Jeff Simpson is a digital painter and concept artist based in Montreal. He studied animation at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and currently works for Ubisoft on titles such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Jeff can be found online at jeffsimpsonkh.cghub.com and jeffsimpsonkh.deviantart.com.
While you generally don’t categorize it as horror, it’s clear that you’re drawn to an eerier aesthetic in your personal work than you typically get to express in your illustrations for Ubisoft. Could you tell us about this attraction, and where it came from?
It’s difficult to explain why I’m attracted to things that are aesthetically on the darker or more somber and atmospheric side. I think it’s because I like to see things that have a little bit of mystery to them. I think sometimes it is difficult to separate mystery from fear or horror. When I’m painting it’s rarely my intention to make things feel “scary,” rather I like to try to show things in a more honest way. Things are always so much more interesting when we are shown the hidden layers and other sides of subjects or stories or people, even if it can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable at times.
Can you tell us a little bit about your education as an artist? Your degree is in animation; did you have a focus on concept art specifically, or animation in general?
School was fun, I met a lot of cool people but discovered that I kinda suck at animating, traditionally anyways. I learned most of the skills and techniques for digital painting on my own, at home, after class. Since I was fortunate to be a student in the era of the internet, I had more than enough feedback and resources available to me to learn what concept art was, who the pros were, and how to hopefully get as good as them.
Which artists inspire you and contributed to the development of your style?
During high school I was one of those kids who was inspired by anything dark and creepy, the weirder the better, in a failed attempt to make chicks think I was cool! But once I got into college, I started to get more interested in artists with a more elegant, feminine (if that’s the word) styles such as James Jean, Yoshitaka Amano, Sam Weber, etc. At the time I only just learned that “illustration” was an actual profession. Up until then I had assumed there were only two choices: a high-brow ultra minimalist bizarre modern artist or a CG production/concept artist. Today, I get inspired much less by artists but more by things found elsewhere in nature, emotions, attitudes. I find myself wanting less and less to try to fit into a certain group of artists or genres and have begun having a pretty delusional obsession with trying to create something truly fresh and unique with my work. I’m not sure how well that has worked out so far though!
Your digital brush style is reminiscent of many real oil paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries (plus some impossible-for-oils luminescent flourishes). Is this something you have a background in and consciously endeavor for, or would you describe it as an organic (no pun intended) product of digital painting?
I’ve had extremely limited experience in oils myself. I spent a lot of time with pencils and pens but I should like to try oils someday, when I have balls to actually set up a studio space for myself. I think it’s safe to say that all digital painters are secretly trying to be able to paint as well as the old masters with their oils. It is very interesting to me to see the evolution of the digital painters today; it feels like ninety-five percent are just happy to create work that is serviceable, clean, attractive. I think emotion and subtlety is something we all need to work on—the lack of limitations and the demand for commercial work has in a strange way, I feel, limited the potential of the medium. I think we have become afraid of mistakes, afraid of risks and the confidence to stick with your gut, since sometimes it is a detriment to have too much freedom and choices when creating an image.
Portraiture with a fantasy twist is a theme of yours. What is the significance of this to you? Does the imagery come from anyplace specific?
I often find myself stuck between two ways of thinking. Part of me wants to make cool fantasy stuff, that I can put into fantasy books and get work doing cool-ass creatures and knights and witches and all that jazz. The other part of me is a snobby high level prude who constantly shoots down these ideas and dismisses them as trite wastes of time and that I should spend all my effort trying to think of SOUL SHATTERING new ways to express myself. I suppose it’s a combination of these thoughts that give my work a certain appeal to both fields, but it can be a little difficult to finish a piece when I can’t decide what kind of image it should be.
Do you draw ideas from fiction? If so, which authors do you find inspiring?
Sadly I do not read as much as I should! Unsurprisingly I like works that ride the line between fantasy and fiction. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was one of my favorites. I like fantasy/specific/whatever when it is treated like fiction, when the world has credibility.
What is your process for a piece and how long does it typically take from start to finish?
My process for personal works is chaotic and can take from weeks to a single day. I will more often than not start on an image one way and have it finished completely differently, sometimes making it embarrassing for me to do tutorials and live demos! I get bored easily, and if a piece is starting to look flat I have no quarrels about completely changing it and painting over huge sections I’ve already done (and also cutting it up and using it somewhere else if I must)!
There is a recurrent figure in your portraiture work who I assume to be real; is she someone close to you? How does she feel about her face being used as a part of bizarre imagery?
I get asked this alot, but the answer is not as interesting as people hope! She is a model and a friend of mine hired for poses. She says she’s okay with seeing her face pop up online everywhere but her friends and family think it’s a little weird (haha). But she is a lot of fun to work with, and of course I think she is stunning!
What are you working on right now?
At work I’m working on the Assassin’s Creed franchise as I have been for the past year and a half or so. At home I am slowly doing personal pieces, but not as regularly as I used to. Occasionally I will take on some freelance, however right now I am enjoying a bit of a break!
What’s your dream illustration job?
I count myself as being very fortunate to have done some dream jobs for Ubisoft and Universal. Right now my real dream job would be to do the work I do for myself as a job, perhaps a personal art book or gallery show. Then again working on something like The Hobbit or Star Wars would be pretty damn cool too!
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