This is the second 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.
Jeff Whitlock (www.jeffwhitlockdigitalartist.com) is a Maumee, Ohio-based digital artist with more than 20 years experience who specializes in photo illustration and creative retouching for the advertising, marketing, and publishing industries. His award-winning projects include book and magazine covers as well as large scale montages/composites for corporate environments.
Tell us about yourself. Do you have any formal training in photography, traditional or digital painting?
As an artist, I believe the drive to create has been embedded into my DNA – it’s the essence that breathes passion and life into the images I create. Being an artist isn’t merely my profession, it’s my life’s purpose.
This purpose manifested at an early age. From the time I was four, I was fascinated with drawing, coloring, and the creative process in general. And from kindergarten through high school, I was constantly immersed in drawing and design.
I went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in art at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. My focus was graphic design and illustration. The art museum was a fantastic environment in which to study. Being surrounded by masterpieces from every artistic discipline fueled my creative passion.
During my post-secondary education, I expanded my creative repertoire by becoming involved with photography. This additional creative expression proved to have a synergistic effect upon my creativity. However, this discipline was not nurtured by formal education, but rather by a lengthy (and ongoing) journey of self-study.
How did you become a digital composite artist?
Compositing was a natural progression from illustration. Essentially, I was doing “composites” when creating illustrations by taking a variety of reference photos and combining them into a single image. I became aware of the concept of digital compositing initially through the work of Joel Grimes and Dave Hill. I immediately resonated with those types of images and felt an inner drive ignite to pursue a similar direction.
What three personal qualities have really helped you to become successful in your craft and business?
To the degree that I have attained a measure of success, I would say the following are the three qualities that are most responsible:
- FAITH – In God and in myself.
- LOVE OF LEARNING – I’ve watched hundreds of tutorials and read thousands of articles and books. To the degree I’ve applied what I have learned, I’ve benefited accordingly.
- PERSEVERANCE – I may have been knocked down 1,037 times but have gotten back up 1,038 times (so far).
There are many styles of composites from the completely believable to the surreal. What style is your favorite?
I’m especially drawn to what I call the “believable surreal” style. These types of images combine elements that create an “impossible” scenario BUT are executed so convincingly as to cause the viewer to temporarily suspend judgment regarding the “reality” of the image and simply elicit the “WOW!” response.
What are the key ingredients in creating a believable composite?
All elements used to create the composite must have similar perspective and lighting from the start (although one can sometimes successfully alter the lighting with dodge and burn techniques). Elements that have been extracted from their backgrounds need to blend seamlessly into the environment.
These “cutouts” also must have the appropriate amount of sharpness/blur to work convincingly with the other elements. Color grading needs to be such that all individual elements within the composite are unified and share a common look. In general, the final image should appear harmonious, cohesive, and convincing.
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?
First (to clarify), I refer to myself as a “digital artist” not a “composite artist”. Much of my professional work is graphic design – photography, retouching, and composite work fills up the remainder of my time. Most of my clients are in the publishing, advertising, and marketing industries.
Of the professional compositing work I do, most often it’s more realistic in nature than surreal. I really don’t mind doing this type of work. Any “style” of compositing requires ability, skill, and excellence as well as mental focus. It’s very satisfying to complete any type of compositing project successfully.
How important are personal projects to you? How many do you typically create in a year?
Personal projects are of CRITICAL importance to me. These projects allow my creative vision to flow unabated. I’m able to experiment and try different approaches without regard for time, budget, or client interference. Typically, I do at least 20-30 personal projects/year. Most of my growth as an artist has come from engaging in these self-assignments.
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?
I would prefer to shoot all my own assets for composite work but sometimes that’s either impossible or impractical. Also, clients will often supply me with photos to which they have an “emotional attachment”, so I’m required to use the images regardless of the quality. I would say the split is roughly 60-40 (my photography vs. either stock or client supplied images).
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?
By far the biggest mistake a client makes is consulting with me after the concept has been approved by their client and the photography has been completed.
In that situation, I’m provided with a hodge-podge of images (some shot specifically for the project and some stock images). Through the “magic of Photoshop”, the client expects a transformation of these mismatched photos into a cohesive, jaw dropping image.
If clients would consult with me at the concept stage, I could save them lots of time and money, and create a more powerful and engaging final image.
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?
I usually begin by sketching out a concept (or receive one from my client). Next, I photograph or locate (or am provided with) images to use in the project. I set up a folder on my computer for the project and link it to Adobe Lightroom. I import all the photos into Lightroom and make basic adjustments to them.
After that, I import the photos as layers into Adobe Photoshop. At this stage, I only care about composition/ image placement. I work out the composition in grayscale by applying a black-and-white adjustment layer to the top of my layer stack.
Once I’m pleased with the composition, I perform a variety of tasks, depending upon the image/assignment. These may include modifying pixels with warp/liquify tools and applying any number of retouching techniques (nearly always this includes some form of dodge and burn).
After I have completed the pixel-level changes and the image looks convincing and “finished” in grayscale, I begin to work with color. I create a color folder at the top of my layer stack and then experiment with various adjustment layers.
This process is very intuitive and experimental – it’s a form of “play”. I usually have an idea of what I’m after, but sometimes serendipity leads me to a better result than I had originally envisioned.
To complete the process, I perform some form of overall image sharpening to finalize the image in preparation for client delivery and/or web display.
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?
For me, extracting the source images from their backgrounds can still be the most challenging/time consuming aspect of digital compositing. This is especially true when I’m working with fur and need to preserve the fine details. It’s a necessity to have as many extraction techniques in your arsenal as possible.
I’ve never found a single solution (including expensive third-party software). Having a “magic bullet” technique for image extraction would be number-one on my list of workflow enhancements.
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?
My main sources of clients were (and still are) Advertising, Marketing, and Publishing companies. As far as promotion, I have a personal and business Facebook page for connecting with people online. I have a dedicated website for my business.
In addition, I post on other sites like the Creative Finder, Behance, and several other free portfolio sites. I’ve also had some success with “cold-calling” in the past but haven’t done that in a while.
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?
First and foremost, I would advise mastering the basics of Photoshop – especially mastering the selection tools and the variety of techniques for masking. Study the great masters to learn composition and color theory. Learn as much as you can about retouching. No matter how good the photos are that I start out with, I always do some level of retouching when creating a composite.
The more knowledge/mastery you possess of visual arts in general, and digital arts in particular, the better your composites will be.
Having a clear grasp of the basics of design, composition, color theory, retouching, photography, and/or illustration will provide a solid foundation on which to begin learning compositing. Starting without this visual arts foundation would be like trying to build a house without a foundation.
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?
From what I can foresee, compositing is here to stay. Certainly, there will be major changes ahead (as is true for all of the digital arts) but I think there will always be a need to combine multiple images into a seamless composite image.
Can you please share your favorite art, motivational, or inspirational quote or piece of advice with our audience?
This is one of my favorites because it applauds effort/engagement vs. being the best (all people are capable of heroic effort, but not everyone can be the best):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
~President Teddy Roosevelt
What’s the most exciting project you’re working on at the moment?
The most exiting projects are almost always self-assignments. I have about 3-4 of these currently in the early stages of development – stay tuned…
You can see more of this amazing artist’s work and follow him on his:
Facebook (business page): www.facebook.com/pages/Jeff-Whitlock-Digital-Artist
Facebook (Personal): www.facebook.com/jeff.whitlock.357