Steve Argyle's master art

This article was taken from issue 56 of ImagineFX magazine.

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Wasting time

When Steve Argyle was studying at college he was told to “get out of art before he wasted anymore time on it”. Harsh words from those who should have known better. But that didn’t stop Steve from pursuing his ambitions. A love of comics, fantasy art and a “misguided idea that being able to draw Wolverine might get girls to notice him” set Steve on a road towards becoming one of the most in-demand digital fantasy artists around.

It’s clear there are two sides to Steve. There’s the fun-loving, Star Wars fanatic who lives to paint fantastic places from his imagination and would kill to develop Joss Whedon’s Firefly. But then there’s the Steve who stuck at his passion for comic and fantasy art, “lucked into a sweet gig” as a 3D modeller and set himself the task of learning 3ds Max in a week, with only caffeine and a driving ambition to keep him sane.

“There’s a certain amount of discipline you have to have and it takes a lot of work to get to where you can create art for a living,” says Steve. “You have to find a balance. Inspiration comes from what you experience outside of the studio. The ability to use that inspiration comes from the hours you’ve logged behind the sketchpad or canvas.”

Reverse psychology

Steve caught the drawing bug during his childhood and wouldn’t stop scribbling. “An early memory I have is using a red Sharpie on my mom’s brand-new wooden dressers. My mom complemented the ‘artwork’ of my vandalised product of boredom and then with a disappointed sigh said, ‘It’s too bad this isn’t on paper. I can’t take this dresser with me to show all of my friends how talented you are!’ And from that point on, I only drew on things that were easily carried.”

Later in school the same need to scribble developed alongside his love of comics, in particular the Excalibur series and artist Alan Davies. “He’s a fantastic artist,” says Steve when Alan comes up in conversation. “In a medium at the time known for exaggerated proportions, he had a subtle hand. His work is believable, nuanced, and carried terrific emotion and composition. At the time, I couldn’t explain why, I just knew I liked it.” Then Steve worked on his colours, looking to Drew Struzan, Brom and Boris Vallejo. “At some point I went from being a more detail-oriented, comic book-style artist to a painter.”

With five years of freelance behind him since leaving game developer Incognito, Steve is an award-winning illustrator for Wizards of the Coast, Alderac Entertainment Group and Legends of Norrath. His skill with a digital brush has earned him an army of fans, but he’s also keen to stress how his fantasy paintings adhere to real-world rules. Steve aims to bring a sense of realism to his paintings, avoiding the ‘chain mail bikini in waist-high snow’ look. “I like mostly naked girls as much the next guy, but I find a strong, capable, intelligent and well-prepared heroine to be far more appealing. When you believe that she belongs, and that she has a fascinating story of her journeys, she’ll be infinitely more attractive than a swimsuit model plopped on top of a dragon.”

Going beyond a camera

Viewing fantasy art with broad strokes, Steve sees the genre as combining the realism and craft of the old masters with characters and worlds that don’t exist. “Photography has displaced the kingdom of realistic painters in some respects,” says Steve. “But you can’t easily take a picture of a pit fiend charging a silver dragon on a cliff made of shards of ice and skulls. Fantasy art takes us to places we can’t go, introduces us to people, creatures and technology that we could otherwise never experience.”

However, he believes the rules of the real world still fit. Getting the basics right, like developing observation skills, will improve your fantasy art. “In our busy world, we tend to reduce things down to labels and routines. As an artist, at some point you have to abandon visual routines and symbols to see things as they are, and they become vastly more intriguing and rich,” says Steve. “If you apply the same ‘open-eyes, no pre-conceptions’ approach to other facets in your life, I think you’ll find intrigue in even things you used to find the most mundane.”

Trad vs Digital

Working almost exclusively digitally, Steve manages to combine his love of traditional painting techniques with new technology. “I’ve completely embraced digital art, hugging it so hard that we’re fusing together into an adorable monstrosity of pixels and hair. I’m lobbying Congress to make it legal to marry digital art.”

Over the years Steve has built up an arsenal of brushes, presets and tools to bring his fantasies to life. He uses four brushes for the majority of a painting; these are mapped to a Belkin game controller. He also has a library of texture, special effect and special-purpose brushes. “I feel like creating brushes is a little mini-art form in itself, and there’s definitely a personality that comes through them,” says Steve before being drawn on his favourite artists, who include Craig Mullins, Dermot Power and Andrew Jones. “There are several digital artists who are highly recognisable, and some of that comes from the signature of their tools.”

Carefree, not careless

There are moments when Steve demonstrates a carefree approach to his work but then, when talking about the specifics of his craft, he’ll embrace the richness of being a working artist. The two sides merge when Steve reveals his philosophy on life and art. “Good art and a good life depend on the same things. You have to see the big picture before you can focus on details. You have to learn to really see. See what’s really there, observe how things really work, and learn that labels and symbols are not only poor representations, but diminish truth and experience.”

With a series of breathtaking paintings, a contacts book many would envy and a career doing what he loves best – painting fantasy and Star Wars characters – few could argue that Steve has trumped the advice offered in college. In an effort to redress the balance Steve says, “It doesn’t really matter if you can make a living at it or not, do what you love.” Before saying that in his specific case, “Dig Dug and Pac-Man are just the tip of the iceberg. Prepare for a wonderland of entertainment that makes Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory look like a cardboard box with ‘spaceship’ scribbled on the side.” For a moment there we thought Steve was getting serious.


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