Simon Stålenhag’s hauntingly beautiful retro sci-fi art


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Simon Stålenhag’s paintings are a strange, irresistible mix of mundane scenes from the Swedish countryside and haunting scenarios involving abandoned robots, mysterious machinery and even dinosaurs.

They are the product of his childhood memories — growing up in suburban Stockholm and painting landscapes and wildlife — and his adulthood appreciation for sci-fi.

“I try to make art for my 12-year-old self,” he said in a phone interview. “I want to make stuff that would make my younger self see it and go, ‘I’m not supposed to look at this because it’s for adults, but I really want to anyway.’”

‘Tales from the Loop’

Stålenhag has gained a cult following for his hyper-realistic art, which he first began publishing online through Facebook and Twitter. In 2014 he published his first book, in which the artwork is complemented by a novel-length written story. “The art took on a life of its own, because at first I didn’t publish the words, but they were always there. I just waited until I had enough to publish a book,” he said.

The rights to the book, titled “Tales from the Loop,” have been acquired by Amazon Studios, which will develop an 8-episode live action series based on it. The pilot will be directed by Mark Romanek, whose previous credits include 2002’s “One hour photo” with Robin Williams, which happens to be one of Stålenhag’s favorite films.

The story is set in an alternate, retro-futuristic Swedish countryside in the early 1990s, and involves children growing up around robots and a massive underground scientific facility that is spawning weird phenomena.

The plot draws parallels to “Stranger Things,” although “Tales from the Loop” predates the popular Netlfix series. Both shows were inspired by classics like “E.T.” and “The Goonies.”

“I wrote it as almost a memoir, where I go back and describe how it felt to grow up in this small Swedish town, which is actually a real place. There’s a general theme of technology being more advanced in this universe, but there’s no big supervillain or anything like that,” said Stålenhag.

“The biggest threats in this world are like those we all face in life, like being bullied at school or your parents going through a divorce. I wanted to make a very mundane, realistic science fiction story.”


Stålenhag published two more narrative artbooks, “Things from the Flood” in 2016 (a sequel to “Tales from the Loop”) and “The Electric State” in 2017. The latter isn’t set in Sweden but in a fictional US megastate called Pacifica, which corresponds roughly to California, Oregon and Washington. It was inspired by a trip to the West Coast and the photos he took there.

“I always start by going out and taking photos, trying to find cool locations that I take tons of reference photos of. Then I play around with these images and paint on top of them in Photoshop and just try things out,” he explained.

“When I’ve found something I like, I start over and do these huge paintings which are basically traditional media, because I do everything with brushstrokes and don’t use any photo textures.”

In “The Electric State,” a girl and her yellow robot travel through an alternate reality in 1997, with ruins of giant battle drones scattered across the American landscape. The movie rights were acquired last year by the Russo brothers, the directors of “Avengers: Infinity War,” with the writers from that film, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, set to work on the screenplay. The director of “It,” Anthony Muschietti, is in negotiations to direct.

Online feedback

Among his influences, Stålenhag cites Ralph McQuarrie, whose concept art became a visual bible for “Star Wars,” and Syd Mead, whose production design brought “Blade Runner,” “Aliens” and “Tron” to life. As a child, Stålenhag tried to imitate the work of Swedish watercolor painter Gunnar Brusewitz and wildlife artist Lars Jonsson.

“My style could be described as a mix between those Swedish painters and the great concept artists of the 1970s,” he said.

He’s currently working on his fourth book, which he reveals will be a very bleak story about a kid and his parents traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape where everything’s just ash.

“Almost all the art for this project comes from photos that I took during a snowstorm in Stockholm in February. I got all this spooky pictures and they look very foggy because of the snow. When I started playing around with them I ended up getting some really weird pale green and yellow colors which inspired the setting of the new book.”

As with the previous collections, Stålenhag has already published artwork from this new book online, looking for feedback and inspiration for the story.

“I start with the art. And I have a kind of vague idea of what kind of characters I have in this environment. But then I start actually rendering the images and putting them out there on Twitter and watch (how) other people react to them. And sometimes my idea of the story changes along with that.”


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