Steve Palmer, Freelance Illustrator

Steve Palmer is a freelance illustrator and designer based in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. He is semi-retired from a career in the publishing business, having been a Director of Production for mass market books at Random House, Inc., specializing in desktop applications and color print production. Currently he is freelancing in publishing-related layout and typography, illustration, and architectural visualization.

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» How do you get into the architectural rendering / illustration field? Did you start doing related work and then moved your way up?

The architectural rendering is relatively new. I always seem to stumble into these things backwards. Some local investors were engaged in a conversion/restoration project and their architect commissioned a rendering from another artist. A friend of mine saw this and told them I could do much better. He was right: the model was sloppy, the positioning incorrect, and the quality of the render itself was poor. I did my own version and, after seeing it, the architect approached me to do other work. Since then, I have taken on another local architect client as well.

The illustration work is an even longer story. In 1991 my division put me in charge of implementing desktop publishing. So I became accomplished with all the Adobe applications, plus QuarkXPress. In the mid-90's, Sales was demanding that the mystery-category backlist covers be updated with consistent formats for each author's titles. There was no budget for this project. They asked me to get it done, anyway. Working with the Art Director, I adapted existing artwork for the updates. But where that artwork was completely unusable, I just created new art myself (late nights and weekends)--mostly with Strata. We worked out a fee for each illustration. I did dozens, as well as some work for other publishers.

» What made you pick up Strata 3D? Was there a specific problem/need that caused you to seek out a 3D application?

From childhood I've been fascinated with Natural History Museum dioramas. Before your eyes--only a quarter inch away--on the other side of the glass, was an utterly different world. I thought: if I could make my own diorama, it could be any world I imagine.

Then came MYST. 1993. I played it. I loved it.

I realized: With the same program I could make my own virtual dioramas. I bought StrataVision 3D the NEXT day.

» Have you always worked digitally, or was there an adjustment period between traditional illustration and digital?

I've worked in all graphic mediums. With STRATA, for me there was no adjustment period at all. I've loved it from day one.

» What's a typical day for you? What other software do you use on a regular basis?

Typically, I start the day going through e-mail, then set about whatever project has the closest deadline. My workhorse applications are the Adobe CS: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign; and (of course!) Strata.

Through my association with FoltzDesign, over the past few years I've had a great "gig" doing layout, lettering and retouch for the US editions of Japanese manga titles. DelRey, is the book publisher. These books are published in series, one every 3 months (one series is now up to volume 20!), so it's steady, reliable income. Consequently, manga takes priority for me these days. That said, I actually like the imaging and illustration work much more. In the next couple of years, my plan is to drop the publishing related design work, and focus on image rendering.

I also have to dedicate some time each day to piano practice, due to a few performance obligations.

» Have you started to explore the link between Strata 3D CX 5.5 and Photoshop CS3? How has that worked for you so far?

I've always been completely happy with how well Strata integrates with Adobe applications. Illustrator imports are particularly crucial for my method of handling architectural work. And, of course, I create nearly all my textures in Photoshop, and, if I'm working on a photo site render, all the final assembly is in layers. I haven't had the opportunity yet to fully explore all the new links, but I'm looking forward to trying them out on the next project.

» How did you learn 3D, or Strata 3D in particular? Would you recommend your method to new users?

In 3D I'm completely self-taught, basically using only the manuals, and experimenting. Strata has always had a marvelously intuitive interface and workflow, so it's really easy to pick up on your own, and start doing great-looking stuff right away.

For new users, I would recommend, firstly, explore all the tools and menu items, just to see what they do. Then, the most effective way to learn is to set yourself a project. Think of it as a puzzle, and work out, on your own, how to solve it. You always remember better if you discover your own solutions, rather than have someone else tell you. Also, that way you begin to develop an individual style or "look."

» For the architectural work in particular, do you get a significant amount of input from others before or while working, or are you left to interpret the setting and style of a structure yourself? Is there less or more direction for other illustration work?

I always work very closely with the architect. First, in a meeting we review the plans, and the setting. If there's an existing site, we discuss the angles that photos should be shot from. I take a lot of photos, and they choose which one to use. We then discuss what elements of the photo should be retouched or removed.

Then I proceed to build the model. Midway through this, I usually send the architect a list of queries about inconsistencies, or features that are unclear in the elevations. (Sometimes, when a rendering is needed for a public hearing, the design itself is not even complete. So a lot of questions come up.) When my model is complete, I will send un-textured rotational renders for the architect to review. All the textures are determined by them, and usually there is quite a bit of back-and-forth to get exactly what they want. Beyond that, if there's time, I like to make it pretty (flowers, shrubs, etc.).

If there is no particular site, I get some freedom to create my own setting, and lighting, but, of course, that too is subject to the architect's approval.

Since I come from the publishing industry, I fully aware of the strict approval schedules for publishing work. It depends on the individual Art Director how much freedom you have for an illustration. Usually it's very restricted. You have to be patient and willing to please!

» As an independent designer, what percentage of your time is eventually spent on design work, as opposed to sales or other business-related tasks?

It's been my good fortune so far that I haven't had to sell myself. Clients have approached me. Occasionally I'm a little worried about over-committing (which is why I'm planning to drop the publishing work at some point). I try to keep my business operations as simple as possible. So 95% of my time is actual design work.

» Any advice for new users? Where to start, what to avoid, creative advice?

I never hesitate to give advice (whether it's wanted or not) so here we go:

  • Plan ahead. Before you begin a project, think it all the way through.
  • Do the easy stuff first. Once you get the project well underway, you can focus on the more challenging objects.
  • In complex scenes, as you work, always keep an eye (doesn't matter which one) on the poly counts.(Those hi-poly instances will come back to bite you at render time.)
  • Simpler is always better--as long as you have the detail you need.
  • Keep textures very low res whenever possible. No reason to waste time on map detail below the render resolution.
  • Experiment with the render settings to see how you can optimize them for each project.
  • Plan ahead how to use Strata's shape hierarchies to your advantage. (For instance, any object that is used many times, yet may change in form or texture, should be a separate shape. Shapes can be made up of instances of others, and those, instances of still others. This can give you great flexibility to make dramatic changes quickly).
  • Recycle: When you create a new shape, be thinking about other uses it could have in the future.
  • For scenes with many complex objects, create each individually in a separate file, then import as a .ssh into your main scene. That way you're working in a small, quick-redraw, file. This procedure also helps you focus on each particular object.
  • Be your own harshest critic.
  • Show your stuff around. Word-of-mouth is the best advertising.
  • Don't forget: this is REALLY FUN!

» Thanks for your time, Steve. We look forward to seeing more of your work on the Cafe!