Last fall, I was approached by the creative director at Rize, a leading developer of residential and commercial properties, about creating a series of posters based on their top projects. Each image in the series would highlight something unique about the architecture of a respective project. Based on the brief alone, I felt very unsure that I was going to be the right guy for the job.
As an illustrator, I try to take only those jobs that I feel I will be most suited to. It's not that I couldn't in theory take on a much wider range of projects. Rather, I have found that I become more efficient when I am basing my work on familiar approaches and processes. Moreover, from a branding perspective, my body of work becomes stronger as it becomes more distinctly identifiable. Clients are able to look at my work and describe to me how they envision using something that I do for their project. In other words, everybody knows what to expect, and we get the work done on time and on budget!
That being said, I felt that there was a possible opportunity to do something both in my wheelhouse and also more challenging and fresh. After some back and forth, I went down to their HQ in downtown Vancouver to discuss and envision the project a bit. When I arrived, I still wasn't totally convinced that this was going to work out. I made a point of being very honest with the CEO and Creative Director about my skepticism. It wasn't that I didn't want to do the job, but I needed to be confident that the client understood my strengths and proclivities as an artist. I wanted to make sure they weren't expecting me to be somebody I wasn't. And of course, it's in the client's best interest that they hire someone who is excited about the job, right?
Gladly, I left the meeting feeling both confident about taking on the job and really excited about the creative potential. I really had the sense that they wanted me to do my thing! So now it was time to actually start the work. The main job here was just to give myself a strong starting point. The hardest thing was envisioning a large series without having a precedent. How could I possibly work out an approach for these posters and convey my concept to the client without jumping way too far into the actual pieces? At this stage, my job is usually to do sketches, but because this was more than just about composition or content, I had do do one extra preliminary step, exploring the overall concept and style first.
It actually took me a lot of exploration and preliminary sketching to arrive at this conclusion. I realized after a week or so of explorations that I needed to pull back from showing sketches and instead show a more abstract overview of what my approach would be. This was because I only had two of their projects to reference at this point, and I needed to make sure that whatever approach I sold them on here was not too shaped around these specific projects. Instead, I needed to create a broad approach that would adapt to any of their projects. This part of the project was a lot more like branding than illustration, and I approached this stage in same way I would if I were designing an identity.
Above: The concept deck I presented to the client
The first thing I presented to my client, then, was a Concept deck, a slide presentation walking them through my thinking. In brief, I suggested that my best strength here would be to use my whimsical and improvisational style to show my emotional response to the architecture. I likened the process to improvisational jazz, which has a set key and tone, but the actual music reveals itself as it is played out in real time. And this is the approach I wanted to take with these drawings.
While I did include a couple rough sketches, these were deeply ensconced in the overall concept, and used only to hint at a direction and feeling rather than a promise of the end product of any particular piece.
Though I was very confident in my direction and approach, the week or so the client took to respond kept me on their toes. They finally came back and said, "I think we have to put our trust in the process and work together to realize something wonderful". To me, this sense of cautious trust and optimism in the client is the best possible scenario. As an illustrator, you want to work with a creative director that is invested in the outcome and who will be critical of your work, but also who understands that creativity needs trust to soar aloft. With the concept approved and these words of trust expressed, I had the confidence I needed to move into the artwork.
My first task was to start sketches that would be the underlying structure for my illustrations. I was looking for angles that brought out the essential features of the architecture. Also, I was illustrating from photos, but didn't want my artwork to simply mimic or be some kind of "stylized" version of the photograph. So for each piece, I tried drawing from different photos/angles, looking for a way of interpreting the image in the most natural way.
In the case of Wave, the first tower I illustrated, I really liked the dramatic angle of the building in on the right side, above, but I also felt that the distortion of the image was very lens specific. I didn't want to mimic the extreme wide angle of the lens, but rather capture something more specific to the building itself. I found that the second view showed the distinctive view of balconies that gave this tower its name, and it lent itself well to an iconic illustrative approach. One of the most intimidating things about this building is its many interwoven parts that rather baffle the eye. It took me some extra patience to just sit down and deconstruct the layers, to find the patterns and then simplify them in the sketch.
Once I had my chosen sketch, it was really just a matter of dropping it in Photoshop and let loose. You can see from the image below that I actually started working with the first view (light grey image below) but then abandoned it in favour of the second view. Truth be told, looking back at how I progressed and built up my style through all ten final posters, I could have worked with this sketch quite nicely, but at this point I couldn't envision it. Nonetheless, I stand by my final piece and I think it set a strong and confdient tone for the remaining pieces.
My next attempt took me much closer to how I would work with the colours, but I still hadn't ventured far into adding more of the chaos and whimsy I promised in my concept presentation. It wasn't until my third attempt that things started to feel right.
Along the way, I also started thinking about the elements I wanted to include to ground each piece and unify the series. To that end, I worked out the following elements:
The name and GPS coordinates in type at the bottom of the poster
A limited palette of colours derived from the company's brand identity
Large hand lettered address numbers and street names, dynamically intersecting with the main artwork
A balance of structure and freedom, chaos in order, keeping the overall structure of the building in place but hanging on it more irrational, handmade textures and strokes.
For each of the remaining images, I followed a similar process of sketching for the right angle or composition of the building itself, and then finding the right combination of chaotic and orderly elements in the final. The closer I got to the end of the series, the fewer of these starts and stops I had to make, as I became more confident and formulaic in my approach. That's not to say I put less feeling into each piece, but like a brand, I was able to apply concepts and elements from earlier pieces into later ones.
It's important to note that, while I did many sketches behind the scenes, I felt it was important to only show the client the finished artwork for each image. The sketches were a way for me to determine the most inspiring angle to respond to creatively, and then, charged with that energy, to just dive into the finished artwork. The precedent of improvisation was set at the concept stage, and it was important to follow through. The sketches here weren't meant to be approved, but to simply do act as a warm up exercise for the main act.
The Wave and Roston images were the first images I presented to the client. Their response was amazing and enthusiastic. Now, with two approved images in the set, I had the go ahead to do the remaining eight to make 10 in total. The process from start to finish took about 4 months, and was at times very gruelling, but this is the reality of creating art. Even though there is so much satisfaction in illustrating, it often takes a lot of energy, both physical and emotional, to make it happen — especially on a larger, longer-term project like this. For me, I get a lot of energy at the beginning, where I'm creating the idea and then solving the initial problem in the first few pieces. But once I've done that, mentally, I am ready to move onto new things. It's my penchant for novelty, or perhaps my short attention span. The real hard work is showing up and making the rest of the set with the same level of energy and enthusiasm, because that is what my job entails. The client is counting on me to put my heart and soul into the entire body of work, not just the one part I most fancy.
Now, at the end of the project, the client has a series of original art to celebrate their projects and to promote them. Their first use was in a gallery setting at their presentation centre. It is an honour to have my work featured so proudly and prominently, and I am ultimately satisfied that they have met, perhaps even exceeded, the client's expectations. For me, that is the most satisfactory result of any project, and it truly keeps me fuelled up to keep doing what I do.
If you want to read more about the project, Rize has posted a rather glowing review on their own blog.
A huge shout out to Steven Cox and the team at Rize, and also to my agent, Tom Mendola, who was a voice of encouragement along the way!