If you could make anything you like in 3D, without a brief, without deadlines, just pleasing yourself, what would you make? And will anybody ever see it?
In the past year I’ve interviewed several digital 3D artists who use the Substance apps to make personal work alongside commercial commissions. Cologne-based Cornelius Dammrich makes future dystopian streets and rooms full of battered old tech. Milan-based Elia Pellegrini is creating a futuristic-classical cosmic world. Dublin-based Rory Bjorkman fuses an antique aesthetic with weird robot proportions, luxurious fabrics and a sense of the quirky. Toronto-based Vini Naso makes masks and costumes from his love of myth and traditional tribal art. And Buenos Aires-based Martin de Pasquale creates surreal self-portraits and landscapes.
Their output is wildly individual, but as I talked to them, I discovered they had a lot of common ground.
Ideas, and the Patience to Develop Them
For these guys, new works are simmering all the time. Martin de Pasquale says he has a Dropbox folder with “about a hundred notes and sketches” that could become artworks. And he points out that the first burst of inspiration is rarely enough. “Maybe in that first moment an idea seems cool. But I need time to see if it works.” Usually, he’s waiting for a second idea that sparks with the first. “The missing piece might come while I’m reading a book or looking at a collection of photos and realize, ah my idea is about that.”
Here’s another fundamental of the artistic process – patience. Vini Naso works on several personal projects in tandem, waiting for them to ripen. He says: “I don’t like to force anything. While I’m working on one collection, I’m researching and thinking about the next one, taking notes, gathering inspiration.”
Like Martin de Pasquale, he’s looking for the missing piece that makes the work striking and exciting. “I need to find the depth. I feel there’s another layer of reality that most people don’t pay attention to.”
Time Spent with Pen in Hand (or Keyboard Under Fingertips)
Fortunately, with your own work, you set the deadlines – something that Cornelius Dammrich definitely appreciates. “I’m a perfectionist. With client projects, I might want to spend four weeks on a piece but the client can only give me three days.” With his own work, Cornelius can take a concept to its full potential and thoroughly explore what it means to him. He might carry an idea in his head for several years. “I’m thinking about it every day, making notes and sketches, until I’m ready.”
How long does the actual work take? Martin de Pasquale concepts a piece so it can be created in a few days, but other artists need to unplug and take their time. Vini Naso took a six-month sabbatical when his daughter was born, so he could discover who he was as an artist. “I wanted to dive deep into my roots, to create something meaningful to me, to share something unique.” The work that emerged was his masks series.
Cornelius Dammrich shapes his freelance life to allow breaks for his personal work. “I’m really slow. There are artists who finish something in a week or two. I want to control every detail.” That detail is an essential part of the Cornelius experience. On his pictures you can enlarge the detritus on a table, or the graffiti on a wall of a telephone kiosk to find little messages and mysterious objects. “I hope the viewer will zoom deeply into every bit of the image.”
Rory Bjorkman also delights in detail. He has a series of room paintings – at first glance, a study or a parlour with his trademark vintage oddities, but then you notice the weird skeletons on the shelves, the figures with giant proportions, all to make the viewer ask, what is this place, what is going on? “I think that’s what people like about these pieces,” says Rory. “They keep finding new things that make them wonder.”
Influence and Inspiration
So what inspires them? Martin de Pasquale loves to play surreal games with the human form. “I have an obsession with the body and deforming it – in a grotesque way that is also more real. When you alter faces, it always attracts attention. And the portrait is the most common picture ever, right back to the beginning of the arts.”
Faces are also an inspiration for Vini Naso, a way to explore his fascination with folklore, folk art and Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes.
But for Elia Pellegrini, faces are too commonplace. “We’re surrounded by faces. I don’t want to show things we already know. I create creatures without faces because I want to express things through symbols. So my missing faces are an open door.”
Cornelius Dammrich has a distinct grunge aesthetic: “I am inspired by dirty or used stuff. The really clean stuff without fingerprints and scratches is boring.”
Martin de Pasquale loves cities. “Not to live in, but how they are made. Their shapes, their structures. I have a lot of work about the shapes of the city, walls, textures.”
Rory Bjorkman finds inspiration in junk shops. “I look for mundane objects from everyday life from the past. The forgotten things that have a story.” One of Rory’s finds was a tiny bottle of watchmaker’s oil from the late 1900s. “It’s half used, with a little cork and a beautiful label. I think of the place this bottle was, the man that used it, making watches, oiling up the cogs. It’s one of those things you never see in a museum, but it has meaning. A little time capsule from the past. I’m trying to gather scraps and make my own museum.”
Life events might spin your art in unexpected directions. Martin de Pasquale had a significant reboot in the pandemic. Before Covid hit, he was creating witty and surreal portraits from everyday situations.
Then suddenly, no one could go out. “I could only create from pictures I could take in my house. I was in my home alone and I felt like I was in an experiment. So I thought, how can I use this to create something?”
The result is a record of those strange times that is clever, convincing, troubling, personal – and so very recognisable.
Lockdown was also a restart for Vini Naso. “I was craving for nature, yearning to walk on a footpath. It made me think about the green man in folklore.” From this Vini created a series called Kodama, based on nature sprits in Japanese folklore. Previously, his color palette had hardly included any green.
It’s probably no surprise that these artists have a profound love of the classical masters. Elia Pellegrini recreates the lush fabrics and light of Caravaggio.
Other artforms also feed their work. Cornelius Dammrich makes short videos with electronic musician Lukas Guziel. Cornelius edits a short sequence of a detail in one of his pictures, Lukas adds a soundtrack, then Cornelius re-edits the video to get maximum impact from Lukas’s track. “Maybe faster cuts, maybe more space in the beginning. We influence each other. And Lukas makes music that pushes me to create.”
Some artists are capable musicians themselves. Martin de Pasquale plays piano and drums, often as a way to wander through an idea before beginning it properly with art tools. Elia Pellegrini will figure out ideas on a guitar or keyboard before he turns them into visuals.
Elia Pellegrini also loves mythology and literature, as does Vini Naso. Vini created a video of a deep space journey to accompany an excerpt of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.
But words aren’t helpful to every artist. Rory Bjorkman finds them overwhelming. “It takes me a month to read a page. I spend way too much time visualising every sentence.”
A Journey of Invention
However they start an idea, each artist is on a journey of invention. Rory Bjorkman says: “I always try to do what other people aren’t doing.” Hence this piece, where a group of uniformed women are waiting to do something. It looks like they might be involved in a battle or maybe a ceremony, but instead of swords, they are carrying trumpets.
“If they were carrying swords that piece would not be as interesting,” says Rory. And there’s a more thoughtful reason behind this decision. “A lot of art now, especially in 3D, is weapons and war, or beasts with axes and scantily clad women. I’m trying to move 3D into a more contemplative space.”
Everything comes from personal drive. Cornelius Dammrich says: “That’s why you start with art. Something or someone inspires you and you think, that’s cool. I want to do that too.”
Here, he could be speaking for them all. Elia Pellegrini told me how the initial impetus came from his two artist parents, so picking up a brush was the easiest thing in the world. He talked of watching his father paint surrealist pictures every night, of a magical studio full of pictures of skies and stars.
For some artists, the urge to create wasn’t a person, it came from inside. Rory Bjorkman talks of being taken to work with his father on a building site, playing with scraps of wood and metal, making sculptures. “Some people are born certain ways,” says Rory. “I’m a visual person who likes to put shapes together.”
Cornelius found his vocation when he was given his first computer. “I still vividly remember it. It was yellowish and slow and it housed all the magic and excitement there was in this world. I was just six years old but immediately knew I would become a computer person.” Today, devices are one of his signature motifs.
How did they get from those early experiments to now? Most of my interviewees had an education in drawing, painting or design. Rory Bjorkman studied graphic design, worked in industry for a while, felt something was missing then went back to college to study fine art and sculpture.
If you want to create your own work, that foundation knowledge is important, says Elia Pellegrini. “Right now a lot of 3D artists just learn by following YouTube tutorials. And the software makes it simple –push some buttons and you can create simulations and super-crazy stuff. But they might not have the knowledge of light sources, shadows, the real three dimensions and how to translate them into two dimensions on the page.”
Martin de Pasquale says: “Everything I do now is what I was taught in the early days, except I use digital tools. If you understand fundamentally how art works you can do it however you want.”
Of my interviewees, only Vini Naso is completely self-taught. He told me he had a steep learning curve, trying to get jobs in 2D animation at the age of 19. “I was rejected. They said you’re not good enough.” Vini wasn’t daunted. “I said to myself, I’ve got to get good until I can get a job in this. Then I discovered 3D software, which was new, and I got more opportunities.”
Once you’re making art, social media are your gallery. Martin di Pasquale began in 2011 with Facebook, uploading a picture every two days. “You create a lot and people start to wait for new work.”
Everything grows constantly, says Cornelius Dammrich. “In the beginning you’re unknown, but if you put in the work, people will recognise you, they’ll see you’re good technically. I was always in communities. Right from the beginning, when I started in digital art alone in my room, I was a member of an online forum. We were only a few teenage boys from Germany, but I showed them my stuff, they showed me theirs. I put my work on Deviant Art and MySpace, then Instagram, then Twitter. On Behance, I didn’t have any followers at first but over 10 years it grew, then I got featured, then Substance did an article. I never had a plan, I was just uploading stuff. So long as it was good enough.”
People will see you, get your groove, follow you, and maybe offer surprising opportunities. Vini Naso’s masks were featured in Vogue Italia. “They never said how they found me,” he says. Elia Pellegrini was offered a life-changing opportunity because a commercial studio in Milan saw his Instagram.
Rory Bjorkman says he makes a point of putting only personal work in his portfolio, not client work. Although it’s good to demonstrate your technical range, “having work that looks original can get you further because it catches people’s attention. There are people who are better than me, but my work catches people’s eye so I get offers.”
Should you explain what your art means? You might. The figures in Elia Pellegrini’s Dust of Time collection, part of a bigger uber-series called Kairos, have specific meanings he’s keen to discuss. This is the King, who represents the balance (hence the chessboard) between peace and stability.
On the other hand, when I ask Martin de Pasquale about his self-portraits, he refuses to be drawn. “If I explain too much, it misses the point. I let the viewer associate what they like best. When you go to a gallery and see a giant painting on the wall… maybe for you it’s nothing, maybe someone else will be moved to tears. We understand something different. That’s the game I play with the people who look at my art.”
Rory Bjorkman says, “I always resist overexplaining. People write to me about my pictures, discussing what they’ve seen. They feel like they’re part of the secret.” He chuckles, enjoying this mysterious energy between art and viewer.
And this, really, is the whole essence of art. It’s feelings and moods and questions. It’s a dimension beyond explanations.
The artists make the art. And then, it’s all up to the viewer.