Spanish illustrator Van Saiyan recalls special moments from his childhood when creating gloriously retro artwork that evokes the look and feel of old-school pulp comics.
Thanks to his delicate inky line work and considered use of block colours and faded textures, Van Saiyan's artwork harks back to sci-fi comics of the '50s and '60s. His illustrations have appeared in editorial columns for the likes of The Washington Post, Forbes and Entertainment Weekly. When he's not working on professional commissions, he mashes his favourite pop culture inspirations with his fan art.
Speaking about what originally attracted him to the style of retro comic books, Van asks the valid question: "Is there anything more fun than aliens, flying saucers, superheroes, space rangers and spaceships?
"In my case, these elements take me back to my childhood and special moments in my life. Perhaps that's what comes out of my head and moves me to tell stories. I work with any subject to make illustrations in my retro comic style."
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest influences on young Van growing up was comic books, especially those drawn by American artists such as Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Al Feldstein, and Infantino. "I was also inspired by Spanish artists such as Ambrós, Francisco Darnís, López Espi, and Daniel Torres," he adds. "I love their drawing styles and the way they ink, not to mention the way they control perspective and their ability to create different worlds and characters in their distinctive aesthetic."
To achieve a similar aesthetic, Van recalls his youth spent flicking through the pages of these artists' work and channels them into his own use of colour, line and subject matter. But unlike his heroes, he takes a digital approach. "Normally, I work with Photoshop, using different brushes and textures to get as close a result as possible to pulp comics," he reveals.
Illustration isn't Van's only passion, though. Music also plays a huge role in his life, and he originally studied to be a primary school music teacher. But after studying for an illustration degree in Madrid, he decided to prepare a portfolio and contact illustration agencies, advertisers and magazine publishers. "This led me to contact new clients in Spain, to work with Anna Goodson Illustration Agency and new international clients."
Music continues to play a huge part in Van's life, too. Not only do his favourite musicians crop up in his art – just look at Kurt Cobain rocking the Batman look – the craft also provided a useful template for Van's work ethic. "Both arts require a lot of discipline and perseverance to move forward," he says. "I also wanted to be a professional musician years ago, so maybe I've incorporated that routine and discipline into my career as an illustrator.
Having lived and worked in Madrid for almost ten years, Van has moved away to a more rural location and is enjoying its quietness. "These days, I prefer to be surrounded by the more relaxed atmosphere of the natural environment," he adds. "As a freelance illustrator, I don't need to attend an office in a big city, so I can contact and collaborate with clients from the other side of the planet without any problems."
But as any homeworker will understand, this setup comes at a cost. Namely a sense of depersonalisation that comes with dealing with various customers and collaborators. "You only interact with people via screens and emails, but it's a fair trade-off, and there are more positive benefits than negative."
Working with the Anna Goodson agency is one of these benefits. Having contacted Van shortly after he sent them his portfolio, the agency has afforded him many opportunities. "The agency has helped me to improve my career and get new clients outside of Spain," says Van. "Thanks to them, I have been able to work for top international media outlets such as The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. In my experience, they offer great support and do a good job."
Currently, Van is working on a project for a Spanish sports club and a mental health association. The collaboration involves creating illustrations for a range of club T-shirts, and when he's not drawing away on that, he's also preparing to make his first graphic novel. "I'm looking forward to working on this in the coming months," he explains. "It will be about a current topic in our modern society."
With so many projects and commissions under his belt, it's hard for Van to choose a favourite piece of work. "Out of my recent work, I'd highlight two official posters I made for one of my favourite bands, Failure. I'm also pleased with another commission I did for The Rise of Video Game Union, part of Polygon's 54-page explainer on video game unionisation.
"I think collaborating on something like this is very nice and comforting. I also love being able to illustrate for interesting magazines about culture, lifestyle, education, sports and science!"
And for aspiring artists looking to follow in his footsteps, Van says that the key is to be constant and keep learning little by little. "If drawing is something that's very important and special for you, don't stop drawing! If you love it, go for it!"