Renderfeed: Tell me a little bit about yourself and about your life as a designer in Dortmund.
(Mark) 50% of my daily business is commercial illustration and animation. 2 days a week I’m teaching graphic design and digital illustration; the rest of the week I am working on my personal projects.
Being a designer in Dortmund is nothing special. 99% of my jobs are handled via email, so I could sit everywhere on this planet as long as I have a stable web connection. In fact Dortmund with its 580,000 citizens is a quite small city, but I enjoy life and the people here. I can afford a studio, which I couldn’t afford if I was based in London or New York. Next to that I’m still with my old school friends here.
Renderfeed: Your digital work is very unique, crazy funny and colorful, with textures that resemble translucent porcelain or shiny plastic. How did you develop such a personal style?
(Mark) I don’t think it was a combination of conscious decisions, but coming from a graffiti background where everyone was painting letters back in the days you were always fighting for attention, you wanted your letters to be recognized, you needed to develop a signature style. I always forced myself to not copy other people or walk on beaten tracks. So I tried to innovate and look different. When I look at my personal work nowadays I think it is a combination of characters and typography- trying to be dynamic and balanced at the same time.
Renderfeed: Where did you go to school and university? Did you attend any classes at school that helped prepare you tobecome the artist that you are today or was the academic world a waste of time?
(Mark) My mother always encouraged me to paint, which I enjoyed very early on. The first steps were copying my artistic heroes, no matter if it was Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix comics, Cezanne landscapes, Picasso portraits or Dali paintings.
Then came the graffiti time: That was my first conscious step towards design that brings a certain message across and needs to be understood by an audience. You need to hit people hard to get attention in the streets -these same rules can directly be applied to communication design.
Later when I finished school I studied fine arts and asked myself how I would make money and decided to study graphic design and marketing on top, which definitely helped a lot in understanding the communication design business which is a service and not “art”.
During my university studies I discovered 3D applications and Cinema 4D became the software I started learning.
After quitting my job in commercial art direction I got self-employed and started doing illustration jobs of every kind from analog to digital media in print and even animation. After a while I realized that I would need to develop personal projects to escape the restrictions commercial work is connected to. I started doing exhibitions and quickly the style I had developed was requested by commercial clients from all over the world. My illustration business changed from being hired as a craftsman to being hired as an artist or art director/illustrator also.
Renderfeed: You’ve been a street artist, a teacher, a corporate soldier working for renowned advertising agencies and now you work as an independent digital artist – which of these roles fit you best? How would you define yourself at this point of your career?
(Mark) At the moment I’m happy to make a living from the stuff I love to do. Actually I’m doing all three jobs at the same time, which is becoming more and more complicated. In the not too distant future I need to drop one or two things to improve my social life
Renderfeed: What are some of the most important projects you have worked on recently?
(Mark) Basically it’s my personal work that I perceive as the most important, at least in the long run. Making a living from being an artist was my very first dream and this was the motivation that led me to the point I am at now.
That being said being an artist nowadays is connected with commercial work too:
Every new exhibition is a milestone for me, I want to see my own progress; the same applies for commissions. In that sense it’s always the current project that’s most important I think.
Renderfeed: Is there a project you have done that you are most happy with and if so, why?
(Mark) I really enjoyed working with Nexus Productions, especially Oscar winning directors Smith & Foulkes on two TV-Spots for a television company. I had an exhibition in London they saw and a few days later they asked me if I would like to be responsible for the character design of some commercials. Every time you get positive feedback from people you adored for a long time the circle is closing more and more – that feels like fortune is on your side!
Renderfeed: Tell us how long it took to design “Unplugged”. What software did you use and what were the different steps you had to go through to finish the piece and produce the resin statue?
(Mark) First of all it starts in the sketchbook, where I often just write down my thoughts and ideas. Then I do some sketches and review the sketchbooks, but only after a few weeks have passed so as to ensure a fresh viewpoint. Once I’m convinced by an idea I produce a 3dimensional version in Cinema 4D, 3d print a prototype and do molds of it, which I then paint.
In case of the unplugged pieces the 3D model needed to be split into separate arms, brain-bag, tie etc. Mold these and then bring them together to be painted. In addition you need to ensure a stable support stand, which is often complicated as my work is mostly kind of floating or to put it differently it is very fragile. The right material needs to be found etc. I think the Unplugged pieces took about 18 months until they very ready for their final release.
Renderfeed: What kind of projects can we expect to see from you in the future?
(Mark) I hope to finish some personal shorts and do more “real life” sculptures. Next to that I still enjoy painting big murals, which is a really relaxing time always. Even though it’s physically hard work I enjoy the meditative process of analog painting, which is very different from sitting in front of the monitor and hitting apple-z. That’s the reason I’m working on hand carved sculptures too.
Renderfeed: What part of designing is most difficult or most frustrating?
(Mark) If you do what you love, your job is not a job…in my case it is a dramatic love affair with the full range of feelings that represent “drama”. There are weeks nothing really works and you feel depressed, paired with times when everything flows perfectly.
I definitely need my personal work that stays untouched by other influences. Back in the days when I tried to identify myself through my commercial work I often got angry about this whole illustration job, which is a service in the end. Since I’m doing my own thing I’m completely relaxed with my commercial commissions.
Renderfeed: What part of your working day most makes you think: ‘This is why I do this job?’
(Mark) When I look at some stuff I did a while back and still like it. Actually I need some weeks to really see the work objectively and often I’m unsure for quite a while when work is finished. As an artist you always try to produce things that are timeless and “perfect” in your eyes. Probably you’ll never reach the point of perfection, but that’s part of the game. If you stop reaching for the stars you stop developing.
Renderfeed: Is it difficult to adjust your style to each client you work for? Or do you have an easy time staying true to yourself while fulfilling the client’s expectations?
(Mark) When I started in illustration I did every job I could get my hands on and always adapting to very different styles was part of the game. Nowadays I get jobs like: “This is our idea… and now we would like to have it produced in a “Mark Gmehling-style”. I changed from being hired as a craftsman to being hired as an art director and artist.
When HICKIES hired me to do a sculpture for them the crucial point was making sure that the artwork I would develop would be something that truly represents my actual personal work while keeping an interesting connection to their product. They were very happy with my sculpture and at no point asked me to change something.
Renderfeed: What is your greatest source of inspiration (nature, people, your thoughts, your family, the (street) art you see around you etc.)?
(Mark) The absurdity and triviality of human life is a never-ending source of inspiration. All above applies also. It’s difficult to say what my source of inspiration is. It’s always different and you can never say when inspiration hits you, it may be a picture you see, a song or dialogue you hear or whatever. As I am usually a bit absent-minded I try my best to write down inspirations directly into my sketchbooks, the phone or whatever is at my fingertips in those moments.
Renderfeed: Do you ever get artist’s block and or does inspiration fail you sometimes? What do you do to stay inspired?
(Mark) You can’t force it and maybe the hardest thing about being an artist is learning to deal with yourself and being patient with yourself. When I look at some of my heroes I adore the serenity of older artists like Gerhard Richter for example. He steps into his studio, draws a line and maybe says: “Today it doesn’t feel like a good day for painting somehow”, leaves the studio and tries again another day.
I think my generation’s idea of speed is a bit disturbed, especially in media business with all its crazy deadlines and expectations. We’re obsessed with not having enough time and having too much to do – the result is that we’re always “stressed” and become impatient with all we do. Technology put a light speed on it all. I try to be aware of that and decelerate as far as possible.
Renderfeed: How tight are the deadlines in your line of work and how do you manage the pressure to deliver within short time frames?
(Mark) It’s always a challenge to adjust render times to the given timeframe, but I think its always possible to adjust abstraction and effort to the given budget or timeframe. That’s part of the whole development process.
Renderfeed: What version of Cinema 4D are you currently using?
(Mark) R15 Studio and with every update I’m happy I bet on the right horse back in the days. The Adobe integration is just awesome. I never had a nerdy approach to 3d and I’m not a coder at all. I just enjoy the intuitive feel of C4D and use it as a tool that still surprises me.
Renderfeed: What Cinema 4D plug-ins do you use and why?
(Mark) Nothing big – most tools are just basic little modeling helpers or scripts that improve workflow.
Renderfeed: Aside from Cinema 4D, what other software do you use?
(Mark) I’m using the Adobe Suite…especially Illustrator, After Effects, Photoshop.
Renderfeed: What are the main technical challenges to consider when rendering your projects?
(Mark) For me the role of proper lighting/ rendering is becoming more and more important. It’s easy to get great materials and renders, but reducing render times while not reducing quality is always a challenge and I am always exploring new possibilities to improve that area of my workflow.
Renderfeed: Have you used cloud solutions, and if so what type of projects did you chose to render remotely?
(Mark) So far I managed to render all on my own or delivered scenes that were rendered in production houses that hired me.
At the moment I’m working on some lenticular prints, these flip-images you probably know. Technology improved a lot and I was really surprised when my printing company told me that they need 96 frames to produce a standard lenticular print. Nowadays you can show whole animations rather than two or three flipping images. As I’m exhibiting at quite a big scale and resolution I would definitely need to outsource these renders.
Renderfeed: What factors did you consider when choosing an online render farm?
(Mark) The speed of the render and the price would be my most important considerations, then maybe plugin support if it’s not possible to bake in. Finally delivery speed would also be crucial.
Renderfeed: What kind of advice would you give a young artist trying to stand out from the crowd?
(Mark) Focus on yourself! Think about what you want to say. Stop copying styles and stop producing things that just look great. Focus on what you have to say and just produce.
Stop asking yourself: “Will people like it?” or “Did somebody else in the web do something similar? Stop googling your ideas, you’ll always find a reason not to start or finish your ideas.
Renderfeed: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given in your career?
(Mark) “Just do it!” would be the best advice I was given. You can’t develop an own universe of aesthetics if you look what the others do. Procrastination is the enemy.
Renderfeed: What do you hope will change in the industry in the next five years?
(Mark) Don’t know what to expect from the industry, but I hope digital art will become as “acceptable in polite society“ as photography is. It’s still only a tool like a brush, but a lot of people think digital artists just click the “Create an awesome dinosaur“ button. That’s just ignorant.