USFavourite Artists: Michael Whelan, Jim Burns, Christophe Vacher, Peter deSeve, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Adolphe William Bouguereau Software used:
Adobe Photoshop, 3DS Max, MayaWeb: http://www.michaeldashow.com/
Michael Dashow is a fantasy and sci-fi illustrator with a difference. “I look for unexpected juxtapositions, or situations taken to illogical extremes. And I always look for the human element, what makes it relevant to our lives,” he says. While his work still draws on classic fantasy and sci-fi themes such as space, monsters and mythology, it has a lighter, more entertaining element than most of his contemporaries.
“I generally start with familiar themes in science fiction and fantasy, and then try to look at it from a different angle,” he tells us. “All of my work is character-driven. My work, funny or not, is about people and how they react to their lives and situations. It could be with anger, or fear or sadness, but most of the time I look for the humour in any given situation. I do that in my artwork, and I’m like that in real life too.”
Michael’s career has spanned 16 years, starting as a junior in a software company producing interactive CD-ROMs for children. This lead to a discovery of Photoshop. “I learned how to use Adobe Photoshop for a job we were doing. It wasn’t long before I was applying my Photoshop skills to my artwork and found myself trying to get illustration work as a fun side-job. This was before computers were widely used for colouring or painting work. My first couple of jobs included having to convince people that you could do digital artwork that didn’t just look like low-res pixels or flying logos with lens flares. But in the end, I scored a horror anthology cover and a few comic-book covers with MU Press in Seattle.”
And he never looked back. Soon, Michael found himself working at Blizzard North – the former Northern-California division of Blizzard Entertainment – as a member of the character art team on the huge video game hit Diablo II. “Of the five player characters, I was in charge of two of them – the Barbarian and the Sorceress – and designed the characters, modelled them, textured them, did the rigging, effects, and most of the animation. I also did two of the game’s four boss monsters, Duriel and Diablo himself.”
After Blizzard, Michael went on to work for Tachyon Publications – a small independent sci-fi and fantasy publisher based in San Francisco. “I did a cover for a collection of stories by Peter Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn and many others. Publisher Jacob Weisman hadn’t even decided on a title for the collection yet. I was leaning towards illustrating an attractive woman from one of the stories when Jacob convinced me to work on the characters from a story about a philosophy professor’s conversations with an Indian rhinoceros. The image became the cover for the book The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche. Despite our perpetually small print-runs, enough people saw the piece to nominate it for a Chesley Award (the awards given out annually at the World Science Fiction Convention by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists). No one could have been more surprised than I when they called out my name as the winner!”
Michael’s humorous work has become a trademark of the artist himself, and you can spot a ‘Dashow’ a mile off. “I’m enjoying doing the humorous pieces so much, and have been getting such a great response to them, that now I’m trying to let them be the bulk of the illustration work that I do.” And he’s not fussed about being pigeonholed: “Every artist settles into their own specialities and niches, and mine happens to be offbeat science fiction and fantasy pieces. Of course, it means I’m getting a lot less work now! But that’s okay – having a day job means that I can really focus on doing art that I love and not worry about the bills so much.”
Michael continues to be obsessed by characters – something that may have spawned from his days on Diablo. “I love the way the personality of a character can be shown not just through his or her actions but in the very shape of the body and head, the kinds of lines used to draw the character. I like artwork that tells a story, and to me a good story contains compelling characters.”
And compelling characters are what Michael has become famous for – from his Chesley award winning book cover to recent CG Challenge piece Wage Slave. His work emits an enthusiasm that every artist should take note of. The artist is also a huge proponent of making his workflow completely open to all. “We’re all different people, and we all see the world in different ways. What makes my work unique is how I draw my characters and the humour of their situation, not how I’m arranging my Layers and Channels.” A good point, “If someone knew the few tricks in my bag, they still wouldn’t be producing work like mine. But we’re all using digital tools that are pretty sophisticated, and if we can in any way make that process easier for one another, we should do our best to help.”
Following on from this, Michael just can’t resist offering some invaluable advice for any new starters. “Learn basic drawing skills first before getting seduced by the gloss and glitter that digital tools offer. Modern digital art tools offer an easy way to get something pretty on-screen, but it’s more important to have a solid foundation of illustration skills to build upon.” He’s really opening up now; get the notepad ready. “Just because you have a nearly limitless palette doesn’t mean that you should use every colour available.” Go on. “There are colours available on the computer that don’t really exist in the real world.” Huh? “Well, they exist, but you just don’t see them around all that often, and mostly only on computer screens. In short, don’t paint your grass [0,255,0] green, ever. Avoid other colours that show up in the Windows 16-colour default palette, such as [255,0,255] hot pink. Look at the world around you and strive to make more informed colour choices. People’s eyes will thank you.” Strive to make more informed colour choices. People’s eyes will thank you.
“Wage Slave was done for one of the periodic CG Challenges over at CGsociety.org,” says Michael. We’re familiar with it – it’s a three month long contest where everyone posts their progress every step of the way. “The theme for this 2005 challenge was Master and Servant. At the time, my unhappiness at my then-current workplace fuelled this piece about office power dynamics. The concept came pretty quickly: a character at a workplace where his manager is the dark lord Cthulhu, from the HP Lovecraft books.”
Michael continues, offering valuable insight into one of his more recognised images: “Once you set up an office as a place where black magical arts are just part of the daily grind, you open the door to all sorts of other jokes, and I did my best to include the best of both worlds in the illustration.” He goes on, chuckling to himself, “there are co-workers who obviously came from some weird, dark dimensions, but are popping their heads up over cubicle walls and wearing name badges as would any modern office-worker. The desktop printers are spitting out arcane runes, but there are still motivational calendars and phone lists and Dilbert cartoons on the wall.”