Watercolor Paintings Blend Fantasy and Realism With Dazzling Details [Interview]

Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Creating art can be akin to solving a puzzle. Once you have an idea of what you want to create, you’ve got to figure out how the elements will come together and make your vision a reality. This is how the artist Hieu Nguyen, aka kelogsloops, approaches his gorgeous watercolor paintings. Blending elements of fantasy with a realistic style of illustration, the storybook imagery is arresting in its emotion and attention to detail. Nguyen’s work begs for a long look—for us to consider the story and admire the technical mastery of the water-based medium.

Nguyen’s paintings feel both intimate and grand. It’s something he’s cultivated on canvas and in his sketchbooks over many years, and it's a characteristic that's grown even more refined the longer he's an artist. Currently, Ngyuen finds inspiration in contemporary creatives such as Shaun Tan and Yoshitaka Amano, but he also looks to past artistic movements such as Romanticism. His interest in a variety of subject matter helps him to be well-rounded as he puts together the pieces of his artistic puzzle to create compelling imagery.

We spoke to Nguyen about his work, including how he generates ideas for his incredible pieces. Scroll to read My Modern Met’s exclusive interview.

Artist Hieu Nguyen, aka kelogsloops, creates incredible storybook illustrations that blend fantasy with arresting attention to detail.

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Your work has a beautiful illustrative quality to it. What are some of the inspirations behind your recent paintings?

Thank you very much! My paintings in the recent few years have definitely been inspired by storytelling and narrative art. To name a few specific examples, I’ve been enjoying a lot of Yoshitaka Amano and Shaun Tan. They are two incredible art geniuses in their own rights, but their artworks have a shared commonality in their ability to tell stories and intrigue wonder, even in the most minimal and muted of compositions! The works are stripped back, and yet so hyper-focused on capturing these stories of the subjects within each painting. It’s an aspect I’ve always admired in their works and have been trying to focus and emulate in my own recent works.

I’ve also found a lot of inspiration in artworks from the Romanticism era. Elegantly posed subjects in intimate, graceful, and serene compositions with soft movements. More recently experimenting and exploring with incorporating art-nouveau details and design language has been really fun. I think the direction of my work right now is trying to reduce and minimalize to let the painting breathe and have a story show through.

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

What is your favorite part of your artistic process?

It varies, but I’d have to say it would be either the start or the end of a painting. The start of a painting is always so exciting because it’s where all my countless ideas come to life and I get to arrange it like a puzzle. I get to figure out compositional elements, color palettes, design elements, what message I want to portray, what story I want to tell, or what feeling I want to capture. It’s the problem-solving that becomes so exciting, rewarding, and fun! For obvious reasons, the completion of a painting is also one of my favorite parts of the process because I get to add those final finishing touches that tie the painting together and take it out of its “ugly stage.” Also, it means I get to peel the tape off the paper, and that’s ALWAYS the most satisfying part!

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

How do you generate ideas for your pieces?

Ideas for my work come from various sources of inspiration or thoughts throughout my days! It’s always sparked by just a small something, whether it be a color palette, the curvature and shape of an object, the lighting of a sunset, or even a lyric to a song. These ideas kind of sit in my mind until I get to sit at a desk or have a sketchbook opened up in front of me. It’s here that I then plug in (always with music) and begin to scribble and draw. I’ll generally mindlessly scribble until something “clicks,” and it can be as vague or as unrefined as a simple flowing line. From then, that line might become a composition, or a subject, or the flow of movement I want to capture. I’ll refine it further into a sketch or thumbnail, and continue until the idea comes to life. This is generally the workflow, but it’s never the same and it changes with each piece. Sometimes, these ideas and compositions will come completely formed before I even start sketching, yet sometimes the brainstorming can take weeks to bring an idea to life.

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

What is it like to share your artistic life with such a massive audience [over 1 million fans]?

It’s something I try not to think about too much! On one hand, I’d like to stay authentically true and honest to myself and to my audience in regards to sharing the ups and downs of my journey, as that’s how I’ve always tried to be. To be able to share my successes and failures with so many people with lots of support, encouragement, and love (and also hate of course!) is something that I think is truly a blessing. For example, opening up about my decision to pursue art and leave my studies in physiotherapy, or sharing my first solo exhibition, or even sharing the mental and physical struggles and lows I encountered in recent years. They’ve been very intense moments that I’ve been able to share with my audience. To have people who listen and care, I’m very fortunate.

But on the other hand, I can’t deny that I feel a certain pressure when I sit down and realize how many people follow my work and what I do. To know that there’s young kids, aspiring artists, and professionals who look at what I do with admiration, respect, or even criticism & hate, it’s a lot to shoulder and can sometimes be quite daunting and crippling. I think in a way it matured me a bit quite early on, which I think is a good thing though.

Do you find that your social media audience influences your work? 

To an extent, yes! At the end of the day, I always try to paint and draw what I find interesting, fun, or challenging. However, the content I create and how my audience receives it definitely has an influence to an extent of what other content I continue creating! For example, I recently started creating fan art of anime and games that I enjoy personally. Though very different from my normal work, it was well received and people enjoyed it (I was afraid people wouldn’t like it), so I kept doing more fan art. So to an extent, I try to engage and listen to my audience in terms of what they want to see me create and paint.

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

What's one of your favorite pieces you've created lately? 

I was commissioned last year to create four paintings for Magic: The Gathering. It was one of the most incredible opportunities for obvious reasons (it’s MAGIC!), so that probably contributes to why it was so special and exciting. But, there’s one painting called Utopia Sprawl that particularly is special to me because I think it’s a HUGE technical leap for my work. I pushed my comfort zones and experimented with and developed new techniques that have paved the way for so many more types of paintings and directions for my future work. I think it’s one of the best and strongest pieces I’ve made to date, and the coolest part is, that the painting now gets to appear as a real card! I’m still pinching myself at the thought and realization of that.

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

What are you working on next? Anything exciting you can tell us about?

Currently, I’m juggling two projects which I’m extremely excited about, but unfortunately cannot discuss just yet! Hopefully, in the near future, I’ll be able to announce them, but until then my lips are sealed. One exciting thing that I am working on is creating an art book. I’ve always wanted to bring my watercolor sketchbooks to life and offer them as coffee-table-style art books, so I’ve been working on that over the past year to make it a reality!

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Fantastical Watercolor Painting by Kelogsloops

Hieu Nguyen: Website | Instagram | YouTube | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Hieu Nguyen.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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