We asked Collin Leix, a Virtual Reality artist about her creative evolution
"Before I became a VR artist, I started out as an oil painter, focusing on portraits. Over the years this evolved as I became more interested in the concepts behind the process of MAKING.
I'm a violinist, and I got really interested in graphic musical scores; different ways to interpret drawings as musical direction. I also discovered I had synaesthesia - a neurological condition which causes a blending of different senses - in my case, numbers and colors. This all led me to experiment more with how I approached creating an image."
"In 2009 I started a Master's program in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan, where we were encouraged to experiment a lot. I began as a painter and finished with a thesis project that was a huge installation on the ceiling, with animations projected on it. The animations I started out with were rudimentary stop-motion animations with paper and paint, with landscape as a subject matter. The animation was so positively challenging as a medium that I knew I wanted to pursue it.
After my Master's in 2012, I went to a local community college to take a course on After Effects, and since then have been pretty much self-taught. I jumped into art apps, Cinema4D, and have tried a bit of cel as well, but focused mainly on After Effects. I created animations direct-to-client for a few years and made sure to always do my own artful experiments in animation and put them online.
"I was dealing with a big health challenge and had a spell of depression, which often had me lying on the floor with my dog. So this was my view. I challenged myself to make something once a week, even if it was really short in order to meet myself where I REALLY was.
In 2018 I was hired by the animation studio Gunner in Detroit, and have been there since!"
How would you describe your style?
"Realism still has a place in my heart from my early days. Since then, my style has a bit more surrealism and playfulness, and I'm forever studying how color can communicate mood.
My style has absolutely evolved also since I joined the team at Gunner. We are often working as a team to support different styles, so I get to 'try out' styles that aren't my own. Some ways of using loose brushwork, outlines, or simplifying design elements are some examples of what I've tried and kept doing afterwards. For example, the piece 'Crocus' is a mixture of painting textures over 3D forms, both with realism and simple shapes, using VR sculpting as well as good old Photoshop painting."
"One reason I love working at the studio is because the edges that define 'me' and 'my style' have blurred. Take the video called 'Interruption' for example. I was invited to make an Instagram post for Gunner when I first started. I wanted to use a bit of surrealism to show what it feels like to be in the flow of playing music, and what you may see in the mind's eye - and then how it feels to be interrupted.
While I did all the animating and most of the design, my wonderful co-worker Ian Sigmon pushed me a LOT in the character design. I wouldn't have got to those crazy long arms and simplified body shapes by myself. This led us to realize that the woman's body can dissolve back into the shapes when she begins to play again."
"I remember losing a high-school art contest because my paintings weren't all that cohesive, or all the same style. I thought this was my curse, but it's turned out to be a blessing for the work I do now."
What is the key to making your illustrations?
"For me, it always has to come down to a gut feeling. There's always a nugget of curiosity at the start of each new piece - sometimes it's a color combination I want to try out, sometimes it starts with a gesture, or a quotation, or a little story.
Something that marks my artwork is the fact that I'm always trying out new mediums. Right now, I'm so in love with drawing and painting in Virtual Reality. We're also making a short film at Gunner that runs the gamut of painterly cel in Photoshop, to 3D rendering, to sculpting in VR, then projecting a painting on the sculpt. I've included a shot from the film, called Sync, as a sneak preview. It's Gunner's first film directed by a woman, and it's about three strangers on an airplane and something unexpected that happens to them during the flight.
What would you advise someone who starts out with VR art?
"When approaching any new tech, I always have a little image or a story of what I want to make first. I guess that's a tip I have for anyone who wants to expand their skill set - do a style frame or have a little sketch or story you want to do before folding in the new technology. Then you have a purpose - a 'why'. Otherwise, you're just flopping around tutorials, taking on other people's styles and stories.
Here's a piece we made to kick off a conference called Blend at Gunner in 2019, in which I sculpted a lot of the environmental assets in Virtual Reality. I had played with sculpting a little bit, but when I had the right 'why', my experimentation and skills expanded exponentially. Here's a video that's a tour of the landscapes I made."
"I'm pretty active on Instagram also made a class on how to recreate your illustrations in 3D space with Tilt Brush. You don't have to be a VR artist yet, but you have to have a VR headset to take the class, but I walk people through the process from there. I put SO MUCH LOVE into this!"
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