It’s hard to imagine Jean-Sébastien Rossbach ever being in a bad mood, such is his enthusiasm for most things. “The internet is a tremendous tool,” he says. “When I was younger it wasn’t there and it was really hard to learn techniques or get info concerning editors. Nowadays you have ImagineFX… dudes, what a revolution! Guys, why weren’t you there when I needed all of you?”
The French artist isn’t just being kind. Although he now works for Ubisoft, EMI, Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf and many others, things were different when he began his career.VAMPIRIC BEGINNINGS
It seemed obvious to the younger JS that he would always become an artist – “When I was a child, the only books I read were comic books,” he says – but the world thought differently. Or rather, his parents did – they preferred their son to embark on a less financially perilous career and convinced JS to study as a journalist at college rather than go to art school. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he finally decided to follow his heart and start to paint for a living.
Fantasy and sci-fi in general have always really fascinated him, together with a love for medieval history and Celtic lore (hence the Merlin art book he’s since created – see below for more on this). “I have my favourite themes,” he says. “They are linked intimately to my life. I won’t tell you why but when I began to draw, all I wanted to draw was vampires! I felt really connected with this myth.”
Of course, such interests serve him well when working for various role-playing companies such as White Wolf – designing for Vampire: The Requiem was a natural step for JS. Nevertheless, he’s more enthused by ideas and themes that “ring a bell in my heart,” than specific artists.
“I hope I don’t sound snobbish, but it’s true that my eyes are open every day and whatever I do, wherever I go, whoever I talk to, my eyes are connected to my brain and information comes inside and gets treated by the artistic side of my brain.”INSPIRATION AND TECHNIQUE
One of his earliest inspirations was Dave McKean, who, by his own admission, JS idolised. “This guy simply showed us that everything was possible,” he explains. “He was the first photo-manipulator who made a heavy mix of photos and paintings with a result that wasn’t ridiculous. His first Sandman covers correspond with the rise of Photoshop, by the way.”
He name-checks other inspiration: Pierre Soulages, whose abstract art he discovered a few years ago and who has left him “boiling with new ideas,” much like Dave McKean did. “Soulages blew me away... his art just unlocked the Pandora’s box I had in my mind,” JS enthuses. “Since then I’ve been trying to add more and more abstraction into my pictures. And that led me to look closer at graphic design too.”
When JS first began his journey as an artist, he would begin his illustrations with a traditional pencil sketch, but these days it is quite a different story, as his familiarity and comfort with digital tools has him reaching for his Wacom tablet from his very first inspiration. Photoshop and Painter are his mainstays, with a smidgeon of ZBrush and ArtRage, plus a digital camera for the odd reference snap.
In fact, he says, his whole technique has changed as a result – even more than he’d imagined. “This became a problem when I had to go to signing events this summer because I simply couldn’t draw with a pencil any more!” he laughs. “I had to learn to draw cool lines all over again. I’m more into drawing shapes when I’m working on the computer.”DIGITAL SCULPTOR
He believes his Photoshop technique is closer to sculpting than drawing: “I often tend to paint big shapes that I sculpt in order to get the result I want. With pencils it’s different because you have to think in outlines. It’s a completely different way of thinking. I have a love for oils too, but I suck at that because I have so little spare time for it.”
Traditional media still feature in one aspect of virtually all his illustrations, though: the amazing texture and grain. How does he achieve that? “It’s a secret,” he teases. “No, it’s quite simple. I have traditional textures that I have painted on panels using different techniques. I have a gesso panel, an oil panel, an acrylic panel and so on. I have scanned them and use them as layers over my paintings in Photoshop. It’s as simple as that.”
JS is as adept with futuristic, technological-based designs as he is with traditional fantasy. Both areas interest him, for different reasons. “I’ve always loved fantasy because it’s deeply rooted in our past, our civilisation,” he explains. “Fantasy talks about where we all come from – it also contains powerful ideas and concepts, such as ecology, brotherhood, mythology, and symbolism, to name a few.”THE TECHY BIT
Technology, he says, is “boring as hell,” but he’s attracted to the more imaginative areas of sci-fi imagery on a purely graphic level. “I have to bow to my friends Nicolas ‘Sparth’ Bouvier and David Levy, and also Stephan Martinière, for leading the way and showing how fun drawing spacecraft can be. Again it’s the strong abstract feeling I have when I see these guys’ art that makes me want to try it myself.”
Working with accurate technological designs was a challenge in one of his biggest projects (quite literally): designing huge wallstands for car manufacturer, Seat. The images, featuring a mixture of Seat’s racing cars and wild fantasy imagery, were displayed on massive hordings at racing events and launches. It was one case when JS couldn’t just imagine the details, as the depictions of the cars had to be so accurate.
“I have to say that the process for each piece could be tedious,” he says. “The pictures are among the biggest I have done and are very detailed. Each piece took me about a month because there were many levels of validation. The people helped keep the process enjoyable.”BORN TO BE CREATIVE
The ineffably good-natured Monsieur Rossbach really does seem to be on a roll, with many projects coming to fruition in addition to his steady flow of freelance work. Top of his list is the completion of his book, Merlin, and he’s already preparing a follow-up based on the Arthurian myths.
He has also just finished the graphic design for Salvaged: The Art of Jason Felix, which will be published in February 2008. “I’m also very proud of this son I had with Jason,” he says. “My work was purely abstract. It helped set my creativity free.”
Which, of course, is just what JS has been doing now for years – or, as he puts it, “I simply couldn’t do anything else… I was born for it.”