popular characters and creatures and has mastered the art of designing his own characters.
With three books published so far, Christopher has developed a reputation as a dedicated artist whose projects delight and captivate. In his time, he has explored the portrayal of women and femininity throughout the history of storytelling, the anatomies of fantastical creatures and, most recently, turned his pen to creating his very own Pokédex complete with the detail of a real world biology text book.
We caught up with Christopher to find out more about how he explores some of the world’s most popular characters and breathes life into his own original creations.
Kirstie: How did you get into art?
Christopher: I spent most of my time in grade and middle school doodling in notebook margins and I think that was ground-zero for my creative output. I’ve loved drawing and sketching for as long as I can remember, but I never received any kind of formal art or design education. It was always something that I loved doing, but I mostly stumbled into making art professionally.
Kirstie: Who were your earliest influences?
Christopher: Wayne Barlowe was a big influence on me as a kid. Growing up, I had a copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials: Great Aliens from Science Fiction Literature and Expedition that I read over and over again until I totally wore out the spines. The illustrations were a huge inspiration to me at the time, and I tried to draw them with very little success. When I was a little older my grandfather passed away and left me his collection of sci-fi books which helped me to discover other sci-fi fantasy artists and cover designers like Geoff Taylor and Chris Foss.
Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?
Christopher: I have trouble narrowing down the list. Every time I go online I’m adrift in a sea of fantastic art and visual design. I feel like I regularly engage with illustrators that would have intimidated or awed me as a kid, and the relationship is mutual and cooperative. I’m being influenced by so many people, and hopefully, influencing some others in turn. Off the top of my head I can think of Tony Sandoval, Michael MacRae, Aaron Hain, and Chris Oatley, but there are many, many more.
Kirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?
Christopher: When I started trying to illustrate professionally, I couldn’t afford a professional tablet so I made do with a second hand iPad. It must have been habit forming, because that old iPad remained my art tool of choice and is still how I do all my illustrations for projects like PokéNatomy. I’ve been drawing on the same iPad since 2011 with a lucky stylus that’s basically a stick with a bit of cloth on the end.
Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?
Christopher: Oh man, that’s a tough question. So many recent posters seem to be just faces and filter effects, or worse… references to the original film (in the case of a remake or reboot). I’d like to do the illustrations for something fun, and visually intriguing. Maybe something like Pacific Rim or an upcoming Godzilla film.
Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?
Christopher: It’s quite silly looking back, but it was definitely a digital sketch of the Venus De Milo statue with giant robot machine guns for arms.
Kirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then?
Christopher: I think that I’ve gotten better at choosing interesting subjects. When I was a teenager all I wanted to illustrate was “cool” stuff. I just wanted to draw T-rexes with chainsaw tails, giant tentacle spider monsters chasing hot men and women, and dragons covered with spikes and flames. Now I take much more pride in illustrating something with a theme, or a piece of art that works well as part of a collective.
Kirstie: What inspired you to make your PokéNatomy book?
Christopher: I’ve always had a love for biology, but what first intrigued me about the concept of applying an anatomical lens to Pokémon was the juxtaposition between my dark aesthetic preferences and the bright, cartoony style of the original cartoon and games. Imagining that adorable Pokémon characters have all the messy underlying biology that real organisms have is an unsettling thought for a lot of people. That mild transgressive element was exciting to me, and since the anime-style proportions of Pokémon are so unrealistic it was a challenge to design their biological underpinnings in a way that felt authentic.
Kirstie: What was the most difficult Pokémon to open up? Why?
Christopher: In particular Exeggcute was a huge headache for me. I envisioned this communal organism, like a Portuguese Man o’ War, where each individual “egg” performed a specific function. It took a lot of research, and I ended up drawing and redrawing them over and over trying to get my thoughts on the page. Others like Staryu were a challenge for totally different reasons. The biology of Starfish is already so alien I actually felt like I should probably tone down the actual anatomy so that the readers wouldn’t think I’d made it all up.
Kirstie: What was the most interesting to figure out? Why?
Christopher: I especially enjoyed the truly outlandish Pokémon and their abilities. Drowzee in particular was fun because in the game’s canon these creatures have psychic abilities, and I was able to justify and explore that idea in some really novel ways. Specifically, I spent a lot of time researching sonic weaponry and ultrasonic crowd dispersal techniques as well as real biological methods of sound production in bats and dolphins.
I was eventually able to create a very plausible mechanism by which Drowzee could induce disorientation, pain, and fatigue through focused sound waves. It explained the “psychic” powers in a realistic way, taught the reader something about biology and physics, and even incorporated the Pokémon’s prominent trunk into the theory as a way of focusing and controlling its complicated sonic apparatus.
Kirstie: How much research did you have to do into real biology to get it right?
Christopher: Quite a lot. I spend most of my time with the project trying to create fictional anatomy that is both interesting and plausible, and almost every Pokémon required at least a few hours of research and fact checking. Much of PokéNatomy is based on the behaviour and biology of real-world organisms. So for the sake of the project, I’ve found myself thumbing through books on botany, herpetology, metaphysics, and even embryology, wracking my brain to find the perfect real world phenomenon to use as inspiration.
Kirstie: What is your favourite Pokémon?
Christopher: Definitely Scyther.
Kirstie: Have you been keeping up with the more recent games? What do you think of them?
Christopher: I played Pokémon Go with my younger brother quite a bit last summer, and dabbled in the more recent Sun and Moon 3DS games. I enjoy them well enough, and I’m still a fan of the property, but I think that I’ve outgrown the actual games. That’s probably for the best. I’ll always have my memories of the original games and I’d like for a new generation of young fans to be able to fall in love with Pokémon without people like me in their mid-20’s warping the property’s sensibilities towards an older audience.
Kirstie: Would you ever consider making more PokéNatomy books for later generations of Pokémon?
Christopher: I’m slowly putting them out through my Patreon at the moment. When doing the first book I only had around 50-70 Pokémon finished when the Kickstarter went live, and I had to struggle to complete the whole project in a timely fashion. I’m illustrating the next generation over a longer stretch of time along with other projects, and will only consider doing a full book once I’m mostly finished with the art and writing.
Kirstie: What inspired your Natural History of the Fantastic?
Christopher: A Natural History of the Fantastic was my first book, and what captivated me about it was the idea that knowledge, courage, and a desire for discovery could transform monsters and mythical creatures into something quantifiable. The book opens with this brief message-
I know you don’t believe me when I say there is nothing to fear.
We were raised on tales of monsters, death, and terror, told to ignite childish imaginations.
I see now, much to my regret, that we were wrong to be afraid of dark tales and deep places. As I have come to discover, truth is often hidden in the dark and unexpected.
Many of the things you will see in this volume are familiar to you, but despite what you were taught to believe, you must not be afraid.
There is danger, but a keen mind is a match for any manner of flesh and fang, known or otherwise.
The world is full of nameless things, and mysteries yet unanswered.
It is the duty of this book’s bearer to question and explore. Though there is an ache in my heart for adventures yet unhad, I pass this collection onto you and hope you will use its knowledge responsibly.
Go now, and learn what you can.
It was the sort of thing I would have liked to hear as a kid, because the idea that science and reason can transform the supernatural into the natural makes the world a lot less scary. I liked the idea that dragons, demons, and mermaids had a place in the natural order of the world, and challenged myself to figure out how that might work.
Kirstie: What kind of myths and stories did you look to for research?
Christopher: A Natural History of the Fantastic was based mostly in general European folklore and Tolkien, since it was trying to investigate and deconstruct popular creatures and characters. I added a few exotic, but still well known, figures in from other cultures as well like the Kappa and Sphinx. On top of that, there were one or two creatures of my own invention that helped fill out the world’s evolutionary tree and give it a sense of place and uniqueness that separated the book a bit from typical fantasy writing.
Kirstie: What is your favourite mythical creature?
Kirstie: What inspired your Feminomicon?
Christopher: While researching and selecting the monsters for A Natural History of the Fantastic, I came across quite a few stories and creatures in folklore that I had never heard of. As it turned out they were overwhelming female figures, and most of them came from outside of Western Europe. I’ve always been very into fantasy and mythology, so it was surprising to find this wealth of characters outside of my knowledge. It made me want to collect these unsung characters in a single book and to strive to represent them in a way that feels truer to their original characters.
Kirstie: What is your favourite character you included in the Feminomicon?
Christopher: I’m a big fan of the Penanggalan. She’s a Southeast Asian vampire that resembles a woman’s disembodied head with trailing intestines that flies under its own power at night and trails glittering lights. What’s not to love?
Kirstie: What about traditional sci-fi and fantasy made you feel like there needed to be a collection that focussed on diversity and empowerment?
Christopher: This is part of a much larger (and more complicated) discussion, but I feel like in a lot of traditional (and contemporary) science-fiction and fantasy media, men are allowed to inhabit a wide degree of character types and tropes, while women are more limited.
It seems to me, that many of these amazing female mythical creatures aren’t common in the contemporary popular consciousness because they don’t fit neatly into our existing conceptions of what women can be. In my opinion, even modern stories don’t have a lot of room for women characters that are ambitious and self-empowered, or hideous and unselfconscious about it, or even just evil and destructive because they enjoy it and not because they were wronged in some way.
Researching these creatures helped to exemplify this, a lot of the existing illustrations for really interesting, and occasionally terrifying, mythical figures were unnecessarily sexualised. I wanted to dial that back and attempt some more faithful and historically rooted reproductions of these figures, goddesses, witches, and monsters.
Kirstie: What is your process for coming up with a new concept for an alien or a monster?
Christopher: I typically start with some random sketching. This is half warming up and half making thumbnail versions of the creature I’m trying to envision. At first it’s mostly shapes and shading, but as I progress I start finding a basic outline. Once that’s done, it’s research time! I keep a whole stack of animal anatomy and photography books on my desk at all times, and use those resources for inspiration as I progress the concept. This can be for coloration and textures, as well as more substantial things like organs or appendages.
Kirstie: What made you decide to create your mobile studio and take your art on the road?
Christopher: The mobile lifestyle had very little to do with my artistic output, at least at first. I bought the school bus and outfitted it as a mobile home that I could see more of the United States while living cheaply on the road. Recently it’s turned out to be an excellent opportunity, because I can travel to art conventions and comic cons easily while I live on the road.
Kirstie: You’ve said you plan to fuse the worlds of high and low art. How do you plan do that?
Christopher: I’d like to do more genre mixing, and attempt to challenge some of the artificial distinctions between varieties and values of art. PokéNatomy was the first step in that direction, combining medical illustration, fan art, and surrealistic science fiction fantasy sensibilities. I think that we are getting to a place generally where the average viewer’s aesthetic vocabulary has expanded dramatically, with most people now able to understand a deep pool of references simply due to the amount of aesthetic arts we are all engaging with daily. A 30 minute scroll through the average Tumblr feed is exposure to more art than many previous generations could see in a year, and the internet has so dramatically expanded potential audiences that esoteric, unusual, or extreme types of art and writing now have an opportunity to take hold. I think that soon this kind of creativity will be more and more common.
For example, one of my close friends in Santa Fe is a classically trained oil painter who specialises in creating photorealistic depictions of European architecture. However, her newest paintings are of amateur cosplayers presented with the same style and grand importance as renaissance nobility.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Christopher: I’d like to tell any readers who are interested in pursuing art as a career that professional art is not as monolithic as it appears from the outside. There’s all kinds of ways to make a living doing art, and all of them begin with honing your craft and persisting. I’ve never taken drawing or illustration class outside of the general art stuff you get in the American public education system. I have friends who went to college for art and then never ended up using their degree, and a million different combinations on these stories.
I get inquiries all the time- “oh man, I love your art how do I start selling my work professionally?” and I tell them: “Print out some of your work, and sell it to friends and family. Boom! You’re selling art professionally.”
That sort of response tends to sound sarcastic, but it’s 100% sincere. An inkjet printer is a fine place to start especially for comics, but there are hundreds of cheap printing services out there that you can easily use to start producing professional grade art posters and books for very little.
Go to local festivals or conventions, pay $100 to get a booth and try to make it back over the event. Meet other artists there and see what they create. Practice and post everything you make online. Try to put out a Kickstarter and don’t get discouraged if your project doesn’t succeed (my first one failed miserably). Make a blog and provide a purchase link to the things you have printed, keep producing, keep promoting.
There’s no single path to becoming an artist, and more importantly it can be hard to quantify what “professional artist” even means. Some people supplement their income with their art, others work hard every day just to get by selling their work, while others have 200,000 followers and don’t monetise their artistic output at all.
Just keep working and experimenting. Eventually you’ll find an audience and figure out what being an artist means for you.
We’d like to say a massive thank you to Christopher Stoll for talking to Vampire Squid!
Don’t forget to grab yourself a copy of PokéNatomy – An Unofficial Guide to the Science of Pokémon and support Christopher on Kickstarter!