Rio Sabda has earned a reputation for creating both thought-provoking and aesthetically striking works. (Photo courtesy of Rio Sabda)

The Fantastical World of Rio Sabda

FEBRUARY 04, 2015

Indonesian graphic designer and illustrator Rio Sabda draws much of his inspiration from Japanese manga, earning him a reputation for creating both thought-provoking and aesthetically striking works. (Photos courtesy of Rio Sabda)

Rio Sabda is one of the most recognizable names within the Indonesian fantasy-genre universe. On his own and with his Deadwolf studio, Rio has graced many pop culture memorabilia with his illustrative works.

Exuding a quality that rivals those of world-class illustrators, Rio’s pieces reflect his eye for detail and depth with the use of strikingly mood-driven colors. 

His imaginative nature has resulted in eye catching illustrations with a universe of its own, where anthropomorphic beings with warrior abilities live together — or battle against — katana wielding ninjas and axe brandishing vixens. 

Straddling a fine-line between haunting, bizarre and whimsical, it is no wonder that Rio's works have find their way into many local and international fantasy games, both on and offline. 

“I was introduced to the world of art from an early age through my older brother who was a design major,” Rio says, explaining that his interest grew during college, when he began sharpening up on his childhood hobby of drawing comic-styled illustrations.

And so in the mid-2000s, Rio enrolled in Bina Nusantara University's graphic design class, with the sole purpose of “going back to picking up my sketchbook and training to really master the art of illustrating.”

Taiwanese-American visual artist James Jean played an integral part in acting as an influence to Rio's style (the artist is particularly popular within the local comic-book/fantasy illustration scene). 

For Rio, the depth of comic book drawing was immaculately portrayed in Jean’s published sketchbook, which inspired him to follow his mentor’s style as closely as he could — which was something Rio now amusingly admits to being “impossible.”

Still, it was through Jean’s work as both a successful fine artist that Rio was able to study the methods of balancing his artistic and commercial ambitions. 

To say that Jean’s approach and style was an influence is an understatement.

After graduating Bina Nusantara in 2009, Rio went straight to finding a job that would provide him both money and room to grow. 

He managed to get involved in a variety of local clothing companies that employed him as an in-house illustrator, which meant that he came up with a melange of visuals that would permeate local independent clothing stores, locally referred to as distros, short for distribution outlets.

For a short time in the early 2010s, dozens of Rio’s illustration would simultaneously decorate T-shirts and sweaters. 

It was also during those working hours that Rio was introduced to fellow local illustrators who would go on to positively affect his career from then on. 

“[Through those local clothing lines] I met with a lot of new influences in the entertainment industry — people like Rudy Siswanto or Rudy Crutz — who acted very much like mentors to me, and many others who would go on to be my partners in various forms,” Rio says.

“You could really say that it was the beginning of a healthy competition.”

Rio Sabda has earned a reputation for creating both thought-provoking and aesthetically striking works. (Photo courtesy of Rio Sabda)

Still, the artist would be the first to admit that in those early days his drawings still lacked the mind-blowing quality that put him within the top ranks of local illustrators. 

In hindsight, he dubs those era of his artistic growth as “stagnant,” though he also developed his identity at a much faster pace, if only for fear of not standing out within the sea of friendly competition.

“During those early days, there were still very little information [in books and on the Internet] on how to study illustration,” he explains, adding that he was “forced” to grow as he ventured deeper into the professional side of illustrating. 

This constant pressure to perform gave him a sense of flexibility to satisfy clients and stay employed, even if that meant drawing outside his comfort zone. 

“When I entered the professional side of illustrating, I also received a lot of criticism, input, advice and other comments that really motivated me. Really, that environment made me who I am today,” Rio explains, though he adds that, technically, he has never really changed, preferring instead to refine what stylistic trademarks he was growing into at the time. Today, he can’t seem to find the words to describe his style.

“I am not yet able to describe my style, because really, I myself am still learning from the styles that already exists out there — all of which I really like,” he says.

 “From realist to Japanese manga, and vintage to modern and other styles — everything. That is why I like trying new styles, like the Japanese kind of esthetics that I gave been getting into lately.

“In fact, I have really been getting into the manga painting style that is inspired by Oga Kazuo,” he adds, referring to an illustrator for Japan’s highly influential Studio Ghibli animation studios.

In fact, one of his most popular works was a digital repainting of a poster from Ghibli’s film, “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Still, Rio does concede to some trademark touches that fans and fellow artists would identify with him.

“People have said that in my works I tend to use a lot of pastel colors, which has become something like my characteristic. I love pastels! They are such beautiful colors,” he says with excitement, before adding that, “People have also told me that my work always evokes a painterly esthetics.”

The young artist explains that his creative process mostly begins by looking for references, which could be anything from photos, other works of art or “anything I could use for whatever it is I will be working on, or the color palette I need to gear my work toward.”

“I love listening to lectures, discussions, or anything that help me enjoy the process of painting, which can sometimes be very lengthy and monotonous. It's good to get new insights into things.”

To learn more about Rio Sabda, visit