For a stroll through the fabulously surreal, colorful and imaginative we visit the work of our friend, Niko (@cnikarts). Niko’s art is consistently thoughtful and wildly ingenious. The color palette he creates with has fantastical qualities while his art concepts range from the imagined to the unimaginable. We had a digital visit with Niko recently and truly enjoyed learning about him, his artwork, and his utilization of Mextures. Read along!
It seems like one of the hardest questions I ever get asked is to describe myself. Trying to separate our identities into piles and pick out the brightest, most primary colors never works, at least not for me. Nothing stands out unaffected. It’s only when you step way back, where everything blurs together again as one, that a person looks real, vivid, kaleidoscopic. I think that’s hard to pull off in an interview, but I’m all for pushing my edges, and doing hard things, so here goes:
My name is Niko Christian. I'm a young artist. I’m a star-gazer. I’m a joker. I’m a creative person. I really only started thinking of myself as creative fairly recently, but I now realize we all are. It’s human nature, even if all we create are stories and fantasies in our heads that never see the light of day. For myself, I like to bring more consciousness to it, bring something tangible to the world from nothing, and have that creation proliferate, producing ripples of experience for others. I hope my art can be both beautiful and provocative, challenging people to look at the world in a new way, as well as forging a human connection from the spark of recognition.
I’m not religious, but I guess I’m a pretty philosophical person. I believe in personal growth through risk and creative expression. I like to play guitar, I like to draw, I like to write, and I like to think and learn in ways they don’t teach at school. I like to be outside, to ride my longboard, and obviously, I like to take and edit pictures. Not too long ago, I internalized the value of practice. I never used to get it because I saw talent as intrinsic, but, after years of listening to my mom and her friends speak about how talent is predominantly practice, it finally clicked. So, that’s what I do. That’s who I am… at least for now.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO PHOTOGRAPHY AND DESIGN?
I think I’ve always liked taking pictures, at least from a pretty early age, maybe around 6 or 7. It wasn’t a passion or anything, but my sister and I would go on these adventures and we would just document them. After that I sort of forgot about photography for awhile, until a few years later, when we started going out on our own and taking photos in the city.
We mainly shot each other or friends, but also strangers, working in a rather journalistic style, just trying to capture stuff we thought was emotionally evocative. We also took a lot of staged shots in the middle of the street, especially at sunset. Around that time I started to take photography a little more seriously. I wanted to learn more about it, and I asked for my own camera for xmas, which I was lucky enough to get.
I also got lucky with my uncle being a photographer and a teacher at the SVA because he helped me quite a bit with learning about my camera and light, and by breaking down strong examples of his own work and guiding me toward inspiration. He kept encouraging me to join Instagram, but, since I’m more of an introvert, it took me a few months before I finally did. I honestly didn’t expect much, but instead I discovered a community of artists, and ended up being really inspired. That’s when I got into design.
HOW HAS SOCIAL MEDIA PLAYED A ROLE IN YOUR WORK?
Like I sort of touched on in my last comment, social media has absolutely played a fundamental role in my work. To begin with, it provides me with basically unlimited sources of inspiration and expertise gathered in one place, a lot of which are extremely accessible, which is a huge motivation to learn. Going back to when I first discovered the artistic community, I suddenly saw all these new possibilities for my photographs, things that may never have crossed my mind before, and I really wanted to cultivate the skills necessary to manifest those fresh ideas sparking in my head and build upon them.
Initially, I created everything with different apps on my phone; then eventually, I started teaching myself Photoshop. Obviously, social media and, to a greater extent, the internet, are instrumental to innovation, and I guess it was no different for me. Besides that, it offered me a platform for expression and feedback that didn’t carry much liability in terms of failure. At this point, it’s not quite as integral to my creative process as it was at the outset, but it’s still a huge vehicle for my expression. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Instagram, I might not have gotten into design, and I definitely wouldn’t have progressed as far as I have.
WHAT SORT OF GEAR DO YOU PHOTOGRAPH WITH?
The camera I use most now is a Sony Alpha I got recently as a gift. It’s pretty amazing. I like it because it takes awesome photographs, but is still really portable and easy to just carry around. It’s a lot more portable than my Canon, which is the first real camera I ever got. I actually still shoot with it all the time, but it’s usually for planned things, like concept shots and portraits, or still life scenes I set up at home, or when I’m shooting props for composites. But, if I go on a trip, or out with my friends, I bring my Sony. I also have a little Fuji that I use when I’m out by myself taking street shots.
WHAT ARE THE APPS AND SOFTWARE YOU USE THE MOST?
I mainly use Lightroom and Photoshop at the moment. Occasionally, I’ll make something simple in Illustrator or Blender. I don’t do mobile edits very often anymore, just if I’m sitting around somewhere waiting and bored, but I primarily use Art Studio, Glitche, and Mextures when I do. I got a complete set of Premium Mextures overlays a while ago, so I use them right on my computer pretty regularly, depending how big the file is already, or how lazy I feel, or especially if I really want or need to have a high res version of the final product. But it’s much easier to create formulas in the app. Plus, you also get access to all the film presets and other adjustments from there, so a lot of times I will get everything finalized on my computer, and then run it through the app as a finish.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE?
I don’t know if I have a good answer for this. I really feel like my style is still taking shape and evolving, so it’s tough for me to pin down. I definitely have an inclination toward incorporating elements of surrealism, along with my own philosophical musings in most of my design and photography work. In general, I tend to create fairly clean atmospheric visuals, without a lot of texture, and a surrealistic quality.
Sometimes, I simply go for what is beautiful, and that can be amazing too. I think beauty is important, in that it creates this fundamental connection, bridging the gap between the material and ethereal. But, at the end of the day, I want my work to be more than just visually appealing. I want it to leave you with something to think about— something that might change you, or how you see the world.
IS THERE EVER ANYTHING IN SPECIFIC THAT YOU’RE TRYING TO COMMUNICATE THROUGH YOUR ART?
I guess one of my main goals is just to get people thinking at a fundamental and philosophical level, questioning reality, questioning the nature of existence, questioning the things we’re taught to believe, and the attitudes and ideas we’re indoctrinated with right from birth, just as a consequence of the world we live in, and the structure of society.
A lot of what I make is an attempt to communicate my many ambiguous and ephemeral ideas on the nature of life, love, beauty, suffering, joy, etc, as well as to convey a sense of common emotion and other brain glitches that people might identify and connect with. There are plenty of specific things I’m trying to communicate in the moment, but not necessarily any single idea that permeates my work entirely. It’s all an exploration. There is so much I’m not certain of, or just don’t know at this point in my life, so I don’t make many grandiose statements… other than life is a mystery.
WHAT DOES YOUR EDITING PROCESS GENERALLY LOOK LIKE?
Whether I’m just processing straight photos, or getting specific images ready for an edit, I normally begin in Lightroom by adjusting white balance, exposure, contrast, tones, etc. After that I bring everything into Photoshop for editing, usually messing with adjustment layers and blend modes to start, placing images, blending, masking, or whatever I else I need to do, finally making more adjustments to particular elements or areas if necessary. This is all very general. My exact process depends on my idea, and I work pretty organically at times. I like playing around with motion, and I often use different brushes to draw or paint in components or details. Sometimes I like to start really simple, with a plain black or white background and create something from there. I mainly use Mextures overlays to fine tune images on my computer at the end, or else I crop and send them to my phone so I can use my own formulas in the app.
HOW SPECIFICALLY DO YOU USE MEXTURES IN THAT PROCESS?
When I was doing more mobile editing, I would often use Mextures as a starting point, layering textures over a single color or simple gradient to create an interesting background to build from, and then I would run it through again at the end to finish, usually throwing on a bunch more texture. Now that I work mainly in Photoshop, Mextures is almost always the last step in my process. It’s a great tool to finalize my work, to bring everything together and make an image cohesive in terms of lighting and tones, and to draw attention as much as possible to exactly where I want the viewer to focus. I use the overlays on my computer a lot, but, when in the app, I’ve gravitated toward keeping my formulas pretty simple and subtle lately. I try to avoid using options that might be difficult for me to recreate in full resolution on my computer, which means I don’t use the film presets as much as I used to, or as much as I would like.
CAN YOU SHARE SOME OF YOUR FORMULAS?
Sure. I love to share. So, here are a few formulas:
QJSYYEB (maker): This is one I like on light to medium images. It mainly brightens things up, and adds a bit of blue. I’m a big fan of pink and blue.
QWGNTIV (yellow): I like this best on medium to dark images. It gives a kind of desaturated look with blue tones.
ZBGKYQB (whirl): This is a super simple formula. It brightens up the center and adds some saturation.
IJRACYM (grainbow): This is an old formula that works best on lighter images. It’s good for when you want to totally trash your work.
And here are a couple more mysterious formulas:
DO YOU FEEL LIKE MEXTURES OFFERS ANYTHING UNIQUE TO YOUR EDITING PROCESS?
I think the most distinctive contribution Mextures brings to my work is in helping me to communicate mood, and bring atmosphere and ambience to an image that might not have been there before. It amplifies my ability to create emotive visuals, and that, more than anything, is valuable to my process. In conjunction with this, the textures and overlays themselves are effective in a way I haven’t really experienced with any other app so far, and the user interface is really accessible and intuitive.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR TWO FAVORITE PIECES TO CREATE?
I guess two of my favorite pieces at the moment would be Tiny Pieces and Anatomy of Desire.
With Tiny Pieces, I like the ethereal vibe it evokes in me, and the colors, and I just really enjoyed the process of making it, starting from a blank white canvas, experimenting, coming up with a new technique (at least for me), and bringing all the pieces together into a whole that feels both serene, and always in flux. I think I’m going to do a series of images in that style.
For Anatomy of Desire, part of what I like about it is just technical — I’m super happy with the way the colors, blending, and texture turned out. I also like the fact that it communicates something really visceral and easily relatable, like how desire can take over your thoughts… along with the common fear that one day you will want something so badly that your head will morph into a giant greedy appendage at night while you are sleeping, and it will grab the wrong thing, because it has no eyes, and then you’ll end up in jail for assault, and everyone will think you’re a pervert, but you won’t be able to tell them that you’re not, because, of course, your mouth is gone, and then you’ll just die of starvation, all because you wanted a fully furnished 3 story Barbie Dreamhouse.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO CREATE MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE?
A couple years ago I started questioning the point of life, and why people do so many of the things they do. Since I don’t really believe in god (at least not the bible guy you live your life for, trying to get into heaven or something), the only thing that really made sense to me as the point is for each being to be able to enjoy life as much as possible, mostly by being true to their own nature. So, the motivation to learn, grow, explore, create, question reality, and become the best person I can, along with inspiring others to do the same, all relates back to that concept. I’ve definitely always been into writing, music, photography, and art in general, but the driving impulse to create that I have now initially came from this question of purpose. My creativity has helped me find a way to connect with that purpose more than anything, by giving me a platform to explore my humanity, develop an appreciation of the natural world, stand in awe of the universe and its tiniest creatures, and realize the importance of the moment, all while doing something I enjoy… as far as I know, that’s the point, and that’s what inspires me most.
WHO ARE THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE MOST INSPIRED YOUR WORK OR PEOPLE YOU FEEL HAVE MENTORED YOU IN YOUR PROCESS?
Well, my uncle mentored me in the beginning as far as photography and teaching me the basics about lighting, and my mom has always been super supportive.
As far as inspirations, it’s hard to choose, because there are so many. I guess some of my earliest inspiration comes from traditional art, mostly painters, stuff like Titian, Caravaggio, Bosch, and then later Dali and Magritte.
When I first got into photography, of course, I came across Richard Avedon, and I think his portraits are hugely responsible for my love of high key minimalism. I like Mary Ellen Mark, Brian Griffin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry. There are so many photographers I like. I wasn’t really that into digital art until my mom took me to an exhibit at the Annenberg, and I discovered Jerry Uelsmann. He’s like the O.G. of photo manipulation. He did everything analog, and I was really blown away by what he was able to create. I also got really into Storm Thorgerson around this time, and a guy named Simen Johan, who my uncle went to school with, along with Robert Montgomery and Kris Kuksi. I’m super into street art, too.
As far as Instagram, and people who inspire me every day…
I love @zolloc’s thought provoking videos… and I know I’m leaving so many amazing people out.
See more of Niko’s incredible art here!