Vartan Garnikyan: The Visionary Behind Viral Artwork

Vartan Garnikyan: The Visionary Behind Viral Artwork

April 24, 2015 0 By Laura Cerrone

His Starry Knight digital artwork has gone viral, circulating sites like Reddit, Facebook and The Chive. And while the artwork remains prevalent online, few know the artist. Vartan Garnikyan is the brain and talent behind combining Vincent Van Gogh’s powerful Starry Night with a Christopher Nolan era Joker. The artist takes to the pulpit to explain the creation of his work, what inspires him and how contemporary comic books translate to famous and classical paintings.

Vartan talks about how his now infamous Starry Knight came to fruition, his plans for the future, and how art can be both an expression of fun and identity. In this digital age, creators of art, music and writing can often fall prey to the Internet’s quick flourishing movement and inability to give credit where credit is respectfully due. Read on to meet the man behind the viral art and visit his website links to view more or if interested in purchasing a copy.

Tell me a little bit about how you got your beginnings in art, were you self-taught, school-taught, both, neither? How did you come into the art world?

I got into digital art back in high school. I took a Photography/Photoshop class in 11th grade, and it just made sense. I’ve never been able to explain how I took to it so fast, but my future all of the sudden had focus; I knew what I wanted to do. I’m actually interested in, experimenting with, and quite fascinated with both traditional and digital art. I’m a digital artist in the day time. For the last 10 years, (I was hired in 11th grade) I’ve worked for an agency in Hollywood that is considered one of the top design firms in the United States. We design and produce a majority of products for every major movie and game studio including; Disney, Fox, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros and Activision. My job is to create the artwork in digital programs like Photoshop.

In 11th grade, I was taking a photography class. On one of the assignments, I had to enter a nationwide random Photography/Photoshop contest. I didn’t win, but a month later, this man showed up at my high school to meet me. He was the vice president of one of the largest design agencies in the country. He asked me to come and take a tour (which was one of the coolest things I had ever seen at the time), and offered me an internship.

I’ve been working at the same agency for about 11 years now. I’m a creative finisher, designer, and art director of production for all theatrical displays (The 3D standees you see in the hallways at movie theaters all across the world).

It’s only in the last year that – as a hobby – I started painting and messing around with different forms of art.


How long have you been creating art? How long have you been creating art with a comic book relation?

I’ve been at it for a few years now, but it wasn’t comic books that interested me to base my art on them, it was the movies. I actually got into comic books because of all my favorite superhero movies.


Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan

Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan


You use traditional methods and digital methods to create your artwork. Do you have a preferred method and what are the pros and cons of each for you?

You know I get this question asked a lot by gallery owners and collectors because they’re just so against digital art. In the beginning, I was specifically digital-based. But after I got so much negative feedback from all of them about digital art not being a one-of-a-kind, or collectors wanting to see actual paint and not a print, etc, I decided that the only way I’d survive was to start implementing some traditional styles in my work; or at least make some crazy looking originals that would actually have some value.

The approach I took with the originals isn’t too cost-efficient. It costs me about $3,000 to produce something, and though they sell, I’m lucky if they sell for at least what I paid for them. I can’t get into detail about how they’re all made unfortunately, gotta keep it a secret so no one will try it. But like I said, this is more of a hobby than anything. As long as I have my day job, I’m cool with not building a career out of this yet, just getting some recognition.


What programs do you use to create your traditional and digital art?

Honestly just Photoshop. I occasionally use 3D rendering programs like Maya and Form Z, etc. but I enjoy making those 3D figures more in Photoshop by hand than I do using some filters in other programs.


Your Classical Batman Collection features a lot of the Joker, and more specifically Heath Ledgers interpretation in The Dark Knight. Why did you choose this specific Joker for these paintings?

Well generally, above all other villains, the Joker has always been a favorite; and Christopher Nolan being my favorite director (before he even made Batman) didn’t hurt either. I think it was just an excellent combination of things that has had me hooked for years… acting, directing, and the coolest comic book character ever.


Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan

Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan


Where did the idea to take famous paintings like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and rework them into contemporary Batman-inspired pieces come from?

This is actually a true story… The reason I painted the Starry Knight is a completely different reason than most of my other Batman pieces. The truth is, I was inspired and got the idea on the opening night of the movie The Dark Knight. That scene that I’ve painted from the movie actually reminded me of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh the second I saw it. I had an epiphany during that scene when I realized that from what I know about Van Gogh, and Heath Ledger’s Joker, they were the exact same person… – totally not kidding, the Starry Night flashed before my eyes during that 3 second scene – Both completely out of their minds, and yet manage to make sense of the world; possibly better than most of us. At that moment, it also crossed my mind that Van Gogh painted the Starry Night from his cell window in an Asylum. I imagined Van Gogh holding his head close to the window and feeling the wind hit his face just as the Joker was doing in my painting. The truth is, you see the Joker, but I was drawing Van Gogh. The Joker’s character has always, ALWAYS been written with some detail; both in comics and in the movies… to the point where you can’t help but to think, maybe this psychopath is just misunderstood; maybe he truly knows something we don’t. What’s funny is, that’s how I’ve always felt about Van Gogh from his paintings.

How long have you been working on the Classic Batman Collection, and how long does it take for each painting to develop?

 The Starry Knight one itself took me about four months to completely draw it out, and literally another year and a half of different things catching my eye and me fixing them. The first version is way different than the finalized mainstream one.


Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan

Photo courtesy of Vartan Garnikyan

What are your favorite comics?

I’ve been a Batman fan for about 20 years now. I do a lot of Batman-related work because I see him as the good in all that I know about life…, sounds childish, but I see it as all other superheroes had to have a superpower, and are times forced to be who they are. But Batman is just a man, and chooses to do good in the world everyday; knowing full well the consequences that he may have to face. I was raised to think that way from a very young age by my mother. It was very simple: stand up for those that can’t stand up for themselves. My work doesn’t symbolize a lot of this. Most of my Batman pieces are either cool or funny. But deep down, I know what my fascination is based on. Truth be told, I’ve spent 30 minutes before explaining to someone why Batman reminds me of Jesus (True story. And a little insight on my next painting that no one’s seen yet). My favorite Batman comic would have to be The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. Typical I know, but I’m sure most people would agree.

I do have some other favorites, some of which a lot of people haven’t heard of:

I Killed Adolf Hitler is way awesome!
The Punisher
However, I’ve never a big fan of Watchmen or Superman, to be honest.

Here’s the classic creator question- what inspires you?

Honestly, I just wish I could just flood the world with all my work. That’s pretty much what inspires me. I’m hoping that eventually, I’ll be famous enough with this where I can spend all my time focusing on it, and not keeping it on the backburner. I think every person should be inspired to leave the world better than they got to it. I suppose everyone has a different way of doing so; and I guess my way is art… I love the feedback I get from people on social media, and especially the emails I get from happy customers. That alone is pretty inspiring to keep trying and keep pushing.

Do you have plans for more comic book related art?

All I’ll say is – Batman + Jesus! I’ve been on it for months now, and should have it ready by maybe August.

What do you hope viewers of your art take away when they see both your Batman related art and your other non-comic related art?

I’ve been a major fan of art for as long as I can remember. I wish I had the literal intellect to express what I feel when I look at something like The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, but you’d be way better at that than me. I hope to one day create something that people will look at the way I look at everyone else’s work. I hope it solves entire math problems for them the way Van Gogh’s art does for me.

You can check out more of Vartan’s artwork and products for sale through his various social media accounts:
Vartan’s Etsy Shop