Tim Bradstreet - 20 Years, Part 3 - Photo Realism

Tim Bradstreet - 20 Years, Part 3

Newsarama continues its candid interview with Tim Bradstreet about his twenty year career as an artist and the upcoming release of his book Archetype: Images and Cinematic Illustration Volume 2.

Click here for part one

Click here for part two

Newsarama: How did you get your first work as a freelancer?

Tim Bradstreet: Earlier I mentioned that guy I had met who was drawing in the comic book shop—who had introduced me to Steve Venters—right? Well, Steve, who had done work for FASA, Game Designers Workshop, and a lot of the other game companies, helped me get my first job. Steve formerly had run a commercial art firm—and he had moved out to Bloomington, which is where I’m from. I had run into him at a commercial art festival of some kind at the local mall—and he was a painter—so he had these big, giant paintings of the Viet Nam War. It was mostly F-4’s dropping napalm over the jungle—and they were incredible! So when Cliff introduced me to Steve—I was like, “Holy shit! It’s that guy from the mall!” (laughs)

We talked about having met and we started hanging out. He was doing covers and interior illustrations for Twilight 2000 from Game Designers Workshop and he was looking to get out of doing the interiors. It was the perfect situation—he sort of groomed me to take his place so I did some try-outs for him and I won a job. That’s how I got my start in games—and through his contacts with the other companies, most notably FASA that’s where I got my initial start as an artist.

I never really sent samples into anybody. I never really did that thing people do.

NRAMA: So it was basically networking?

TB: I got in with the right guys, essentially, and then worked my butt off. Looking back at that work, I laugh at it—but, at the time, there weren’t a whole lot of people doing that sort of thing and I was definitely energetic. I was driven to do better and better work. Don’t get me wrong, there was obviously something to the work I did or these guys wouldn’t have ever pulled me in, you know what I mean?

NRAMA: Would you consider FASA’s Shadowrun your first major break?

TB: Yeah—but I had done a lot of game work before that. I started in around ’86—Shadowrun was around—what? 1989? By that time I had done a regular amount of work for Game Designers Workshop and I had done a fair amount of interior work for Twilight 2000. I had done some Battletech; some Renegade Legion for FASA; I had worked for TSR some. Shadowrun was the first book of any consequence in the gaming industry where my work had really made an impact. My work with Shadowrun directly led to me doing Vampire for White Wolf.

NRAMA: Who were some of the other up-and-coming artists who were starting to emerge around the same time that you were breaking through? There were at least a few pretty big names who were cutting their teeth at the same time you were…

TB: Man, some of those guys have come and gone; I segued into comics and tried to keep the ball rolling—by upping the ante. Some of the guys who were breaking in at that time were Mark Nelson—he was the guy who did that first Alien mini-series for Dark Horse. Alex Ross was another one of those guys who segued into comics like I did…

NRAMA: You had mentioned in the book that he had changed your perspective somewhat…

TB: You know it’s funny—when I saw the work that Alex had done on Shadowrun—yeah, I was like, “Uh oh. I have to raise my game.” But what Alex was doing was using photographs and swiping from lobby cards—so his first Shadowrun illustrations are like a refit of a lobby still from A Clockwork Orange or Time Bandits or Blade Runner. He just changed the people subtly to fit the game and gave it a stylistic twist—but essentially, they were swipes.

I’m not pointing a finger at him by any means but of course if you go back and look at these books you’ll immediately recognize where the reference came from. At the same time, you couldn’t deny how good his work was. He really raised the bar of the direction I was heading into by doing that. By that I mean that my first experiencing with photos—I was swiping too. That was really the only avenue a novice had at that time—and I can go back and look at those pieces and tell you where each one of those references came from. But, as you go, you change things—and I wasn’t so photo-real then that you could tell that I had used a reference. I used anything I could where I could find people—National Geographic, men’s magazines—anything.

People kept me honest—they’d say, “Hey, I’ve seen that picture before.” Which, shit, let’s be honest, was like a fist through my heart, and I’d say, “Yeah, you’re right.” And then they’d say, “Well, you can’t do that…” and that’s what precipitated me picking up a camera and attempting to shoot my own photo references to use in my artwork.

NRAMA: What do you think about some of the artists who are now digitally swiping things—famous actors, other artists’ work, backgrounds—and essentially tracing them and slightly altering them? It’s not so much a hush-hush type of thing but there are some pretty consistent bigger names in comics who are utilizing this method constantly and they are kind of getting nailed down by fandom and their peers—what are you thoughts?

TB: Well, I don’t know that you can go out and take a picture of—let’s use…what’s that gal’s name from Sin City?

NRAMA: Jessica Alba?

TB: Yeah—her! Let’s take Jessica Alba for example. You can’t find an obscure picture of her from a Japanese magazine photo shoot and not expect anyone to have not seen it and then draw her as Black Widow. Any recognizable shot is going to be seen. I use photos that I pull off of Google all the time but I generally don’t use people. I look for backgrounds or a tree line or I need a battle axe. I might need a certain kind of gun.

NRAMA: Well wouldn’t that just be a photo reference at that point?

TB: Exactly—and even then they’re so fucking tiny that when I enlarge them I have to redraw them anyway! Basically, I get the building blocks and I am a photo-real artist so I’m not going to apologize to anyone—I use photos intentionally in my work.

So—I do it too. I just don’t use things that are recognizable, you know? I needed five guys in full military gear once—well I don’t draw the guys that I find in photos—I turn them into silhouettes and draw them differently. You see what I mean? I’m changing the image a great deal. You have to look at it from the perspective that if you don’t change an image enough or stylize it to the point where it’s not recognizable—you can get sued!

But I’ve known that for a long time now—and sure, back when I was younger, I swiped with the best of them. Now, I use it when I absolutely have to—especially when it comes to building backgrounds.

For example, I did a Scalped cover recently and one of the main characters in the book is drawn to look like Graham Green…

NRAMA: Scalped #18.

TB: Yeah, you noticed?

NRAMA: Yeah but it didn’t really register…

TB: Right—well, Graham Green is the inspiration for this guy so R.M. Guera draws him so he looks just like Graham Green. So, of course, when I was asked to do the cover—for a book focusing on this character—I had to use Graham Green, man! So, I started looking for photo reference.

Well, there wasn’t shit for Graham Green anywhere—at least not any good photo references because…let’s be honest, people suck and don’t realize what a great actor this guy really is. So, what I did was—I took three different Graham Green images and I mashed them…I “Frankenstein-ed” them into one version or image of Graham Green and then—I added sunglasses to him.

NRAMA: Right—I saw the image and I recognized the face—and I thought, “Yeah, sure that’s pretty awesome.”

TB: Yeah, and then you have the other folks who say, “Fuck Tim Bradstreet he just ripped off a picture of Graham Green,” and what they don’t realize is that this image I’ve created doesn’t exist—it’s three images mashed into one—with some sunglasses drawn on top of it. It becomes a unique image because there isn’t any existing picture out there that they can compare it to.

Now, you can get busted on using a likeness. Something tells me that Graham Green wouldn’t be the kind of guy who would worry about something like that, you know? I’ll be honest—before I added the glasses—I showed the image to Will [Dennis] and he said, “Tim, it looks too much like Graham Green.”

So I said, “Well, I don’t know what to do—it’s stylized as piss—I’ve broken the image down to rudimentary facial elements and there’s no way around it—it just looks like Graham Green—even though it’s not from any sort of photo of the actual actor.”

So he suggested I add the glasses and I looked at the image and I said, “Now, he really looks just like Graham Green—except with glasses on!” You can’t help but keep thinking about the part he had in Thunderheart. (laugh)

I understand that this is a sticky point for a lot of comic purists—and yeah, I catch hell from folks who think that I swipe things digitally or a trace something—but that’s a bunch of bullshit. How do I feel about other guys doing it? I say to them: Don’t be so obvious with it. Try to cover your tracks a little bit by stylizing them image to make it your own.

NRAMA: Alright—well let’s get back to talking about your work as it developed in the gaming industry. Vampire from White Wolf—who knew this would explode the way it did? Was this another turning point for you in your career?

TB: Totally.

NRAMA: That game completely took off.

TB: Oh yeah—tell me about it. It was crazy. I got this fan letter from Mark Rein-Hagen—creator of the game—basically saying, “Please, Mister Bradstreet will you draw for our game. We love your work on Shadowrun. We think you can do something really cool here.” Well, I was inclined to agree because they were going to give me carte blanche with the artwork—I mean, they gave me brief descriptions of what each of the clans were; but, other than that, because of the way they approached me in this sort of “We want you,” sort of way it was different. I didn’t have to “win” the job, so to speak or follow orders—they were so happy to have me that they were willing to let me do what I needed to do.

It was really one of those lightning in a bottle situations where—and I mention this in the book as well—they wanted to pay me fifty bucks per full page and I was like, “Dude, I can’t do this kind of work for fifty bucks per…” and they were worried because they didn’t know if they could afford to pay me.

This is one of those things where I think back want to slap myself for not working in somewhere that instead of paying me cash they gave me a percentage of profits on the books instead—because if I had done that I would’ve made a lot of money…but no, I talked them into a hundred per page instead! (laugh)

But you know, I was so proud of that work at the time—and I’m still proud of it—totally…at the time, I just knew I had to do something more with this stuff—I have to make prints. Something. So, I decided to do a portfolio of all the images; I paid a couple of hundred bucks and I made this kind of envelope thing that would hold the images—a real “Mom and Pop” sort of ordeal—but it was really decent off-set printing. I made up like 200-300 of these portfolios and took them with me to Gen Con the year that Vampire was released and I sold every fucking one of them…and I couldn’t believe it!

To be continued…

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