Retouching Academy Interview: Greg Agee, Digital Composite Artist

Greg Agee (www.pixelogyarts.com) is a Fort Myers, Florida-based artist with 12 years experience creating digital composites.

His work has received numerous awards, including the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) Guru Award, and earned the distinction of having been accepted into the Professional Photographers of America’s (PPA) 2015 International Loan Collection.

This is the first in a series of interviews with established composite artists who exemplify another facet of the retouching industry. We hope you find this series both enlightening and informative.

Tell us about yourself. How did you become a digital composite artist?

There’s that old expression, straight “as the crow flies.” Well, I think my crow was a bit drunk and flew a path that was as crooked and off course as possible. Like most artists, there’s a well of creativity inside of me always trying to find a way out, so even if it’s piling sticks together, I try to find a way to make it look interesting. No matter what the medium, and there’s been a lot of them, I’ve always had an itch to create something.

I attended the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston for a year before receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Maine College of Art. That always raises a few eyebrows! What the heck do you do with a sculpture degree, right? Well, my Dad asked the same question after graduation. At the time, I was really passionate about the traditional arts: stone work, architecture, forged metal, painting. All the things that made up the classical arts from the old world.

So, after school, I sought out jobs that would incorporate those passions and ended up working for various companies over the years as a stone carver, a blacksmith (architectural) and stained glass artist. I eventually got to a point where I thought I could do it better than the people I worked for, so I opened my own stained glass, mosaic, and blacksmithing business in Philadelphia, and for ten years, created original work for churches and high-end homes.

But after many years of creating great work, losing pints of blood from cut finger tips and a case of lead poisoning, I decided it was time for a career change. I decided to get into computers (which I always loved) and become a graphic designer.

I sold my pick-up truck and used the money to buy a Mac computer, a copy of Photoshop and Illustrator (CS Versions) and box set of video tutorials by Deke McClelland. After putting in many, many hours of learning and practice, I was able to build a portfolio that landed me several increasingly challenging graphic design jobs.

One was working for Dillard’s Corporate in Little Rock Arkansas in the Package Design Department.

Being the only designer in the department that knew how to use Photoshop effectively, all the retouching jobs came to me. So even though I had crudely used Photoshop years before in my stained glass business to put my products in various locations for marketing materials, I was now professionally using Photoshop to retouch male and female models and digitally enhance the company’s product photography used in their packaging. I was also becoming more acutely aware of how valuable retouching was to photography and the advertising industry. Plus, I realized that retouching, compositing, and digital design work really suited my compulsive need to be detailed and precise!

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Do you have any formal training in photography, traditional or digital painting?

Not really. I took a semester of B&W Photography that focused on the technical aspects of developing your own film, exposing negatives, and developing photos, but nothing else. I loved the medium of photography and sometimes wondered why I didn’t pursue it instead of sculpture.

However, even thought I didn’t have any “formal” training in the digital arts, I also didn’t learn it in a vacuum.

I spent countless hours watching instructional DVD’s and learning online from artists and instructors who were willing to share their knowledge. And I’ve spent even more hours practicing what I’ve learned.

Even if some may not consider online training to be  “formal” training, I found the quality of instruction and information to be fantastic and encourage artists to take advantage of what’s out there to expand their knowledge base and further their skills.

What three personal qualities have really helped you to become successful in your craft and business?

Anal, detail-oriented, and perfectionist. In no particular order.

There are many styles of composites from the completely believable to the surreal. What style is your favorite?

I’ve got a strange fetishism for needing to mimic reality. It may come from my love of movie special effects, in particular the original Star Wars. But I need to see reality (things that make sense) in the stories I read, the movies I watch, the art I admire, and the work I create. When I do a composite, I don’t want anyone questioning whether something I’ve done is possible. I want my work to be completely believable when it comes to the lighting, perspective, size, color hue, etc. It’s vital to me.

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What are the key ingredients in creating a believable composite?

Everything is key! When doing a realistic composite, you’re striving to recreate what Mother Nature does naturally and effortlessly. So it all matters.
I like to break it down into five categories. Each category has various requirements that each composited element has to meet in order for everything to work together in a realistic composite:

  1. CAMERA: Height, Angle, Distance/Perspective, Exposure, Focus/Depth of Field
  2. LIGHT: Natural, Artificial, Reflected Light, and Reflections
  3. SHADOW: Form and Cast
  4. COLOR CAST
  5. SIZE: Placed Object(s) size versus the background size.

What types of composite work do you do most for your clients and who are they (private individuals or companies)? Do you mind working on something that’s not your favorite style? Do you try to shift your workload into the area that you enjoy the most?

My clients range from photographers who maybe are looking to enhance their portfolio pictures to ad agencies needing to promote a client’s product through print and electronic advertising.

My theory is this: If I’m working in Photoshop, it’s a good day. Yes, there are those awesome, extremely creative projects that you drool over, and on the flip-side there are those, “Damn if I have to do one more of these…” types of projects, but that’s what I signed up for when I chose to be a digital artist. And keep in mind, it’s usually the non-glory, repetitive projects that pay the bills.

Would I love to spend all my time working strictly with agency designers, helping to create the next award-winning image? Absolutely! As artists, our personal style shows in the artwork that we do and hopefully that artwork will attract, like flies to honey, all those clients that love and appreciate your work. But until then, you do what you can.

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How important are personal projects to you? How many do you typically create in a year?

Personal work is vital to my growth as an artist and craftsman. And it should be that way for every artist. It’s a great way to test new techniques and explore new ideas that may interest you outside the professional arena. It’s also important to be consistent in putting your images out there on online portfolio sites like Behance (and many others) so people have a chance to see your work. You never know who may be out there viewing your work. It may strike a chord with an Art Director who’s been looking for someone just like you to help them with a project!

As for how many I do a year? It fluctuates. I’ve seen artists out there who set amazing goals for themselves by completing a project every day for a year! I’ve thought about doing that, but I know that I’m probably setting myself up for failure the very first week, so a goal like that is probably a bit unrealistic for me. I’ll go through periods where I have lots of ideas for projects, so I write them down in my “Ideas” book and then work on the ones that seem to have the most potential for something clever and interesting. Then I’ll go through times when I’ve got nothing happening. That’s becomes a bit frustrating, but it happens. You can’t always be on!

Do you shoot all of your own digital assets for your composite work? If not, what percent mix come from assets you shoot/create versus what your client provides or what you license from stock?

Photography is not my main skill, even though I’m capable of producing quality photos. I find looking at stock photography extremely beneficial because often times that can help inspire ideas for projects. I’ll see a landscape or a deteriorated building and think, “Oh that would look cool if I did this or added that.”

That being said, I’m not biased toward any particular medium; it’s more about whatever gets the job done. If it’s all stock and it works, so be it. If it’s partly stock and I need to photograph some element to finish it, then I’m okay with that, too. I’m open to whatever works for the job. I’ve also been trying to learn Cinema 4D, a 3D program, so that I can create and render objects and backgrounds and then incorporate them into my composites, but 3D programs are no joke and the learning curve is killing me.

If you have to use assets created by others, what are the common photographer mistakes you encounter that make your work more time- and effort-consuming?

As a composite artist, I find myself paying a lot of attention to how the physical world around me functions. How shadows vary with changes in the light, how water moves over surfaces, how clouds and skies change color throughout the day–all those everyday things we take for granted as normal. My natural “anal-ness” and attention to detail really makes me want to get things as physically correct in the composites as possible and that all starts with observation.

So, the kind of mistakes I end up dealing with from photographers is not due to lack of skill but rather lack of knowledge. Not knowing those little things that are necessary to make a composite work or possibly not even knowing what the final project is supposed to look like can really make a project difficult, time consuming, or just impossible.

And that’s where the importance of the retoucher-photographer relationship comes into play. If there’s a consistent dialogue between the two during the photo shoot, then the retoucher can express to the photographer what’s necessary to make the composite happen. And in the end, that type of process is a lot more efficient and productive.

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Do you have a fairly typical workflow you follow? Can you share a little about your thought process at each stage from conceptualization to completion?

It really depends on where the idea comes from. If its coming from an Art Director at an agency, usually they already have very specific ideas in mind for what they want and then it’s just my job to put my spin on the final piece. There might be some leeway for personal interpretation, but normally they’re looking for something specific.

For my personal pieces, it all starts with an idea. My ideas can come from two places: either through observation of the world around me, meaning that I see something, question it, and then develop some type of concept; or by looking at artwork and stock photography. There’s no better way to get inspired than seeing what other artists do!

Once I have a rough concept, I start collecting or shooting the base images that will make up the bulk of the composite. From there, it’s just a matter of laying all the objects and elements together until the visual makes sense and is pleasing to look at. Once all the elements are laid out, I begin making them look like they all belong together by adding shadows, creating glows, bouncing reflections, adjusting the environmental color palette, and doiwhatever else is necessary for making sure the final image make sense.

What tends to be the most challenging aspect of creating your digital composites and what would be the one or two enhancements to your favorite software program that would benefit your workflow the most?

I would say gathering the images and laying them out in way that makes sense. Just because you have a great idea doesn’t mean that the images or individual elements you’re going to be using for you’re composite are going to play nice and be easy to work with. There can be a lot of finessing to get an image to work and it’s really not until you begin unifying the color or hue of the whole image that things begin to look right.

As for my favorite software in the whole wide world, Photoshop. I would like to see more custom controls and options under the “Warp” function found under Edit > Transform. I know, you’re saying, “Hey, there’s puppet warp for that!” Puppet Warp has it’s uses, but also limitations. Too many things can move out of place if you’re not paying attention! What I like about the “Warp” function is that you can do more generalized smooth warps; however I would still like to be able to add more control points. Right now warp breaks down into 3 by 3 grid. I would like to be able to modify the grid at will.

When you were starting out, what were your main sources of clients? Where would you recommend that beginning composite artists advertise or promote their services?

It’s all about promoting and networking…oh and TIME!!! Nothing happens over night. Really, it doesn’t. In this day and age with everything being Internet-based, it’s a matter of getting your work seen in as many places as possible and as often as possible. Definitely make sure you have a website that’s clean, to the point, and shows the world what you’re best at.

Also, portfolio sites like Adobe’s Behance, Deviant Art, and multiple others allow you to showcase your work to creatives from all over the world, so show your work anywhere and everywhere you can afford.

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What advice would you offer to people interested in becoming professional composite artists? What skills and qualities would make it easier for them to succeed? What would be the conditions under which they should stay away from this profession?

Know your craft. Period. Your skills have to be sharp and your work has to stand out from your competition. You do that by knowing your profession inside and out. Know what other retoucher’s are doing and how well they’re doing it, know what your clients are looking for and how you can cater your work to attract their attention.

The reality of our world comes down to this: We’re not living in the time of Michaelangelo anymore. Meaning, that centuries ago, there weren’t as many artists as there are today, so the few great artists rose to the top and got those major commissions from wealthy benefactors. Instead, we’re living in a world full of Michaelangelo’s. There are so many great artists out there and every day they’re upping the game with their creations. It can be very humbling, but also very inspiring. Because no matter how awesome you are, there’s always someone better. So you’re really going to have to find a way to stand out to the clientele you want to attract.

Who am I to tell someone to stay away from something they love to do? But, just be prepared to struggle 🙂

Overall interest in, and awareness of, digital compositing has exploded in recent years; as an artist, where do you see the industry going and are there any specific changes you would like to see happen?

Geesh, that’s a good question. Not sure I have an answer. I think there is a real negative spin by the media with the word, “Photoshop,” and it’s verb cousin, “Photoshopped.” I believe the negativity is more in the beauty industry where celebrities are coming out saying they’ve been “airbrushed” too much and they want their naturalness to show, but my feeling is as long as there’s marketing and advertising, there’s always going to be a need for Photoshop skills. Companies want their products and services shown in the best light and great photography, enhanced by Photoshop, makes that happen!

Can you please share your favorite art, motivational, or inspirational quote or piece of advice with our audience?

Be curious about everything.

Even things that you think might not necessarily tie back to what you’re currently interested in. For example, I’m not an illustrator and when it comes to drawing people and animals you probably wouldn’t be able tell my stuff apart from an 8-year-old’s. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know the techniques involved in illustration or painting.

Last year, I went to NAPP’s Photoshop World in Orlando, and one of the presenters was Aaron Blaise, an ex-Disney animator and superb artist and illustrator, who does most of his work in Photoshop now. Even though I have no intention of being an illustrator, I knew that he had information I needed to know. He could work those Photoshop brushes like they were made of magic. His ability to understand light and shadows was otherworldly. And learning his techniques could only provide me options for my compositing work down the road.

As an artist, I think you have to be willing to adapt to the opportunities that come your way. Approach your craft with a relentless curiosity and learn as much as you can about your art. Learn about other things as well, things that may have nothing to do with what you’re working on, and always strive to be your best.

As for the type of art that inspires me – it’s movie posters. Particularly action, sci-fi, disaster, apocalyptic-type movies. As an example, I created a poster called “Lifeguard Station Zulu” that was inspired by a lot of the movie posters that use the reflections in glasses or goggles to show what’s happening in the background. You can check out those examples and more at my Pinterest page (link below) where I collect my favorite posters for inspiration.

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What’s the most exciting project you’re working on at the moment?

It’s in talks right now. I was recently contacted by an international agency that is interested in a movie-style poster to help them promote one of the characters from an ongoing TV campaign. So…fingers crossed!!

You can see more of this amazing artist’s work and follow him on his:

Website: www.pixelogyarts.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/PixelogyArts

Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/pixelogist/cinematic-movie-posters/

Found Folios: www.foundfolios.com/Greg-Agee

Twitter: @gregbagee

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