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Tristan Henry-Wilson grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire, where as a child he gravitated toward many of the same things other young boys love: comic books and cartoons. Along the way he decided to become a professional artist, transforming his passions for painting, design and animation into a successful career. In high school Tristan realized that while he loved drawing and art, he was not yet the skilled artist we know today. Instead of being discouraged, he doubled down.
“I wasn’t really that good at art. I didn’t really stand out at it,” Tristan said. That realization only made him work harder. “That’s when I started taking private art lessons and becoming obsessed with it. I was introduced to oil painting and decided at that early age that this is something that I wanted to be really good at.”
His self-described obsession with art led him to apply to Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, but he ended up going to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia because it was more affordable. His dream at the time was to become an animator for Disney, but reality would soon get in the way. “I’m from a very lower income family. Both of my parents are Jamaican and I’m first-generation,” said Tristan. “I didn’t have an understanding of money.”
It turned out that Tristan didn’t feel a strong connection to SCAD, so he transferred to Ringling. “My whole mentality as an artist is to be better than everyone else. I wanted a painful experience. I wanted everyone to be obsessed with art.” At Ringling he studied illustration, deciding to become adept at the technical aspects of draftsmanship so that he could later teach himself 3D and animation. Like many in his generation, Tristan graduated from college with a lot of debt and no clear path forward. After college, Tristan bounced around a lot of low-wage jobs in Florida and New York City while struggling to find a way to turn his talents into a career in the arts.
“The story of my life has pretty much been looking around seeing how other people are doing it and imitating it on the fly,” Tristan said. “I started landing freelance graphic design jobs. I realized that if you act as if you’re something then you become that something.” This strategy worked and Tristan won a design job at Godiva Chocolatier. Within five years he had gone from a junior designer to an art director at the company. Always looking for a new challenge, Tristan decided to make the jump to an advertising agency where he could work with more creatives.
At that time, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had recently gone viral and was making the rounds online. Tristan loved the concept behind the videos and decided to participate. Wanting his video to stand out, he used the challenge as an opportunity to learn something new. So he taught himself video editing and motion graphics software like Adobe After Effects and Premiere. “I learned more about motion design and motion graphics and quickly became obsessed,” Tristan said. “I essentially became an animator within a year. I found a way to take my passion for design and make it move.”
People are often surprised when they hear that Tristan started with oil painting and illustration, then taught himself all the digital tools he needs to be a graphic designer and animator. “I show people my work and they wonder, you’ve been doing this for how long?” Tristan said. “Draftsmanship is so hard and requires so much discipline that it helps you pick up anything else. It can’t be harder than drawing. We’re so lucky to have so many resources available for free or next to free. The only thing stopping you is your own sweat equity.”
But Tristan’s shift to digital hasn’t stopped him from working in oil paints. He’s currently creating a series called Nebula Dresses that combines his love of painting with his interest in the cosmos. “It marries my love of painting with this newfound obsession with space. I just wanted to paint this series,” Tristan said. “It’s a reset button on everything I’ve ever done to make this short body of work. In the last year as I’ve become obsessed with animation, I look at painting less as filling that artistic part of my soul. If something doesn’t move, I just want to make it move. I want to create an animation for the paintings, to bring them to life.”
Tristan hasn’t released the Nebula Dresses series for sale as prints yet, but when he does, they’ll be on INPRNT. Tristan has known INPRNT’s founder, Joshua Zika, since they both attended Ringling. They each had a different focus in school but respected each other’s creativity and feedback, staying in touch after leaving Sarasota. “After I moved away, Josh would always comment on my work, giving positive feedback or critiques,” Tristan said. For a while, Tristan left oil painting behind to focus on working digitally. When Tristan returned to the traditional medium for a new piece, Joshua encouraged him to keep going. “He was like, this is what you should be doing. Then I did it and that was it. I hadn’t worked digitally for another 10 years. So when he started INPRNT, I will never even consider running prints from anything else for any reason.”
In addition to his interest in space, Tristan is inspired by the natural world here on earth. He now lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter, where he has come to appreciate the state's beauty. “It’s not uncommon to see bald eagles outside in my backyard, or bears and deer,” Tristan said. “Those are things that I find really inspiring. Being alone with nature is an opportunity I get to have.”
But Tristan is also inspired by a darker force. “What pushes me the most is that a couple of years ago, I had an existential crisis,” Tristan said. “I gave up a lot of the belief systems from my upbringing and gained an appreciation for the finality of life. You only have so much time to get things done that you want to get done. If they were important to you, you need to do them now.”
To that end, Tristan can’t remember the last time he was creatively stuck. He’s always working on building his skill set or painting a new project. It’s what keeps him sharp and creatively engaged. “When it comes to painting, all art really, you do it and you keep doing it and you like what you’re doing because you’ve put your hand down and come up with something that at least some of the time pleases you,” Tristan said. “You gradually get better by just doing what you like doing every day. Practice becomes effortless. That’s why artists are so talented. They like practicing.”
Photos and images courtesy of Tristan Henry-Wilson
And while that can be enjoyable, it’s when things get hard that you really grow as an artist and person. “This is something that I want my daughter to learn: embrace the frustration,” Tristan said. “I enjoy the frustration. If I’m frustrated working on something, I love it. I know that I’m going to come out learning something at the end. It feels better when you get that payoff. It makes you want to try that much harder and figure out how to do it. It prevents you from backing off and closing doors that you just wouldn’t have gone down. And it’s applicable to other areas of your life.”