Interview with the Master of Photoshop Justin Maller

Justin Maller is one of the best Illustrator of these days, and on this special interview for abduzeedo he gives us all access on his career and tell us exactly how he reached the top by telling us his history from the beginning, sit back and enjoy.

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First I wanted to thank you for the opportunity of the interview and let's start with the usual, tell us a about yourself

Thanks Paulo. My name is Justin, I am a freelance Illustrator and art director from Melbourne, Australia. When I'm not working, I spend most of my time playing basketball, collecting sneakers and trying to keep my girlfriend entertained. Frankly, the latter pastime is not strictly speaking confined to out of work hours; it's a full time job in and of itself. Being that I work by myself in my home studio, I listen to a lot of music, watch a lot of movies and am slowly developing a mild OCD about kitchen cleanliness.

How did you first get involved with digital art and design?

I got my first copy of Photoshop when I was 14 as a gift from a friend. Prior to that I had been messing around with free demos of Paint Shop Pro and other miscellaneous programs; the power of Photoshop was at first both exhilarating and intimidating. I spent a few years getting to know the program - there were no magazines or sites devoted to the study back then, so I was left to teach myself. I made awful photo manipulations with scanned photos and created terrible websites to show them on. In around 2001 I stumbled across deviantART quite by accident and signed up; this was the true beginning of my love for digital art. I found myself quickly addicted and started making work on a daily basis. Timing wise, it was awful for me, as I was in my final year of high school, and I found myself staying up to the wee hours of the morning trying to indulge my growing obsession as well as complete the large amounts of study required of me. During the first year of University, I came up with the idea of running my own art collective, and so founded depthCORE with Kevin Stacey in 2002. That was really the nail in the coffin for me; since that day I have been completely devoted to the game.

How did you come up with the idea for DepthCore?

Actually, it came about because I was rejected from another group! I really liked the idea of a collective; a private place where talented people could come together and produce artwork, united ideologically by a simple common goal and aesthetically by a broad style. I applied for one, and was knocked back - to be fair, looking at what I was producing at the time, that decision was more than justifiable on their end. I was driven though, and wasn't going to be stopped so easily. I came up with the idea chatting to a mate on the phone one night in March 2002, and we decided to set about making it happen. I recruited artists and started building the first pack; we did it ghetto style back then, just huge group emails with bulk replies. My mate flaked on building the site however, and we were in a bit of a pickle. Fortunately (and I really can't stress just how fortunate this is for all concerned), my dear friend Kevin Stacey stepped up and ripped out a really funky html based site in two or three days. It took me really by surprise; I had no idea Kevin was a web developer, and had brought him onboard to contribute to the collective as an artist. As it turns out, not only was he a nifty artist (for the time he was a coding genius. Had it not been for him, and the incredible luck I had in inviting him to participate initially, dC would not have ever come to exist. We released our first pack of work, and had a massive response from the digital community. There had never been a collective focused on abstract artwork up till that time, as everyone was whoring out dark photo grunge stuff. Every man and his dog wanted in, and our membership more than tripled from the initial 15 to over 50 by the time our second release came out. Kevin had also built a beautiful php and flash site, including the first version of the member panel (the single most vital component of our collectives enduring success). Version 2 was by far the most advanced and well designed site ever produced by a collective to that point, and it did a great job of facilitating our future growth.

How did the group influenced on your own work?

I think it's impossible to overstate the influence being a part of this collective has had on my work over the course of the last seven years. Our aesthetic has shifted over time from the 3D trend whore sort of stuff to a much more polished and diverse style that offers a multitude of different looks, but still comes together into one identifiable overall visual identity. I feel that my own work has mirrored this evolution: I believe I have gone from being a fairly one dimensional artist to being an illustrator with several different styles at my disposal that are still recognizable as being distinctly my own. Aside from stylistic shifts though, the biggest impact being in dC has had upon me is the same effect it has on most people who are active in it; being constantly surrounded by immensely talented people forces you to step your own game up to produce work that compares favorably with what else is on display. It's a natural human thing. When you play basketball with people a lot better than you, you will automatically play a lot better than when you are mucking around with mates in a park. This cycle of improvement is never ending though; each artist improves and pushes that bar slightly higher for the next guy, who will in turn do the same. It's part of the reason why so many people join our collective and then improve so exponentially. Exposure to a group of people with such high personal standards will naturally force your own higher and expedite your own improvement and growth, and I am not exception to this phenomenon.

How did you get into the commercial world of design?

The first big job I can recall was one I got at the beginning of 2006 for a company that produced vinyls for case modification. I used the first half of the money to buy myself a new computer, which was a milestone in my career, as the additional technology really freed me to experiment more easily. That was my last year of university, and I started to get my first influx of work, which came initially in two mains forms. Firstly was the pitch work I did through the KDU, which I started getting involved with at around this time. It was a really exciting time for me, doing my first pieces of work for real world brands and seeing my work printed in various magazines. Although no actual jobs came from these gigs, they were my first exposure to the process of working with a client through an art director, and probably made my future experiences with this situation a little easier and more comfortable (not to mention giving me some good work to stock my folio with!). The second avenue was working for various magazines. The first to give me regular commissions were the lovely people at Computer Arts. Chuck Anderson actually put me in touch with his contact at CA (I might actually take this opportunity to publicly thank Chuck - his advice and support in the early parts of my career were invaluable, and I can't overstate how much I appreciate his help.) and that was the beginning of a long and productive relationship. My first year of freelancing consisted almost exclusively of this pitch work and writing tutorials for CA and other magazines that started to trickle in. It was not the most glamorous set up, but it enabled me to pay the bills and see out my final year of university. The next year was more of them same, but I started writing regular features for a few other magazines, and start supplementing this work with actual design jobs - still nothing especially groundbreaking, but I was able to get by with just doing this work and not having to hold a job in the real world. At the end of this first year out of university, I was offered my first job in a design studio as an Art Director, and decided to take the opportunity; honestly, my main motivation was the security of a regular paycheck (not to mention exposure to bigger clients and a chance to be a part of the traditional design process. The experience was wonderful, but I found myself missing life as a freelancer and left the company after a time. My time at the studio had seen me improve quite a lot, and I was starting to get some much larger client commission jobs. I started scaling the magazine work back, and as soon as I started doing these bigger and better jobs started to flow in. The last year or so has seen me consolidate working relationships with the various studios who have hired me over the last few years. I like to think I have a good work ethic, in that I stick with jobs until they are completed to satisfaction, even if we have gone over time or budget, and it has seen me forge some great partnerships with some really lovely people that have resulted in ongoing work. I also signed on to be represented by The Jacky Winter Group, and since then have started to receive some wonderful jobs and pitches from some really big studios from around the world; I really cannot overstate the value of having representation that sends out innovative and creative promotional work on your behalf to top agencies - social networking and public communities are great, but in the commercial realm nothing compares to having your work presented in the right way to the right people in the right places.

Now that you are stable on this world what is your typical work day and how long do you work on a job?

Stable is a misnomer when it comes to freelancing. I am stable in that I nearly always have work on, but the amount I have is never regular. Two weeks ago I was working twelve hours plus a day every single day. Last week, I had more free time than I knew what to do with. The next two weeks I will not have a day off, but then I get to enjoy having some time on holiday. That said, when the flow does stabilize, I am a big fan of routine I wake up in the morning, and first thing I normally do is check on my 'feed' - emails, depthCORE, communities, twitter, ESPN etc. I indulge in this for about an hour, then fix myself breakfast, and enjoy an episode of something whilst I eat. I'm normally at my desk, ready to start working at about 10a.m. I'll work through till about 2pm; at this point, I'll either have lunch of go for a run, depending on whether I have a basketball game that night. I exercise every day, and eat pretty much exclusively organic food - I know it sounds like a wank, but I take my health and fitness pretty seriously. I'm normally back at my desk from 3pm, and will work from there till about 7 or 8pm. Usually I will cease work here for the day, and either go out and do something, play basketball or just hang out with my girlfriend or housemate. The routine changes here when I am swamped, as I will continue working till 12 or 1am, which my bed time is typically. In terms of how long I work on a job that depends on many factors; the complexity of the job, the budget and timeline, and (from these two factors) the amount of rounds of change the job goes through. In an ideal world, I would spend three working days per image, so between 25 - 30 hours. Typically, I will either spend a lot less (8-10 because of time constraints) or a lot more (50+ because of extra feedback rounds). The two to three days mark is perfect for me, because it means I have come up with the rough idea, had a day to make revisions and changes, then one more day to add fine details and tweak the piece. The more time in between working on a piece the better - fresh eyes are a godsend.

What are the tools you use during this 3 day process?

It depends on the job. I always use Photoshop for every job I do, that goes without saying. Many jobs will require me to create some 3D abstract work. I model these up in Cinema4D, then texture them in Bryce 3D. I keep it pretty simple in this regard.

Alright Justin, it's been a pleasure thank you for this great interview and I will leave the final words for you.

I've enjoyed it too, thanks very much for the opportunity, and thanks to everyone out there for your kind words and support: I really appreciate it. These days, I get a lot of questions from students and kids asking for advice, so I'd like to offer a thought to anyone reading aspiring to become a professional artist in whatever capacity; success springs from sacrifice and sincerity. Doing this for a living takes a lot of work, and a lot of commitment; you will need support from the people you meet, and the best way to get that is by simply being genuine in your interactions. Keep these two things in mind as you go about your business, and I'm sure you will do well.

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