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Interview with Adam Duff

Adam Duff is a concept artist, 3D artist and character designer based in Montreal, Canada.

Hi, Adam!Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! Let’s start out with a bit of general background: tell us a few words about yourself.

Well hello to you too, and thank you for this opportunity Marina!
My name is Adam Duff. I’m a senior concept artist and character designer based in Montreal, Canada. My formal education includes Fine Arts and Classical Film Animation, and I have been working in the film and Gaming industry since 1998. My experience also includes Art & Animation Direction and 2D/3D Animation Teaching. When I’m not working on film or game projects, or illustrating for books, I’m always working on personal projects. I also founded the Adamation Station, where I produce video tutorials, aimed to offer technical and professional training to anyone and everyone with the hunger to learn more about concept art and digital painting.

I think it will be interesting to our readers to know how it all began. How did you take your first artistic steps to reach where you are today? When did you start doing digital painting? What was the reason of choosing this occupation?

The silver lining of my career is the fact that I always knew what I wanted to be; an animation and concept artist. I knew that when I was 3 years old. I don’t ever remember “deciding”, I just remember “being”. The down side to my career is the fact that I always knew what I wanted to be; an animation and concept artist.
Confused? Let me explain then. I grew up with a very personal connection to film art and animation. It was who I was, so naturally, once I was given the power to decide my own path, I decided to study Fine Arts followed by Classical Film Animation.
Once I launched myself into the industry as a newly trained artist however, after a job as key 2D animator followed by job as concept artist for a large game studio in Montreal (which is where I also picked up Photoshop), I quickly noticed that 3D art and animation was starting to steal the show. Before long, I found myself out of work, and I was at the end a long line of very experienced traditional animators who were all out of work when most of Montreal’s large traditional art studios closed shop.
It was then that I had to make a very difficult decision about my career, learn 3D and remain in the animation industry, or starve, so I decided to teach myself 3D. At the time, I made this decision with the strong feeling that I was abandoning what I had spent my entire life pursuing. Regardless, I spent a solid 3-4 months grinding through books while simultaneously putting together a demo reel in Maya 3D, and once I released my demo reel, I found work very shortly afterwards. As much as I enjoyed 3D art, I knew that my heart longed for traditional art; that was my core, which was who I had always been.
As the years passed however, I started to witness 3D art catching up with 2D, and at the same time, I started to see artists like Michael Kutsche, Bobby Chiu, Chris Oatley and Daarken surface. I saw a practical demand for traditional artists, and regardless of how competitive the industry was, the temptation and hunger to pursue concept art and digital painting was far too strong to resist. I jumped into it blindly and haven’t looked back since.

The evidence of your talent is clear from looking at your portfolio. Where do you get the ideas for such amazing works?

I think the best way to describe where my ideas come from would be to quote two big inspirations in my life; Chuck Jones and Brad Bird. In Chuck Jones’ book “Chuck Amuck”, he says “never underestimate the power of the spontaneous thought”. In the case of Brad Bird, while describing how he directed films at Pixar, he would tell the artists “bring your mistakes to me as quickly as possible so we have more time to fix them!”
What many artists tend to overlook or take for granted is the spontaneous part of their mind, most likely because it comes so naturally and effortlessly to them. There is often a belief that things need to be “complicated” or “difficult” to be worthwhile, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, by ignoring your spontaneous mind, you’re shelving a natural-born tool as an artist where all of your greatest ideas are born.
There is an equal habit of artists to get too hooked up on aesthetics. We’ve visual, so if something doesn’t look pretty, we get all discouraged about it and often reject it. Truthfully, most if not all artwork is garbage at first. The real creation process is in the “fixing” part of a piece, where you move, edit, fix, redo, experiment and add the finishing touches. There is no magic paintbrush that creates beauty in a single stroke, creation is an organic and often trial-and-error process.
That being said, my ideas are often spontaneous, a thought, a feeling. They can come at any time under any circumstances, and when they do, I run to my computer or grab a sketchbook and jot it down as quickly as possible, to capture that original feeling and inspiration. Sometimes I will get up in the middle of the night after an inspiring dream to capture my idea in fears of losing it when I fall back asleep. Sometimes I have to open a second window in Photoshop while I’m working on another piece, because something I was working on sparked an idea for another piece altogether. Once it’s down, which often only takes about 10-15 minutes, I know from that point on that it’s only a question of refining and rendering out the finished piece. The hard part, the crucial part however, is in not letting that idea float away and get lost.
Once you have learned to respect and nurture your spontaneous mind, finding enough ideas becomes the last of your worries. The dominant thought at that point is being able to paint them all with what limited time you have.

I think it will be interesting to our readers to learn about your work “Dragon Siege”. Where did you get inspiration to create this artwork? What stage was the most difficult for you? How long did you work on it?

Much like what I described above, Dragon Siege was inspired by an image in my mind of a beast of some sort, so large and powerful that its body was an atmospheric effect, like a large, black storm cloud blanketing the entire sky. That was my starting point. As I fleshed it out, he became a Dragon, although that wasn’t necessarily my original intention.
What people might not realize however is that the Dragon Siege that I ended up using for my tutorial was my second attempt at the painting. I rendered out another complete painting that probably took me well over 9 hours to produce. In the end however, I rejected it for the tutorial because I had lost sight of my original inspiration, which was the emotionally dark side of this great beast, as well as his incredible godly size. It was also intended as a speed painting tutorial, and I got carried away with my first piece and took much longer to produce it. The final Dragon Siege (with a good warm up painting behind it), took me about 4 hours. In this particular case, I can actually answer how long it took me to paint it, for the sole reason that “time” was an important part of the lesson. More often than not however, I completely ignore the clock.

What do you think is the best work you’ve ever produced? Are you a perfectionist? Does it take you long to achieve that final perfect image you are happy with?

I believe that all artists are perfectionist. It’s part of our genetic makeup. Of course, I can say this for most professionals in any field. I can’t say that I’ve ever met a hairdresser, accountant, computer engineer or doctor that made a conscious effort to do a mediocre job.
But as an artist you’re always looking to capture your thoughts as accurately as possible. What I encourage any artist to do however, is to be stricter with that belief, not letting go and moving on until what they aim for is completely achieved. If you grow tired, then take a break and come back refreshed, but don’t settle for less than your best work.
While we’re on the topic however, it’s important to mention working professionally, where a deadline is an important factor. When it comes to speed and efficiency, whipping your hand around a canvas aimlessly is what generally is the most time consuming. When you can focus and put careful consideration into every brush stroke – therein lies the crossroad where quality and quantity work hand-in-hand. Speed is determined by how effectively you achieve your goal the first time around instead of having to redo it 10 times because you wisped through it thoughtlessly.
As for my personal pieces, to reflect what I mentioned above, the pieces that resonate with me the most aren’t necessarily the ones that I spent most of my time working on. They’re the ones where I feel best captured my inner thoughts and feelings. Whether I was aiming to capture something adorable or menacing or enchanting or just plain silly, it was in how effectively I feel I conveyed that message where I feel my mind and eyes tend to crave revisiting my own work. A few good examples are “White Tiger”, “The Heist” and my most recent piece, “Cinderella of the Ashes”.
Although technically, some pieces aren’t as strong as others, there are some that reserve an important place in my heart because I learned or realized something significant about my work while producing it. The ones that come to mind first are “Old Mother Yew”, “El Leon” and “Critter Collector”

What work do you enjoy more: personal or commercial projects? What kind of work are you doing now?

I would have to say that I enjoy both equally, but for unequal reasons. Personal projects are my chance to dig into my own mind and explore my own thoughts. They are ones that I can take my time with and learn something personal from. It also allows me to express my personal thoughts to others, something which has a very personal meaning and significance.
On the other hand, I love working with the feedback of directors, clients and fellow artists as well. I find a great source of growth and excitement working on something publicly, with the collaboration and feedback of a few if not many other artists, because it encourages me to look at my work through the eyes of other skilled artists and try things I might not have thought up on my own. Cinderella is a good example. I posted it on a public artist page and begged everyone on the channel to scrutinize the snot out of it. I told them to beat the crap out of it and force me to push the quality. They stood up to the challenge and the end result was very much worth it.
As for projects, I just finished illustrating a children’s book written by the fabulous writer Julia Dweck called “Donuts”, which I’m very happy to say has been hanging tight in the bestsellers list since its release. While working together we realized how much we enjoyed working together, and have since already started discussing another one of her books.
As for what I’m working on right now, it’s actually the polar opposite from my last children’s project. This one is far darker and mature. The details are unfortunately still something I need to keep hush-hush about.

Have you any tricks and your own “know-hows” which you gained with experience during your work? Are there any skills and techniques you’d like to acquire?

Honestly, I always want to improve everything. I can’t single out a single thing that needs work, it all needs work and I sincerely hope that it always will, because that’s where I find my drive to grow. Learning to me is the foundation of inspiration – exploring a new technique or idea is an addiction to me.
When I was younger, getting that painting done was my goal. Today, I realize that the true joy of painting is in the creation process. I love seeing something slowly come to life, exploring and learning. Much like playing a video game and spending weeks or months working to get that new sexy piece of Tier armor, the fun is in wanting and craving it and working for it. The moment you loot it and put it on, you check yourself out in the mirror for a few minutes then move on to the next piece.
Artistically speaking however, there is one thing, one major quality that many artists often need to develop, and it’s not something that requires more knowledge, talent or effort to attain. In fact, we all have complete access to it every day of our lives, and is the most valuable quality and skill we can ever own.
Because we want instant results, we tend to bypass the things that we struggle with artistically, like drawing hands and feet for instance. As a result, we can carry our bad habits and poorly drawn hands through hundreds and hundreds of drawings. My attitude is “If it takes you 10 hours to draw a single hand, then take 10 hours to draw a single hand.” If you invest those 10 hours into doing it right, then the next time you draw hands, what took you 10 hours will take you 10 minutes, because what was once a discovery, is now knowledge”

How do you manage to combine your personal life and work? Do you have any hobbies? Is it easy for you to find the time for your family, friends?

Well, I have several things in my life that demand and deserve my undivided attention, including my wife and 2 beautiful young girls (soon to be 3 ), my passion for Salsa dancing and my need to stay healthy and fit. That being said, if I regarded them all as separate things that demanded their individual time, then I would quickly become overwhelmed and burnt out. But I don’t see it that way. I dedicate countless hours to my work, often between 12-14 hours a day, but my children and wife are a part of my art life. They sit with me when I draw, they draw alongside me, they explore ideas with me, and they critique my work all the time. My artwork doesn’t alienate me from my family, it brings us closer together.
As for dancing, my wife and I need to fulfill our “once a month” regimen. If we can go out more than once, cool, otherwise no harm done. To make up for it, While I’m at the gym, which I make sure to do at least 3 times a week, I bring my CD’s with me and borrow the dance studio for an hour or so after my workout and sweat it out. I feel I have plenty of time to be a dedicated father, friend, dancer and husband, because that encompasses everything I need to be fulfilled spiritually, emotionally and physically. To me, they are all interconnected.

You are a mature, experienced artist. What can you say to inspire those newbies who are just starting to work in CG?

My first piece of advice would be to stop calling yourself a “nub”, because If you’re a nub, then that makes me “Old Crappy McWeaksauce”, so let’s just overlook that one altogether.
Much like how I regard time, I also notice that people in general have a tendency to categorize people and skills into “levels”. That girl is a level 10 artist and I’m only a level 2.
But it’s all an illusion. Life doesn’t start at level 1, nor does it end at level 90. There is no “level cap” to life or skill, we all live in the moment and every experience and discovery is brand new, as they were when we first picked up a pencil and paper.
That being said, categorizing skill can also affect how you behave socially. If you see an artist at a convention with mad skills sitting amongst an entourage of adoring fans, because you regard them as being hot shots and you as a newbie, that might discourage you from approaching them. It might stop you from asking them for advice, emailing them, sharing your experiences with them, when in fact, your ability to connect with other artists is the key ingredient to getting yourself exposed and known.
Unless you have made a decision to be a hermit, then your greatest ally in art, especially in such a huge and wonderfully exciting world like concept art and digital painting, is to connect with other artists around you, online or in person. Surrounding yourself with talent and finding your own path will be far clearer to you, finding sources for growth will be ever-present and abundant.
But there’s a flip-side to this coin, which is YOU. At the same time that you’re building your wonderful network of likeminded artists, you need to find yourself as well. You need to discover where YOU belong in all of it, and in order to do that, you need to know yourself. By knowing yourself I mean to not take for granted what your true personality is. If you’re an introvert, then that is WHO you are, and that is something to be proud of and something to show off to the world through your art. If you’re a jock, then have pride in that and explore the world of jockiness in your artwork. It is that which makes you an individual and what makes your art unique and important. I guarantee you that there are thousands of other introverted jock artists out there that will connect with your work intimately.
And that knowledge of self by the way is that definition of “style” that you might have been seeking in your own artwork all these years.

Thank you for the interview and wish you all the best!

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