Inspired by themes of crime, mystery, and solving riddles, Jasmijn Decuyper’s artwork ‘Detective’s Desk’ places her front and center as a 50s Noir sleuth.
Another Kind Of Fugitive
The idea behind this artwork was that I was the detective, hence the nameplate. However, instead of a criminal, I was looking for a job as I was planning on using this image for my CV. With any new project, I began by gathering references. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have strong references. They prove to be useful at all stages of a project, especially if there comes a time when you feel stuck. My goal is to create realistic images, where at first glance you could think that it was a photograph. Only on closer inspection you might discover its true nature. I used a variety of references for this project and focused on making every detail personal and deliberate.
This Time, It’s Personal
The desk and the pinboard are full of little clues, each holding significance for me. Upon closer scrutiny, you can see rolls of film and photo negatives; some crumbs and a tea-stained file; and a photograph of my beloved dog Lucy. These details all add to the story of who I am. The roll of film is the same type of film I loved to use in photography school, the photo negatives are actual photos I made and then scanned to use in this project, the thumbtacks I used are an old Belgian brand, the crumbs are unfortunately a very typical sight at my desk, etc. The type of desk light is one that looks like the one I used to have when I had my first very own desk in my room. Lucy was my dog who got sick and died way to soon, so I try to immortalize her by putting her name and/or image in every project I make. The handwriting is mine and even the stamps are Belgian and from the fifties.
I believe that storytelling is important. When you look at the desk and the pinboard, I’d like the viewer to feel like the scene is inviting them to solve a mystery. That each time they look at it, they might see something new and get one step closer to cracking the case. A fun fact: certain images on the pinboard are from actual crime scenes, which I sourced from the US’s criminal archives.
A Premeditated Process
It started with a sketch in Photoshop, blocking out what info needed to be on there and how I could implement everything. Other than a normal portfolio piece this image’s goal was also being a CV at the same time, so apart from it having to be a well-made inviting image showing off some of my skills it also had to show all the information clearly. After this I gathered references for all the props, keeping in mind that they had to be from the 50’s to keep it all as accurate as possible. After this, I went into Maya and blocked out all the props making sure the dimensions are correct so I have a good base for my high-polys which I then made. To save on time and because this wasn’t going to be a game-ready or technical piece I kept most props relatively high-poly while still trying to keep the meshes clean. used texture atlases for most of the smaller props, for example all of the papers on the board are 1 shared texture image.
Everything was textured using Painter which, for me, is one of the most fun parts of the whole process. Seeing the gray models come to life with colours, imperfections, materials — it’s something I’ll never get tired of doing even though it’s for me one of the hardest parts to get right. The most time was spent trying to layout everything. I found it quite difficult to layout everything so that it looked a bit messy but also clean enough for its CV purposes. It still looks a bit too much ‘on purpose’ especially if you look at references of for example the pinboard which are usually all over the place and very messy. This took a lot of iterations, both on prop location and camera angle. Once everything was kind of in place I worked on lighting, tying the whole image together. In the end I only used a little part of the desk for my actual CV but I decided to finish the entire scene anyway so I could add it to my portfolio.
Down To The Mechanics
The most difficult part for me was creating the Olivetti Studio 42 typewriter, my hero prop, which I modeled from scratch and textured in Substance 3D Painter. The modeling and UV process was complex because of the typewriter’s odd-shaped corners and unconventional form. So were the little parts like the buttons and the typebars. It was a challenge keeping it all organized too.
A challenge arose because typewriters are intricate, and I wanted to make sure mine was accurate. I had to investigate how this typewriter worked, to ensure that the levers and buttons all matched up. This was the first more technical prop I made with lots of small parts, which made it a real challenge. It was more like the fact that I needed to understand how the levers worked and make sense of it in my brain in order to be able to start and make the typewriter. The levers and things don’t necessarily all match up super correctly but I tried my best to make it look like they do, which is the important part (unless you’re going to animate it but that was not applicable in this case. )
One technical issue I had was getting the textures to look the same between Painter and Unreal Engine 4. This had to do with the default exported maps from Painter being sRGB which makes the metallics for example look way too dark and shiny. So make sure to uncheck sRGB in your texture settings in Unreal and in the sample type choose linear colour if you’re having a similar issue.
Means, Motive, And Opportunity
I really enjoyed creating the texture of the cork that you see on the pinboard. I did it in Substance 3D Designer, which I had never used before which I had very little experience with (I had used it for 1 element in my gym project). All in all, it was a great learning experience for me. There were a lot of pre-made cork textures that I could have used, but I wanted it to be my own. I plunged straight into using Designer, not watching any tutorials, and by the end of the night what you see was my result. I have experience using Adobe Photoshop, and I used what I knew from using that, here. It was more that the user interface made sense to me because of my experience in Photoshop and other adobe software, not really the making of the material itself. One thing from photoshop specifically that did help me was understanding the blending modes.
Designer is complex and powerful, and one of the things I like best about it is that it’s very logical: if you adjust one thing, it’s interesting to see the effect it has elsewhere and so on. This is how I managed to make the cork texture, just trying out different nodes and seeing what they did and how they interacted with each other based on the settings. For me this is a fun way to learn, it takes longer than if you follow a tutorial but it helps me get the logic behind it and remember it better.
Another interesting activity for me was in creating the wool threads connecting the pieces of evidence on the pinboard. For this I used Spline Mesh Components in Unreal Engine. This was a first for me and it was enjoyable to learn alongside being useful. To have something that might seem so abstract to you at first become something that you made that works gives a great sense of accomplishment.
Shedding Light On The Evidence
Getting the lighting right can really make a big difference to a scene. For example, you may have created a magnificent texture, but if the lighting isn’t what it should be, it will be obscured. Interestingly, the converse is true: sometimes lighting can also hide a lower-quality texture. maybe not low-quality textures but textures that aren’t as polished as they could be. You can highlight or hide parts of the image with your lighting, so you can also hide the parts of the texture that might not be as good as well as highlight the very good parts. For this reason, in my opinion, it’s also the most important part to get right if you want to achieve photo-realism. For me the light is arguably the most interesting and important part, not only because of aforementioned more technical reasons but also because it guides you through the image, it sets the mood and gives the tone of the image. It gives context to the viewer and adds to the story-telling.
In this artwork, I set out to capture the mood of the 1950s Noir films – the kind where there is a gun on the desk, beside an ashtray full of cigarettes. I didn’t include these pieces as they aren’t representative of who I am, but I still wanted to capture that slow-burning tension kind of atmosphere. I had to keep in mind I couldn’t have it be too cluttered or disorganised because I still wanted people to be able to easily read what was written.
All the references that I gathered included light coming through the blinds in a similar way. It tends to evoke the feeling that it’s late at night and the moon or a streetlight is shining through the blinds illuminating the detective’s piles of evidence and hanged pictures. It was a challenge to create balance the two different types of light you can see on the desk: one coming though the blinds and the other emanating from the lamp. I didn’t want one to be too bright and take the upper hand or too much attention, both types of light were important. Even how the light form the lamp reflects on the wall was a tricky thing to get right. Helpfully, with my 10 years of experience as a photographer and photo-editor, I have a lot of experience with light. This meant that I was able to create visualise/know which the effect that I wanted, even if it took some time to achieve it.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
This can apply to your work as an artist as well as many different areas of life: just go for it. The most difficult part of a task is sometimes just getting started, so once you get over that hurdle, you will be well on your way to making progress. It can be especially difficult when attempting something unfamiliar or uncomfortable. But once you start, you begin to figure things out. In my case, I wasn’t familiar with Designer or with the creation of the Olivetti typewriter, but one thing led me onto the next and after a while, the seemingly impossible was done.
Start by doing what you know up until that point and go from there. For me and the typewriter I started with just a very simple blockout of the main shape and just divided it into little pieces to focus on. From the blockout I did the shapes of the sides, then the shape of the bar in front, etc. And that way you can build up. Also, don’t worry if something’s been done before. I had hesitated to make this desk because it was done so many times before, it felt like a clichéd thing to make. But, in the end, I had fun, learned a lot, and made it my own. Overall, I am very happy with how it turned out. I’ve also had compliments about my CV! Mission accomplished — or rather, case closed.