The Natural World: Interview with Lee Jaszlics

Lee JaszlicsWhen I was 14 years old, my family got our first computer and the internet. As a very antisocial kid who lived in the country away outside of any town limits, the internet caused my social life to bloom. More than 15 years later, some of those people I met in the beginning days of my online life are still with me. Including my best friend Lee Jaszlics, who has been stuck with me since that first giant desktop Dell computer. We met on an art forum – they were in Colorado and I was in Wisconsin – and we’ve been in each other’s lives ever since. We even ended up going to the same college for a short time, living in the same city, and they stood up for me at my wedding. That’s an internet friendship that’ll go down in the history books.

Over the years, Lee has grown more amazing and more talented than ever and I’m so proud to show off their incredible photography for everyone. If you follow me on twitter than you’ve probably seen me promote their photography a lot. It’s for a good reason. Lee is a constant source of inspiration to me which is why I asked them to do this interview with me.

So without further ado, I’ll let Lee do the talking.

01. Boring intro question! Tell us about yourself and how you got into photography in the first place?

I got into photography purely as an accident – I actually bought my first camera to collect research data as an undergraduate, and after I’d finished digitizing several hundred photos of crocodile skulls, I decided to keep the camera, and started shooting on class field trips and around my campus, and I discovered that I loved it.

My first attempts were very, very bad, of course, but I was able to connect with the insect photography community quite early on. I attended the very first BugShot workshop, and that really opened my eyes to a lot of the tools of the trade: how to work with light, think about composition, and even how to put yourself into the right mental frame to take photos of wild creatures.

I’ve sort-of been slinking away from macro and insects over the last few years, but the frame of mind that I took from that – thinking about environment, and light, and how to showcase things from unique and perspectives, has stayed with me through the years.

02. You take pictures of a lot of subjects – spiders, reptiles, birds, landscapes, etc. What are you favorite things to photograph, and, probably related, what are the hardest things to photograph?

I don’t know that I necessarily have a favorite species to photograph, but I do like to focus on capturing personality and mood. Jumping spiders are great subjects; they love to cock their heads and admire their reflections in my lens. I’m also very fond of shorebirds, who are often shy and reserved, so getting a good photo is always a challenge. And I love snakes and monitor lizards – it’s probably the forked tongue.

I actually find that the hardest things for me to photograph are landscapes. I have very strong emotional reactions to places, but, for me, at least, a lot of that is tied up in unphotographable things – temperatures, smells and textures (I have a horrible habit of touching every plant I pass) – and communicating those feelings through color and light is quite challenging for me. I also find landscape compositions much trickier than compositions that are centered on animals.

03. What do your photographic process look like, from start to finish?

I’ll usually start by location scouting. Sometimes I have a good idea of a particular species that I want to capture so I’ll try to find places where it’s been seen. eBird is a really good tool for this. For things that aren’t birds, I usually go through geotagged photos or talk to people who might have some ideas. If I’m not after a particular animal, I’ll aim for parks and wilderness areas, and try to get an idea of what they look like and what the local biodiversity is like so that I know how to prepare for the things I’m likely to find.

Once I have a good area in mind, I’ll usually hit it relatively early. Morning light is good for landscapes and birds, and as the day heats up, I’ll switch over to insects and invertebrates. I do occasionally photograph in the evening or at night, but only if I’m specifically looking for reptiles or want to take sunset photos. But I usually find that working in the morning lets me stretch out my day and get wrapped up in what I’m doing without worrying about running out of daylight, which is nice. I’ll usually have some ideas of the shots I want, so I’ll try to get those done, and while I’m working, I’ll take a lot of photos of things that strike me while I’m working. I hike at a snail’s pace, because I tend to stop every three feet to take a photo. Most of these never see the light of day, but they get me into the right frame of mind to appreciate and focus on everything around me.

After I’m done, I process my photos. Almost everything is done in Adobe Lightroom, but I will break out Photoshop for things that are particularly knotty. While I’ve worked hard to be able to take a good photo straight out of the camera, I think that the ability to process photos well is very important, and just another tool for photographers. I’m not aiming to show you what my camera sensor saw, but to capture the feeling of a place or an organism and what it was like for me in that moment. (At the same time, I do think it’s important for me to disclose when I’ve done anything really egregious in my photo process, like compositing images or photographs of captive animals instead of wild ones.)

04. If you could photograph anything or anyone from history that’s not around anymore, what/who would it be?

New Zealand pre-human colonization, definitely. I love New Zealand, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, but I think it’d be even better with moas and giant eagles. I mean, everything’s better with giant eagles, right?

05. You travel A LOT – where is your favorite place to take photos and what is your favorite photography memory?

Well, if I have the choice to go anywhere in the world, I’ll always go to Australia. Far North Queensland is probably my favorite region of the country – but ask me again if I ever have the chance to visit Western Australia – the bird life in the rainforest there is incredible, and there are these wonderful giant stick insects that smell like peppermint when you pick them up …

My favorite photographic memory is from there, actually – I was on the road to Cape Trib from Port Douglas when I saw a young cassowary crossing the road. Obviously, I had to pull out and get a photo, and while I was doing this, the young bird got curious, watching me, and coming closer to investigate. I don’t know if you know anything about cassowaries, but they’re huge and they’ve got this massive, dinosaurian claw on one toe … I was a little nervous, especially because cassowaries are raised by their dads, and I though this one might be young enough to still have a full grown, overly protective parent nearby. So, there I was, pressed up against my rental car, trying to give this bird the space and respect he deserved, and trying to get pictures at the same time …

I got the photo, and wasn’t disemboweled by an angry cassowary, so it was a pretty good day.

06. You are, by trade, a digital photographer. What are your thoughts on traditional film photography?

Well, for what I do, let me just say that I am so, so glad that the digital camera exists! I take a lot of shots, especially when I’m trying to catch an insect that’s scuttling around, or a bird in flight, and if I had to pay for film, I’d be really, really broke. I don’t actually understand how people took wildlife photos before the advent of digital cameras, but I admire them immensely – clearly they were far more patient people than me. Plus, the immediate feedback of digital is really nice – taking a photo and then immediately being able to check to make sue your exposure is good and your composition looks nice is hugely helpful.

But film photography is an important art form, and the skillset that goes into it is vast and impressive, and there are a lot of things to recommend film as a medium – you can often get better noise performance and better colors … plus you have a full-frame sensor for relatively cheap! Sometimes, I’m a little jealous. At the end of the day, as long as you get the photos that you want, the tool that you used is unimportant. (But knowing how to use the tools that you have? That’s critical.)

07. AND FINALLY! You take tons of SUPER colorful photos – but what’s your FAVORITE color and does it photograph well?

I love oranges and greens, and they’re both awful colors to photograph. Oranges tend to the gaudy and artificial, while greens tend to turn weird and yellowy. I fight a constant battle with my camera calibration and color balance. One of these days, I might even win.

You can find Lee & their photography elsewhere on the web:
SnakePhotographer.com
SmugMug Print Shop
Timelapse Gallery
Flickr Gallery
Twitter

fuel-jg04-150x150Of all the illustrators alive today, there has been one man whose work has been a constant fixture throughout my life. I was one of those strange girls that would rather be outside excavating dinosaur bones in my backyard, getting my hands and knees dirty, than inside with a dollhouse. I spent countless hours pretending to be a world-famous archeologist, discovering hidden temples and pretending I had stumbled upon portals to other worlds. My favorite book reflected this: Dinotopia by James Gurney. I poured over those books, taped print-outs of his paintings on my wall, and I still have my first copy of The World Beneath on the bookshelf – now with the spine taped together because of the many times that book accompanied me into the woods. When I graduated high school, as my gift, my parents drove me hours away to a tiny museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where James Gurney’s Dinotopia paintings were on display. They are even more incredible in person. My favorite painting? The Black Fish Tavern from The World Beneath. The use of light and detail in that painting is incredible and I remember walking around the last corner of that gallery and there it was, sitting on an easel as you walked out the door.

For those who don’t know him, James Gurney is a writer and illustrator, best known for Dinotopia and his work for National Geographic Magazine. “He specializes in painting realistic images of scenes that can’t be photographed, from dinosaurs to ancient civilizations.” In fact, one of my favorite art guide books is Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist, an excellent book for anyone interested in fantasy illustration. You can learn much more about James Gurney and his work by visiting his website, which was recently redesigned by his talented son, Dan. Check it out and take a look at his gallery. Thank you again to James for this fantastic interview. Enjoy!

On with the Dinosaurs! …I mean Interview!

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As a kid, dinosaurs played a huge role in my everyday imaginary adventures. How were you first introduced to dinosaurs and the different civilizations that make appearances in Dinotopia and when did they begin to appear in your sketchbooks?

I was bitten by the dinosaur bug as a kid, thanks to the Zdenek Burian illustrations in the Time/Life book on evolution and a few trips to natural history museums. I was also fascinated by lost civilizations. I grew up with a bound set of old National Geographics outside my bedroom door. I’d tiptoe out in the hall at night to read about great explorers like Hiram Bingham discovering Machu Picchu. My ambition in third grade was to find a dinosaur or a lost city. I started excavations in my backyard and had my friends helping me until their mothers told them they couldn’t come over anymore because they always came home with their pockets full of dirt.

I majored in archaeology at UC Berkeley, and then worked for many years as an illustrator for National Geographic. They put me in an early grave, you might say, by sending me on assignment to Etruscan Italy to poke around some recently discovered tombs in Tarquinia. They also sent me to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, and I worked with a lot of archaeologists and paleontologists. Around 1988 in my spare time I started doing big paintings of lost empires and I came up with the idea of drawing a map of an island and telling about it through the journal of a Victorian explorer named Arthur Denison.

Does your artistic process differ when you’re working on paintings for your fictional books in comparison with work for instructional art books or commissioned pieces?

Not really. Both my Dinotopia paintings and my scientific illustrations are imaginative work, meaning there’s no photo to copy. The idea is to do a realistic painting of something that isn’t visible in front of me. For both science and fantasy paintings, I have to do lots of sketches, and maybe pose models or build maquettes. If it’s a commissioned illustration, I might have to resolve the sketches a bit more than I would if I was doing a Dinotopia painting. The artistic process does differ of course for my plein air work, where I work on oil primed panels, drawing the subject directly with a brush.
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In your experience, what was more beneficial in helping you grow as an artist: formal art education or your personal travels and learning on your own?

For me the most beneficial thing was learning on my own and traveling, simply because most art schools weren’t teaching the good stuff 30 years ago. You had to dig it out from the old art instruction books that were 50 or 100 years old. Doing that felt like having Norman Rockwell or Harold Speed or Andrew Loomis as your teacher. Many art schools are better now, and are offering a good skill-based foundation. Still, I’m a real believer in learning through direct observation of nature, which means carrying a sketchbook around constantly, and painting outdoors.

Imaginative Realism is a fantastic book, but for those who haven’t read it – how do you go about creating your paintings of creatures that no longer exist? What steps must you take for the creatures to look as real as they do?

I work completely in pencil and oil. My studio is upstairs in my house, and it’s crammed full of art books, maquettes of architecture, old theater costumes, and sculptures of dinosaurs. My method is based on the nineteenth century academic approach: thumbnail sketches in black and white and color, studies or photos from costumed models, plein air sketches, and lots of reference photos filed away in a set of filing cabinets. The really elaborate paintings can take as long as six weeks, but an average painting goes together in about six days. During my lecture tour this fall I’ll be doing presentations at several different art schools and studios in LA and Ohio. People can find out the list on my blog under “Upcoming Appearances.”
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Your blog is an amazing resource for all sorts of traditional artists. What is the biggest piece of advice you could give to a blossoming illustrator?

Thanks for the compliment. As far as advice, I’d start by saying: don’t worry! Professionals in the business often complain about the headaches of stock art, photo-illustration, lousy contracts, and disappearing clients. There’s no doubt: it’s a tough time right now to make a living as an illustrator. But it has always been a changing business, whether you were working in 1905, 1925, or 1955. In many ways, this is the best time ever to enter the field. We live in a more visual culture than ever, and never before has fantasy and science fiction been so central to our culture.

I’d also recommend balancing imaginative and observational work. Sketch from life and sketch from your head. And don’t worry about developing a style. Just observe nature faithfully when you’re young. The style will come naturally.

We have more resources at our fingertips—tools, references, printing technology—than any of our artistic ancestors ever dreamed of, and there are unlimited opportunities if we can just try to rise to the high ideals and standards that they stood for. Illustration is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air.

And finally… in one word, what “fuels” your illustration?

Probably the same thing that has fueled artists all along—the desire to tell a story, to bring a character to life, to create a doorway into a world that no one had ever imagined before. I’m constantly reminded of the impact that still pictures can have over us. I got a letter last week from a young woman who is an art student in Germany. She said she found her old copy of Dinotopia after it had been misplaced for many years, and she remembered something her father said about it. He told her that it was a magical book, and that every time she opened it up, there would be a new picture hidden somewhere in its pages that she had never seen before.
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You can learn more about James Gurney here:

bard-smallFor as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer and illustrator. In fact, I wanted to create children’s books and I wanted them to be fun, colorful, and have animals in them. That’s why I was so excited to do this interview with Bard Hole Standal, author of the interactive kids’ book Jack and Joe, which was built for the iPhone and the iPad. I was given the chance the read the book and play around with it and let me tell you, I loved it! Personally, I think this is HUGE, especially for the iPad. Interactive kids’ books aren’t exactly new, but I feel that with Bard’s style he could pave the way for many books like his. And iPads are a great size for kids to use.

Here’s a few things that really jumped out at me and made me love Jack and Joe:

  • I loved the illustrations! Bright, colorful, good movement! Very cute and great style for kids. The illustrations were really engaging and I felt the artwork went along perfectly with the story.
  • The interactions build into the book are fantastic. The hide and seek page was one of my favorite parts! There are also pages you can shake and some where you can pet Jack! In talking to Bard, I learned that in a future version of the story there will be even more interactive pages.
  • Jack and Joe very much felt like characters that could be on Disney or Nickelodeon – the voices were good too and there was a good pace to the book and the reading.

On with the Interview!

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the idea to create an interactive children’s book for the iPad/iPhone come from?

I think all illustrators dream of publishing their own children’s book. For me, it felt like the right time to give it a go. I had focused all my time and energy in being involved in vinyl toys and endless projects with toy companies that seldom went anywhere. I was tired of both toys and spending a great deal of time on things that never came to fruition. With the iPad and the iPhone’s App Store, that would not be a problem. You are in control of what’s published, no second or third parties involved. So I talked to my brother who’s a computer engineer, and we decided to combine our talents to make this book happen. We originally intended on programming it using Adobe’s Flash CS5 iPhone module, but Apple pulled the plug on that. Plus the tech was incredibly slow, nearly useless.
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How did you begin each page? Walk us through your process of completing an illustration for the book.

I started the process by writing a simple outline. The initial idea about a boy and his best friend, his husky puppy. I thought of the fun things they could do together while keeping in mind what sort of interactive tasks would work with that. In the outline I wrote some ideas down for a story arc and how the boy would end up being jealous of the husky. The boy wanted to be a husky too because, let’s face it, there is nothing more awesome to be in the world than a husky puppy!

I never really set out to make a literary masterpiece, I wanted a sort of random character-focused story without morals or life lessons. I just wanted to make it a peek into the world of two best friends.

After the outline was written, I wrote a proper manuscript and drew a very crude storyboard of each page. Then I used Illustrator to draw up the final images, and adjusted the script and drawings as I went along. I also had to come up with what sort of interactive things we could add to the pages. I had a bunch of ideas, but we had to cut back to make it possible to produce. Coding for the iOS devices is very time consuming. Compared to technologies like Flash, this is much more demanding.
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Was creating an illustration for mobile devices different from simply creating an illustration for print or the web?

I always had to keep in mind that everything I drew would have to be cut up into smaller pieces for it to be animated or made into an interactive page. So working with vectors in Illustrator made that very easy, it’s part of my style and it’s how I like to work already. I’m an interactive art director in my fulltime job, so this is part of my everyday life. If you’re a traditional illustrator, I’m sure it would be a little harder to wrap your head around than producing things for print. Also, you have the issue of resolution differences on the devices. The iPhone 1 and the iPhone 4 have different resolutions, and the iPad even has a different format! So you end up exporting everything three times and you have to make sure that the illustrations for the iPad work even though you’re cutting the sides off to make it fit within the format. It’s easy to slip into madness with all of these things to think of ;)

What do you hope kids will take from Jack and Joe? Where do you see this book going?

My biggest wish is that kids get sucked into the world of Jack and Joe and just end up having a really FUN time. That was my goal all along, to make a super fun book kids can play with for hours. And maybe they’ll all convince their parents to get huskies! That would be cool. The world needs more huskies. I see a world in the future where everyone has a husky. I’d like that world!

I hope the book makes it up the App Store charts and that it gets some attention. It’s proven quite difficult to get it out there, there’s no automatic success by having a book in the App Store. You’ll have to tell people about it before it moves anywhere. I was hoping that wasn’t the case, that we wouldn’t need the PR machines of giant publishing corporations. We’ll see how it goes. I think we just need to tell people that it’s out there and that they should check it out. Maybe make a free preview version too.
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Who would you say has influenced your art style?

My art style is definitively influenced by a bunch of Japanese artists. I grew up with a keen interest in manga, so people like Akira Toriyama and Katsuhiro Otomo have been huge to me. In terms of vector style, Furi Furi Company, Buro Destruct and Maniackers Design were a major influence on me when I was starting out. Then of course there’s the video games of my childhood from Nintendo and Sega that were probably the reason for why I was drawn to illustration in the first place.

You say on your website that you love drawing animals. Any hope for a children’s book about pigs in the future?

Haha, yeah now that would be something! I would love to just sit down and draw pigs for a 6 month stretch. That would be a amazing!

I am actually working on a CGI short about a pig that wants to go to the north pole. It’s a side-burner project, so it’ll take a while to complete. I get my monthly dose of pigs that way though, keeps me sane and far, far away from bacon.

I eat a lot of sausages though, so technically I’m a hypocrit!

And finally… what “fuels” your illustration?

Giant exploding mega ultra death pigs! with LASER EYES!

At least the dream of one day giving such a vision a proper rendition as an illustration.
Until the day I do that, I will relentlessly be working on my skills until they can achieve such awesome awesomeness.
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Find more about Bard here:

Patrick O’Leary is an illustrator and member of the Association of Illustrators who creates colourful, often humorous illustrations on a range of themes. His work plays with scale, composition and visual narrative and seeks to create a psuedo-reality where anything is possible.

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Your illustrations have a very unique style to them. What does your process consist of to create a final piece?

Usually it starts with an idea in my head, or a few words on a page which I can then rough out into a basic composition. I used to draw my roughs in pencil and scan them in, but now I do them straight on to photoshop and move things around with the lasso tool until I’m happy with the way it looks. I’d say that that is the most important stage, establishing the best layout for the idea so that it communicates the message. Then it’s just a matter of choosing colours and adding a background texture.

How did you first get into drawing and illustration?

As a lot of illustrators will probably say, I started drawing from a very young age. I used to love Quentin Blakes illustrations in the Roald Dahl books when I was a kid and I was always doodling on/in my exercise books at school, but I only really became aware of illustration in the sense I now know it about 4 years ago, just before my degree. I wanted to be a photographer for a long time, but when I discovered how broad the field of illustration was and how creative people can be with it, I was hooked.
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Looking through your work, it’s easy to see there is a message within each. Where do you find your concepts?

Sometimes they just come into my head, but that’s very rare. Other times, they come from things friends have said, something I’ve read in the news etc. Most of the time though, I just brainstorm the subject and what it is about that subject that I find interesting or humorous. If there is a visual metaphor to be had, I’ll try and accommodate that too.

What are your favorite tools to use and do you have a favorite subject?

First of all, technology. My work would be nothing without a graphics tablet or Photoshop. They are so vital in the creation of my work that if I’d been an illustrator 20 years ago, I think my output would have been vastly different.

As for a favourite subject, I’m not sure I have one. I like anything current, anything that people are talking about at the moment. I think that’s why I enjoy editorial illustration, because it’s all very immediate. I have no particular preference in terms of the gravity of the subject though; I’d just as happily illustrate something whimsical as I would something very serious.
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“Hello. I realised the other day that trees are brilliant.

We owe everything to the humble tree: the birth of humanity in the Garden of Eden (if you’re a Christian), the discovery of fire, gravity and books. It was and still is used as a rudimentary building material.” – Patrick’s blog.

And, of course, what fuels your illustration?

Lots of things! Reading the news, talking to my friends, meeting people, I have to keep my brain active. I’m not a very solitary person, despite my job. Most of all though, I get my fuel from looking at other illustrators, especially on flickr. A few I’m digging at the moment are Stuart Kolakovic, Chris Madden and Ben Newman, but there are so many more.”

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