Interview with Artist Liiga Smilshkalne

This is a long interview that I broke up with commentary and some of the questions seperately.  Here is the interview in it’s entirety.  If you wish to see the art referenced in some of the questions, click that question link to take you to the original posting.

Question 1: Who is Liiga?

My name is Liiga, and I am from Latvia, where there may or may not be dragons. More specifically, I am from the country’s capital Riga, and the resemblance to my name is merely coincidental.

I started dabbling in painting pretty early in life, but it wasn’t until I discovered digital art and decided I absolutely need to know how all these people online had managed to create such wonderful, colorful paintings on this strange, new medium, that things got serious. Although I studied economics and business and afterwards political science in university, I never quite stopped drawing, until at some point I realized that what had initially been a hobby had turned into a job. So I’ve been pretty much continued along the same line ever since.

Question 2.  I know you are from Latvia, but you have been very easy to “talk” to via email  How did you learn English so well?  Are cultural and language barriers ever an issue in working clients?   

In Latvia it is very common to study a few foreign languages at school, so I got an early start on learning English. This went on through high school, where I took the International Baccalaureate program, and a university that is popular with students from all three Baltic states so the studies were in English here, too. Of course the Internet has played a huge part in expanding my vocabulary, too, particularly when it comes to colloquialisms, and the amount of practice it provides while living in a country where English is not used on a day-to-day basis is invaluable.

There was also a certain element of need to learning it, as the digital medium is relatively new here, so to be able to learn how to draw better, I also had to learn how to speak English better—again, largely through the Internet.

At this point the language barriers usually aren’t much of an issue, unless you count the fact that I’m so very used to dealing with agreements in English that the last time I needed something art-related in Latvian, I had to sit and scratch my head for a while.

Question 3. How do you capture other people’s visions and get motivated to do someone else’s project?

The process of getting from an idea in someone else’s mind to a painting can be a little esoteric. I usually start by trying to capture the mood or essence of the character in the initial concept sketches, intentionally keeping them fast and loose. Once the client and myself are on the same page on the general feel of the thing, the details can be narrowed down further.

How smoothly this goes can be affected by a number of things, such as the description and references, if any, and how specific the client’s mental image of the desired painting is. Sometimes the provided materials can be scarce, while other times they can be too specific or abundant. There have been a few cases where so many symbolic elements were to be included that it was difficult to find a composition that did not omit any, but also didn’t dissolve under the clutter or impossible spatial relationships.

Solving these challenges is usually enough of a motivator in itself, though for me anything that comes with a need for shiny details, creative, surreal, or creepy things holds just a little extra charm.

Question 4. How can a person find a good fit with an artist?  What questions should he or she ask an artist before committing? Is there anything you would tell people not to do?

The most important thing to do first is to take a look at what kind of work the artist has done to date and pick someone who is experienced with the style and subject matter you are looking to have portrayed. A misconception I’ve encountered a few times is that a line art drawing will necessarily be easier than a painting. In some cases it will, but if the person you’re looking to get a commission from has no examples of line art shown anywhere, chances are it is not something they will be able to do in a presentable manner without spending extra time and effort in learning to do so.

Regarding questions, the most pertinent ones are probably regarding the artist’s approach to concept sketches, the when’s and how’s of payment and delivery of the final product, the scale of revisions possible after agreeing upon the initial concept and what to expect regarding work of progress previews. And of course anything that might be unclear regarding rights of usage, file sizes, types etc. is best asked instead of assumed.

As for what to avoid doing, aside from picking a style or subject matter that is vastly different from what the artist is experienced with, it is helpful if references and descriptions are kept to an amount that is informative, but not overwhelming. This is especially important for visual references, because in case of an overabundance of those it can become unclear what elements should, in fact, be referenced. It is best if the client can clearly indicated what element the visual reference is for. If it doesn’t contain one, it may be preferable to not include said reference at all.

Question 5. I asked my writer friends what they wanted to know from an artist and they pretty much just said, “how much?”  Do you get a lot of inquiries where people don’t follow up and is it appropriate for a semiserious person to put out feelers to a few different artists at once?

Since the pricing for artwork tends to be all over the place, it is not terribly rare that the prospective client’s commission budget doesn’t mesh well with the price quote. There’s nothing wrong in asking around for something that would suit one’s needs and wants for artwork. While it is appreciated when one makes it clear that they will not be pursuing the commission further, a lack of follow up is typically interpreted as a ‘no, thank you’ anyway. The only thing that really should not be done is setting a rough time frame for something and then disappearing forever without a notice. I believe the reasons are self-explanatory.

Question 6.  On average, how many times does a client usually get a proof and reply with corrections?

It’s hard to estimate an average for number of times that corrections are requested because it varies wildly depending on the client and the type of image. Character portraits will usually see more adjustments, seeing as capturing someone’s likeness from a description always involves some amount of guesswork. Also, not everyone has a strong visual of what their character’s appearance might be like. On occasion that leads to more revisions due to trying to find just the right look, while other times it means more freedom of interpretation regarding what appearance works.

Question 7: What are some of your favorite pieces and what inspires you the most?

It is difficult to pick favorites from my own works due to the common artist malady of picking out all the flaws in them once the initial excitement has worn down. So far the ones that have held up best in my own eyes are Brenell and Candlebright for Bella Sara. As for inspiration, it can be in a variety of places—the right kind of music, a foggy sunrise, a concept that explores interesting contrasts, or just the opportunity to draw shiny details, to name a few. And if all else fails, looking at art usually does the trick.

 Question 8. The art that inspired me to contact you is called Sunlight. I see that it was a heavily manipulated photo. How did you come up with my portrait of Falion?

In Falion’s portrait, the element of sunlight is portrayed through the contrast of light and darkness, as the character is shown emerging from a murky, foresty area. Since the character has a ‘darker’ and more experienced air to him than the one in ‘Sunlight,’ I felt this would be suitable as a transition from dark into light implicitly shows change, progression, experience.

From the technical standpoint, I kept the description close at hand and looked up additional photos of the actors and characters that had been pointed out as having resemblance to the character, as well as others which seemed to bear a resemblance. For instance, Pierce Brosnan was very helpful when it came to manly eye wrinkles.

I also stared at some birch leaves for a while.

Question 9. Everyone has an interesting story related to their work—what’s one of yours?

The most memorable story I have related to my work is actually a sad one. One client commissioned a painting of an angel with the facial likeness of his girlfriend as a gift to her. It was to have large, elaborate wings, a sparkly dress, and be shown melting away the snow from a wintery forest to herald the arrival of spring. Excited about the idea, I set to work, sending in a preview for the starting sketch, the halfway point and finally, after upwards of a month of scribbling away, the final preview. Oddly enough, although the initial responses had been fairly quick, the one to the final never came. After some waiting and reminders, I concluded the client must have for some reason decided to bow out and left it at that.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I suddenly received the payment for the finished painting and a response; however, it was not from the client, but from his girlfriend. It was then that I learned that the original client had passed away just before the painting had been completed, leaving her a final parting gift. It has been several years since this happened, and I can safely say I’ll never forget this story.

Winter Angel, in memory of Isaac, can be seen on Liiga’s site.

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