Interview with Dean Etheridge [deane]

Dean Etheride (Deane) has been a contributing artist at Renderosity since 2002. His talent in combining excellent technique with intriguing and realistic portraits/scenes, has created a strong following of fans and fellow artists. While working professionally as an engineering design professional, he's spent considerable time developing his interest in digital art and design using primarily Poser and Photoshop. And if you spend some time in his gallery you'll see that he is a superb artist, especially in his portraits of women, which are subtle and passionate.

Dean grew up in the UK where he began his career in engineering illustration with the help of a supportive teacher. He went on to graduate with a masters degree from University and has worked steadily in his chosen field. He's a family man with a wife and daughter, who apparently love his work as much as his fans here at Renderosity, a site he feels has helped him grow as an artist.

I've had the pleasure to chat with Dean via email for the last few weeks. After spending time with his artwork, I had lots of questions for Dean. I've focused especially on his most popular work at Renderosity, Alathea. We also talked about his work flow, what he's trying to do with his art work and who some of his influences are. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that we both share an intense interest in South East Asian culture and Science Fiction. He talks about his love of travel and photography, too.

I think one of the things that interests me in Dean as an artist (and as a person) is his clear desire to depict deeply realistic images using digital tools. You'll see in the interview which follows, Dean's goal is to “give the viewer a believable sense of looking through a window to somewhere/somewhen”. His background in classical art plus his interest in modern artists like Vargas and Sorayama adds a depth to his work that is unique.

My thanks to Dean for taking the time out of his schedule to answer my questions. As you can see, he's a thoughtful person. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Ricky Grove: First, I'd like to congratulate you on your success with your artwork. I've read that you had several images published in Exotique 4, can you tell us a little about how that came about? What are some of the other publications that have featured your work?

Dean Etheridge: Thank you! I was really widely encouraged by friends and some colleagues here at Renderosity to submit some of my work to various publications back in 2005. To my surprise, I first placed a winning image in a DAZ/DeviantArt calendar competition, closely followed by inclusion in a digital art magazine called ImagineFX. I also previously secured a single image back in Exotique 2. However, I was never really satisfied with the quality of these early works, and took stock of my technique to improve my style. After numerous improvement exercises, and encouraging feedback from the site here, I submitted five entries into the Exotique 4 ‘call for entries’ last year. I was subsequently overwhelmed to have three of these rapidly shortlisted, and finally selected for publication.

Ricky: Since joining renderosity.com in 2002, your work has centered around various depictions of woman and high-speed jets; do I detect a budding James Bond theme here? I'm joking, of course, but I'm interested in your choice of subjects for your artwork; what is it about these two subjects that interest you so much?

Dean: Regret I’m no Sean Connery by a long way :) I find I have always been influenced by classic figure study painters such as Velasquez, J.W. Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones, and more recent artists such as Vargas, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Hajime Sorayama. These probably explain away my predisposition towards the female form. Then there is my SE Asian influences from travel which are referenced below. I also have a strong interest in science-fiction themes and had the good fortune during my formative years to witness an explosion of some very talented professional artists in the field. Chief amongst these were Chris Foss, Jim Burns and Peter Elson. I was always impressed with the technical precision and action dynamics of the former, and the portrayal of people in the former. Since that time, I tried to develop a style which combines elements of both styles in my action scenes. I once had the privilege to meet up with Chris Foss and was overwhelmed by his generosity and professionalism.


Alethea

Ricky: Your most popular image at renderosity is an extraordinary portrait of a woman titled "Alethea". Where did this image come from? Can you tell us how it developed? And when did you know the image was finished? Is "Alethea" a favorite work of yours, or are there some others that your really feel great about?

Dean: I consider Alethea a distinctive transition point for my work. For a long time I had relied very heavily on trying to completely render my work in Poser and then use minimal postwork to complete. There were some hard lessons to be learned on the way and eventually, I had a yearning to return back to a more painterly style to achieve greater effect. Despite some great products in the market, I always find I have problems with the rendering and depiction of convincing hair. I chose this image to experiment with different ways to reproduce a more realistic result in postwork. The image itself was suggested after reminiscing over some time I spent in Cyprus as a child, and trying to produce something in a Mediterranean style. The base facial render used V3 with ‘Manhattan’ textures from Danae here at Renderosity. I then employed some advanced lighting and shader node settings I discovered through research into Poser 6. The hair itself is postworked in Photoshop using various reference sources as a guide. I knew the piece had achieved the effect I was looking for after setting the ‘Summer Siesta’ background in place from DAZ. Alathea is a personal favourite of mine, and more so judging by the many positive and encouraging comments I received after posting the image. I am really pleased and honoured to see how successful and popular this particular image became in justifying the change of style and all the hard work put into it.

My other favourite image is Akima, which I personally think further manages to convey a real sense of life and vivacity.


Akima
(featured in Ballistic Publishing's Exotique 4)

Ricky: I was wondering if you could give us a little more detail on your background. How did you end up in the UK? Where did you go to school? Have you been working in product design for a long time? You mention you have 20 years experience in computer design, is this what you set out to do?

Dean: I was born in the UK and went to local high school, not too far from where I currently live in Surrey. I always had a particular interest in art, but was strangely never encouraged in this area by my peers. By chance, I had the good fortune to compensate by having a great tutor in technical illustration who encouraged my artistic talents in design which I then chose to pursue on leaving high school. I went into the engineering industry to further this, and gain a professional education. During that time I was given a solid grounding in traditional art and drawing techniques and was fortunate enough to be involved with and become fascinated by the early introduction and potential of Computer Aided Design and modelling software. Along the way, I graduated with honours from University and finally acquired a Masters degree. Most of my work these days lies in a more managerial role, but I am still involved with and greatly enjoy the specification and design of products for a wide variety of diverse applications spanning consumer products, automotive, electronic and particularly aerospace markets.

Ricky: I like this quote of yours:

"My graphic style has always been strongly associated with reproducing realism as closely as possible, and probing the envelope of how this can be achieved across different sets of software packages."

Why did you choose realism as your style? Does it come out of your work in product design/engineering? I really like the phrase "probing the envelope", can you elaborate on this a bit more? What does it mean to you to probe across software like Poser and Daz? And what does "realism" mean to you?

Dean: Again, this largely comes full circle back to my artistic influences mentioned above. I am always in awe of some of these masters of classic art, and how easily they depict realistic human form, expression and motion with a minimum of strokes. Realism to me, is art which utilizes such skills to give the viewer a believable sense of looking through a window into somewhere/somewhen else, rather than just pigment on a canvas.

I’m still a long way from achieving this kind of style and still aspire one day to get to this level. I initially found adapting to pure digital work in Photoshop somewhat difficult at first after having used traditional media for so long. With the advent of software such as Poser however, I found a valuable tool towards improving my workflow, even given the limitations of the early software. I found it invaluable in quickly and accurately allowing you to compose and explore form, camera angle, perspective and scene layout.

Given many subsequent enhancements, Poser has come a long way and of particular note was the inclusion of the Firefly renderer. Based on this and my computing experience, it was only a short time before I was peering into the subtleties of the program to see how far the render engine could be ‘driven’. Since then, Ambient Occlusion, HDRI lighting and advanced material shader settings are all now standard inclusions in my rendering set-ups. This also includes undertaking bespoke texture, bump, transparency and specular maps when needed.

Whilst I have not exhausted all that Poser has yet to offer, I am planning for the future to look into what other software can achieve. Vue is a great mid-level modeller in my toolkit and ideal for producing impressive landscapes. I aim to invest this later year into Zbrush for bespoke object sculpting, and perhaps one day a seat of 3DS Max. The renders I have seen from a combination of these tools, and suitable postwork, produce strikingly realistic images of near photo-realism.


Katarina
(featured in Ballistic Publishing's Exotique 4)

Ricky: Can you describe your workflow a bit when you work on an image of something, say "Chiffon Tigress" for example? Feel free to go in to detail if you like. Especially interested in your postprocessing work in Photoshop (depth of field, etc).

Dean: My workflow has changed significantly since Chiffon Tigress, so perhaps a better more recent example would be ‘Katarina’. I first draft out a rough idea of how I want the picture to look with a 2D thumbnail sketch. I then use Poser to apply the basic figure pose and camera point of view. From there, I usually start selecting and applying suitable morphs and character skin textures in keeping with the sketch. With this basic set-up complete, the lighting is then selected using HDRI, and advanced Poser material shader settings are applied. I find sub-surface scatter and ambient occlusion very important in setting up subtle skin-tone shading and shadow nuances into the model.

Also important at this stage is applying suitable bump, transparency and specular maps. On Katrina, I texture mapped the clothing as well. With this lighting complete, I then either apply a basic texture mapped hair scalp or use a simple 3D hair object to act as a base. Sometimes I will leave this out completely and rely on postwork instead. I’ll usually then make a high resolution render, with perhaps an additional pass at different lighting intensity to set additional tones and isolate key areas of shadows and highlights. The finished render(s) are then taken into Photoshop and combined in layer modes to get the final desired effect. This process accounts for about 50% of the work. After that it’s down to the hard part with Photoshop postwork to fix joints and key viewer focus regions around the mouth and eyes. Finally I then add the hair to complete the figure study. Backgrounds are mostly composited later, using either pre-purchased packages or 3D objects I have modelled and texture mapped myself. Finishing effects like depth of field are sometimes manually applied in Photoshop for speed using masks and blur filters. This can also be done in Poser, but render times go up proportionately.

Ricky: "Intercept" is an amazing image of a jet plane; where did this image come from? How much did the image change from your initial conception to finished product?

Dean: I saw some fantastic work here on Renderosity by Bazze, and was amazed to find that his personal website offered some free downloads of some impressively modelled classic jet aircraft. I’ve always wanted to revisit some of my earlier 2D sketches of aircraft, and chose the iconic F-4 ‘Phantom’ to try and render a credible 3D scene using Vue 6. The scene was loosely thumbnailed in pencil using a deliberately exaggerated perspective to create a feeling of both speed and impending drama. I experimented in with several camera angles in Vue to re-create the sketch and get the right sense of action to the piece. The original concept placed the planes at high altitude above the clouds, but a preview render showed this scene to look somewhat uninspiring. Somewhere along the way, I hit upon the idea of using a seascape which seemed to better convey the drama. The lighting came next, followed by adding a dramatic Vue atmosphere. During the final production postwork, the scene still seemed a little bare, so I added some motion blur and modeled up a simplified representation of the background aircraft carrier for effect. This now seemed just about right to reinforce the focus on the planes just having launched from a flight deck into some real action.

Ricky: I'm curious about the connection between your design work and your art work at renderosity. Are they different worlds for you? How do they influence each other? Or do they?

Dean: Strangely there was little crossover at first and the two seemed quite separate. However, as time passes on, I find I am modeling my own scenes more and more, and find some of the styling techniques used in my design work influencing the design. I’m trying to break the geometric habit one day and hope to model something leaning towards a more organic form in the future.

Ricky: You had mentioned that travel and photography are also important to you and that Asian culture is of interest; what are some of the places you've traveled?

Dean: I’ve had the privilege to travel around the world a few times now, and my favourite place is still SE Asia. The culture is fascinating and the people genuinely friendly and welcoming. I have made some wonderful friends there, and am still in contact with them today.

I have traveled through Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Hawaiian islands, and parts of West and East coast USA. I have had the privilege to see some amazing sights and find some amazingly unspoilt places on my visits and have really come to appreciate the wonders of the world around us. I hope one day to go back and show some of these sights and cultures to my daughter when she is a little older.

Ricky: What kind of photographs do you take? Do you find Asian styles influencing your work as an artist? In what way? I'm a big fan of Hong Kong and Korean film; have you seen many films created there?

Dean: I‘m still a little ‘old school’ on my photography, and still use a trusty 35mm SLR for my other hobby. I sometimes indulge in a little portrait photography now and then when I find the time, and also work on some aviation photography at the various air shows in the South East (English weather permitting).

Like yourself, I love Hong Kong cinema and the emerging Korean films. My likes are really right across the board from classic martial arts films through to modern action/adventure, horror and anime productions. My favourites are too numerous to mention, but here’s a quick flavour:

Hong Kong: Drunken Master, A Chinese Ghost Story, God of Gamblers, Hard Boiled, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle

Korean: Taegukgi, Shiri

Chinese: The Promise

Japanese: Azumi, Ghost in the Shell, Dreams, Spirited Away, Paprika

I’ve yet to get to Hong Kong and just missed out on an opportunity a year or so ago. It’s definitely still on my ‘to do’ list.

I find so many influences from these films that they are also too numerous to mention. Just sit back and take a look at some of the unique creativity and sheer energy of some of these films and I’m sure you’ll understand why.

Ricky: What is the hardware/software set-up you use for your artwork? Do you prefer PC or Mac? I see that Poser, Daz and Photoshop seem to be your main tools; are there any others? Do you have any favorite plug-ins or supplemental programs?

Dean: My current platform is a Windows PC running a dual core Pentium. I usually specify and build my own workstations to tailor the performance I need from them. As always however, you are only ever a few months away from upgrading to a faster machine given the growing list of processor and memory hungry applications these days. My main tools are Poser, Photoshop and Vue 6. I also use Bryce from time to time when I need additional support or effects. There is a great Photoshop plug-in from OptikVerve Labs, which can also produce some effective ‘photo’ type finishing effects to a final render.

Ricky: You've had some pretty amazing feedback on your work at renderosity.com; what do you think of renderosity? Has the site helped you grow as an artist? Although your early posted work is excellent, your recent work is even better. How have you changed as an artist over the last several years?

Dean: An emphatic yes. The site has many outstanding artists and contributors who constantly set new standards for excellence. Many members contribute some excellent tutorials and articles on improvement tips and techniques. Paramount of all however, is the friendly community spirit here, and if you are willing to accept it, often valuable constructive critique from fellow artists. I believe this is essential for an artist to develop, and on many occasions, it has helped me realize some of my shortcomings and areas for improvement. I think the most important advice, I have acted on, is to build on your strengths and don’t be afraid to develop your own unique style. It also pays to experiment and just try something new once in a while, even if only to see ‘what if’? Failures can sometimes result, but I believe that it’s worth the risk now and again. In real terms, you are only ever as good as your last picture and should continually strive for improvement.


Sunset Warrior (WIP)

Ricky: What are you working on right now? Can you share anything even if it's not quite finished? What are your goals for the future? Any chance of your artwork taking over your product design?

Dean: I’m working on a portrait at the moment as a complimentary piece to a very early work I did some years ago called ‘Sunset Warrior’. It’s really another improvement exercise to see how far I’ve come since those early days. It’s about 50% complete so far.

A goal this year will be to establish my own gallery website, and hopefully showcase the talent of other artists and colleagues as well. I’m also working on a collaborative project with steve100 at the moment on a web-based book.

My ultimate goal would one day hope to see my work incorporated into commercial publishing, and perhaps even find some time to undertake my own art illustration project. Given my love of computer graphics in today’s film effects and animation, it would also be a great dream to perhaps one day contribute to this field in some small way.

As for my art overtaking my product design, I’d have to speak to my bank manager on that one – lol!

Ricky: What interests you in a work of art you admire? Is it the form or the content? What kinds of art do you find yourself attracted to? Are there artists at renderosity whom you find yourself paying attention to?

Dean: I find myself attracted to works of art spanning many genres and styles. Sometimes it’s an emotional response to content, and at other times an admiration and appreciation of the artists talent, skill and technical accomplishment that has gone into forming the image. Sometimes I will come across an image that simply has that indefinable ‘wow’ factor, irrespective of either. It’s often difficult to pin down a precise reason why some art appeals more than others. Of late, I am particularly taken by the beautiful characters created by Katarina Sokolova and Marta Dahlig over on CG Society. Here on Renderosity, I have a long list of artists whose styles and content I greatly admire, and all are firmly bookmarked in my favourites list.

Ricky: I'm so impressed with your attention to detail in all of your works; I wonder if this is something that you've always brought to your work, or is it something you've developed over the years? Also, there is always a sense of drama in your images, as if you've caught someone in before or just after some sort of action and that there is more to the image than what you are seeing. How much do you plan out this effect? Are there any literary influences (books you've read)?

Dean: Attention to detail has always been an underlying theme in my work from as far back as I can remember. I like to window dress a scene a little bit, to make it perhaps that little bit more believable. It’s often a hard balancing act. Too much, and the scene becomes cluttered with considerable wasted effort being expended; too little, and the scene looks too empty to be convincing.

I put a lot of thought into what is the context of each image and what it might mean to the viewer. I generally have a pretty firm idea of the story taking place within my images, but it’s often interesting to see how else this can sometimes be interpreted. My picture ‘Dragons Den’ is a case in point. It’s been suggested the real villain of the piece is perhaps the girl and not the dragon, which I like as an interesting twist!

I am an avid reader with a collection of books going back several years now. As mentioned earlier, I love science fiction and have some strong associations and influences from some of these novels. In particular there are some scenes from fascinating books by Alan Dean Foster which I intend to get around to illustrating one day. Also the breathtaking ‘Forever War’ by Joe Haldeman, and another, a simple but superbly written story of human survival called ‘Shipwreck’ by Charles Logan.

We invite you to have a further look at Dean's Renderosity Gallery.


All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, or reproduced in any manner without written permission.


Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
March 9, 2009

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Member Opinions:
By: andrewl on 3/12/09
It's nice to see someone who is not within the art industary have such a talant for stunning portraits. I know a lot of hard work goes into producing these images. Deane is responable for getting me hooked on the use of Poser, and it's a honour to have him as a friend. Well done .

By: nickcharles on 3/13/09
A fantastic interview, Ricky!
Dean, your work is incredible. I really love the "akima" image. And congrats on making it into Ballistic's "Exotique 4"!

By: twingo on 3/15/09
Excellent interview, it's great to get to know Dean a little bit better.
His work really is a insparation to many of us, excellent artist and a great guy, he really deserves the attention.


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