Jeremy Vickery is a concept artist, currently working as an Assistant Art Director at Ubisoft in Quebec City, Canada. He worked for seven years as a Lighting Artist at Pixar Animation Studios on the films The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Brave, The Blue Umbrella, Toy Story of Terror, and Inside Out. He’s been a freelance concept designer and illustrator and has done work for clients such as Disney, LEGO, Ubisoft, Sony, Mattel, and many other smaller studios and companies. At the beginning of his career Jeremy worked as a 3D modeler / texture artist for the animated kid’s series Veggie Tales and later as the Director of Photography on the animated feature film Delgo.
Iulian: Tell us a little bit about yourself: where did you grow up and how did your early life influence your future as an artist?
Jeremy: I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire where art was not really considered a strong career choice, so my influences were few. But that did not stop me from being creative and I was always drawing and coming up with ideas. Imagination played a huge part in my childhood and film influenced me greatly. I remember watching Star Wars at a drive-in theater when I was only 4 years old and I was inspired. Luckily, I had a family that supported my creativity. My Grandfather would draw with me and taught me to see like an artist, how to see value and perspective and not just lines. And yet when I finally reached my teenage years I wasn’t sure what to do as a career. I loved movies but had no idea how to break into that industry. It seemed too far away and unattainable. I also loved music, acting, technology, so I considered careers in each of those fields, but none seemed to fulfill all of my desires. It wasn’t until after I had graduated from High School where the idea of computer animation was presented as an option, and it seemed perfect, a grand combination of art, music, acting, and technology. There was a school near my home where I could study animation, so that kick-started my career as an Artist.
What are your favorite design tools and how did you get to learn them?
I have so many different aspects of art that I love, so it depends on which craft I’m working in as to which tools I use. For painting and concept design I prefer working digitally and use both Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter, though I still pull out pencils and oil paints occasionally too. For 3D, I use Maya. And for video work I like After Effects and Premiere. I learned the basics of these tools in university, but that was so long ago Maya did not even exist and Photoshop was on version 2 I believe. Much of what I know now I’ve learned on the job or am self taught. Hurray for the internet as a fast resource to learn software.
Are there any other artists out there that you admire and whose work has helped shape your work?
Indeed I find inspiration from many, many artists, so if any names come to mind as to who inspires me I would say James Gurney, Dylan Cole, Sam Nielson, Dice Tsutsumi. But I would have to say that the people who’ve influenced me far more have been the co-workers I’ve made movies with over the many years of my career. There are too many people to name as each has had a profound influence on my style, methods, and inspiration.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration comes from so many places. Movies are probably my biggest source of mind-blowing inspiration. I often take dvd’s and do screen captures of key moments that inspire me to use for reference later when creating my own artwork. I think I have over 12,000 images of inspiration on my machine. But I also find inspiration from travel. This past July I took a trip to New Zealand and almost everywhere there is epic. It’s funny, many people talk about writer’s block or not knowing what to paint as an artist. For me, now that I’ve been creating for many years there seems to be a tipping point where I have far more ideas than I have time to create. I am constantly trying to find ways to work faster so I can get the ideas out more quickly.
How would you break down your workflow in steps?
My workflow is in constant change as I keep trying to find better ways to create detail, so I’ll tell you my 2 main methods. Traditionally I’ve worked in Corel Painter all on one layer. I start with a crazy loose sketch to figure out my composition. I always have a rough idea of the story of the piece I’m working on before I start, so the loose sketch is super sloppy, but helps me find general shapes and proportions. I then block in rough colors to try and find the light. This is all done very fast and there’s almost no detail, just big blobs of color where the key items are. I find the cohesiveness of my overall illustration is best if I find the core colors first and then use that as the foundation for the details. Once I’m happy with my basic color choices I zoom in and start refining the details, picking the local colors from what I’ve already established in the loose color sketch. I try not to worry so much about local color until after the light color is decided on. That’s really hard to describe in only words without pictures to show what I mean. If you go to my DeviantArt page ( http://jermilex.deviantart.com/gallery/36793494/Tutorials) I have a section of tutorials of how my process works. It’s all about patience to complete the piece from that point forward. Recently I’ve started to find a new workflow though in Photoshop. It’s a bit more complex but allows me to add a lot more detail than hand painting each pixel all on the one layer. I’m experimenting with using a lot more texture layers that I then warp into perspective and keep everything on separate layers. The image done for the cover was created using this new method. But in essence the idea of doing a loose sketch, finding the light color and then refining the details is my standard workflow.
Your work is very fantasy-driven. What drives you to that subject?
I’ve always been drawn to fantasy and the ultimate compliment on my work is for someone to say they want to go to the worlds I’ve created. When I watch amazing films that have environments like nothing here on earth I want to visit and explore those worlds, and that is the magic I’m always seeking to capture in my art. The real world is great, and if I want to find amazing images of real life I look to photography (goes along with my love of traveling). But if I’m painting, I want to make worlds that no one has ever been to before. I also have a very playful side to much of my work, and I think that goes with my sense of humor. I think the whimsical is a wonderful place to dwell.
You have an impressive portfolio with works for Pixar and other well-known studios. How did you manage to get to work with them? Give us some details about working for these outfits versus being a freelancer.
I feel very fortunate indeed to have had the opportunities I’ve had. If I die today I can say I’ve lived a very full life and have seen and done things that far surpassed my dreams in childhood. But I plan not to die today and to continue living my dreams. They did not come so easily though. I’ve had to work my butt off to get where I’ve been. I remember when I was in college “Toy Story” came out in theaters and the unknown company “Pixar” positioned itself in history. I already had computer animation as my goal and yet that moment was pivotal, watching an entire feature film that was animated that way. I remember during the credits thinking “I need to work there”. So a couple of years later upon graduating I sent my demo reel to Pixar. In my naivety I expected to get hired directly from school, but got the standard rejection postcard that they used to send out to all applicants that did not make the cut. I still have that post card and it reminds me that if I don’t succeed to just keep trying. I eventually did get hired at a small studio in Chicago that was making the animated kid’s show “Veggie Tales”. I worked as a 3d Modeler building the characters, props and sets for the show for 3 years. I also kept advancing my 2d art skills and continued to draw and paint. It was during this time that I really started to play with digital painting. In 2000 I thought it was time again to try applying to Pixar, but again got turned down, so I moved on to stretch my skills. I got hired at another small studio in Atlanta working on an animated feature film “Delgo” (which sadly took too many years to make and did not come out in theaters until well past it’s innovative point in history). I learned a ton working at the studio as there were only 15 of us making the entire film. We all did a bit of everything, but at the end of my time there I realized that 3d Lighting was really really fun. It was as close as I could come to painting in 3D. In 2003 I saw that Pixar was hiring Lighting Artists for “The Incredibles”, so I thought I’d apply again, not expecting much. But this time my demo reel had improved tremendously from my college days and I got hired. I moved to California where I worked on the films “The Incredibles”, “Cars”, “Ratatouille”, and “Wall-E”. It was amazing and I was learning like a sponge. But my wife and I had a son and wanted him to get to know his grandparents and cousins, so in 2007 I left Pixar and moved back to the east coast closer to family. During these next 3 and a half years I worked as a freelance artist and stretched my skills yet again. I suppose I tried every aspect of this industry, working alone as a freelance, at smaller studios, and as a specialist at a large studio (Pixar). During thos years on my own I did mostly illustration and concept design for such clients as Disney, LEGO, Sony, Ubisoft, and many smaller studios and companies. But the travel itch hit us as a family and I really missed working in a studio environment so in 2011 I returned to Pixar and worked on the films “Brave”, “The Blue Umbrella”, “Toy Story of Terror” and “Inside Out”. In the summer of 2014 I again resigned my job at Pixar and decided that as much as I love “lighting” I really wanted to try my hand again at concept design. Painting goes back to my roots as a traditional artist, so I’m taking a year off to improve my design skills and plan to be looking for work at a studo about the time that this article is published. That’s my story.
If there was one piece of advice you could give other beginning artists, what would that be?
Never stop creating! It’s not easy working professionally as an artist and competition is fierce, so it’s not for the weak of heart. But… if you cannot imagine doing anything else and love creating art, just keep learning and creating. You will eventually increase your skills to a level where you can do anything to want to. Just because I did not get hired at Pixar directly out of school, didn’t mean I gave up trying. I just kept creating and learning and eventually the day came where I got that dream job. And that’s my attitude for the future of my own concept design. Never stop creating! Oh… and create what you love. If you make what inspires you the love will show through in your work and make it all that much better.
We selected one of your pieces for the cover of our magazine. Tell us a few words about how that piece came to be.
I call this piece the “Fueling station” as I imagine a city in the future where ships dock to recharge their double-A batteries (yes, it’s a very efficient future where ships run on 2 AA batteries). It was actually homework for a class I was taking and the focus was to create futuristic architecture. I wanted it to have a sense to scale and feel very large but also more detailed than much of my older work. You can decide if you think I succeeded, but it was a lot of fun to create.
Where can we find you on the web?
Here are some samples of Jeremy’s works:
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