Ian Bertram is a passionate artist, with a flair for the visceral. His art, a single piece of which he may spend months working on, aims to give prominence to flesh of different kinds.
“I like distorted anatomy,” he says, as we slowly flip through the pages of his sketchbook, positively ogling at his delightfully macabre renditions of people and creatures of varying degrees of fierce yet captivating hideousness – one of whom, he helpfully points out, is an ex-girlfriend. The amount of detail in Ian’s work – from the bent-out-of-shape limbs, the warped facial structures, and eyes that scream blue murder – is astounding.
Oh, and he draws comics for a living. One of Ian’s slightly better-known contributions was for a series of comics about a certain caped crusader published by a small time American publishing house called DC Comics. You might’ve heard of it.
Ian is in Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks, and if you swing by the Barefoot Gallery on the September 17, 18, and 19, you’ll be able to see some of his best work on display, as part of an exhibition organised by Hot Butter Collective, an art collective run by Natasha Thompson, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Jonathan Wijayaratne, and Ryan Wijayaratne.
Though Ian draws comics for a living, what he’s primarily interested in talking about is his personal art, which looks more like the mural he was working on at the soon to be opened Drift B & B off Bauddhaloka Mawatha. But that didn’t stop us from pressing him for more on his impressive resume.
Having worked for pretty much every major comic book publisher in the US including Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image Comics, Ian’s is a sought after name in the industry. If you’re a DC comics fan and have read Scott Snyder’s and Tim Seeley’s well-received Batman Eternal run (issue no. 11 in particular), you’ve seen his work.
“Batman Eternal was a lot of fun. The editor was amazing. We were allowed to do super weird things. I could adapt the characters in my own way and the story was a little absurd,” says Ian, clearly grateful for the creative leeway he and his fellow artists were given by DC – a pleasant surprise considering it featured some of the most iconic characters in comic book history and was set in the New 52 Court of Owls continuity.
Putting a comic issue together is a time-consuming process. According to Ian, it often involves very strict scripts.
“There are 22-24 pages in a comic and each page will have a bunch of panels on it and the script will break down the panels like ‘Joe walks into the room, Joe picks up a cup of coffee, Joe throws it at the wall,’” explains Ian.
The most recent comic he worked on was adapted from a movie screenplay, which he says wasn’t intended for a comic at all.
“That’s been fun. I’ve gotten to adapt the pacing completely and break down the issues.”
Explaining the intricacies of drawing for comics, Ian says a comic script instructs the artists on specific actions that need to be isolated; often there will be specific instructions for each action. But the artist does get some leeway.
“For example, in a fight scene, some writers will tell you to draw whatever fight scene you think works best. If you feel like it works better a certain way, [you have the creative freedom to do it that way]. Also, if the style that I’m working on is weird enough, someone’s gonna hire me to do a project, it’s gonna be a collaboration. I mean, it’s still work for hire, but it’s not like I’m just there drawing.”
Away from the fast-paced action of the comic book world, Ian’s art takes a more sinister turn. The ominous feelings invoked by the distorted yet captivating illustrations he keeps hidden away in his sketchbook are the result of the experiences and emotions that drive him to create them.
“It’s most definitely unhealthy,” says Ian. “but the most inspiring situations for me have always been sad ones. Broken hearts and dead friends have put me into fevered states of creation in ways that love and life never have.”
His exhibition at the Barefoot Gallery this weekend promises to showcase yet another side of Ian ‒ one influenced distinctly by Sri Lanka. The pieces on display will be those created during his five-week-long foray around the island and include large-scale drawings, portraits, and even some batik work.
“I needed a holiday and came to visit my friend Ryan, who I’d known for three years in New York,” says Ian, explaining the seemingly peculiar decision to showcase his work here. “He suggested the idea of doing a solo exhibit ‒ a residence of sorts ‒ and it seemed like a great way to travel, meet people, and create new work inspired by a new place. It’s been exciting and calm in equal measure.”
Between the comic books he illustrates for a living and the more unorthodox material he works on whenever he has time for himself, Ian Bertram’s art is many-faceted and unlike anything you’ve seen before. So if you’re looking for something to do this weekend, drop by the Barefoot Gallery and while away the time encountering Ian’s fascinating, and at times shudder-inducing, creations.
Featured image credit Roar.lk/Minaali Haputantri