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Artist: Stephan Martiniere by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Martiniere Interview  
Date: 12 April 2007

Links: Stephan Martiniere Website / Show Official Info /

Stephan Martiniere, a nominee for the 2007 Hugo for Best Professional Artist, has a considerable body of work -- all of it brilliant. If you don't believe me take a minute to visit his website and look around. (Humming music, tapping feet, waiting patiently) Okay, you're back -- see, I was right wasn't I.

You've seen his work on book covers, inn art shows, as a design consultant for video games (Myst 5), movies (I,Robot, Revenge of the Sith), theme parks, and as a creative director on animation & cartoons film projects -- but you might not have associated a name with the designs/art -- well, hopefully, with this interview you'll get to know a bit about the artist.

SFRevu: It seems that you've had a varied background in illustration, animation, films, game design -- does the change from one type of work to another keep it fresh for you? Do you have a favorite 'type' of work?

Stephan Mariniere: Changing hats definitely keeps my creativity going. Each project brings its own challenges and forces me to adapt in different ways. As a "Jack of All Trades", I enjoy switching not only from one field of the industry to the other but I also like to switch styles from realistic to cartoon as well. In terms of my favorite type of work there is a lot of artistic freedom in doing book covers, it allows me to constantly explore the digital medium. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to convey an entire story and feel through one image. Doing concepts for games or movies is a little different. It's more about strong ideas, cool characters, vehicles, creatures and environments. It's not about the art style at the end. All these concepts are more like visual pieces of a bigger puzzle. The thinking process is more detailed for each concept, which I enjoy as well.

Image Map of Pirate Sun, Lift Off, Starry, and Saggitarius. Pirate Sun artwork Lift Off artwork Starry artwork Saggitarius artiwork NOTE: Click on Image to see a larger image. From left to right: Pirate Sun, Lift Off, Starry, and Saggitarius.

SFRevu: I know you've won many prestigious awards, so this may seem a strange question but do you think that artists in the science fiction/fantasy area get enough recognition?

Stephan: In general I think they do. The Spectrum books are a very good example of how much SF and fantasy art has gained exposure over the last 14 years. A lot of 2D artists and sculptors in various fields now have a chance to receive more visibility. They can be judged by their professional peers and get meaningful recognition. Ballistic publishing is also doing it in the digital and 3D world with their Expose books. These books are constant showcases of the best artists in the field. They also end up in most of the art director's hands in the industry. I have a feeling more publishers will follow suits. Into the Pixel has also been doing it for the game industry for 3 years now, although it includes all types of subjects, SF and fantasy is a big part of the art work being submitted. Unfortunately science fiction and fantasy artists don't get much recognition in the fine art arena in general. The quality level of some of the artists in the science fiction and fantasy field is outstanding but unfortunately that genre still carries a stigma. SF and fantasy at large are too quickly associated with negative stereotypes. Too much pulp and trash in TV and in publishing have given it a sometimes ridiculous and more often poor image. It is unfortunately viewed by most as inconsequential and not worth serious recognition. Consequently any art associated with the genre gets stigmatized.

SFRevu: I looked over the articles on your website and noticed that when you first saw Photoshop being used, you jumped on the software and dived into the digital waters. What do you think of digital art and the software that aids the artist now?

Stephan: I think Digital art is simply a new form of creative expression. In the expression "digital art" I would say the "art" part is the brain, the knowledge, the skills and imagination of the artist and the "digital" part is like an electronic canvas. By extension the software would be the various new tools one can use to visually communicate. I switched to digital because I sensed that Photoshop and 3D in general were going to have a serious impact in the film industry. Craig Mullins was the first one I can remember using these tools. The results were impressive. It became obvious that these new tools would open up great new possibilities for all artists in various fields. It allowed me and many others to establish new and efficient ways to create art work and with the internet becoming more ubiquitous it greatly helped the visibility. It also allows for more efficient ways to deliver the artwork to clients and buyers. Eighty to ninety percent of my art is now digital. Software like Photoshop, Painter and other 3D tools have reshaped my career and opened up new opportunities. From a commercial standpoint it has made me a more versatile and efficient artist. From an artistic standpoint, it has allowed me to explore new techniques and find a unique style and to push the envelop of that style.

SFRevu: I remember being in a panel several years ago where many people expressed the opinion that digital art wasn't really art. Do you think the attitude has changed as technology changed?

Stephan: I think I would answer the first question with this, a definition of "art" as the expression of creativity and imagination. As for computers and software they are just different tools to express creativity or imagination the same way one can use a camera to create art in photography. Creativity is what makes the difference. I am not sure why some people thought digital art wasn't art. I would guess that in terms of 2D illustrations these opinions might be due to the fact that some artists were using the software to simply create easy, plain and uninteresting collages without much artistic skills or creative thoughts. These can be common pit falls of using Photoshop. I remember discovering the Photoshop lens flare and using it everywhere. It's hard to resist the flashy new tricks. It's like the moth in the Pixar animated movie Bug's Life. "Don't go to the light!" screams one moth to the other. "I can't help it" moans the other as it inexorably flies toward the zapper...and gets fried. Every software at the end is a tool and the artist should use it as such. The fact that Painter has brushes that mimic oil or watercolor doesn't make you a better artist. It might feel easier at first but if you don't know your basic artistic foundation it's like giving brushes and paint to a monkey. However, I do believe that the cultural attitude towards digital art is changing but much more slowly than technology continues to evolve.

Image of The Autumn War, Para 5, Queen, and The Dragon's of Babel artwork The Autumn War artwork Para 5 artwork Queen artwork The Dragon's of Babel artwork NOTE: Click on Image to see a larger image. From left to right: The Autumn War, Para 5, Queen, and The Dragon's of Babel.

SFRevu: Do you think digital art will ever be considered art by the fine art mavens?

Stephan: Digital art is already being displayed and sold in fine art galleries. I was at the Artropolis show in Chicago this year. Many of the major and minor galleries from across the country were present, digital art was definitely showcased and sold there. I don't know how well digital art is currently selling but the fact is that it is making its way into fine art galleries shows that it's getting more accepted. What is funny is how cryptic and convoluted some of the agents were in describing the digital process almost as if there is a fear that if a buyer knows its done in Photoshop, Painter or any digital software the buyer would think it's easy and knowing that would make the art less valuable. Once again I can see a stigma but I hope over time galleries and art buyers will see beyond the technology.

SFRevu: From looking at your website, I have to wonder -- how do you keep the creative muse from getting tired? Where do you go to recharge your creative spirit?

Stephan: I recharge my creative spirit mostly by looking or buying books, surfing the web and watching movies. I also carry my camera as much as I can; taking pictures of pretty much everything around me. It could be clouds, landscapes, architectural structures, textures, or people etc... I tend to look at the world around me in a very visual way. My mind is always racing in ten directions at once. When I moved to Chicago I was first struck by the beauty and elegance of the Tribune Tower, I immediately imagined an entire futuristic city built on this architectural style. The other day, for example, the cicadas came out of the ground by the thousands. In a few days the tree trunks were covered by the empty shells left by the larvae. My first thought was to collect all these shells and arrange them in various patterns on a giant canvas. I thought this could look amazing.

SFRevu: Do you have a favorite piece of work you've done? What is it and why is it your favorite? Stephan: The Dragons of Babel from Michael Swanwick and The Autumn War from Daniel Abraham are two of my latest book cover paintings. The Dragons of Babel painting has a very moody atmosphere, a very ominous and apocalyptic feel. Its an allegory of war and power in a fantastic setting. This cover is a good example of a figurative painting.

The Autumn War is a complicated piece. It's a very literal piece with some graphic touches. There are thousands of soldiers approaching a castle. As complex as it is the painting technique is very graphic and suggestive. The red palette is also something I hadn't done before.

SFRevu: When doing book covers, do you get to read the books or do you just get a general overview of what's wanted to get you started?

Stephan: It's very different for each book. I could get a few lines from the art director such as "a big space ship in a nebulae" or a synopsis or the whole manuscript. A few lines gives me a lot of liberty but I also like the process of reading the whole story and try to extract the one image that will convey the story. Sometimes the scene is more literal other times more figurative.

SFRevu: How do you go from concept to finished work for a book cover?

Cover of Quantumscapes and original art for the cover Quantumscapes Book Cover Variable Star -- orignal painting for Quantumscapes cover NOTE: Click on Image to see a larger image. From left to right: Quantumscapes Book Cover, Variable Star -- original painting for Quantumscapes cover.

Stephan: My painting process is very organic. I usually start with a series of very rough thumb nails mainly to find a good composition. I jump to Photoshop almost right away and start exploring mood and color. I look at photo references to find a mood or a color palette or sometimes a particular light that will inspire me. It doesn't have to be connected to the subject. Its just about what that image communicates to me. Once I have one or several images I use them as my foundation for the painting. I then quickly start blocking out my colors and values to get a better sense of the overall and see if it feels right. That process is usually the most difficult. It takes me numerous attempts before I see something that visually clicks. What comes after that is layers upon layers of color washes, texture, details and paint using the Photoshop arsenal to bring the painting home. I realize that this may sound vague and in a sense it is. It's a lot about what I see as I am doing it. One step dictates the other. There is a visual breakdown process in my second book Quantumscapes of the book cover painting Variable Star from Robert A Heinlein and Spider Robinson that explains the process more in depth. One thing that always excites me is that the end result is always a bit of a surprise and always better than what I would have imagined from the beginning.

SFRevu: What are the last 5 books you read for enjoyment? What are the last 5 movies you saw?

Stephan: Perdido Street Station and The Scar from China Miéville. I just started his third book the Iron Council. I love the universe he has created and his writing style is very rich and visual which is something I really enjoy as an artist. I am also a big fan of Neil Stephenson. Snow Crash and The Diamond Age were really fascinating reads, also very visual and loaded with ideas. One of my favorite is A Fire upon the Deep from Vernor Vinge. The universe in this story is massive and intricate. In terms of movies I would say The Departed, Pan's Labyrinth, Flags of Our Fathers, and Casino Royal.

SFRevu: I can't imagine that where you are today is where you expected to be when you were in art school. What has surprised you most about your career?

Stephan: When I look back at the last 25 years, it's been a great ride. I think the most surprising thing is how varied my career has been. The only thing I was really interested in when I was in art school was comic books and I really thought that's what I would end up doing. I even had my first comic book contract with Heavy Metal at the same time I was offered a job in Tokyo to work on the cartoon Inspector Gadget. Little did I know that choosing Gadget would get me to work from Europe, Asia and the states for many years. For a long time I thought I would get back to comics but I think it took me a while to realize that I could use my drawing skills in so many different areas of the entertainment industry. The funny thing is that at the same time my mind was into comic books I was also a big fan of Chris Foss and Syd Mead. It never occurred to me that I would one day follow in their footsteps doing book covers and concepts for films. The exciting part during all these years is that I never stop learning. New industries such as games, SFX and 3D animation have constantly renewed my interest and brought new artistic challenges. Software such as Photoshop, Painter and other 3D software have helped me reinvent my art and allowed me to explore new artistic possibilities.

SFRevu: Thanks, for taking the time for us.

Our Readers Respond

From: Swain Hunt:
    Hey Folks, I loved this interview with Stephan! I'm a huge fan of his work and his lavish cities and environments just cave me in! I'm also a podcaster and we recently conducted an audio interview with him too. Check it out and pls feel free to post it with my comment--thanks!

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