Artistic World Building with Form Language Studios

Form Language Studios (its clients include Intelligent Creatures, Passion Pictures London, Passion Pictures New York, Posti Photography, Big Spaceship, Ghost VFX,

Form Language Studios (its clients include Intelligent Creatures, Passion Pictures London, Passion Pictures New York, Posti Photography, Big Spaceship, Ghost VFX, BBC, Nissan, Toyota, Fiji Water) is an incredibly production company from Toronto, Canada, which deals with concept art, matte painting and other artistic services for TV, movie and game industries. We’ve had a chance to talk with the founders of FLS – Darren Lewis (Codemasters, Free Radical) and Daniel Romanovsky – and discussed their work, their approach to visual design.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Could you introduce yourself and talk a little about your company? How did you guys meet and how did you decide to practice art together?

Darren: We met when we were studying at a school in Toronto that was founded by Michael John Angel. His main school is in Florence Italy but for a while he had a sister school in Toronto and would divide his time between the two locations each year. Angel has since parted ways with the Toronto school.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

During a break I saw this guy leaning over at the waist so that he could turn his head ninety degrees and judge proportions with a fresh eye. The work was excellent. I went up and said “Hi” and that is how we first met.

In all we spent about two years studying there. The format was more like a gym than a school in that it is an Atelier with no classes or lectures other than scheduled hours for drawing casts, models and master copies. You were asked to complete a series of tasks at your own pace and there was plenty of opportunity for self-directed study and personal projects.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

What we found there was an opportunity to spend time in quiet devotion learning our craft. Much of what we did during our time there was outside the curriculum and was based on what I had learned prior to starting there. I had already spent a lot of years studying art before I arrived at the school and had amassed a substantial library on Art and Artists focusing mostly on Old Masters, Illustration, and Art Instruction, the last mostly being from the 19th and early 20th century.

We found we had the same passion for art and got along well and when we left the school we decided that we would eventually found a company.

Could you name some of the projects you’ve worked on?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Darren: While we are moving more in to Game Development and Feature Film work we have had a very diverse work history.

One of our first really exciting jobs was working with Passion Pictures from London on the official trailer for the London Olympics. We did a lot of matte painting work on that trailer including the image that was the end shot where the BBC logo and Olympic rings hovered for a while. We’ve had a great relationship with Passion since day one and we love working with them. The level of professionalism and creativity has been top notch and consistent and they are just great to work with.

The variety of projects we have worked on as has been very stimulating. Everything from video games and AAA feature films, a Nissan Print campaign, Toyota commercials and many other Television ads with a lot of repeat business where we work with clients each year on new series of commercials. Pitch material is always fun and we have done quite a lot of that. A lot of what we do is under NDA of course.

We take every project we do very seriously and we can say that the joy of creating the work is there with every collaboration we have. Working on interesting projects with great people is what gets us excited. The size of the project isn’t as much a factor as the opportunity to do interesting work and develop as artists while working with people who are smart, professional and creative.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

We find we are often asked to spend time doing high level creative work and Art Direction in the sense of creating a look and a visual language for projects. This is our strength as a company.

We are fortunate enough to find ourselves being offered quite a lot of new interesting work and we are currently picking through possible projects for the new year, deciding where we want to invest our time and how we can organize our schedule to work with all the great people we want to work with.

Can you talk a little bit about your style of art? How would you define your style yourselves?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Darren: The artists you mentioned certainly hold places in our Pantheon. As far as Russian artists go we have to add Ivan Shishkinand Ivan Kramskoito the list as two of our greatest inspirations.

Here is a quote I love:

Style is the most valuable asset of the modern artist. That’s why so many styles are reported lost or stolen each year.

0371886697 - Copy - Copy

Brad Holland, Illustrator

Having a strong foundation along with a deep knowledge of the work of artists throughout history allows you to develop a particular visual language that will best serve each project. Working as visual development artist is different from working as an illustrator. With illustration people will tell you it is necessary to develop a signature look so that you can market yourself. Whether or not that is true is an area of some debate. It is certainly less true in the field of visual development where the style of the project takes precedence.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

All real knowledge comes from the conscientious study of Nature. This is why our company is called Form Language Studio. It’s all about the language of light on form. We could speak with passion at length about a huge roster of Artists that we have learned from and that have brought us great joy feeding our hearts minds and souls. They have given us a mental library of great solutions to a vast array of visual problems and we draw on that library when taking on the challenges of each new work.

When we are working on a project we spend some time digesting what the feel of the work will be in the end. Is it adventure or drama or humor that is the main focus or a rich combination of all of these and more? Serious or quirky and fun, down to earth or abstract and exotic we enjoy them all developing appropriate visual language through which we can communicate the right flavor. Our job as visual artists is to translate feelings and narrative that can be abstract and verbal into visual information. If someone says make it more sad or somber or happy how can that be realized with the tools we have as visual artists, Value, Colour, Edges, Shape, Line etc etc.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: Having come from a traditional classical art background we have spent countless hours studying and admiring the works of great artists throughout history. If I tried to name specific artists here, it would be a very long list. At the moment I would say my biggest influences are 19th century European art, especially the Orientalist motif, as well as Golden age illustrators.

My own “style” so to speak is a work in progress as I am still in a relatively early stage of my artistic career. I definitely strive to achieve a painterly look to my digital work. A lot of that comes from using a similar process and mindset to that acquired working traditionally. Personal taste and style is certainly something to explore and develop with personal work and that will inform your professional work. Each professional project will have style parameters that will serve it best. Much of the joy of working as an artist comes from the challenge of developing projects with unique character and an individual look.

How do you achieve believability in fantasy art? How do you combine this fairy-tale quality and realism?

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The idea or the faculty of imagination serves as both rudder and bridle to the senses, inasmuch as the thing imagined moves the sense.


Leonardo da Vinci

Darren: As in our previous answer studying great art, doing master copies and figuring out how to achieve results similar to the work of artists we admire allows us to create a methodology that will serve each particular project.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Once again foundation work is key. If you can paint a picture of a forest you are well on your way to being able to paint a picture of a fantasy forest. What elements you will exaggerate distort or invent will all be sourced in Nature or the laws of Nature. Invented elements must obey the internal logic of the creation and consistently follow rules either observed in Nature or invented as conceits for the particular work.

Nothing will be more frustrating and tragic for an artist than to find themselves unable to execute an image. To be greatly inspired by a deep and powerful insight and then to fail to realize it due to lack of technical ability is the most horrible position to be in.

The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance.


Leonardo da Vinci

Daniel: As Darren said above, achieving a proper degree of believably is a matter of technical skill, hard work and inspiration.

When working on a picture I like to immerse myself in the world that I am creating. I imagine what it would be like to actually be there and participate in the narrative of the scene. That way I am able to get a feel for the project and use it to guide my decision making. Most of my best ideas come spontaneously as I am working. It is a very intuitive process. Over the years we have learned to embrace the dialog with the canvas, and just go with whatever feels right.

Another important factor is the amount of content that goes into a painting. We put a lot of effort into every element of the composition. Each object in the scene tells its own part of the story.

Of course you must be careful in that regard as it is easy for a beginner to get carried away with detail and make the painting look disjointed and overworked. To prevent that you need to constantly step back and evaluate what you are doing. Having a partner to work with whose eye and artistic judgment you trust is invaluable for us.

Can you talk about the kind of techniques you are using to build the images? How do you paint, how do you sketch, how do you add additional matte images, how do you combine it all together?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Darren: Sketching and drawing is something that we do all the time. When working things out it is always necessary to get it out of your head and work on the page. The dialogue with the page is what you are refining when becoming a better artist. Don’t tell me show me is a good motto even when you are talking to yourself. You need to get work down in broad strokes then you can use the skill you have at editing and adding more elements. If you don’t have something to react to you can’t apply what you know to improving it. You also need chaos on the page to find order in. An exercise is to look at a complex shadow pattern on a wall cast from some foliage and imagine that you see castles and exotic locales and beasts in there. When you don’t have that shadow pattern or chaos to work from you create it by putting something abstract down and then working to have things emerge from it.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

There is always a balance between left and right brain work. Passionate beginnings that are then ordered and organized in to a structured language allow you to deliver a clear narrative message that is filled with both logical and emotional intent.

I realize this is all kind of abstract and isn’t offering much in the way of practical step by step methodology. That kind of an answer would require a step by step demo with a lot of commentary and is beyond the scope of this discussion. I can however refer you to some authors whose books should be in every artist’s library:

  • Harold Speed
  • Solomon J Solomon
  • Richard Schmid
  • John Vanderpoel
  • Robert Beverly Hale – In particular “Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters”
  • Charles Bargue
  • Edgar Payne
  • Tom Porter and Sue Goodman – Designer Primer
  • Preston Blair
  • Edouard Lanteri
  • Jack Hamm
  • Joseph Pennell
  • Francis Ching

That is just a beginning but there is a lot of essential information in there. It takes thousands of hours of practical work to actually digest the material just in the books by these authors and all of it is fun and rewarding.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: Professionally we break the process down to three main stages; preparation, composition and production. The first two stages are most critical to the success of the image.

Preparation starts with the idea, whether it’s our own idea or based on a brief from the client, we need to get a good understanding of what it is we are aiming to achieve. This is followed by research, and inspiration. Sifting through probably thousands of photos, looking at other artwork, going outside and examining the world around you is an essential part of the creative process.

When it comes to composition of a complex image I always start with the color palette putting down the broad strokes to establish the mood of the image as soon as possible. Although I might do preparatory studies for individual elements, at this stage in my professional life I don’t do a lot of sketching and thumbnails before getting right into the image.Using digital tools, where making even large scale changes is relatively easy when compared to what would be required using oils on canvas, allows me to combine the exploration, composition and production stages in a way that wouldn’t be possible with traditional media.

I like to have a sense of mystery and an open mind when working, I want to have the composition come to me gradually rather than deciding on everything beforehand. My main goal at this stage is to establish an impression of what the final result will be without getting to specific.

The production stage varies from project to project. Typically I start from the background and work my way forward. I prefer to tackle my center of interest first, when I get that to work everything else tends to go smoothly. I utilize a wide range of techniques to achieve the desired end result, including a lot of custom brushes, 3D modeling and photo textures. I try to shoot my own reference whenever I can, when using photo elements. I prefer to stay abstract and look for interesting shapes and textures that I can use like brushstrokes. I tend to avoid placing entire elements from a photo into my image, unless I’m specifically working on a matte painting. Once all of the elements are in place, a lot of works goes into global light and color passes for final integration. Whenever possible I prefer to put the image away for a couple of days so that I can get a fresh look at it before Iadd the finishing touches.

What kind of software did you find most interesting for your work? How would you compare working with a classical canvas and the digital palette? What works best in the modern space?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: We spent many years drawing and painting traditionally prior to using the computer to create artwork and I consider my eyes, my hands and my brain to be my most critical tools.

Transitioning from traditional to digital has its ups and downs. Working digitally is infinitely more forgiving, it’s faster in specific ways, and nowadays it’s the standard for working professionally. That said you don’t have the same kind of control of the tool that you have when working with a pencil or a brush. Oil paint on a canvas is a lot more rich and vibrant than any monitor or print and of course you have the original artwork as a physical artifact that you can frame and put up on the wall. It’s also important to remember that there are subtle ways in which the structure of the software can influence your thinking and trap you in to patterns that might be better off avoided.

In terms of software the main tool is Photoshop. For 3D we use Modo nowadays, it has a very intuitive interface and a lot of useful features for a 2D pipeline. We also use Zbrush for both design work and sculpting in combination with Modo. When it comes to using 3d in my artwork, I have to decide what is most efficient for a particular project. There are times when you are creating multiple iterations of the same theme, or you are rendering the same scene from multiple angles and it makes sense to take the extra time and build the 3D assets.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

I feel that with all the innovation in computer graphics that we have experienced in modern times it’s very easy to get lost in all the various tools and techniques that are out there. And I know that as a beginner it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that you need to master certain software packages to be an artist nowadays. Software is going to continue to change and evolve, and it’s important to remember that while that is true, the way our eyes perceive visual information is not going to change, neither is the way that we appreciate artwork. Therefore training your eye and acquiring those traditional foundation skills will always be the most important tools at your disposal and will allow you to utilize software in the most effective way.

Darren: I can’t really add anything to that other than reinforcing the fact that traditional materials are far more powerful in terms of developing skill than digital tools. If you tell someone you jog for an hour doing five miles each day at lunch and they tell you that you could achieve the same result more efficiently by driving your car around the track they are missing the point. It’s not about driving around the track it’s about the changes in yourself that that effort produces. Drawing on paper with pen, pencil, marker etc is much much faster in some situations and collaborative work and ideation/brainstorming is often served much better by traditional media.

If you have gone through Scott Robertson’s DVD’s and drawn pages of forms and vehicles for a couple of years when you pick up SketchUp or Zbrush or Modo you will be in a better position to get the most out of those tools.

When we are using software I think it is fair to say that all of the solutions and insights that allow us to achieve a good end result come from our study of Nature and great artists of the past using traditional tools.

You’re doing some amazing things with color, creating great mood with a simple and readable color palette. Can you talk about the choice of colors in art and how does that help you to build better more interesting looking environments?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: I learned most of what I know about color working with oil paint doing studies from life and copies of old master paintings. When working with oil you often spend more time mixing the paint to get the right color than actually putting down the brush strokes.

To have a readable color palette you need to establish the base color, which is usually going to lean towards grey, next you need to establish the color temperature meaning what is my light color and what is my shadow color, and finally you need to utilize your complimentary color (the opposite color of your base color) wherever you want to draw the viewers eye to a focal point in a painting. Another principle that I sometimes follow is to have the 3 primary colors (red, yellow, blue) present in my painting to a certain extent, this gives an impression of a full range of color and naturally draws the viewer’s attention.

When choosing the color palette for a painting, the first thing that I think about is what kind of mood and atmosphere I want to create. We are naturally wired to have emotional responses to color relationships. Color also creates a sense of rhythm and dynamism in an image and we use color to guide the eye across a painting.

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Darren: While it is true that you need to put your time in studying the colour wheel and colour relationships and color mixing, doing all your grids of swatches where you deliberately focus on manipulating one of the three main components, hue, chroma and value in the end colour mastery is intuitive. Your studies of nature and master copies will refine your intuitive sense and you will make better decisions and more quickly find solutions that work.

At the risk of stating the obvious, colour relationships are most important and not individual colours. Our perception of a colour is profoundly influenced by the surrounding colours and what you mix on your palette will look very different when it is applied to the canvas and seen in context surrounded by and working with other colours.

There is a system, a language of colour that is developed for each work. There are many items on your checklist when analyzing your colour choices as you create a painting. The most important of these are readability and balance. Limiting your palette in a conscious way is crucial. As with your value system there are many colour factors that will attract the eye or offer moments of dynamism and moments of rest. With value the area of highest contrast will attract the eye. With colour your eye will find the most dynamism in areas with complimentary colours next to each other. Enriching an area with local colour variation parallels nature which is always going to be more complex than your painting.

A great clear example of incredible richness and variety of colour where each plane is a different value, hue, chroma and even brush stroke is the work of Frazetta. When you step back optical mixing and superlative control of the value of each colour allows all of this richness to resolve and work together producing a coherent result.

If you look at marble painted by Alma-Tadema you will see warm and cool colours working together to create white marble that is rich and interesting and sits well in context. Then when you look at white marble in a real life situation you will notice how much colour is actually there. Or it can happen the other way around, seeing colour in life and then seeing how an artist will develop a structured way of using a simplified readable version of the same phenomenon in their work. This then gets added to your repertoire.

What are the secrets to building worlds in artistic form? What should the artist take into consideration while building worlds in 2D?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: As I was studying art I have asked this question many times. Is there some secret insight that I need to discover in order to produce the kind of artwork I aspire to? So far there are a couple of “secrets” that I have uncovered on my journey that I can share with you.

First off, you need to study and properly prepare for any artistic endeavor. You need to have a certain level of technical skill, otherwise you are going to struggle and get frustrated.

In order to be creative you need to access a state of mind where ideas start to flow naturally, a state where there are no wrong answers and anything seems possible. Call it right brain thinking in a safe, non-critical, emotional haven. From this state of mind we grab abstract information and using technical skills we mold it into something intelligible that others can appreciate.

Another secret is the power of the subconscious mind. When you consciously state the intent, your subconscious begins to work on realizing this intent. In practical terms when you are working on a project, ideas and solutions begin to come to you out of seemingly nowhere and you begin to pay attention to things that you might usually ignore. There have been many times when I am walking outside and I start to notice things that are relevant to my paintings, like the way light might fall on a building, or colors in a shadow and I have eureka moments that help me with my work.

The last thing that I will mention here is intuition or that gut feeling that you get. This is pretty much my compass when I work. If whatever I’m doing feels right, I know it is right, and similarly if something feels off, I know I need to fix it. This is of course only possible after years of rigorous study and slow methodical work building the skill base needed to support execution and inform the intuitive insight.

Darren: I would say study our world. Look at what the broad strokes are and then also delve in to the infinite tiny details and idiosyncrasies that make up your reality. There are profoundly moving and beautiful works where the subject is simple. Look at Norman Rockwell’s image of the old woman and the young boy saying grace in the diner. How many visual cues has he included in that image in order to tell the story of that moment?
Painting skill is like skill with language. It is a component that is necessary but not sufficient to being a poet. Devote yourself to understanding the world and being able to speak to people about it with visual language. What do you respond to? What do others respond to? What is the overlap? What are the common elements of the human experience? People won’t be shy about telling you if your work speaks to them or if it leaves them flat. We feel it is our job to learn what will most strongly activate in their minds the message we want to deliver. Every work is a collaboration between the painter and the viewer. We must put down elements that the viewers mind will combine and process and the actual end result is a creation in their minds based on what we have done.

What would you advice to beginner artists?

© Form Language Studios, 2015-2016

Daniel: Being an artist or really for any job you love the formula is the same…attack life with gusto. Be voracious. Take in as much of the art of the past and of Nature as you can. Be broad in your pursuit of knowledge and your understanding of how the world works. Study music and literature and history and the current state of the world. Everything you do strive to do it well. Go deep as well as broad. Everything you take in and digest and convert into muscle will serve you and inform your work. Be joyous in life and be amused by the hysterical silly crazy turns and twists that life takes. Through it all remember that Happiness is hard work and the harder you work the happier you are.

Special thanks to Darren Lewis and Daniel Romanovsky for their time and their extensive answers. Be sure to check their wonderful website with more impressive images.

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