I was profiled in the May/June 2011 issue of IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications. The article is titled "When Work Becomes Bliss". It was quite the honor!
I wish I could link directly to the profile, but they want $30 for the article download. While I can see why the other articles in the magazine might be worth that much (I could barely understand them), I am pretty sure no one is going to pay that much to read just about little old me.
So, rather than post the article itself I have posted below the Q&A I did in preparation for the artcle. The questions and article write-up are by Gary Singh, the answers (of course) are mine.
Comments link at the bottom if you have any questions or comments. Thanks for reading!
1. What is your academic background? How did you come to digital images as your medium of choice?
I have a BA in English and a BS in Computer Science from the University of Iowa. I learned about the IEEE while studying for my BS so it is real honor for me to be featured in your journal! I haven’t had any formal art training.
I was a voracious reader as a youth and had originally studied to pursue a career in creative writing. A major roadblock was the fact that I’ve always had terrible handwriting. As a youth I underwent a lot of tutoring to correct it but even today it is barely legible.
When I was around 12 (early 80’s) my Mother purchased an old typewriter for my schoolwork. I, in turn, started using it to write stories like the ones I had been reading. I was finally able to create the stories that were rattling around in my daydreaming skull. I guess you can say I’ve been using technology to create art from a very young age.
I moved up to a “word processor” in when I entered the University of Iowa and got my first computer (another gift from my Mom) when I graduated with a BA in English in the mid-90s. It was a pretty nice setup too. A 486/66 with 8 MB of RAM and a 350 MB HD. It also came preloaded with a starter set of 2D graphics programs (Aldus Photostyler and KPT Tools chief among them) and they were my first introduction to computer art.
Whenever I made a picture I would set it on the computer desktop so my roommates could see it and give feedback. That's how I started making wallpapers (I designed the images to fit the screen dimensions perfectly). I found that the more wallpapers I made the less time I spent writing fiction. Eventually I transitioned completely to visual arts.
2. What does the digital world allow you to do that the analog storytelling world doesn’t?
My early difficulty with handwriting pretty much turned me off of “analog” art but I found the mouse-interface to be a great equalizer. I had been trying to tell my stories with words, since that is all I could manage with the available technology. The computer allowed me to tell my stories visually and allowed me to more easily share my work with others. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.
I’ve found that creating a work of art is a lot like going on a journey and from beginning to end you find many forks in the road. The piece can change completely depending on the decisions you make along the way. The analog method, due to the scarcity of materials, naturally confines you to a more linear vector while the computer allows you to explore more of these different paths.
I try to preserve as many of these different variations as possible and make them available to my Members. The digital world, cyberspace, allows my work to travel to every corner of the world in a way that would be very difficult through analog means. I have had Members from just about every country with a modem and I wouldn’t be able to work full-time on my artwork without them.
3. How did you turn your efforts into a business with 17,000 paid subscribers? Was that the business plan from the beginning? Did you start out intending to do this full-time?
It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to work with computers professionally. At the time there weren’t any computer art classes available to me so I studied Computer Science (yes, the fields are vastly different). I re-enrolled at Iowa and earned a BS in Computer Science in 1998. The intense study of mathematics translated well to learning 3D graphics and studying other branches of science (I concentrated on Astronomy as my secondary discipline) provided great inspiration for subject matter.
I started my website as an exercise in HTML programming. As I neared graduation I applied for programming jobs with a number of different companies and most were looking for some web programming experience. This was not taught in my classes so I thought the best way to learn would be to create an online gallery for my wallpapers.
“Digital Blasphemy” went live in early 1997 at a time when there weren’t many resources for high-res wallpaper imagery. Word spread and in a year I was getting tens of thousands of visitors per day and racking up large bandwidth bills. I tried banner advertising to support myself but they just didn’t pay very well for the “demographically diffuse” kinds of traffic I had.
In 1999, after working a year at a full-time programming job while also working full-time on my website, I decided that it was simply too much. One would have to go. The only way it would work would be if it was paid directly by the people who enjoyed my artwork the most.
At the time is was pretty much unheard of to charge people for access to web content, but I went ahead and tried it. The response was such that I was able to quit the programming job and focus 100% of my time on artwork. The subscriber count has grown over the years to over 17,000 now (members expire and return all the time).
The whole thing started out as a hobby but it’s been my full-time “job” for the past 12 years. I don’t really consider it to be work though.
4. Since Song of the Sky is the cover image, please tell me everything you can about this particular image: The inspiration, the software, filters, programming techniques and why you chose the trees and scenery. Is it part of a larger series?
I’ve always been fascinated by nature and the aurora is her most beautiful phenomena. I have featured aurora in many of my projects but the first was a piece I called “Song of the Sky” that I created back in 2000. The title refers to the sound that people sometimes report coming from the aurora.
For that project I used Newtek Lightwave to create the aurora effects and then used them as a backdrop to a scene I rendered in (the now abandonware) World Builder.
3D software (and hopefully one’s skill level) is always improving however and it is fun to revisit older scenes utilizing more advanced methods. In 2007 I decided to do a new version using Vue d’Esprit for the landscape rendering. I stayed with Lightwave for the aurora effects, intending to animate them.
Vue d’Esprit has “planets” you can add to the sky (so they appear behind your clouds and atmosphere) but also lets you use your own “custom” planets. Since they are just image files they don’t necessarily have to be planets however. I’ve used this feature for a number of cool sky effects (supernovae, galaxies, etc).
I will most likely attempt another “Song of the Sky” in a year or two if I think I can add something special to the scene.
5. For Blossom, you mention that it’s an old fashioned Xfrog experiment rendered in Lightwave. Is there a reason you chose that process?
Xfrog is a node based procedural modeler that is used primarily for creating plants. When I was first learning how to use it I found it to be wonderful at creating strange organic abstract shapes that are fascinating to explore. Xfrog doesn’t have a renderer so I exported the objects to Lightwave and applied all sorts of cool texture effects.
Unfortunately Xfrog stopped updating their standalone application back in the early ‘00s (choosing instead to focus on plugins for Cinema 4D and Maya). I still use it for plant modelling, but I hadn’t done any abstract work with it for a few years. It was fun to create something completely fanciful.
6. What is your creative process like? Is there a concrete finished image in mind when you start, or is the process ad lib, trial-and-error, improvised or all of the above? Do you begin with wallpaper in mind, that is, with dimensions in mind, or do you just have a visual concept and proceed from there?
It is always different. Sometimes I have a flash of an idea and hurry to the computer to try and flesh it out. Sometimes I am trying to learn a feature of my software and I built a project around a certain effect. There’s always a lot of ad-lib/trial-and-error though, because I don’t use references or (usually) try to emulate anything real.
One of the reasons I chose the name “Digital Blasphemy” way-back-when was because of the “godlike” feeling I had creating entirely new worlds. I’ve always been fascinated by creation and creating something out of nothing and that goes against using references. It’s fun to hear people ask “where is that?”, as if they were looking at a real place. The answer is it exists only in my mind and the mind of the viewer.
People ask me all the time if I could post a video of creating one of my pieces. The answer is no, because I do not progress linearly through the process like a digital Bob Ross. There are fits and starts; mistakes and backtracking. It’s usually a messy process, and people would be sure to second-guess my decisions (as I do myself from time to time).
I try to give people a taste of the process on my site however. I usually post multiple versions of a piece during different stages of the creative process. I keep one in my main gallery and the rest in what I call my “Pickle Jar”. This allows folks to enjoy some of those “roads not taken” while allowing me to keep my personal vision front-and-center.
7. What are your plans for the future? What other projects do you want to undertake? What other media do you want to explore?
I started making wallpapers to fit my 800 x 600 monitor. As my monitors improved (next to 1152 x 864, then 1600 x 1200, then 1920 x 1200 and finally to my current 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution) I have upped the resolutions available on my site. I now support over 40 different resolutions and it seems we are adding new screens to our lives every year. These screens will need backgrounds and there will always be people who will want artwork designed specifically for this purpose.
Of course I look forward to creating wallpapers for many more years. My son Ian (7) has more drawing talent now then I ever had when I was his age. He’s shown an interest in creating digital art (like me) but I want him to have the grounding in “analog” art that I never had. I look forward to many interesting collaborations with him as he gets older though. Watch out.
My work is created first and foremost to look good on a backlit screen. From the beginning though I have always had people asking for ways to use my wallpaper artwork for other purposes. For instance when I first started out I had a lot of people writing in asking for poster prints. I tried out a few with various print companies but didn’t like the idea of holding an inventory and doing all of the shipping myself.
Then around 1999 I was contacted by one Jeff Beaver about joining a site he was setting up. They would take my digital images and print and ship them as ordered. In addition I would be able to set my own prices. It was pretty revolutionary at the time. The site was called Zazzle.com and they now have millions of members world wide and sell merchandise from Star Wars and Disney and thousands of independent artists worldwide. I’ve sold thousands of prints through them over the years.
I recently started working with a company called DecalGirl to offer my work as “device skins”. I send them a digital file and they create templates to match the many hundreds of different phones, game consoles, and any other gadget you can think of. This allows you to pick one of my wallpapers and have it as the device wallpaper but also extend to cover the bezel, keyboard, and back. It takes the whole concept of “wallpaper” to the next level and I am thrilled to have my work used like this.
Currently I am in talks with different companies about licensing my work as removable wall murals, black light posters, and on stainless steel water bottles. I’ve recently been asked to do a pro bono music video for a band that may or may not be the next-big-thing. Such a project would be uncharted waters for me and I am still weighing the pros and cons.
Finally I think it would be wonderful to work on a real motion picture someday. I’ve always worked alone and would like to try working on a team to create something larger than any of us could create by ourselves. Plus I think my kids would get a kick out of seeing their Daddy’s work on the big screen.
Behind it all I want to keep creating new worlds for people who are seeking them.