Michaël Verhaaf

Where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an artist?
I grew up in a suburban area close to Montreal in Canada. As for when I decided to be an artist…I guess it was in College around 18. I used to draw all the time during my childhood and teenage years but it wasn’t before a change of heart about what to do in college that I went for a degree in 3D animation and image synthesis. This story is a bit funny. I basically did a head or tail between Graphic design and 3D animation before taking my final decision. I guess everything ended up ok in the end.
Did you go to an art school or are you self taught? How did you develop your skills?
I did go to an Art school, I have 3D animation and image synthesis diploma. Even though they thought a bit of Photoshop, they didn’t really teach anything about digital painting. For these skills I need to thank Marc Brunet. He’s the one that showed me most of the basics of concept art and digital illustration. After that it was mostly about practice, doing studies as much as I could after work. I have been doing this for the past 4 years and only recently started going back online doing challenges.

Have you always been supported in your artistic path or has it been challenging to let your family and friends understand your choice?
I have been lucky, my parents were always supportive in my decisions. They told me that they knew, when I was younger, that I would end up in a creative field. Not only them, but also my whole family seem pretty excited by the new work I post online. I think it really helps artists when they feel supported. Art is a difficult path and this kind of support is essential. 

What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up ( artists, movies, cartoons, comics etc.. ) ?
When I was younger I was obsessed with Dragon Ball. Comics like Spirou & Fantasio and Soda inspired me as well but Dragon Ball would be the one that influenced me the most as a child. When I went to 3D animation school, I met with other people that liked a wide range of projects and artists. This is where I learned about other mangas and animes like GUNNM, Akira, Gundam, Gantz. And artists like Craig Mullins, Adrian Smith, Paul Bonner, Karl Kopinski.

What is your process in colouring your art and what type of tools and media do you use?
More and more I try to structure the way I undertake an illustration. I find that a more structured approach makes you save time in the end. When I go on and skip a few steps I usually end up regretting it, especially for more complex project. First thing would be to think about what I want to do. What type of character, what camera angle do I want to use. I’ll take some time and look for references. After that I’ll go and block the general shapes and pose the characters. Sometimes, I won’t like how it looks, so I’ll just scratch everything up and try different angles to display the characters or maybe try a different pose. Since I didn’t waste much time rendering, the decision to start over is an easy one to make. When I get to a point where I’m satisfied with the blocking, I’ll go on and start creating a detailed drawing of the scene. After, I’ll add some flat colors and the cast shadows under the lines. I usually try and keep the characters and background on separate layers. Gradually, I’ll add some more complex lighting, clarified the mood and render the image until I’m happy with the result.

What part of the creation process is the most fun and easy and what part is the hardest?
The part I enjoy most is usually the drawing part. This is where I freely develop the fundamentals of the scene. I can let my imagination do it’s thing and create a character with a story and a purpose, an environment where he evolves. I really enjoy this part. Rendering would be the part I find the hardest. There are so many variables to consider when you render that it can quickly become overwhelming. That’s why I favor a more structured approach. When you render a painting you need to think about color and light and how they react to one another. The two will have a direct impact on the different materials in the scene and add to the complexity of rendering properly. It can make this step a bit scary sometimes.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work/collaborate with?
I wake up around 8AM to get to Eidos Montréal where I usually work from 9AM to 18PM. After a well-deserved break to eat, I go back on my computer to work on personal project or studies for another few hours. These past 4 years I mostly favored studies but now I try to find more time for original work. Another thing I do is at least once a month I meet up with other artists to do a Drink and Draws. With these gatherings, we can chat and share bits and pieces of our respective knowledge. It’s pretty fun and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. There are some crazy drawings coming out of these events. :)

What are some of the things you have learned from other artists who you have worked with or whose work you have seen?
Since art school, I had the chance to meet with incredible artists that took some time to teach me a thing or two. Each of them had an impact on very different aspect of my work. They showed me all about the fundamentals and work ethic. They thought me that it’s okay to do bad drawings and that they are part of the process. It’s a marathon not a sprint. They helped me refine the way I paint and go on about designs. I’m very grateful for the time they took to help me.

Is there something that you have designed that you are most proud of?
Honestly, I think I’d have to go with the Zelda Universe entry I did. This is the painting I’m most proud of. On top of that, it was well receive by the community.

What projects have you worked on in the past and what are you working on at the moment (if you can tell us)?
Sure. I used to work at Ludia about 3 years ago. There, I worked on a project called Jurassic Park Builder. I painted a bunch of assets for the game and its expansions. Mostly decorations the player could build to personalize his park. I worked on the Artic expansion so I had to paint a lot of snow and ice which was a fun challenge. And then I joined Eidos-Montréal as a marketing artist. I worked a bit on the reboot of Thief for which I created a bunch of promotional assets. Right After that, we started working on the visual branding for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which was an incredible challenge. A real trial by fire. I was there from the start so I had the chance to do concept for key art and design a lot of the assets that people saw online. Some of the key images used to promote the game are concepts I designed during these past 2 years. I even designed a Chibi Adam Jensen at some point. It was an amazing opportunity. As for the future….only time can tell.

What is your longterm career goal and what would your dream project be?
Being a concept artist in a major studio would certainly be one goal. Other than that, I’d say building my own original universe through character and environment concepts and illustrations.

Working for a company or freelancing: what suits you best? And why?
Definitely working for a company. I need the stability and structure it offers. When I’m home I like working on my own personal project so I have some difficulty prioritizing freelancing. 

What advise would you give to an artist who is dealing with an art-block? How do you boost your imagination and keep yourself creative?
Usually, when I have an art block, I just go online and look at what other artists do. Seeing all this amazing work will undoubtedly trigger some ideas.

Concept art, animation, illustration, comics, there are lots of choices. When you’re young, sometimes you know only one thing: you love to draw. What should a young artist take into consideration to make the right decision when choosing an artistic path?
I guess you need to see the subtleties in what you prefer to do. If you like developing characters but not necessarily spend 60 hours rendering it, then character concept art should be better suited for you. If you do like spending 60 to 100 hours on a painting and push it to the highest level of rendering you can achieve, then go for illustration. If what you like the most is movement, then maybe animation could be a good path. But sometimes you need to try a few things and see for yourself. I went to a 3D animation class and in the end I chose the concept art and illustration path. I’m grateful I did this class, because now as a marketing artist, I often use 3D software to bring my concepts to another level.

Many art teachers and schools suggest to their students that a commercial artist should always work in one consistent style if they wish to have a healthy career. In your own experience, do you believe this to be true?
Well, I think it’s somewhat true because this will help you being identified by clients or even people in general. But in the end, it is what you can do that will get you a job. Can you do characters and environments? Can you create original and high quality concepts whatever the demands? The more versatile you are the higher the chances you have to land a job. All of this can be done within the same style.

If you had to recommend only one art book (a comic book, graphic novel, children book, ''how to'' book) to a fellow artist, what would it be and why?
I’d say Before they Pass Away from Jimmy Nelson. This is an amazing volume for any artist. In it, you find dozens of photographs of tribes and landscapes. It can serve as a great tool for inspiration and references.
What’s your point of view about the industry today: what are the expectation for someone who wants to make a living with an artistic career?
The industry always demands for more. It’s always pushing to go further. So if you want to have an artistic career, you need to have that same mentality. All the great artist we see online have one thing in common; an incredible work ethic. They always try to improve, refine and redefine. You need to be curious. You need to be willing to develop your workflow so you can remain competitive. Nowadays, 3D is a really important tool for concept artist. So is photobashing. As the industry evolves so does the artists in it.

Who are the artists who inspire you the most today and what are some of your favourite designs out there?
For now, artist like Even Mehl Amundsen, Faraz Shanyar, Adrian Smith, Miles Johnston, Rael Lyra, Craig Mullins, Sean Sevestre, Karl Kopinski, Karla Ortiz and Kim Jung Gi are the most inspiring to me. But the world is big and I find great artists almost everyday. Hopefully, if I keep working hard, someday, I will be able to achieve the same level of quality work these guys are doing.

We have a soft spot for hand drawn animation, what is your opinion about the future of this art form?
I really hope it stays. It’s an incredible art form.

Finally, Where can we see your art online and get in touch with you? How can we buy your creations and support your work?
Well I have an Artstation page like most artists: ( artstation.com/artist/michaelverhaaf ) And people are welcome to follow me on Facebook.

Thank you Michaël :)