Art Lessons
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 2 (Feb 2003)

Art Lessons

Any client who has worked with an artist—or any artist who has worked with a client—knows that when both parties are in sync, the outcome can be a great success; but when they're not, it can be a disaster.

This month, we were fortunate enough to have the former experience with an artist without even really trying. In fact, the outcome was so successful, we thought we'd ask how he was able to exceed expectations with minimal direction and absolutely no follow-up communication.

The story begins when we asked 3D artists in the XYZ & You users group ( to participate in a contest to help us spruce up our serviceable but simple 2002 Computer Graphics World Innovation Awards logo. Our original 2D logo worked well in the print article describing the winners (see December 2002, pg. 28) and as an icon in our e-newsletter and Web site announcements. But when it came to designing the actual award plaques, we felt we needed something as innovative as the developers we were honoring.

So we provided the willing XYZ & You artists with the original logo and asked them to enhance it "by creating a 3D version and taking some artistic license." In return, we offered to display the winner's work on our Web site (though in the end, we chose to highlight it here, as well).

Two weeks later, on deadline, we received a half dozen of the top entries, as determined by the users group president. And after much debate, we selected our favorite (above), a stunning 3D rendition by Michael Ingrassia, a classically trained artist from Bellevue, Washington (, who impressed us with a bold, clean look; a sense of motion; a dramatic choice of materials and colors; a powerful use of lighting; and a faithfulness to the original design intent.

How did he do it? According to Ingrassia, the assignment was typical of what a commercial artist could be expected to create on any given day, but the interaction (or lack of it) with the client (us) was anything but. "I used 3ds max as my modeling tool running on a dual processor Pentium 4 system with a GeForce 3 video card," he says. "I spent 30 minutes modeling the scene, then about two to three hours lighting it and arranging the camera angle until I was pleased with the overall balance. My initial thought was to use more organic shapes, but that would have been light years from your original concept. So I simply tried to match what you had regarding shape and color. I brought in volume lighting to add a sense of mystique to the scene and give it a professional appearance that I thought would be appropriate for a magazine specializing in computer graphics. The only artistic license I took was to make the star look like glass to give it more importance over the plainly colored box shapes."

As he worked, Ingrassia says that he relied on his instincts and had to make numerous assumptions. But he would not normally recommend this approach. "If I had a one-on-one relationship with you, I would have presented a half-dozen options and then fine tuned them until we agreed on a direction," he says. "But that would have given me an unfair advantage, considering this was a contest. So I put my best foot forward and was lucky enough to be on the right track."

Clearly, there was more than luck involved. Ingrassia's decisions were based on years of freelancing for many of the major film studios, computer game developers, and consumer product companies. And after learning more about his work as well as his work process, it was obvious that he has the right formula for succeeding as an artist in the digital age. Here's a summary of Ingrassia's insights on interacting with clients:

  • Communicate clearly: We all are eager to jump right in and start working, but unless you and your client are on the exact same page, you're going to be heading into dangerous waters.
  • Assess freedom: Breakdown the client's request and determine the degree of creative freedom you will have on the project. We all want to create images we like, but these won't always meet the client's needs.
  • Start sketching: Show the client proposals before submitting final work. It is easier to draft new sketches before starting work on a detailed piece of art. Sketch in front of the client, if possible, so you can make changes immediately and agree on a direction without playing phone tag or making assumptions later.
  • Offer options: Try to create one very good work, with a few variations based on that concept. Offer several options, but stay centered on the original direction.
  • Expect revisions: Although you may have done your best to learn all the particulars of a project and uncover any erroneous assumptions you might have made prior to commencing work, be prepared for a client to change his or her mind midstream. It can be very frustrating, but it's the nature of the beast.
  • Learn technique: Having the ability to turn on a computer and click a mouse won't prepare you for the necessities of art mastery. It's important to understand the fundamentals of perspective, balance, lighting, and color theory.

  • Express yourself: The digital art industry today is like the automotive industry. At one extreme, there is the Ferrari, a creation of love, built by the hands of a master craftsman, a true work of art. At the other, there is the economy car, simply pushed along the production line as quickly and cheaply as possible with no creativity, no love, no passion. Artists need to be very expressive, otherwise, as artisans, they will wither and die. So spend as much time in creative endeavors as possible and take full advantage of whatever artistic freedom you have.

      Thanks to Mr. Ingrassia for his contribution and insights. While his comments are offered to help artists, clients would be wise to keep them in mind, as well. Understanding the needs and motivations of the person you're working with is the key to getting in sync.