Photo Illustration: Michael Elins on Painting Images
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It takes a village to raise a project. Artists, photographers, retouchers, designers, programmers, editors, musicians, engineers, animators, assistants, managers, directors, publishers, producers, and, yes, even clients have to be able to look at a job, communicate their ideas, and add their spices to the stew. This sort of manifold digital workflow has become so common there's a new catchphrase for it: network publishing. The idea is that the work of so many people requires sophisticated, specialized tools that fit together like pieces in a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Clearly, this is an inevitable and, I would argue, positive trend. But it raises the question: In a world increasingly dominated by multiperson publishing, what is the role of the lone artist? Where does he or she fit in?
For the answer, I turn to Michael Elins, a Los Angeles-based independent artist. He's a network publisher, but with a difference: he represents all parts of the network. He designs the piece, he hires the models, he shoots his own photographs, he assembles the compositions, and he paints and clones sculptural details to create the final image (see figure 1). What programs does he use? "Oh, it's all Photoshop." Here, then, is a network publisher, not from the standpoint of applications or human resources, but by virtue of the different hats he wears and the wealth of elements he pulls together. "When I do artwork for magazines, they'll credit me by saying 'photography by,' or 'image by,' or sometimes 'photo illustration by.' I don't think the commercial art world has yet come up with a name for what I do. It's not a photo, it's not a painting, it's not an illustration. It's a different animal. I think of it as a window into a whole world where photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, textiles--they all come together in Photoshop (to see how Elins transforms images read the sidebar, "Michael Elins' Photo Painting Technique)."
"That all sounds pretentious, I know. But when I started out, I thought it would take a group of people to do this kind of work. I think we're on the verge of something here. When Gutenberg invented movable type, he had no idea what was coming, how much it would change the world, how much power it would put in the hands of the individual designer. And that's where we're at with network publishing. We're at the very beginning. We're writing the book as we go.
"When this synthesis of digital photography and digital illustration really hits on a professional and fine-art level, it's going to completely transform everything. Each of us who is doing it will help to invent our own kind of language, and then we'll be able to come up with a name for it." Whatever it is, let's hope it sounds better on a business card than Freelance Photo-Illustrator.
History and Development
No matter what you call Elins' job, he's frightfully successful at it--and he's an artist whose first brush with Photoshop was version 5. "I'm an illustrator by trade. Up until recently, drawing and painting were what I did. I was a freelance illustrator for 11 or 12 years (see figure 2). In fact, the whole reason I moved out to L.A. in 1985 was because I wanted to illustrate movie posters. (See Elins' poster for Lord of the Rings.) I became pretty good at it, but illustration was at the low end of the totem pole. It wasn't what it used to be in the 1970s; there weren't many big illustrated advertising campaigns. It had become a second option: if they couldn't get photography, then maybe they'd do illustration."
Fortunately, around the time the illustration market started to show signs of decline, Elins was invited to join a digital art studio. "We were working on Graphic Paintboxes, which were those huge $500,000 image-editing machines from Quantel. We did retouching and movie posters--fairly typical compositing work." But Elins's artistic development flatlined. "Paintbox time was so expensive--$500 an hour--and at that point, the Mac was a 25-MHz Etch-A-Sketch. So it was hard to find time to draw or illustrate" in a digital environment.
Elins decided to break out on his own. "It occurred to me that I could form a relationship with a photographer. By combining photography with my ability to illustrate and work a computer, we could do anything--we could make amazing images. I figured photographers would be really open to this idea because they'd be able to go in directions they couldn't go on their own."
But it didn't turn out quite that way. The pesky issue of ownership reared its head. "I ran into this photographer and we thought this would be a good opportunity to test the waters. So I art-directed the shoot, looked through the camera, and when everything was just right I said, 'Okay, shoot it.' What he told me, right after that, was stunning for me. 'Whoever pushes the button owns the film. It's my copyright.' " For Elins, this highlighted the difficulty of a collaborative project. Who owns what? "I didn't try to dispute his claim, but for my part, as an independent illustrator, I couldn't afford for every project to turn into a tug-of-war. So I decided to be my own photographer. And that's what I've done ever since."
Of course, it wasn't just a matter of picking up a camera and firing away. Elins had to develop a skill for photography, like any other craft. "I knew that I had to embrace the process. And once I did, I loved it. But it took time to get good at it. The biggest thing that I learned was that you really have to gain the trust of your subject, gain empathy for them, channel their personality through your camera. And you don't want to limit them to a specific pose. They're creative people, so you have to learn to give them room to decide what they want to do. You have to empower them so that they can respond to your idea."
Trends and Crossroads
Stewart liked Elins's technique and called on him for several repeat performances. "For this children's fashion spread, I did this same doll-morphing thing (see figure 3). I photographed a real little girl and a doll's body. I even had a prosthetic head built for the doll. Then I composited the pieces together and superimposed portions of the girl's face onto the prosthetic head (see figure 4). Because I was a photorealistic illustrator, I knew how to paint skin so it looks plastic and illustrate the eyes."
Figure 3 (left), Figure 4 (right)
As his digital painting skills improved, Elins found himself in high demand as a photorealistic caricaturist. "People would hire me to do these funny photographic cartoons. For example, when I did the old people look," such as an old Leonardo DiCaprio for Us Magazine (see figure 5), "I got tons of attention from it. I could have made a career out of it. In fact, I was in discussions with Us about taking over the back page of every issue just for this old-person style. But when I went to my syndicator, they said, 'You're going to ruin your career if you do this. You're going to define yourself as someone who steals people's heads and can do anything with them. No one's going to let you shoot them on purpose.'
"Then during the 2000 election, there was this whole Bush-versus-Gore thing. I ended up doing a bunch of artwork for magazines like George (see figure 6), Newsweek (see figure 7), and a few others. It really took on a life of its own because it's an updated form of political cartooning." One might wonder how Elins found photos of the presidential candidates looking so profusely sweaty (see figure 8). "Oh no, I did all that. I looked for places where sweat gathers--on the tops of surfaces like the lips, in the folds and the wrinkles--and painted it in. When working for Newsweek I can't go around changing the features. Even in the case of an obvious edit piece, they're not looking for caricatures. But I did a lot of work on the skin and in the hair."
Figure 7 (left), Figure 8 (right)
But here again, Elins is working from someone else's photographs. Elins shot the bodies, but the heads were licensed by the various magazines. (We are running the completed artwork in this book, without which we could not otherwise demonstrate the body of Elins's work, under the terms of Fair Use.) "I had to make a decision: What kind of images was I going to do? Was I going to collaborate with subjects to do things that they want me to do, or was I going to be this sort of outlaw using other people's pictures? And again, if I was to pursue that route, I would never own that original image. It's like baking an apple pie where every time you sell a slice of that pie, you have to give a royalty to the people who grew the apples and ground the flour and so on."
Which is why Elins's more recent work hinges on his own photographs. "I did this portrait of the director of the movie Moulin Rouge, a guy named Baz Luhrmann, for Movieline magazine (see figure 9). But this time, I got him in the studio, I got him in a costume, I shot him doing what he's doing, I pressed the button. I own that image. Instead of saying, 'Give me a picture of Leo DiCaprio and I'll make a funny picture,' I'm doing the whole thing."
Elins based the piece on a portrait of the Comte de Pastoret by the 19th-century French Neoclassicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (see figure 10). "I've always loved Ingres--he combined great concepts with this amazing, impeccable execution. When I shot Baz, I lighted him like in a classical portrait. During the composition phase, I treated it like a metaphorical piece. For example, the sunscreen lotion (see figure 11) refers to this popular song he had called 'Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen).' " If you examine the piece closely, you'll see that Elins repainted details in the face and the hands (see figure 12). "As an illustrator, I find that everything that's touched is more interesting than anything that isn't touched; it's almost like doodling over a picture or reinterpreting a song--it gives you a sense of the artist."
Figure 11 (left), Figure 12 (right)
Deke McClelland is the author of the award-winning titles Photoshop 6 for Windows Bible and Macworld Photoshop 6 Bible (Hungry Minds), with more copies in print than any other guides on computer graphics. Other best-selling titles include Real World Illustrator 10, Real World Digital Photography, and Adobe Master Class: Designer's Invitational (all Peachpit Press). He also serves as host to several entertaining and educational video training series, including Total Photoshop, Total Illustrator, and Total GoLive (Total Training).
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