Interview with Digital Painter Philip Straub

Professional artist Philip Straub has during his years produced art for not only the traditional media, but also for the film, book, game and multimedia industry. We at PixelTango have had the great privilege to interview this fellow to learn about his amazing projects and techniques. Read on to get inspirational insights on how this super-talented professional creates his art!

Hello Philip, welcome to PixelTango – we are very proud to have you here for this interview.

Glad to be here — thank you for asking me to do the interview for PixelTango.

I am personally a big fan of yours so I know a bit about your background, but can you please briefly tell our users something about your history?
Who is Philip Straub?

Philip Straub

Let’s see, an abridged background profile… I’ve been working as a professional artist for nearly 17 years now (I suddenly feel old) producing art for the publishing, film, game, and multimedia industries. I’ve worked on over 25 game titles, over 30 children’s books, and have my own licensing business for my art.

What is your current status in life? What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently employed by Warner Brothers as Art Director for Lord of the Rings: War in the North. The game is an M rated action RPG featuring co-op and is scheduled to be released in 2011 for PS3, XBOX 360, and PC.

In addition I’ve got a bunch of new licenses coming out over the next few months including; a wide variety of images launched by SKINIT, backpacks by Bao Bao, and a few new puzzles that should be hitting stores this fall.

Also — today I’m finishing up a book cover for Random House!

Can you please tell us something about your working environment? What are your tools of the trade?

It’s not really very glamorous and we recently moved from one area of Seattle to another so I still have a bunch of boxes around me. I have a high end HP workstation I just recently purchased running Windows 7 professional, the ole Wacom tablet, dual 23” monitors, a pretty nice scanner, and printer.

I typically use Photoshop, Painter, and Maya for my 2D work but, also use Dreamweaver for my webs stuff as well as After Effects for motion graphics.

I have noticed that you also use Painter while creating your works. Do you think Photoshop lacks some features that Painter has? For some of your works you used the popular 3D software Maya as well, what role does it fill when you create?

Photoshop and Painter both have great tools I use for different things depending on the needs of the project. Painter still rules when it comes to duplicating natural media within a digital workspace but, I find Photoshop a bit more versatile for production work that requires a-lot of revisions or adjustments.

I typically use Maya for block outs of man-made structures to speed my process. I also use it for lighting tests to ensure for the more realistic matte painting work I do. I also like to play around with Maya’s Mental Ray renderer, its Fluid Effects, and some of its physics based tools.

With today’s tools available for working with computer graphics, everyone can become an artist. Do you think the addition of these tools brings something to the art community? While it becomes easier for artists to create on the computer, it takes more talent and uniqueness to become noticed in the industry – would you agree on that?

Sure anyone can be an artist but, I think that’s always been true, only now the time it takes to “create” something is a bit shorter because of the flexibility of digital tools. Now, the word artist has many different meanings to different people. I tend to think that if anyone sits down and spends the time to create something visual then they are an artist. Of course, the professional artist is one who has trained for most of their life and is applying the techniques of the trade to produce something at a high level of execution.

In my opinion, the biggest evolution for artists is the advent of the Internet and the ability for anyone to create something, promote it, and even sell it. Where only 10 years ago artists had to use direct mail for promotion, and trade books that cost 1000’s of dollars to get into, they now can post their work on their website, Facebook, and forums and be seen by 1000’s instantly.

I would also add that I don’t necessarily think it takes more “talent” to get noticed. Of course talent is one of the key skills an artist must have but, that’s not the full story here. A professional artist will get noticed if they are consistent with the quality of work they produce over a period of time — it’s really no different than the other artistic mediums. If a musician produces one “hit” song but, never follows up they don’t survive long term and it’s the same with an artist. Visual artist must continue to expand on the portfolio and abilities in order to stay relevant. So, I say it is persistence of quality and diversity that gets you noticed.

What inspires you and what gets you in the mood for creating?

I have a pretty high rate of creative juice flowing in me on any given day. Inspiration comes from other artists around me at the WB studio, work I see on forums, friends that are producing art regularly, museums, film, television, games, looking at the huge art book collection I have, dreams, and really just life in general. There is so much around us to be inspired about so I just take it all in and try to find a voice to communicate out to the world using my art and/or writing.

I’m also a pretty competitive person so I like to win in whatever I do — not in a destructive or negative way but, more in a positive way. I enjoy the chase of finding a new client, getting the next licensing deal, or trying to up myself in the art I do.

How would you describe your creative process while producing art?

An interesting question. Much of my day as an Art Director is creative but not necessarily putting pen to paper or stylus to Wacom tablet.  A lot of my brain energy is spent on ideation, generating new creative ideas to present a location or character with the artists on my team. This can be in the form of drawing quick sketches on an erasable white board, pitching ideas/concepts to those around me, acting out things to define an animation, doing quick storyboards to describe visual pacing for storytelling or game play.

My actual personal process for creating a painting usually goes like this;

  • think about idea or assignment
  • see the place where the image take place in my head — walk around it in my head to find the most interesting camera angle to tell the story.
  • reference gathering
  • rough sketches
  • color sketches
  • begin painting.
  • complete painting
  • walk away from painting
  • really complete painting

Do you usually start working with a blank canvas or do you also use photos in your work?

Yeah pretty much everything starts as a blank canvas but, as I mentioned above, a-lot of the work is done in my head, thinking about the scene “in the round” as they call it. It’s a great visualization technique that takes practice but, can be very powerful once you’ve mastered it. Using this technique is like taking mini photographs or videos of the scene in your head or almost building the space in 3D and then moving the camera around the space. It means you get pretty intimate knowledge of the space which allows you to plot its construction before you begin.

I do use photo reference as a way to help me visualize a scene — working this way is a also a great way of building a visual dictionary since the more images you see the more you remember for later use.

For my more matte painting oriented work I use some photos for texture overlay to increase my speed in defining details or will take some photo reference and turn it into a custom brush in Photoshop.

You are not only a legend in the CG-world, but you are also a very talented traditional painter. Working digitally or working with traditional art – what do you prefer?

Legend nah I don’t know about that. I started as a traditional oil painter, studying a variety of techniques to create pretty realistic images. I loved working traditionally but, it was so time consuming — paintings would take 3-6 weeks in some cases. It just wasn’t cost effective for me so, for commercial work I definitely prefer working digitally. I hope to get back to the traditional work down the road when things slow down in my life as I do miss it.

Your Utherworlds concept must be one of your greatest achievements in life; can you please tell us a bit more about the project? Where did the idea come from?

For me the Utherworlds project is my greatest achievement in my life so far. The project was something I felt compelled to do almost by a higher power. It was something that grew and grew over a period of 6 years and turned into something much larger than I ever thought it would be.

At first it was just a few images that were tied together loosely by a back story I’d created but, as I produced more imagery, the story expanded to novel length. Ultimately the project became so big I actually took over a year off from Art Direction duties and formed a company around Utherworlds. All self funded and during the peak of the recession it was a huge risk for me.

Essentially the book is a story of hope and love but, here is a snippet from the book to give you a bit of an idea:

“All thought is alive — each hope, fear, and memory is a part of the whole we call the universe. Every living creature contributes in their own unique way to the balance of positive and negative energy in the world. Even as you read this now, you are part of larger destiny towards unity, preservation, and truth. Positive thought is your gift — is the essence of life.

Just beyond human consciousness there is a place where all dreams and desires exist, a world where the unconscious thought dwell and flourish. Virtually invisible to human perception and beyond our physical reality resides the splendor and malevolence of every thought ever imagined. This relatively unknown world is an expanding emotional manifestation that survives through its symbiotic relationship with the creatures that support it. As long as there has been life, these visualizations and manifestations have existed in delicate balance with the universe, continually evolving with the passing of time.

But, the balance has shifted and the natural order has been disrupted. Sentient beings have lost their way and have given into the temptation of negative thought. Hope, empathy, and truth are being challenged by the growing forces of greed, hatred, and lust. War, global climate change, and industrialization grow with each passing day unchecked.  It is true — the universe has reached a tipping point. A time of no return is nearly upon us all. Those who are open — those with true presence and a belief in hope are called upon to reclaim and restore the balance.

This is my mission, my purpose, and my reason for being. It is a personal journey, a voyage of spirit filled with great loss and incredible triumph. What you see before you is a visual diary of my travels through the uncharted territories of The Realms. I have taken great care to document my experiences so that you too may see what I have seen. Once you’ve gazed upon the paintings and words within these pages, will you ever see the world the same?”

I approached the Utherworlds project from the perspective of building a brand, an intellectual property. So, I put together a business plan that defined how the project would be launched across different media channels. The Utherworlds book was to be the anchor of the brand.  I set out to create a genre breaking book; essentially a graphic novel with the quality of a high end museum like art book, and with a story length of a full length novel. In addition to the book I put into production a website that would rival the best film websites out there in quality and richness of content. Utherworlds.com has a ton of animation, an original soundtrack created by very well know composer Alan Hewitt, and additional “field guide like content that could stand alone as a piece of entertainment but, also complimented those that purchased the book.

How have the community responded to the Utherworlds project?

The response has been great. The book recently won the grand prize for best design in the indie/small press book awards and was a finalist in the fantasy fiction category. Utherworlds.com has also won a few web awards. The brand has already generated a number of licenses including, Utherworlds puzzles, skins for electronic devices, and wall murals. In addition the book has garnered quite a bit of interest from the film community and there are plans in motion with some big names in the industry to get the project moving in that arena.

Are you planning to produce a follow up on the Utherworlds project?

The plan always was to continue to story in book and multi-media format but it’s really based on time and what kind of availability I have. So, we’ll have to see what life throws my way and hopefully there will be another installment in the Utherworlds story sooner or later.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

The entertainment industry is so hard to predict, it’s a changeable and sometimes volatile industry. I hope to still be Art Directing in the game or film space on a fantasy or sci-fi based product. I hope to further expand my licensing business with new imagery and IP.

My wife and I have been working pretty hard on another brand titled the “Imaginaries” which is part of my already very popular Secret Places brand of imagery. It’s the series of paintings with the mushrooms and funny little characters in the scenery. We have 100’s of drawings and I hope to complete the children’s story soon with the aim of getting the book published.

Everyone needs to practice, so what do you do to improve your skills? Do you ever search the Internet for tutorials or articles?

I do work on improving my skills as much as I possibly can. For me its practice, practice and more practice- you never stop improving as artist as long as you have the passion to strive for something more in your work. I try and keep up with all the best illustration and concept art annuals for inspiration and to challenge myself to stay competitive and relevant. In addition, I share my work quite regularly with my coworkers and former colleagues for feedback.

Where I learn the most is during my interaction with the artists I work with every day on WITN. There is always a new technique to be learned or a different way of thinking about a visual problem. Brainstorming with my art team and trying to find a good solution to a problem keeps me fresh and on my toes.

Thanks again for this privilege of getting to know you a bit better. Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Thank you so much! Stay creative!

Learn more…

Visit Philip’s DeviantArt Profile

Visit Philip’s Website

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About the Author

Mickel is a web creative that is constantly looking for new challenges and ventures.

He is the founder of PixelTango, as well as a interactive web design agency. He also likes to DJ and produce music under the name Allic.

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