The Thrilling Fantasy of Billy Norrby

0 Comments 11 August 2015

billy norrby art

Swedish-born painter Billy Norrby describes his inspirations, themes in his work, and the economy of storytelling.

by Daniel Barron



Videogames as a storytelling medium offer a unparalleled level of immersion. By nature of their interactivity, the worlds conjured by the design teams can be explored and absorbed at a leisurely pace. In many cases, the very direction of the narrative itself is rippled by the actions of the player.

But an illustrator or a painter has only a single static image with which to define their stories. The work must light the fuse that ignites the imaginations of their spectators. Hired at a videogame company straight out of high school, Stockholm resident Billy Norrby was given a crash course in the fundamentals of art design, screenwriting, and story structure. After the company folded when Norrby was only twenty-five-years-old he decided to move to New York to study painting. There, he supplemented an early love of comics and fantasy illustrators such as Frank Frazetta and James Gurney with an appreciation for fine art masters. Norrby has now defined himself as a master in his own right, showcasing internationally with his dense, often enchanting narratives that seemed ripped straight from the cover of an old pulp magazine. Or perhaps they are concept art for the most spectacular movies you have never seen. They rabbit holes, wardrobes, and looking glasses to be entered.

In the following interview, he describes his creative foundations, influences, and aspirations for the future.




Who were some of your heroes in film/comics/illustration growing up?

Too many to mention. Like most kids back then, my initial heroes and inspiration came mainly through comic books, cartoons and film. My older brother had more of an interest in fine art than I had with my pop culture diet, so through him I got exposed to the likes of Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and William Blake. But I loved comics and had many favorite artists, as a Swede I also had the fortune of having easy access to European comics such as 2000AD, Heavy Metal and the French and Belgian adventures in the vein of Tin Tin and Asterix. I also dreamt of working with movie special effects like Ray Harryhausen or Rick Baker. I wanted to paint like James Gurney and Ralph McQuarrie. My favorites kept alternating but it was usually within the comic book or film realm.



Do you feel like your experiences as a game designer influenced your drawing style at all? Did it have any effect on how you approach storytelling?

Not sure about the drawing style since I really started to hunker down as a full-time artist after I had finished my stint as a game designer. I was eighteen and straight out of high school when I started my very first job at the game company. It was more of a case of being thrust into a professional environment with people ten years my senior. Obviously it was a highly influential experience overall, one that made me keenly aware of the difference between being a happy amateur and a working professional within a demanding creative field. Through my seniors I was able to peek behind the curtain for the first time and seriously consider how things are made and all the work that goes into artistic projects.

Beyond witnessing talented concept artists and creative directors, there was also screenwriters and producers who started deconstructing storytelling for me, introducing me to the basics of themes, narrative structure, etc. Even though I hardly play anymore, I still find games fascinating in their marriage between art, design and engineering. Through my years in the business, I certainly learned of amazing international artists and designers I would have been completely unaware of otherwise. As amazing as that studio world can be, it also taught me to appreciate being my own man and in complete control over my own artwork.


billy norrby art

You’ve described your style as having one foot in illustration, the other in fine art. How are those skillsets different or transferable in terms of storytelling?

Not sure if I agree completely with that assertion. Did I say that? I studied illustration under some great teachers within that field, and they’ve certainly imbued me with many great lessons and tools for solving visual problems. It is up to each artist to create a meaningful definition of fine art and how your work relates sincerely to your thoughts and persona. (If that’s what you want.) Most of my work has been in the gallery realm even though I’ve done a number of illustrations over the years. In nearly all cases when I have been approached for a commercial job, the art director has been aware of my body of work and my usual creative language, so if they’ve contacted me that’s usually meant that they want something similar, or in the vein I’m already working. I’ve never felt significantly constrained creatively in those situations and I always try to inject as much of myself into the subject matter despite the external origin of the assignment.

Naturally there are practical differences between a fine art painting and a painted illustration I have to consider. I like to think that a painting on a wall is usually taken in at a slower pace, in a more introverted and quiet setting. As such there is more room to play around with subtle meanings and symbols and have the themes or narrative of the painting reveal itself more slowly to the viewer. There is a virtue in ambiguity as it creates an interactive element for the audience. Suggest thematic “hooks” and visual “riffs” to set the viewer on your desired path, but leave room for their own creativity and interpretation to play.

I very rarely give my art buyer the entire inside story on what a painting is about as I don’t want to limit their own imagination and to “finish the story” in a unique, meaningful way. Illustrations exist in a crowded marketplace and as such should be immediately visually arresting and quite direct in their storytelling. There is virtue in both forms and an image can be deeply resonant and complex regardless of whether or not it’s sitting on a wall or a cheap paperback book cover. Just as a grand symphony and a short rock song can both be equally brilliant. Ideally an illustration has the visual punch to instantly captivate a viewer, but also contains the interesting “secondary reads” and meanings to give it staying power in the consumers mind. At the end of the day, a great painting is a great painting. In time, the context of it’s display will fade and only the image will remain.


billy norrby art

What influences you more now- old fine art masters or more current illustrators?

Both. It’s a steady diet of old and new. Oftentimes the best of contemporary art has something of the old universal truths in them that we find among masterworks that continues to speak to the human condition. Among my art diet there is a constant mixture of old and new, high and low. Pristine and trashy. It’s that mixture that breads ideas and interesting combinations. Nothing is created in a vacuum.


Any interest in screenwriting or producing comics/graphic novels?

Oh I’d love to. Like many artist friends of mine, I have seven or so graphic novel ideas on pile and a couple of unfilmed “best movies ever” in my mind’s eye. Not to mention the books I’d like to write and the games I’d like to design. There is only so little time however to get even half-decent at one thing. It’s always fun to dream though, yes? In all honesty I have such high admiration for the best comic creators and artists. I am painfully aware of how difficult it would be to do something great in that realm so it might prove to discouraging a challenge. As much as I enjoy painting, there is something to sequential storytelling and wider world building I miss from my game development days. If a good opportunity would arise to do something interesting and cool, I would definitely consider it.



What were you interested in exploring thematically and/or aesthetically in each of your three series…?

“PULSAR” (2014-2015)


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“SHADOWS” (2010-2014)


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billy norrby art


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“THE RIOT SERIES” (2010-2012)


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billy norrby art


bily norrby art


The division of my paintings into these three series is actually a misnomer and an afterthought. These paintings were painted gradually over a period of six-seven years and I wasn’t consciously placing my work into different series. It’s only when I looked at my body of work that I could see that some ideas seemed to fit together better than others. It’s good for an painter to remain consistent and to speak with a clear voice. Even if my art could falsely give an impression of being fractured or veering off into different direction, all paintings carry my DNA and personality within them. In time, and with further paintings under my belt, I’m sure the cohesiveness and unity of my vision will be clearer if there’s ever any doubt.

With that said, Pulsar was a break from the increasingly conservative and romantic vein my paintings had taken on for a while (“Shadows”), and I wanted to crank up the intensity and color to feel that I was still exploring and not being caught in a comfortable rut. Many similar ideas are still at play despite the newly saturated colors so “Pulsar” is new yet old at the same time.

“The Riot Series” was an interesting case as I was almost done with the entire series when the occupy movement and the Arab spring started. I had based most of my visual reference on the G8 riots of the late 90s and early 00s. But within a short time span I was contacted by anarchists and young Arabs, thanking me for the visual support. As we all know the revolutionary imagery seen in our media quickly took very dark turns as more and more young people died in the violence and chaos that followed. I respectfully backed away from the subject matter given the life and death seriousness of their struggle and told myself to only work within that theme when I had very clear and carefully articulated thoughts and concepts to add to the ongoing public discussion. I had previously wielded the revolution imagery as more casual metaphors for my own personal conflicts and internal struggles. The very real grimness of the actual rioting presented those visual elements in such stark light that I didn’t want to use it without careful consideration.



View more art by Billy Norrby on his website.

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- who has written 423 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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