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The Art of John Dickenson

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Known as jD to his friends, John Dickenson is 
part of one of the entertainment industry’s elite forces. Together with Justin Sweet, Vance Kovacs and Marshall Vandruff, he makes up Carbon Canyon Studios – a relatively new, yet hugely successful team of concept artists working across film, games and publishing. With a career spanning two decades, jD has worked as a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and comic inker before settling as a digital artist in San Diego – a job he’s being doing for 10 years now.

“I grew up in Orange County and didn’t start any formal art training until the late 70s, when I was 22,” John says. “Before that, I was racing motocross and driving a fork lift. When I realised I wasn’t going to make a living out of racing dirt bikes, I took art classes at Fullerton Community College. I had always enjoyed doodling and drawing, but I never thought I’d be where I am today. I just took those art classes as a reason to quit my fork lift job.

“I worked in an art store first, then got jobs doing T-shirt and graphic designs. 
I didn’t have any illustrations worthy of showing an art director  – a catch 22. 
I eventually got small illustration jobs for a couple of ad agencies. That was in 1981, and I slowly gathered more work from those first professional jobs.”
   
jD’s route into concept art came off the back of a good friend – acclaimed artist Justin Sweet – putting his work in front of writer and producer Andrew Adamson and production designer Roger Ford. This was for the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. “Justin had already worked on the first Narnia project,” John says. “He put my work in front of Adamson and Ford and they hired me.” As simple as that, it may seem. However, there’s no nepotism here – jD’s bold work could almost be films in themselves. The depth of environment, freedom of brushstroke, exquisite lighting and epic scale all lead into distant worlds, putting you in the centre of scenes while leaving you in awe of the incredible technique on display.

Since Caspian, jD has gone on to work on the next instalment, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and he’s having the time of his life. “On Dawn Treader, I got to work with my friends Vance and Justin for the director Michael Apted,” he says. “He was wonderful, a warm and gracious man who worked very closely with the three of us. I think some of the artwork on those films is my best, and I can’t wait to show it.” It’s a shame, then, that we can’t see the work yet: the movie is still in the filming stage.

So what’s it like to work on a big movie project, and how does jD get his ideas for his incredible imagery? “The director sets the course initially,” he explains, “but my images come from my influences, my love for shapes, colours and textures, and trying to capture a mood. Justin came up with the Three S’s for creating concept art: startle, spectacle and spirit. I try to always have those in my work.”

jD has also recently worked on Trion’s new MMO game Heroes of Telara, a project that he completed over 100 environment concepts for. He still prefers film projects, though. “The game industry used to have more technical restrictions, so you couldn’t come up with concepts if the game engine couldn’t handle them,” he says. “The film industry doesn’t really have restrictions anymore. You can come up with whatever the movie calls for and beyond, so from that standpoint I like film work better.”

Happy accidents

So what of his working process? How 
does jD even begin to come up with his dramatic, sprawling environments? “First 
I read or am told what is needed for a particular image,” he says. “Then I gather reference from the internet, books, my own pictures... I may fill a folder with 200 reference images, because once I start painting and find a direction, I like to stay in the moment and have my reference ready. When I paint, I place thumbnails or random images on layers, looking for the happy accidents that Photoshop affords when playing around with layer properties like Overlay or Lighten. One change can make amazing shapes, patterns, and colours. Once I find elements I like, I refine them with paint, add more images or textures and do a lot of pushing and pulling to get the image where I want it to go.”

Jumping back a decade, jD was a highly-respected comic book inker. Making the leap from black-and-white inking work to full-on environments wouldn’t have been an easy jump for most. “It was very natural because before my inking career, I was an illustrator,” says the artist. “Also, inking at that level for so many years has enabled me to make just about any kind of mark or line I can imagine, and when I do little pen and ink drawings with a quill or brush, I have command of my instrument. Those thousands of hours didn’t go to waste.”

Trouble in store

But now, working digitally gives jD a lot more flexibility when creating his pieces. “Working digitally is a two-edged sword,” he laughs. “The good side is that you can 
go off in a hundred different directions in a short amount of time. The bad side is that eventually you have to decide between all those hundreds of options.

“When I’ve spent four hours on a warm‑palette image, then use the slider bar to push it over to the cool side instantaneously, I say ‘wow, that looks great!’, and I’ve created yet another option. I have hard drives full of the same image, with a few tweaks here and there, because I couldn’t make up my mind... Gigabytes and gigabytes of just-in-case art. I use Photoshop most of the time, but still use Painter a little. And I find myself using modo, a 3D app by Luxology, to help me out with structural pieces. When I can, I will sketch out images, scan them, and paint over them.”

As we leave jD to go about his concept work, he gives some essential advice on following in his rather large footsteps. “Before anything, get yourself grounded in the basic fundamentals, like drawing skills. In my early days, I got caught up in making an image look cool by using an airbrush to make incredibly smooth gradations beyond what any coloured pencil or brush could do – technique at the expense of draftsmanship. The computer is like that times a million. It can be very enticing, but it can lead to poorly drawn art with impressive surfaces.”

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