New York-based artist JESSE MICHAEL NEWMAN built a career as a premiere visual effects artist on award-winning projects, including feature films (Armageddon), commercials (M&Ms, Verizon, HP) and broadcast design (Disney, SciFi, HBO). He has worked on multiple films nominated or shortlisted for Academy Awards as well as projects accepted to Cannes, Sundance and LA Film Festivals and the permanent collections of the MOMA and Whitney.
Since turning his focus to his personal art and premiering at the International Art Expo in March 2012, he has been recognized by Art Business News as a Top 50 Emerging Artist, with his art now residing in private collections on four continents. His latest piece, REBIRTH of GAEA, is an epic visual tapestry delicately interweaving reflections on the environment and spirituality through the rich imagery of Greek Mythology.
For many years, I have worked as a visual effects artist on films, music videos, and commercials. This career path has not only allowed me to collaborate with fantastically-gifted colleagues, but it has given me access to the most advanced tools available to an artist in the modern era.
Before I began my professional career, however, while still in college I became a father – and since that moment, being present for my daughter Emma and expressing my love for her has been my first priority. I have moved several times, twice across country with no job, to stay by her side and ensure I would not miss a weekend with her. My desire to create artwork for Emma, and my career path as a visual effects artist have proven to be incredibly mutually beneficial, each one greatly enhancing the other.
I aim to create art that is intrinsically beautiful (where it can be appreciated without knowing the back story), future-proof (in terms of both craftsmanship and aesthetic timelessness), and layered with meaning. Several years ago I started a project to show my support for Emma’s interest in the Environment and in Greek Mythology, depicting her as GAEA, Goddess of Earth. Immersing myself in Greek Mythology opened my eyes to a seemingly endless supply of wonderfully vivid inspiration. Since the project started, my wife (represented as primordial CHAOS) and I have welcomed two more beautiful children, who dovetailed perfectly as other figures in the piece. My son as EROS, The God of Love. My little girl as both the Muse of Dance and INNOCENCE.
As the scope of the project grew, I recognized it as a unique opportunity to reach my full artistic potential. What began to emerge was this hyper-real tapestry of layers delicately interwoven with meaning derived from both ancient narratives and personal experience. The moments of bliss I encountered while creating my art resonated so beautifully within me, and I became captivated by the piece.
Initially solely a side project, I was caught off guard by the intense interest shown -- feedback which encouraged me to walk away from a successful career and transform my passion into a way of life. Ultimately, I am pursuing a life more in sync with this aspiration, both through the inherent enjoyment in creating art, as well as the satisfaction of knowing these expressions for my wife and children will allow my love for them to echo long after I am gone.
My daughter Emma has had a deep connection to the Environment for as long as I can remember. As she grew older and became enchanted with Greek Mythology, I decided to show my support for her interests by creating REBIRTH of GAEA, depicting her as the Goddess of Earth.
When I first started researching which Greek deity would best personify Emma, I considered Demeter, Artemis and Aphrodite, among others. But because I was mostly focusing on Emma’s qualities of compassion and concern for the environment, it didn’t take long to decide on GAEA, the Goddess of Earth and mother to all Gods.
Guiding my decisions visually was whether someone from that time period would recognize and relate to my depiction of GAEA. This is why, for example, there are no views of Earth from space as is often used in other contemporary representations of her. In addition to reading books on Greek Mythology and researching online, I listened to a college course by Whitman College’s Elizabeth Vandiver. Here’s what I found:
Greek art expressed the ideals of harmony and balance. It is characterized by a concern both with formal proportion and with the dynamics of action and emotion. Its primary subject matter is the human figure, the form of the divine; monsters, animals, and plants are secondary. Like most other mythologies, Greek mythology developed in a preliterate culture where it was the only means to explain and discuss a whole range of phenomena -- concepts that we would approach through science, philosophy, and psychology.
Only a fraction of ancient Greek literature has survived, and these written versions “frozen” in time are more than likely only a few of the several variants that once existed. They can be obscure and even contradictory (as in the case of Oedipus whose final fate was described differently by Sophocles and Homer). Because of this, and because these were never considered an orthodoxy or sacred text like the Koran or Bible, I’ve felt comfortable drawing inspiration from various accounts.
The most complete surviving Greek account of how the universe came into being is Hesiod’s Theogony. Theogony describes the creation of the material universe through the birth of the Gods. The Gods are not separate from the universe, do not create it, and are therefore not omnipotent within it. Our modern distinction between metaphorical and literal doesn’t apply and consequently they are both physical realities and highly anthropomorphic entities: they eat, drink, sleep, mate and feel emotions. This multivalent and complex interpretation gives rise to a mythology extraordinarily rich with imagery.
How would you describe your style? Hyper-real baroque surrealism.
Are you trying to get into a gallery or a museum? I welcome any experience whose exposure helps facilitate a life full of creating artwork. If my future path allows me to continue expressing myself artistically, I would be in bliss regardless of whether I receive any external recognition. Truly, my main aspiration is simply to create beautiful art.
Do you do commissioned work? I hesitate to do commissioned artwork -- getting absorbed in my art is such a positive, magical place to be and I fear that having outside influences dictating subject matter, schedule, or artistic sensibilities would taint that.
How has your career as a visual effects artist affected your personal projects, and vice versa? My personal projects and professional career have had a symbiotic relationship in their ability to inform and enhance each other. My career has allowed me to collaborate with people who are incredibly talented, and it has continued to provide access to the most advanced tools available to an artist in the modern era. However, each of the main pieces of software I use professionally I learned not from my college courses or on-the-job training, but by working after-hours in creative explorations in my personal artwork – a video for Emma, a CD cover for a friend, etc. In addition to creating artwork for the people I love, these personal projects allow me to explore my interests and expand my skills, a process which ultimately augments my professional career. For example, my extensive familiarity with NASA’s nebulae photography (acquired with REBIRTH of GAEA) contributed greatly to projects for an Avril Lavigne commercial and with Charlex’s SHAPESHIFTER.
Where do you get your ideas? While some of my art is thematic and concept-driven (environmental safekeeping, the passing of time, mortality, etc.), the vast majority of my art is more personal, inspired by experiences. Mother & Child emerged after reflecting on the imminent birth of my son and the beautiful connection he seemed to share with my wife in utero. Self-Portrait (1995) is a reflection on death, divorce and fatherhood. There is an abundance of symbolism throughout (the hands on the head representing the seasons, the constellation of the house suggesting that no matter how close my family looked like from a distance, in reality we were light years apart, etc.). Rebirth of Gaea is by far the most layered and complex image I have ever attempted. “Flowing Meditation,” the waterfall section of Rebirth of Gaea, touches on the parent-child relationship, inherent innocence, and a return to the worship of Mother Earth; a result of a personal challenge attempting to imagine what Gaea was contemplating, and then manifesting her thoughts into the physical environment.
Was it your original intent to market and sell this? Not at all. Originally, this was a counterpart to my piece MOTHER & CHILD, which has hung happily for years above our bed, unknown to others. As I started working on REBIRTH of GAEA, a few of my friends expressed interest in purchasing a copy and those inquiries \ were enough to get me to scratch my head and wonder "what if I could turn my passion into a living?"
How long have you been working on this? Six years. The first few years, I would become absorbed in it for a few weeks, and then not touch it again for many months due to professional obligations. In January 2010, I started a year and a half sabbatical to devote myself completely to the project. One of the reasons it has taken so long is that it is staggeringly complex. Mix that with my inability to cut corners and you get a recipe for a time-consuming project. Most importantly, I fell in love with the process – creating artwork and being at home with the family more. When you find bliss, you tend not to rush out of it. :)
How are you able to take off so much time? People usually don't like this answer, but… unless you're living below the poverty level, you could do it, too. Prioritize time for yourself over having cable TV, a new car, etc. Live below your means. Recognize every purchase as a value of time, not just money. Don't look at a new car strictly as costing $30K; translate that to time and see it as costing you a few months home hanging with the kids.
There are so many details -- what's the resolution of this? The final image has 145 times more resolution than HD. In other words, to see all the details of this image at once, you would need to assemble 145 HD TVs together.
What is your technical process? Rebirth of Gaea is being brought to life by layering thousands of photographs into one seamless composition. The process starts in the traditional form: pencil on paper, where I first explore the vision, experiment with layout, etc. I then gather elements, which involves shooting photos of both the actual components of the piece (my children, flowers, landscapes, clouds, etc.) as well as elements that are more abstract and will be used to manipulate or enrich the piece (dripping honey, flowing fabric, milk in a cloud tank, light refractions through ice, etc.). With all the elements prepared and my vision clearly established, I dive into compositing them using Adobe After Effects. After Effects is created for video, not print, but I find it gives me incredibly free-form and flexible creative process. Compared to Photoshop, I find that After Effects is like working in oils instead of acrylics, where the canvas remains “wet” and one can indefinitely continue to refine the look. At this point it becomes an incredibly free-flowing process, almost sculptural, where I become absorbed in the world being created, pushing and pulling the photos to reach the desired look.
Where did you get the photos you used? The vast majority of photos I shot myself. I have an account with photos.com, and I purchased some photos from istockphoto.com.
Did Emma know you were working on this? Believe it or not, no. In our house, there are times you might feel out of place if you are not wearing a wig, a banana costume, or the Barney outfit. When I would ask Emma to jump up like a butterfly, or reach for the sky like a tree, she didn’t blink.
When did Emma first see it? For Emma's 16th birthday present in the summer of 2011, I printed the most current version that I had at the time. Now that Emma is aware of the project, it's been very rewarding to collaborate with her on changes being made to it.
You describe one of your objectives artistically as creating artwork that is “future-proof.” What do you mean by that? My first job out of college was with Café FX, where I worked on a few high profile feature films, including Armageddon. I distinctly remember the crew at Café FX looking at the shuttle launch sequence from the movie Apollo 13 (at that point, the benchmark for a computer-generated spaceship launch) going frame by frame, picking apart the smallest details, even laughing at the tiniest imperfection. The scrutiny these effects would endure blew my mind. I’ve always been incredibly detail oriented, incapable of cutting corners. This experience demonstrated to me that my standards needed to apply not only to the present, but also for any time to come. My personal mantra instantly became to produce work that was future proof: it had to stand up to the scrutiny of someone going frame by frame and viewing with a magnifying glass. Now, with digital media viewable at the leisure of the consumer – paused, rewound, etc. – it’s that much more important for one’s work to stand up to this level of examination.
By “future proof” though, in addition to the ability to withstand meticulous future scrutiny, I also am talking about a certain timeless aesthetic. I hope to create art that is not readily identifiable as to the period in which it was created. Successful examples of this, I believe, have been Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and Gaudi’s prolific architectural stylings adorning Barcelona.
What were some of the greatest challenges? Psychologically, not getting attached when the project required me to completely rework it, again and again. Because I’ve worked on it for so long, the technology has changed, my skillset has changed, and I’ve changed. I can’t hesitate to completely rework the entire piece – which I’ve done on multiple occasions. Creatively, staying focused on the days and weeks where it was mostly a left-brain effort requiring little creative muscle. While shifting my focus to prepping elements (for example, cutting mattes of each leaf on a tree) can be nice for a day or two to cleanse the creative palette, after several weeks, it becomes hard to retain a vision that encompasses the bigger picture. Technically, understanding color profiles and color spaces and how they are handled within different applications and between the worlds of print and video. Also, content management and project structure. This piece involves so many elements that need to fit seamlessly together. Intuitively organizing these elements so they are only a thought away at any time is the first part of that. The second part is breaking down the project into several smaller projects (due to technical limitations of today’s computers) and then re-constructing a seamless final piece.
REBIRTH of GAEA is a creative milestone for me. In an attempt to push my limits artistically and technically while constructing a stunning and coherent image, I feel I may have inadvertently broken new ground on techniques and ideas that are universally unique. Here are some of them:
PHOTOGRAPHIC BRUSH STOKES I like to work with as much flexibility as possible. To that end, I will spend weeks on end acquiring hundreds and thousands of photographs for a certain area, and then painstakingly preparing them (digitally cutting out each leaf on a tree, each hair on a deer’s leg, each blade of grass on a hillside). Then, when I switch over to compositing the elements, I have an overabundance of choices, allowing me to experiment and investigate numerous creative decisions on a whim. Each hill on the final image is often, in actuality, a combination of several other pieces of terrain, selected because they have not only the right technical aspects (the light source is consistent with that area of the image, the correct scale, etc.) but also satisfy any aesthetic objectives I have for that area. Each of these photos function as brush strokes, layered upon each other to form one single, cohesive component of the final piece. In a sense, I’ve got the most vivid paint set around!
PANORAMIC CLOSEUPS Stitching photographs together is a fairly common technique nowadays. However, I have really only seen it used when re-constructing large-scale scenes, such as a landscape or cityscape. I needed to have as much resolution in my images as possible, and started using the same principle of panoramic photography, but with small-scale objects. For example, I will use a zoom lens and take 30 photos of a flower. Once I stitch those together, I have a single image of a flower, but with a massive amount of resolution and clarity, allowing me to zoom in, if necessary, to view the hairs on a single stamen of the flower. I have several images of Emma’s face that are at such high resolutions, they could easily fill 10 movie theatres across. In a nutshell… a conventional technique used unconventionally.
SUPER HIGH RESOLUTION WORKFLOW Having incredibly high-resolution images is only half the battle. The challenge then becomes to create a workflow that allows me to benefit from using such large, high-resolution images in a way that’s not cumbersome. This is where, I believe, my unique career path comes in. After Effects is marketed and sold by Adobe as an application for moving imagery, for film and video. I don’t believe Adobe is fully aware of its potential in the print world. After Effects only references the original file and allows you to work using much smaller proxies – smaller resolution files that temporarily stand-in for the original files – significantly increasing speed. Because it only references the original files, it doesn't alter them and keeps the project file sizes infinitely smaller. And because of this, unlike Photoshop, After Effects is non-destructive. For example, the amount of blur applied to a layer is represented on a slider – one can adjust the slider at any point in the future to adjust the amount of blur. With Photoshop, any blur applied permanently alters that layer. Essentially, working in After Effects is like working in oils instead of acrylics, where the canvas remains “wet” and one can continue to refine the look indefinitely. This provides for an incredibly free-flowing and painterly process.
MAKING OF VIDEOS My background in video will make learning about how I created this image truly unique. Because the best program available for creating this print piece happens to be a video program, I am able to produce incredibly lush and detailed “making of” videos showing the countless layers and techniques used to create the image. Imagine being able to view your favorite piece of art, built up paint stroke by paint stroke. It hasn’t been done before, because it hasn’t been possible to do it before.
FRACTAL LIGHTING / COMPOSITION / DETAIL REBIRTH of GAEA is a composition of hundreds of smaller vignettes, seamlessly blended together. I have challenged myself to create a piece where one could crop into any part of it, blow it up, and be left with a beautiful composition, accurate lighting and abundant detail. Overall, I attempt to produce dramatic darks and perfectly lit highlights. Beyond that, though, I want the lighting to work on both a macro level, so that the main light source in the entire composition informs much of the lighting throughout, and on a micro level, where the light sources that occupy that area would accurately fall onto their subjects. I call this technique “fractal lighting.” In much the same way, “fractal detail” references the ability to, for example, zoom into the waterfall section many times over and see details within the details. “Oh look, there’s a tree by the waterfall.” Zoom in. “Oh look, there are animals by the tree.” Zoom in. “Oh look, there are butterflies flying around the animals.” Zoom in. “Oh look, there are beads of water on the wings of the butterflies.” Zoom in… I focus on the detail like the world depended on it, knowing there is potential to make beauty out of anything.
FULLY-IMAGINED BACKGROUNDS I’m not building this like a Hollywood set, where the houses lining the streets are only façades. Each level of this image is fully imagined, so that I’m not limited as I add elements on top of it. I don’t have to worry about avoiding certain areas that are unfinished. This means I’m doing a lot of work that will never be seen, but it keeps the process flowing and unregimented and allows me to make discoveries I wasn’t looking for. Essentially, you could remove the floating Eroses, the foreground trees, Gaea herself, and you would see another complete piece.
Thank you so much for taking the time to look through this. I welcome any comments or feedback.