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Interview with Kevin Blanchard aka Annihilist

posted by: Iaroslav Lazunov, in Articles / Interview/ Comments: 0

Today our guest is a real master with Gradient Mesh. He creates high quality artowrk. "Don’t be afraid to jump in and swim. Programs like Illustrator and Photoshop are playgrounds” – says Kevin. Today he is going to share some secrets of his craftsmanship with us. Learn after more about his background and techniques at the jump.

Hi Kevin, welcome to the Vectortuts +! Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, how and when did you start doing vector graphics?

Hello, it's good to be here. I am a graphic designer, working in the Northern California area for about 4 years now. I got into vector graphics when I went back to school to get my degree in design. I took a class focused on Illustrator at my local community college. I had a really great teacher who was into the kind of stuff I do. She taught me everything I know. Before then I had never heard of vector graphics. I remember stumbling on a collection of vector images on a site as late as 2005 and having no clue what that term "vector" meant. I guess I learn quickly, as only a few years later I was working in vector programs every day.

What does vector graphics mean for you today, is it the first job or hobby? Why did you decide to get into this field of digital art? Do you have special education or are you self taught?

I suppose it's a hobby. I don't often get paid for it. I don't know if hobby is the right word, though. That seems like too casual a term for something requiring so much time and effort. Perhaps a better term would be a labor of love. They serve as a kind of fulfilling pastime for me that I find stimulating in a creative, problem-solving kind of way.

My initial motivation for getting into vectors was to educate myself in how to use them. Later, when I had learned the basics, I began to make reproductions of art from genres I appreciated yet couldn't afford to buy, such as vintage posters. So I recreated them as vectors and printed them at a local print shop for a tenth of the price. Now I have reproduction prints all over the house I'm more proud of than the originals.

I learned the basics of Illustrator in school, like any designer does. Getting into the gradient mesh tool was pretty much my own exploration. Meshes were seen as a minimally useful tool by most of those I learned from. Obviously I saw more potential there.

You work in the photorealistic genre of vector graphics and, of course, Gradient Mesh Tool is your favorite tool. Many designers do not feel comfortable working with this tool. Could you give some pieces of advice on working with the Gradient Mesh Tool? Do you have any general advice?

Meshes can be intimidating for those not experienced with them. I used to find them daunting too. I only rarely used meshes in my images, but after a time they became more and more appealing to me. If someone is trying to figure out the mesh tool, the best way is to start simple and work into more complex imagery. Find images with smooth, simply shaded objects and start by replicating them in meshes. Then move on to more complicated imagery. Pay attention to how the mesh functions, how they're manipulated, what their limitations are and how to work around those limitations. Do this enough and you'll eventually come to understand how to control them.

I understand that a lot depends on the initial phase of working with the Gradient Mesh. What basic shapes do you use in this step (rectangle, ellipse)? Do you have a rule for creating of first mesh points, or do you work intuitively?

It's best to start out with a rectangle shape. I draw my initial shape in the rough size of the image I need to create. Then I convert that shape to a mesh by creating single mesh point in the center of the rectangle. From there I can alter the rectangle in a basic approximation of the desired shape, adding more mesh points as needed until I have something that not only looks right from the outside, but also has enough mesh points inside to cover all the areas I want to sample.

I think everyone will be interested to know how you create your model’s faces. Is it a whole Gradient Mesh or it consists of several objects?

It varies. Typically, most of the skin elements are a mesh, or a collection of meshes. Things like the nose and lips are also meshes. Most of the eyes are usually simple shapes with gradients and various effects.  Faces are the hardest part, because there are many more angles and variations in shading that have to be captured. Faces are also where the essence of the person lies, so getting that looking right is key.

Do you use Opacity Mask and Raster Effects in your works?

I try to stay away from most raster effects when I can, but sometimes if a mesh or opacity mask isn't cutting it, a softening effect can do the trick.

It is difficult to master the Gradient Mesh technique perfectly. How did you learn it? Maybe you know some good tutorials on creating such illustrations? I think a professional of such level as yours simply must create at least one written or video tutorial (you can consider it as an offer).

There's no such thing as perfect when it comes to meshes. You're always approximating. You can get good at approximating, though. The best way to do that - the way I learned to do it -  is to just keep making them, over and over. Like anything, if you do it enough, you'll get good at it. And don't go overboard with the complexity of your mesh. You don't need thousands of mesh points. You can do more with less.

Do you use any plugins that make your work easier? If so, what kind? Do you know about the existence of Free Gradient Mesh plug-in? I think that it can significantly help in the creation of the Gradient Mesh.

I love that plug-in! It saves me a huge amount of time. I'd definitely recommend that to anyone who uses meshes a lot.

Photorealistic genre work is very laborious and time consuming. I have been wondering if this style has commercial appeal, or it is something similar to meditation?

Photorealism certainly does take up a lot of time, although I have streamlined my process over the years, allowing pieces that once took days to be completed in hours. I don't really know if there's any commercial viability to it, although if done right there is real artistic merit there. It's a great distraction for when life's troubles are creeping in. You can set your mind to a single task and get immersed in it. You just have to make sure you get to bed at a decent hour, as time has a tendency to fly by.

You have a perfect sense of color. Are there any rules that you stick to in your work? Are you basically using the Eyedropper Tool or do you pick colors on the eye?

Color can be the trickiest part of all in the kinds of images I make, as programs like Illustrator are somewhat imprecise when sampling colors. You can get your mesh shaped perfectly and filled with just the right amount of mesh points, but once you break out that eyedropper, you will often wind up with a big, splotchy mess of colors. That's because Illustrator samples color from a single pixel to fill an area much larger than a single pixel.

Once I get to the color stage, it becomes an intuitive process for me. Rather than try keep every part of the mesh entirely faithful to the colors in the reference image, I like to pick a color I think best represents that part of the image. Once I have that, it then becomes a process of blending from color to color within the mesh, so that it all looks natural. This is especially important for skin tones. Out of all the parts of my process, this takes the longest. However, taking your time here produces a much better result.

Tell us about the creation of your artworks, what are the main stages of work, how long does it take you to create your masterpieces?

It all starts with the reference image. I like images that have something different about them. For instance, the way a body is positioned or the how the light is falling on something. I don't always understand what draws me to an image, but I usually know it when I see it. From there I like to color correct in Photoshop to get the image looking how I want it. Then it gets imported into Illustrator and I start illustrating it, usually one part at a time. So I'll start with the legs, then the torso, the arms, the hands, the face and head, finally the hair - all separated in their own layers. I know some people don't like layers in Illustrator, but I find them invaluable.

What is your favorite artwork, what interesting projects are you working on now?

My favorite is probably this one. Everything seemed to come together just right with that piece. I've always got something in the works. I try to switch them up a bit just to keep a little variety going and avoid having the same kinds of images over and over.

Watching the gallery of your artworks we can see how your interests have changed from architecture and vehicles to the human body. Do you already have a new object of the artistic interest? Can it be animals or nature?

I never know when something is going to come along that interests me. Sometimes I'll see the work of an old master and find it stimulating. Other times I find a picture of someone with a look I want to capture. I don't try to limit myself when it comes to inspiration. The one thing all my work has in common is the challenge I perceive in translating it to a vector. I see something and ask myself - "can I make that in Illustrator?" If the answer is "yes," I go for it. It's attempts to challenge myself like that which got me started with vectors. And it's that which keeps me coming back to them. I like the challenge.

Thank you for the interview, it was nice talking to you. A few parting thoughts, what would you recommend and advise to beginning designers?

Don't be afraid to jump in and swim. Programs like Illustrator and Photoshop are playgrounds. Treat them as such. Open up a design program and start playing with it. Scour the web for tutorials and tricks. Look at what other people are doing and get inspiration from that. It doesn't matter if you're not skilled yet. If you play around with the program enough, you'll become skilled. Most of what I've learned, I learned on my own, just messing about for hours. It's a great way to learn the biz.

You can find Justin's work at the following site:

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