…Django Reinhardt learned his chords in a gypsy camp, where everyone lived with music. Not on Easter island…
Sasha Beliaev is a concept artist from Moscow, Russia, which is also where he studied architecture at the Moscow Architectural Institute for five years, and continued to work as an architect for two years.
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he moved to Paris, France and began working as a set designer for names that carry weight in both film and theater. After six years’ worth of experience he had over seventy productions behind him. Having worked for renowned houses like Opera National de Paris, Metropolitan Opera House, and others, he decided it was time to move on.
In 1998, he went on to learn computer graphics as he didn’t have the means to continue working as a traditional painter. He spent a good amount of time learning both 3D modeling, and digital painting. At the time, many artists didn’t have the spaces and the equipment to continue working traditionally, and so they had to adapt or they’d risk becoming irrelevant. They were right to do so in the end, as the new ways of working were moving forward at a much steadier pace than the old.
After 9/11, things fell apart in show business which impacted his career as it was near impossible to find work outside of the European Union due to how difficult it was to get hold of a visa. This prompted another change. He began working as a visual effects artist – creating matte paintings for film. In 2003, he worked as a Level Artist for his first video-game, and gained a foothold in the entertainment industry by doing so. By 2005, he was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and working with BioWare as a Concept Artist. He worked for BioWare for another year, becoming the Lead Level Artist before leaving in the fall of 2006.
Dead set on finding a way to mix the traditional processes and techniques that he’s learnt up until this point together with computer graphics, he found that a lot of his know-how was transferable. “There are many things that traditional art can bring to computer graphics” he told us, and his work-flow overlaps with what’d be considered as traditional quite a bit. However, mastering the traditional ways is no small feat. There’s a lot of work that one needs to put in before one can reap the rewards.
How did you get to where you are today?
I had a certain aptitude, and great training. In my early teens I was smitten by illustrations done by someone who attended the Architectural Institute, and that left me with the intent of attending myself. The school program – it’s art bit – was based on that of the 19c. Ecole des Beaux Arts. Years of academical drawing, painting, sculpture, applied geometry (perspective and shadow casting). The rest was just work – trying to catch up with the greats. Re-live their lives and achievements, in a way.
How has the art world changed overtime, and what did you do in order to keep up with these changes?
The society’s attitudes toward art have changed a great deal, especially after the tradition had been thoroughly dismantled around the mid 60s. In a way, the arts have lost their original purpose, before, they were a means of reconciliation with our finite existence, ceding place to clever manipulation and epatage, retaining nothing but superficial features.
Whilst the traditional painting enjoys, due to it’s very nature, a modest revival (or perhaps the last moments on it’s deathbed), commercial art sped up tremendously, leaving little room for luxuries such as experimentation and reflection. An art piece needs time to grow, and even more time to listen to it’s own logic that it goes on to acquire in the process, so one can tenderly nourish it toward completion. Unfortunately, very few can afford that these days. In today’s day and age, everything must be completed hastily, and it must be a safe bet. So, one goes with the flow.
Digital media stripped art of it’s last refuge, the physicality. One can no longer own, inherit or cherish an art piece, a unique artifact created with sweat, blood, toil, tears, and sweat, but also love. And thus it has lost the last of its intrinsic value.
A person might want to hang a still life on the wall and see it differently at different points in his or her life. From the sheer admiration of the painter’s skill to the transient nature of our existence. That applied to the physical production of art until very recently. Ralph Mcquarrie’s painting is first and foremost a work of art, and only then a production plate. These days, who’d want to own a digital rendering of a bombed out strip mall with Apache helicopters circling above it? A TV screen-shot would do just as well. What meaning does a spliced and painted over photo carry?
I often wonder what will be left of it all, especially if one day, we find ourselves without electricity?
Do you believe it is necessary to attend a school and study art in today’s day and age, or would you recommend learning by oneself instead?
It’s a strange question. Should a jazz musician learn how to play an instrument to be able to riff? Could they do it on their own? Yes, there are prodigies. But even they could have achieved significantly more if their talent received a more concrete foundation for them to build upon. And, anticipating the next question, breaking away from a tradition requires a tradition to break away from.
Even prodigies (the true ones), grew up being influenced by tradition. Django Reinhardt learned his chords in a gypsy camp, where everyone lived with music. Not on Easter island.
Any long term undertaking needs a foundation, and a clear plan, this is what a professional training is there for. It took me years to figure out classical oils – something that I can now teach in a matter of days. I wish that I was lucky enough to have access to this kind of training at the time. It would’ve saved me from all the frustration that I had to endure. A single brushstroke shown by a master is worth years of blind groping.
Have you studied art at any point throughout the years of experience you’ve had in the industry, and do you believe that it is necessary to do so?
Drawing or painting is a study, by definition. We study the world, the subject to be able to depict that which is elusive yet very tangible, something that speaks to people’s hearts.
And as the process constantly calls for new solutions, one is simply forced to look around for them. I need this to look like that, how was that done? How did that person did that thing I’d need to achieve a particular something?
So, it never ends. And learning things that give one’s life a meaning isn’t even a necessity, it’s one’s life itself. Could one live without breathing?
You’ve studied architecture at the Moscow Architectural Institute for five years, and after two years of working as an architect you decided that it wasn’t something you’d enjoy doing, what made you come to that decision?
I always wanted to paint and draw, first and foremost. I also enjoyed building things, and that’s why I went into production design, and moved onto game art later on. As for the modern architecture, it was somehow left with only Firmitas and Utilitas out of the Vitruvian triad. Venustas slipped through the cracks somewhere down the road.
You’ve been working in the art industry since 1987, how has your approach toward it changed overtime, and why?
It would be difficult to answer this one, since I did many things, from set design to matte painting to computer games. But some things remain unchanged. Define the goal, find the necessary tools, make a plan and execute it, sticking to your guns no matter what.
You began learning computer graphics in 1998, was it difficult to make the transition from traditional techniques and processes to the newer ones?
There was no time to get scared or to be daunted. And frankly, it was simply fascinating. I was so proud of my first 3d column corinthian capital – and what an ugly dog it was! So, you just keep trying to make it better, solving things on the fly. There’s no time to reflect on whether it’s hard when one has an urgent task at hand.
Drawing with a mouse – that was difficult.
What made you want to move on and learn about computer graphics as opposed to sticking to traditional painting, is that where it was all heading at that point in time?
When I started up on my own, I didn’t posses the means to continue working traditionally. I had to start working right away, and naturally, the computer was the answer.
You’ve tried your hand at digital painting as well as traditional painting, could you outline the ups and downs of each method?
If I was wealthy then I’d switch back in the blink of an eye, and do nothing but paint marinas and still lifes. There are no downsides to traditional painting on my side – other than the fact that clients aren’t prepared to wait as long as this medium would need, and they aren’t prepared for the commitment that’s required from both sides. Often, you’d find them asking for a production plate w/figures within five days, and there’s no way to do that traditionally.
The downsides in digital painting are that there’s little to no line control, and it takes multiple clicks to achieve something whereas it’d only take a single brush stroke if one was working traditionally. Atop that, it creates an illusion that everything is possible at a low cost, which isn’t the case. In simple terms, task oriented tools leave a noticeable imprint on whatever is being produced. It is likely that you’ve noticed that the vast majority of digital paintings look very similar, and that’s because everyone is cutting corners, and taking the same short cuts too.
On the other hand, digital paintings allow you to save one’s own copy of the work, regardless of the deliverable. However, there’s a difference between commercial works and personal works. I find that these new processes and techniques are both a blessing and a curse.
What are your goals for the future?
I’ve been working on a personal project for the last five years. It’s extremely overambitious. I’ve set out to ultimate adventure universe, an original world of piracy, dark sorcery, and strong female leads. Something as big as Warhammer or Star Wars, and as exotic and exciting as the proverbial Orient.
That goal may sound very naive, of course. But it gives me an opportunity to finally do it all the right way, the way I always wanted things to be. So I plan to work on it for the next ten to fifteen years.
I also hope to meet people – artists, designers, and producers – with whom I could share it. Maybe they’d help me bring this immense undertaking about?