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Featured Artist: Steve Sanders, USA

Steve Sanders - Freelance Houdini artist and SCAD graduate

Tampa-based freelance Houdini artist and SCAD graduate Steve Sanders loves creating unique environmental pieces inspired by the patterns, colors and forms found in nature. Lately, he has been working on creating interactive experiences in virtual reality. An unexpected family tragedy forced him to go freelance. Here he shares his life story and his tips on how to be successful as an independent artist.

I enjoyed drawing, painting and sculpting since I was a little kid. Engaging in creative work provided me with a much needed escape from the deadly routine of everyday life. I hated my public school and didn’t see the point in focusing my life on passing the next test or on completing yet another homework assignment. So I retreated into the worlds created by films and video games. Spirited AwayToy StoryGhost in the ShellBlade Runner, and The Matrix are just a few examples of movies that inspired me growing up. Video games including Final FantasyICO, and Shadow of the Colossus were beyond visually breathtaking and became the benchmark against which I compared my work. Needless to say, I quickly concluded that I didn’t measure up. So I began to research techniques used in films and games, and found that most utilized computer software. ​

In high school I took my first steps towards creating digital art by enrolling in a graphic design course that introduced me to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. These programs gave me the capability to create work that began to live up to my high expectations, although at that point I was still firmly rooted in the 2D world.

Creating digital art in a graphic design course: Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

After graduating from high school, I toured Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), a well-known fine arts college not far from home. My original plan was to major in graphic design or web design, but during the SCAD visit a pivotal encounter with SCAD professor Kenneth Huff would change that. When I expressed my passion for the astounding visual effects that films and games portrayed, Huff graciously took me for a one-on-one tour of the Digital Arts Building.  He convinced me I didn’t need to be a top mathematician to create 3D visual effects for the movie industry. I was ecstatic!

The conversation with Kenneth Huff marked the beginning of my four years at SCAD, during which I learned an entirely new approach to creating images using 3D modeling and animation tools. The transition from 2D to 3D art was truly overwhelming, but after the first year, I gained confidence and finally produced images I was proud of. I now knew that I was moving in the right direction and toward accomplishing my dreams.

Creating images using 3D modeling and animation tools.

I can’t stress enough how important my mentors were during my time at SCAD. In addition to Kenneth Huff, SCAD professor Dr. Deborah R. Fowler was truly influential in forming my career path. Fowler, who previously worked for Pixar as lighter for the Toy Story and Toy Story 2 films, advised me on how to develop my work and gave me a solid foundation in programming, color theory and composition.

In 2013, I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from SCAD and initially I was planning on starting out in a studio like most of my friends.  But while I was working towards my degree at SCAD, my sister suddenly passed away leaving behind an eight year old daughter. My parents, retired and battling health issues, adopted my niece and I quickly realized that they would need help in raising her. Moving to Tampa to be close to my parents was a no brainer, but it did require a serious adjustment of my career and life plans. Eventually though I established myself as a successful independent artist.  I now combine school runs with freelance work for the Audubon Nature Institute, located in New Orleans, Louisiana. I have created various educational exhibits for the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Zoo, which has been immensely rewarding and inspirational.

​Setting myself up as a freelance artist, particularly in such trying circumstances, was pretty scary: firstly because there were no more mentors to guide me and secondly because my income was variable, depending on the projects I had in my pipeline. I wanted to share what I learned during this challenging time with other aspiring freelance artists, in the hopes that this will make their first years as freelancers easier to navigate.​

First of all I would say don’t be afraid to temporarily look for jobs outside of your field of expertise to create additional sources of income if that’s what it takes to stay independent. Eventually your work will speak for itself and you’ll be able to make a living if you’re just persistent enough.

The other piece of advice I’d like to give to freelancers starting out is that the internet is really great and provides artists with all kinds of technical resources, which are often times free. You just need to know where to look – so learn to become your own mentor and career expert. Below is a list of online resources for you to get started.

Internet is really great and provides artists with all kinds of technical resources.

To keep your creativity going there are two cheap ways of getting inspiration. First of all, study the natural world. There are shapes, patterns and color palettes that have been around for millions of years. Go outside and study them! Second, surround yourself with creative professionals from different areas of expertise. Cooks, woodworkers, painters, musicians, actors – these are all creatives who can add ideas to your work process and to your ability as a visual storyteller. 

Keep in mind that networking online is useful and necessary, but meeting real people face to face is priceless. Use apps such as Meetup to get in touch with like-minded professionals and exchange ideas. ​

These are all creatives who can add ideas to your work process and to your ability as a visual storyteller.

Finally, don’t neglect the practical aspects of running your business. Set up a decent billing and accounting process, ensure your health care is covered and make sure that you have enough computational resources to be able to render your work at a high quality level. Relying on your personal workstation only may be impractical, particularly if you are running complex simulations. Running sims on your computer while you are sleeping is great, but your progress will be painfully slow and it may make it impossible for you to work on several projects at the same time. Online rendering with conventional render farms can often be extremely costly and renting external servers can end up eating your time with lengthy setup processes before you can even render your first frames.

After trying multiple external rendering services I was pretty frustrated with my lack of computational resources when I finally found Gridmarkets, a cost efficient online rendering service. Gridmarkets utilizes unused computer power to help artists render their work, which is why they are affordable while getting the job done within my tight deadlines. Creations that typically took me a couple months to complete are now finished within a few days, which allows me to take on multiple projects at a time. I feel as in control of my processing time as I would be in a large studio, with the added advantage of having the creative freedom that freelancing brings. That's the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

Steve Sanders 2016


By: Patricia Cornet
GridMarkets marketing

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