INTERVIEW WITH DUNCAN LONG

 You work mostly in digital work, has this always been the format of your choice?

I started as a pen-and-ink illustrator (well, writer/illustrator) back before there was any serious computer artwork being created, migrating to computer illustration when PCs became fast enough to do what I wanted to get done. Today, I work on a modest HP Workstation running XP Pro with a Wacom digital tablet.

How often do you practice drawing and creating digital images?

All my work these days is digital and unlike some other artists, almost never do any sketching of work before hand, instead going straight to work with the digital image, gradually transforming it to the final digital image that I’ll send to my client.

I’m either self-promoting or working at my art about eight hours a day. I love my work and have trouble with holidays when everyone expects me not to work (and, yes, I even sneak off and have been creating artwork on my birthdays and Christmas day – ha).

Looking closer at your work I came across your book cover illustration; Hunter’s of Souls and it looks 3D, the shadows are so realistic. Did you use 3D software to create this image?

Sometimes I use 3D software (Vue, Poser, Sculptris, Metaseq, etc.)  – but I’m not too good at it, don’t like the results sometimes, and find I can generally draw/paint the material faster than model and render it (plus my renders are so crude, I spend more time getting them to look good), so it seems like I’m doing less and less 3D work and instead doing the work in 2D.

That said, Hunters of Souls is an older picture. The figure was created as a render from Poser which I then added details to and made the face less symmetrical (which I find greatly increases the realism of 3D figures). The figure was shadowed within Poser, though I likely monkeyed with the shadows a bit after the render (it was done so long ago I’m guessing at this, however). Often old movies would light monsters and such from low to the side of the figure, so I used that sort of 3D lighting with the Poser render.

From there, I painted some “bat wings” and added the shadowing on them to match that of the Poser render, putting the wings on their own layer behind the figure.

The shadows were created with a “trick” I regularly use for making shadows:  I create a duplicate of the figure, then lower the brightness so it’s black, and place it between the original figure and the wings on the layer behind it. By adjusting the position and transparency of the back-figure layer, I then create a shadow effect on the wings in the layer below. This is a quick and dirty method of making shadows that often gives great results.

So the picture was the result of a bit of 3D and a bit of 2D.

The software used for the painting end of things was Corel Photo-Paint (version 8, I think, which I still do most of my work in).

I know that with digital illustration (particularly using Photoshop) that many factors can contribute to the style of drawing such as brushes, layers and the other editing tools. Do you have any specific method for creating the “painterly” look?

It sort of depends on the illustration. Often I will boost the saturation a bit and then create that as a layer over the original, adjusting the transparency to my tastes; I may also simplify the broader shading on the figure and skin. Often I’ll add “side lighting” highlights…  It’s a variety of things that I’ve sort of learned to do. I don’t use textured brushes a lot except with the hair and for the final detailing of faces (sometimes on the latter), or for creating weathered looks and textures on flat surfaces (though sometimes I use some transparent “sprays” of ink spots and other material I’ve created over the years).

But most of my work is done with lots of strokes of very transparent “paint” and then moving and smearing things to get the look I want to see. Photo-Paint allows a variety of “sprays” including grass, trees, leaves and other materials which in addition to helping with foregrounds, I often employ in transparent layers to quickly add textures to pictures; I’ve found these can quickly add to the realism of natural as well as (apparently) man-made objects like aircraft, tanks, spaceships and such. Texture can make a major difference in fooling the eye into thinking its seeing something large and complex rather than a computer-generated surface.

The smear brush is especially useful with making folds in clothing and such as well as fine-tuning digitally painted areas of a picture (and polishing up the “edges” of layer objects).

I try to keep various elements of an illustration on layers as long as I can so they can be shifted and modified for the best layout and balance right up to the last process of finishing the picture. Toward the end I often flatten the layers to get a gradient of colour over the entire picture and also to achieve light effects, smoke, haze, glare, etc. But I try to save these last steps as late in the game as possible since these any major changes are very hard to make after that.

Your work is very clear of pixels. Do you work on a very large scale or is there a way to minimise the appearance of pixels?

Part of that is because I place larger versions of my work online than many artists do. I figure if someone is going to steal it (and that often happens), they’re likely to steal it regardless of size. Meanwhile for potential clients, letting them see the slightly larger size and detail in my illustrations is a big plus in selling them.

That said, you are correct, however. I generally work at the full size of the print and then go 50 dpi or so over the mark — or sometimes even larger than that. Thus a picture that might be reduced for print to, say, 6 x 9 inches at 300 dpi, I’ll be creating at maybe 7 x 11 at 350 dpi. That means when it is reduced, there’s no pixelation at all, of course.

While it isn’t really necessary to work with this added detail, it seems like more detail shows through when these pictures are reduced (this may just be my imagination — but it really seems like they appear to have more detail when reduced from the larger size than if produced at the actual size that will be used). Regardless of whether that’s correct or just an illusion to my thinking, there’s an important plus that isn’t illusion: If the client decides they want to enlarge and crop the picture (which happens from time to time), I can still have some wiggle room to crop the picture to the print size and still retain enough detail that I don’t have to go in and add details to an otherwise blurry picture. Consequently, I’ve found working oversize can save some real headaches from time to time.

Of course this oversized artwork demands more computing power. But as long as the print isn’t going to be really large (like a poster or such), most desktops have the computing power to handle this these days.

Are there any other forms, such as painting, that you like or have tried in the past?

My painting abilities were never too great, though I have worked with oils, water colours, chalk, and acrylics — basically all the stuff artists try out before settling on their “thing” that they like best. In my case, with actual media it was pencil for the rough sketch and then pen and ink over that.

When I started working with digital programs, I was overjoyed to discover I could achieve the “painterly” look I had always dreamed of doing with oils, so “going digital” proved to be a dream-come-true for me. Digital work also means it is very easy to deliver to my clients in the printing industry; no scanning, colour adjustments, shipping, or other nightmares.

About the only downside is when folks contact me, thinking they can buy actually paintings. These folks are prepared to pay unholy sums of money for my artwork, and I have to confess that I have only electrons to sell (ha). This of course brings tears to an old Scot’s eyes :o)

If during a project you feel uninspired, what inspires you to carry on?

Part of being a pro is forcing yourself to work whether inspired or not. You must keep on keeping on with your work.

I do use a few tricks…  one is to take on only jobs I think I’ll enjoy (or charge a lot more for those I won’t enjoy — money and Scots, remember); I also try to do a few “for fun” projects for myself each week — often I am able to eventually sell these so in addition to gaining motivation to work, they eventually pay off with income; and I force myself to work during the day whether inspired or not — often perspiration inspires the muse to appear and help out.

Do you ever face creative blanks, when the ideas just aren’t there? And how do you overcome them?

Yes. Sometimes the secret can be waiting a few days (ideally working on other projects). Other times, I just jump in and flounder, sink or swim, until finally something works.

I think it is death to do nothing for too long; then a real creative block can happen, and for a pro that can cause a negative impact on your reputation.

I see you’ve worked for many publications, what processes did you use to get your works published by so many different companies?

I have tried cold calls, submitting my portfolio to art directors, etc., etc., and never had much luck at it.

So after knocking my head against those walls for a few years, I decided to build up my web site with an eye not only toward displaying my best work but also making it easy for potential clients to find.

This paid off. Now my clients contact me rather than me contacting potential clients, so I know when they call that they like my work and want to hire me. That means I don’t have to sell them on what I’m doing and also that they’re willing to pay well for my work.

Plus I avoid the dashed feeling of being rejected and don’t waste time and money printing and mailing portfolios to potential clients.

Were you selected from other works or did you search for the jobs yourself?

I’ve found that books and web sites displaying my work with other artists don’t bring in much work, and often attract shady characters wanting me to work for little or nothing. My own site brings in quality clients so these days I concentrate my time on it (and my blog).

Some artists claim that social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) helps bring in clients. I’ve tried these and don’t really feel they’re worth the effort as far as the work they bring in for the time expelled. And they can be terrible time wasters or even public relations disaster with just a few ill-chosen comments.

What is the best way to approach a career in illustration, personally I record all of my works and sketches in a blog form, is there any pointers you could give to further boost my reputation in the illustrating world?

Of course the key is to really hone your skills. No one can lay claim to being “THE BEST” at creating artwork. But you need to leave potential clients with the feeling that you MIGHT very well be the best.

So it’s important to display only the very best at your site, blog, online, in contests, or whatever.

And as you advance, it’s good to cull out the less perfect art from your portfolio and web site and replace it with better work. Always strive to improve (and don’t be shy about removing from display work that you don’t feel is up to your improving standards as you make progress — it’s amazing how what seems fantastic today — and is for the skill set in hand — will become marginal after a few years of improved skills and know-how).

If you have doubts about one of your pictures, don’t display it (or don’t display it until you polish it up so it shines properly). Give it a week or two to “cure” before deciding its value; work recently created tends to seem better to the artist than it really is (for reasons I can’t fathom).

Have people whose judgment you trust look through your work as well to say what they really like. Sometimes the judgment of someone other than the artist himself can be important in determining what to display (though, in the end, you should always go with your feelings of what is your best work).

NEVER, ever display pictures that aren’t quite up to speed. And don’t display pictures that don’t fall into a style you wish to do. People assume if they see a picture in thus-and-so style that it is something you want to do more of. If you’re good at some style but hate creating that sort of work, never display it at your site or you might suddenly discover that’s the only style you get commissions to do.

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