We have a rather special interview today in the sense that this specific artist is one of those who you meet at a bar and you think, wow this guy is really cool… until he shows you his artwork and your first thoughts go to “WHAT THE HELL!? WHY HAVE I NEVER SEEN YOUR WORK?! IT’S AMAZEBALLS!”
I met Ben at the CTIAF a few years back and had the privilege of hosting a panel discussion with him and two other artists, Caroline Vos and Remi Abrahams, about Digital Colouring. It was a good discussion and we had a packed room.
Well, now we also have an interview with him and this is where we dive right into the meat of things.
Do you have a specific art piece you are fond of and why?
No one piece really, but there are a couple that I am happy with how they turned out. I would say those are the Medieval Stormtrooper, Skull Knight, and the Biker Gramps dude. For the stormtrooper, it was the marrying of two themes together which I think worked well. For the Skull Knight it was getting the metal and atmosphere right that I enjoyed. There is always something that can be learnt from each piece.
What is your favourite element about your work? Why?
I definitely do enjoy light. There is a lot of theory there that is interesting and there is always a lot to learn in that regard. I love doing line work as well, but I feel more free when I do digital painting.
How did you find your way into this field?
After I received my degree in Fine Art in 2010 my first job was for a travel accessories brand in Rome designing pens and wallets. From there in early 2012 I began working in video editing and educational videos back in Cape Town, all the while practicing my digital painting. Then one day in 2014, Caroline Vos approached me to ask if I would be interested in helping out as an intern on a project that she was busy working on. When I came into the studio it turned out to be Shy The Sun and they were working on an animation for Riot Games called The Curse of the Sad Mummy. After the project ended I kept up my relationship with the studio and at the beginning of 2016 I was hired to work full-time for them.
When did you realize this is something you would want to do full-time?
I knew I wanted to be a concept artist back in 2003 when I was still in high school. I didn’t know how to get there, so I studied fine art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. However, once I had graduated I realised that I had lost focus on what I wanted to do with my art so in mid 2011, I began teaching myself digital painting with an aim to be hired as a concept artist or illustrator one day.
What is your favourite pastime outside art?
There isn’t much time outside of art as my hobby is also practicing art and doing tutorials, but I am very much into running. I’ve entered a number of marathons and ultra-marathons over the years, with my highlight being the 75km PUFfeR that I ran in 2017.
If you had all the time in the world and unlimited financial means – would you create the same art you create today? Or would you create something different?
I have thought about this before, and I would like to think that I would still make art. However, I would definitely focus more on developing my own fantasy worlds and ideas.
What has been your biggest stumbling block in your journey, and how did you overcome that obstacle?
I would say it is the desire to be better right now. That I need to acknowledge that growth takes time, and that getting better in art is not something that happens over night.
The other is being inundated with so much amazing art online. There are a lot of crazy good artists out there that it can be demotivating. However, the trick is to see the skill and growth in other artists as a way to motivate yourself and your own artistic practice.
How do you avoid burning out?
I haven’t experienced burnout per se, but if I am on the same project for a long period of time it can be difficult to stay motivated. Especially if it’s a project you don’t really enjoy. I think it’s good to always have different projects going at the same time so you can jump between them and to stay fresh. This also helps when one has one’s own personal projects that can be worked on as a way to stay motivated.
Doing exercise, and making sure that I spend time hanging out with family and friends is also a good way to avoid burning out.
What’s your favourite show to watch?
I’ve watched True Detective season 1 quite a number of times, and it’s great to have playing in the background whilst I work. The Wire is also really great.
How would you describe the work you do, to someone outside of the creative industry?
To set the scene. I sit at a desk and work on a Cintiq 27QHD which is essentially a computer monitor that you can draw directly onto with a stylus. In terms of my work, there are a number of different things I do, but I mainly get to use my imagination to visually develop the ideas from a client’s imagination, or lack thereof. This can include developing and digitally painting characters, environments, and assets to be used in developing animation or video games.
What has been your most frustrating moment in your career, working on something, where you just put everything down and left the room?
I’ve luckily never experienced something so dramatic as that. There are moments though where I’ve wanted to pull my hair out with ridiculous client requests, or doing hundreds of changes or iterations on the same design.
How did you overcome this frustration to be able to return to the work?
Unfortunately when you’re paid a salary you have to come back to work the next day. This is actually helpful because if you say you’re stepping away from a project at say 6 pm, it allows you to come back the following day hopefully fresher and less frustrated. Going for a run is also helpful. After work though haha.
If you could go anywhere in the world, on an all-expenses paid trip, where would you go?
Somewhere with an incredible landscape. The Patagonian region in South America looks like it could be amazing. Iceland looks like it could be beautiful to visit as well.
What helps you to stay motivated when you feel depleted and you really need to meet a deadline?
Taking a break from the computer helps. Going outside for a run is also good. I do try plan my deadlines so that I don’t get to a place where I have to work all night. So setting realistic deadlines is a good idea.
What would you say is the most important thing an artist should do, when they approach you for portfolio feedback?
Firstly, one has to be open to criticism and feedback. This is key. If you aren’t willing to hear someone’s advice, then you shouldn’t be asking for it.
Have an idea as to what you are struggling with, and where you would like to improve. Everyone has different goals artistically that they’re aiming for so this is helpful when providing feedback. For example I am interested in imaginative realism, so I like to focus on realistic lighting and rendering, but I still need to have an understanding of anatomy.
What do you think, is the most important discipline to develop that will help carry you in any of the career paths available to you?
Always be willing to grow and improve in your practice and being open to change.
Where can we follow you online?
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Neal's everyday work showcases a blend of technical mastery and creative innovation. His artistic flair is evident in his digital illustrations, where he produces captivating visuals on tablets. Additionally, Neal enriches written content as a co-author at Pixelsmithstudios, offering unique industry insights and expertise. This combination of visual and written contributions highlights Neal's diverse talents. As a Co-Owner of Pixelsmithstudios, he further applies his skills as a Motion Graphics Designer, specializing in various aspects beyond marketing content creation.