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Steve James

Steve James’ artwork recalls the works of classic American illustrators, albeit with a fantasy edge.

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Age: 32
Favourite artists:
JC Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Harvey Dunn, Harry Anderson
Software used: Painter, Photoshop, ZBrush
There’s something reassuringly simple about Steve James’ artwork; a warmth and candidness unusual in fantasy art. In a genre that usually focuses on venerating heroic figures with idealised features it’s refreshing to see real faces – warts and all.
Steve’s figure studies are reminiscent of the works of classic American illustrators of the 1940s and 50s. Much like Norman Rockwell and JC Leyendecker, Steve’s portraits strive for photorealism.
The key to this accuracy comes from his use of numerous reference photographs – some of which are shot especially for the work while others are just found.
“Depending on what I am painting, I will shoot reference specifically for that painting to get the lighting and pose right,” he says.
Steve developed the technique of working from real images to overcome a creative hiatus: “My wife got after me because all my people were looking the same,” he jokes. “I think Rockwell and all those other old school illustrators knew what they were doing – gotta have that scrap material and I am always looking for interesting people.”
Steve works mainly in Corel Painter, using Photoshop to do last-minute colour tweaks and to publish to the web. His loose oil-paint style is achieved by working with a combination of Painter’s preset tools.
“I use the Oil Palette Knife for most of my blending,” he explains. “I also use the Palette knife for softening large areas, the Fat Stroke airbrush for tinting and creating subtle gradations, and the Variable Splatter airbrush for texture.”
One of the tools he has a particular enthusiasm for is the Cover brush. “I started using it with Painter 5.5,” he says. “It changes size with pressure and creates a nice organic line. The brush is fairly opaque and when you change direction it can leave happy accidents.”

Steve currently works in the video game industry as a concept and texture artist at Incog Inc, an in-house games developer for Sony. His work involves both 2D illustration and concept art, and 3D texture work using Pixologic’s ZBrush, a tool which he also uses sometimes in his personal work (See An Extra Dimension). He’s lucky to be able work in the field in which he loves.
“There is little difference between my personal and commercial work,” he explains. “But with my personal stuff I have the freedom to do whatever I want.”
Unlike many fantasy artists who draw heavily from films and television, Steve feeds from his own imagination. “I don’t watch much TV; I spend most of my spare time on the computer.”
Ideas instead come from far more mundane experiences. “I wish I could sketch on the bus,” he laments. “I take the bus to work, so I am able to use that time to get ideas, but the ride is too bumpy to get any sketching done without getting sick.”
Currently, Steve’s work exhibits a preoccupation with seafarers inspired by the recent Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, though he hasn’t yet seen the film himself. He’s cynical, though, of the fantasy genre’s sometimes limited frame of reference.  
“I wish I had seen less of the mainstream stuff because I feel everyone is pulling inspiration from it,” he says. “A little more time daydreaming might be good for me ”

Digital love
Steve got his fine art training at Brigham Young University in Utah, but he maintained a passion for computer-based art from an early age. “I’ve been creating digital art since 1984,” he says.
Back then, Steve started out on the Texas Instruments Ti99/4A, one of the very first 16-bit computers. It was clearly a formative experience in his development: “I don’t know why I’ve always been drawn to digital art, but I do find the computer the easiest way to get the ideas out of my head.”
As a result, rather than sketching things out, Steve prefers to go straight to the computer, but he concedes that he could benefit from working the old-fashioned way: “Sometimes I think I need to play with real paint to keep myself well-rounded.” he says.
Steve’s main drive is to just keep creating. He regularly produces portrait sketches and he also frequently submits images to the competitions at Illustration Friday (www.illustrationfriday.com), a website which sets a weekly challenge to create images in response to a single keyword. It’s this process of continually creating that has helped him reach the standard he’s at. “I think most artists have the constant desire to improve. It keeps me motivated.”
For those artists racked in self-doubt, he explains that the best work comes from practice and follows a simple mantra: “Make it a habit to create art everyday. You can never get better by just thinking about it.”

From issue 10.

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