“We’re always looking for stories” — Henry Daubrez on AI and the art of directing

Léa Rose Emery
August 15, 2022

Henry Daubrez speaks with Léa Rose Emery about the surprising twists of working with AI, the “playground” of Tezos, and the importance of storytelling.

“You do this for yourself. Any kind of art, I guess people do it because it makes them feel good.” For Henry Daubrez, his journey to digital art has been at once very short and very long. A lifetime passion for drawing and character, paired with a long break before discovering web3, has produced in Henry an exciting and engaging perspective in the fast-growing space of AI-augmented art.

Henry's work is consistently narrative and character-driven, stemming from his interest in drawing and an early desire to be a comic book artist. Though his parents supported his work in those early days, they were focused on him getting an education. “They were really happy that their kids could actually live better. But then they wanted us to make sure that we could have a proper life, really encouraging me to do more studies.” An initial attempt at computer science was “too dry”, but it lead Henry to graphics — and a budding interest in digital art. 

“Around 2004, there was kind of a switch, and I got into digital painting.” Unsurprisingly, digital painting in 2004 was a very different sphere than what exists now. “Photoshop, compared to now, was really, really archaic,” he laughs. Still, it brought him back to the artistic instincts of his childhood, moving away from the academic and back to the creative. “I was looking around, looking for inspiration, and the work just became more and more rich, because I felt like I was really pleasing myself a little bit. It’s different from assignments, right?”  

Soon, he was working on digital painting whenever he wasn’t in class. But then, there was a break — a long break. “I actually joined a web design company here in Belgium for a few years and then went on to another one as a partner, then shareholder, and so on and so forth, up to the point where now, 15 years later, I'm running a design shop, partly in Belgium, but also in the US and Mexico.” As CEO and Creative Director at Dog Studio, he has never been far away from creativity, though he had moved away from being a creative on his own terms. It was less than a year ago when he re-discovered his passion for digital art as a creator himself. 

“The change is pretty recent,” he explains. “I started to discover more AI-driven work at the end of 2021, seeing what people were making out of it. And it was really like going down a rabbit hole, starting to see how it works and understanding the process. I would say it was love at first sight.”

Evermore, by Henry Daubrez. “Down in the lake where she lived, luring all cursed lovers to join, but as they all eventually drowned, she remained all alone for evermore – Artificial Intelligence and the tyranny of taste to start a new era born in the imagination of millions of daydreamers.”

While many people have a lightbulb moment when they discover a place in web3 that resonates with them, Henry, with characteristic consideration and introspection, started to probe at that feeling. “When I reflect on why do I think this is really interesting?’, it turns out that there is more of a conversation with AI. I’ve read a few times that people are saying that it’s a conversation. This is really how I see it.” 

What draws him to the conversation is seeing an image branching out in unexpected ways. “I'm going to generate things that I wouldn't do myself. This way, I like to direct and to get to a point where I have something in mind, but I .” While some -augmented work can be seen as technical or simply an experiment in aesthetics, Henry’s work, paired with quotes or snippets, keeps the human element alive, never losing the narrative as a sacrifice to the computer. In this way, he uses AI to reimagine or twist characters we already know, alongside inventing new ones. Classic books and figures make regular appearances stemming from Moby Dick, Alice in Wonderland, Don Quixote, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and othersbut they’re reimagined with a surreal, often melancholy layer. In this way, Henry draws you into a story, rather than just an image.

“Telling stories is something which is really anchored into our DNA — that escapement,” he says. “Sitting around the cave, around the fire, and telling stories. That’s something that’s been true for centuries and centuries — we’re always looking for the stories. I like the opportunity to actually get to give my point of view on a story or character, something people can actually look forward to meeting again.”

And AI lets him – and us – meet these familiar characters and new ones in a different setting. AI serves as the branch between traditional storytelling and reimagining, and that collaborative process, with the evergreen potential to surprise, seems to be at the heart of his inspiration. “That’s where AI is communicating with us right now, which is using a lot of keywords. It's about creating a path to the story, right?” he explains. “You're using words, what you have in mind, and then you see how it's going to be reinterpreted. And you see if it fits with what you had in mind, what you think is acceptable. So to me, it’s like directing a movie. The director is not the one who's really building the thing, but he has a vision.”

“Day in and day out, Pygmalion carved out the face and body of the one he was doomed to fall in love with, wishing her alabaster hands would give him back the warmth and love he so deeply craved.” Pygmalion, a collaboration between Henry Daubrez and Alonerone, facilitated by XCOLLABZ.

His vision is often a pensive one, subdued and introspective. “I remember my mum used to tell me, ‘oh, you're always drawing sad stories’,” he admits. But to Henry, this exploration isn’t sadness for sadness’ sake; it’s a form of connection. “If you see something happy, you mostly tend to leave it the way it is. If you look at something which is more difficult, then people start talking — it’s an introspection thing, looking at those subjects is going to create a different bond.” 

Despite the solemnity of his subject matter, Henry’s charm is that he is both deeply dedicated to his work and vision, while at the same time refusing to take himself too seriously. In a space that can be filled with bombast and hyperbole, Henry’s Twitter bio jokes that he is the “worst-selling artist” — in sharp contrast to his career in marketing, where nothing is ever bad. “I've been working in marketing for 15 years, where everything is always ‘awesome’... and in the beginning, I put an NFT up for sale — and it wasn’t selling.” His dry sense of humour is a large part of his personality, and despite the obvious innovation, success, and appeal of his work on Objkt and SuperRare, he refuses to succumb to hubris. Instead, experimentation and curiosity fuel his work. 

In fact, he’s found his community in the “playground” of Tezos. Seeing the large gas fees on Ethereum, he started to look around, and was drawn to the freedom he found on the smaller, more Bohemian blockchain that powers the Objkt platform. “What was interesting is that I discovered that there was a very different kind of community. People from Tezos, not everyone, but I could be connected to one person. I’d have questions about how they were doing things — and they actually answered. They’d tell me, ‘hey, that's my secret recipe.’ And then another one would, and then you start putting out work. And people are maybe too much sometimes, but they’re encouraging.” 

"Did you come this far to find yourself in this kind of predicament; under the rains of fire, and the tainted drums of doom?" Alice in Underland, by Henry Daubrez.

Recognition and community have been huge motivating factors for Henry, who, like so many artists, has found his work valued in a new way. “People are generally interested in seeing what you're going to come up with next,” he says. “That was kind of an incentive to keep going, which is something I don't think I've had in the past, because you do it for yourself and then life takes over.

“It's complicated to have those moments where you know you have to keep going. But I started getting artist recognition, from people who are doing illustration work, as well.” This feeling of belonging, of recognition from peers, is crucial — especially for those plagued by doubt, as many can be. “I think that’s something I see as having a lot of value, which is even better than a financial one. Just feeling like I’m in the right place, that I’m not an imposter.”

He’s certainly not an imposter. His commitment to the space and the art is clear and, although he comes with the humble lack of assumption of someone still finding their feet, it is obvious that he is flourishing and cementing himself in this space. Already thinking about new iterations, he’s ready to push boundaries — whether that’s continuing to be delighted and surprised by the journeys AI takes him on, or his interest in the intersection of the physical and digital artistic spaces.

“I do see this one day become the main thing in my life. I guess I will have to see how it evolves and where it's going. Right now, I'm discussing different exhibitions and, already, we're moving really fast. I mean, 8 months ago I was just minting my first job; I didn't do anything before that that was actually visible. And now I have people just reaching out... and that's pretty humbling and encouraging. Maybe you're doing something which is working.”

“I think that’s something I see as having a lot of value, which is even better than a financial one. Just feeling like I’m in the right place, that I’m not an imposter.”

— Henry Daubrez

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Léa Rose Emery
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Léa is an American writer, editor, broadcaster, and presenter based in London. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Huffington Post, WhatWeSeee, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Teen Vogue, and The Daily Dot. She is working on her first book.

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