3D illustration is hard to resist

With its delight in the grotesque and its echoes of childish play, 3D illustration in the digital era offers a sense of heightened reality that artists and advertisers
alike find hard to resist. Anna Richardson reports

There’s something about three-dimensional illustration that can strike a powerful chord. Whether it’s the Brothers Quay stock-motion, Tim Burton animation or work in editorial pages and on billboards, the world of tiny sets and realistic puppetry – with its hint of the oddball and grotesque – exudes a special pull, often harking back to childhood days.

US illustrator Chris Sickels of Red Nose studio, who studied painting but developed a growing passion for quirky 3D, has seen the medium become more appreciated over the past five years.

‘I’ve been really surprised how much the applications have varied,’ he says. ‘Nowadays, more people are able to convince their clients [to try 3D illustration].’ His recent work ranges from editorial pages to a children’s book and a gift card featuring a humorous fortune teller for US department store Target, a commission he found particularly surprising. ‘Its gift cards are usually more graphic and bold, and don’t have human faces, so it was a challenge,’ he explains. Even though his work involves physically building every detail of the finished piece, Sickels stresses that he approaches his work as any typical illustrator would. ‘I try to find the right composition, gestures and facial expressions, and let the sketch drive that,’ he says.

New York-based Liz Lomax calls herself an illustrator who works three-dimensionally and always begins projects with a sketch, before sculpting the figurines and environments. Most of her work is for advertising, such as a recent MasterCard ‘priceless’ campaign, and Lomax believes the medium is becoming more widely accepted, thanks not only to more art directors taking a chance, but also to technological developments. Digital photography, for example, allows her to shave time off the creative process. She also puts the appeal of her work down to the connection the viewer might feel with it. ‘Most of us have played with Play-Doh or Plasticine at some point,’ she explains, ‘There’s something about it we can all identify with.’ But it is the fascination with the grotesque that makes 3D illustration so intriguing to many. German model-maker and photographer Frank Kunert likes to come up with ideas that play with reality in a grotesque or surrealistic way, and his latest series of ‘small worlds’ photographs has won this year’s German Photography Book award. ‘People often tell me that they like the sense of humour in my work and the detailed way the dioramas are built,’ he says. ‘There is a lot of passion in what I do; I hope the viewers realise that.’

Recent graduate Laura Meredith, meanwhile, particularly likes the idea that her work unnerves people. Her graduate project dealt with ‘unclaimed bodies’, focusing on isolated or lonely people in the community with various scenes of abandonment of the elderly. Some pieces have been selected for inclusion in two forthcoming illustration annuals, and the work generated strong reactions, said Meredith. ‘I’m happy when people say they find my work a little bit disturbing,’ she explains. ‘With [sculpture] you’re inclined to touch it, and you’re unsettled by it; it creates strong emotions, certainly more than flatter illustration tends to.’

Tactility and sculptural elements are seen as key in all the work, from Lomax’s caricature and cheeky humour to the slightly darker wit of Sickels. ‘The three-dimensional has this balance of texture and a handmade feel,’ says Sickels. ‘That tactile quality has come up a lot in what I do; it’s not as refined or clean as a digital rendering, but it’s got something you can relate to.’

Kunert, who spends a lot of time on building his sets, adding layers of paint for realism and rummaging for doll accessories when required, agrees. ‘The more things get digital, the greater the desire for tangible objects,’ he says. ‘When you realise that the elements in a photograph are not digitally manipulated but made by hand, the works acquire a human touch.’

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