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Philip Straub

“In a way I consider some of the more fantastic work I’ve done a glimpse into my subconscious.” Phil Straub gives us a peek under the hood.

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Age: 33
Country: US
From books to feature films Philip’s work displays a sure-footed sense of style and composition. Philip’s fantasy work perfectly illustrates his love of the arcane.
Software used:
Painter, Adobe Photoshop
Web: www.philipstraub.com

“When I’m painting,” says Phil Straub, “I usually enter into a dream-state where it’s as if everything else around me falls away and I’m focused on creating the alternate world that’s developing on the canvas.”

As head of concept art at Electronic Arts, Phil needs to be on top of his game, so trances and the like aren’t mentioned lightly: “This is something you’ll rarely hear artists talk about,” he acknowledges, “but it’s this euphoric feeling that keeps us coming back.”

Tree forts

Phil regularly gets asked how and why he became an artist, “and the more I’m asked, the more I realise I never actually chose this life, it chose me.” The urge to be creative was there from the word go: “I’ve just been lucky enough to make a living doing art.”

Phil is noted for his chameleon-like versatility and, interestingly, his drive to create has always been pretty free in its associations: “Short stories and poems, drawing, watercolour or oil paintings” – as long as it was creative, Phil was there. Naturally, a degree in fine art beckoned.  

Big break

Art courses rarely do much to prepare students for the world of work, and Phil’s degree in fine art was no exception: “When I graduated, I really had no idea how I was going to make money as an artist.” This didn’t remain a problem for long.

Right out of college in 1995, Phil clocked on as a digital painter and illustrator with the well-known children’s book author and illustrator Mercer Mayer. “It really was a stroke of luck,” says Phil, “that I received a call from Mercer Mayer’s studio. I owe him quite a bit for getting me my first big break.” At last count Phil had provided illustrations for more than 30 books.

Trained as a traditional oil painter, for Phil this job was his introduction to digital art. He remembers Mercer having this crazy thing at the studio called a Wacom tablet: “I thought it was the coolest invention in the world.” It may well have been if it weren’t for the software: “They were using a program I’d never heard of – Photoshop!”

Making art

Though he was trained traditionally the digital stuck: “I always begin my paintings digitally and I have for a while now. Painter and Photoshop have such a variety of tools for sketching that I actually feel more comfortable with my Wacom pen than with a pencil.” Phil admits this is “kinda scary!”

Having overcome his fear, he usually begins by defining composition. “With a 50 per cent grey canvas, I start by creating simple abstract values and shapes that are pleasing to the eye.” Then, depending on whether the piece is personal or commissioned, “I either just let the shapes form into something interesting based on a simple idea or I begin refining down.”

Once the composition is settled, “I shift my focus to figuring out an interesting lighting solution for the piece, or defining my staging.” Working as a professional artist has given Phil an in-built discipline, a programmed understanding of the creative process, and this frees him to concentrate on expression and style.

Variation of style

It’s rare for an artist to successfully pull off more than one style yet Phil does this with ease. He puts this down to “the different experiences I’ve had as a student and professional artist”, but there has to be more to it, otherwise everyone would be versatile.

Working on a variety of licences – from movies like Jurassic Park and Superman to children’s books and Fisher Price – has, Phil insists, “forced me to develop an ability to change my style to cater to a particular project.” At first it sounds limiting in terms of personal expression but the opposite has been true: “I’ve ultimately created a few different personalities to my work.”

These multiple personalities include “a flat-graphic style I work in for some of the licensed products and a more realistic approach for the fantasy work.” Then there’s the children’s book style, which “applies my studies of classic animation backgrounds from working on Disney licences.” And finally matte painting, “a result of working in the entertainment industries that has its own set of rules.”

The fantastic

It must get crowded inside Phil’s head, so he’s started letting his ideas roam free: “I’ve always touched on fantastic themes in my work but I really began to explore the genre a couple of years ago.” The reason for the delay wasn’t one of taste but of skill: “I think I only dabbled before then because I felt like I needed to master reality before I could begin to alter it in my work.”

There’s a strong body of evidence in favour of this approach, the classic example being jazz music but, lucky for us, Phil couldn’t resist the pull of the fantastic forever. “I find it much more interesting and exciting to create worlds and characters that don’t exist in our reality than to paint just regular realism.”

There’s nothing wrong with realism per se: “I definitely enjoy doing realism, from matte paintings to landscapes, but it’s truly inspiring to create something that’s hopefully unique to me and my vision.” Not only that but fantastic imagery plugs directly into something very human: “It enables me to create a visual metaphor for my emotions or personal experiences.”

While his commercial work may be dictated by the tastes and desires of his audience, “my personal work tends to deal with human emotions and human experiences.” It’s a kind of aesthetic therapy, which sometimes veers into metaphysics: “The question of what exactly is real in human existence is a subject I find fascinating.”

The problems that have obsessed mankind for millennia continue to inspire: “The fact that our reality is only based on the senses that we use to navigate through our environment begs the question, just what is reality?”

Art has a valid claim to being the most honest answer to this type of question, the subject finding its own way to expression through our visual language. “It’s a springboard for imagery that enables layered symbolism and multiple interpretations,” says Phil.

And if you can get a handle on all this then your output will be powerful stuff: “The darker human emotions, fear, greed, and nightmares, are favourite subjects of mine in that their visual metaphors are seemingly limitless.”

Suitably enough for a man with these issues knocking around upstairs, Phil works in an industry which is rapidly generating a series of alternative realities. An average day at EA is “usually pretty crazy but, I guess, that’s the way I like it.”

The games industry is fast-paced, so “it requires quite a bit of determination and discipline if you are to advance.” And although he ‘fell into games’ Phil has done just that: “The concept team I run works with all seven of the project teams at the studio, as well as marketing.” This means lots of work, all day long.

“Basically, depending on the day I may be interacting with five or six Art Directors and/or Executive Producers to help the team reach their visual goals.” Then there’s art directing his team of creatives and the inevitable barrage of emails and meetings. “As the day winds down, then I usually have a few uninterrupted hours to paint.”

If that doesn’t seem like a busy schedule, Phil has plans. Lots of ‘em. He’s currently working on the story and illustrations for a new book, but his real goal for the project is more ambitious: a film or game.

“Only a small portion of the images for this have been seen by the public,” says Phil, but the project is already well on the way to becoming a reality: “I have about 50 of the planned 125 illustrations completed.”

And he’s determined to continue growing his licensing business. “I definitely want to bring to market a series of fantastic children’s books revolving around the Secret Places brand I have in development.”

 It’s no surprise that Phil likes a challenge: “I like sinking my teeth into something that potentially has a big reward in the end.” And there’s no reward quite like a successful painting. “I just want to make cool art!”

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