Interview w/ Illustrator and Concept Artist, Fred Aquino
22 Jul, 2012
To view more of Fred Aquino’s work visit his website at: www.FredAquino.com
For more on Fred Aquino read his blog!
Fred Aquino is a painter and digital illustrator in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a digital illustrator he has worked for well known companies such as Sony, Microsoft Games and Electronic Arts. Video games that he has worked on include The Legend of Alan Dar, Microsoft’s Blood Wake, a Dungeons and Dragons game called Pool of Radiance, and he recently wrapped up some environmental design work on a game called Hydro Thunder 2 for XBOX 360, which is coming out in late summer of 2010. I caught up with Fred Aquino in downtown San Rafael at a community art event called “Youth In Arts,” an organization that he feels passionately about and has been working with for the last ten years.
Dig In Magazine: What types of art do you do?
Fred Aquino: A lot of illustration. That’s where I’m from, in terms of skill and technique. But I’ve been doing a lot more painting lately, because that is where I’m evolving at this point. [I'm] taking the things that I’ve learned through work and my own experience, and applying them to that medium now. I’m really exploring new possibilities and just trying to be more imaginative and more creative.
DIM: How did you get into illustration and digital art?
FA: Well, it was kind of an accident. I was studying at the time and planning to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. Then, I was taking some time off to work and make some extra money. At the time, I was doing contract work for advertising and marketing companies doing flyer work. I was working at a comic book company called Xero Comics and became very good friends with the creators and owners of the company. It was the comic book along with other work that led to my first video game job.
DIM: Were you trained artistically? If so, what was your training and where did you go to school?
FA: I was mostly taking classes at the College of Marin and also I was planning on transferring to the San Francisco Art Institute. So, I was already taking studio classes there, learning how to get the techniques down. But since school is so expensive, I couldn’t continue, unfortunately. So, I had to scale back and do a lot of self-taught [things] like reading a lot of books. This was back in the early nineties, so there wasn’t a whole lot of web. So, I went to the library a lot and studied a lot on my own. And with what little basic training I already had, I just kind of layered that a little bit, and then, nurtured that with working various jobs.
DIM: Where has your art been seen?
FA: It has been seen mostly in video games. I’ve been working in the video game industry since 2000. So, most of my work can be seen in games for Sony, Microsoft Games, and Electronic Arts. Most of my work that you will see [in video games] is not so much from an illustrative standpoint, but you’ll see where the concepts and the graphics have basically gone. For example, you will see an animated figure running around on screen, but that animated figure was born out of a concept that myself and a lot of other artists took part in developing. But I’ve also done a lot of work in comics.
DIM: How would you describe your art? What would you say is your artistic style?
FA: I would call it illustrative painting. In other words, you can definitely see the illustrative roots in the work, but with painting embellishments…playing with tones a little bit more, playing with lighting and composition more, too. So, taking things from both genres and making a nice blend. You have the definition of illustration, but you also have the subtlety and the polish of a painting as well.
DIM: Where do you get your artistic inspiration?
FA: I get it from a lot of places. Mostly from other artists. I grew up looking up to guys like Frank Frazetta, but also a lot of classical artists like Goya, Hieronymus Bosch…mostly the surrealists. I also take a lot from Mexican muralists. They are always a big influence on me as well, because I felt that from a subject matter standpoint they applied really good artwork to themes. So, it wasn’t just beautiful to look at, but it gave you a lot to think about as well.
DIM: What types of programs do you use for your digital illustrations?
FA: For digital illustration I use various programs. It depends on what the job entails. I stick to about 5 programs, Photoshop being the main one. I also bring things into Corel when I want them to have a painterly look. I also do a little bit of 3D stuff as well. For example, when I am working on something that is more environment based, where I’m doing an installation or I’m doing something in which I need to play with lighting a bit more, I would do it in AutoDesk Maya. It would help me get my depth perception better and perspective, because then, you can do wire frame renders. You can block out shapes and use that as a template. Then, I bring that render into Photoshop and really start nailing the tones. These are just tricks of production that I’ve learned over the years. Also, if I’m doing web stuff, I’ll bring it into Dreamweaver or Flash too if I’m doing some animation.
DIM: Did you take classes on these programs or did you learn on the job?
FA: I would say the majority I have learned on the job. Working on video games for many, many years, you learn in a production setting. And not only that, but you have other artists that are absolutely phenomenal. They’ve been using these programs for years and years. And I’ve been lucky and blessed, because they’ve taken the time to sit with me and ask, “What do you want to do? What do you want to get out of this program?” And it’s almost like having your own personal teacher in front of you that can more or less walk you through the steps or give you some pointers. So, that way you’re not fighting the program or software. If anything, the software actually opens up to you. And you can find your own methodology within the software and that will, in turn, keep motivating you to learn more and dig deeper.
DIM: What is the process from beginning to end of doing a digital illustration that is used for the video game industry?
FA: Well, usually it all begins with a written idea. And in the kind of setting that I’ve worked in, in the past, usually a producer or somebody higher up will come to you and say, “This project is about this person on a certain adventure.” And within that framework, that adventure, there are things that we need to illustrate along the way. First off being the main character itself. And so, therefore you would get a written description. And I would like to get as much written information as I can, because it fleshes out the image a lot more. For example, if you’re designing a main character, I would like to know nuances. Like, does this guy scratch his head every five minutes? Does he have nervous ticks? Does he swear a lot? Does he curse? Because I believe that these are things that translate visually as well. I mean, you can tell me that he’s blond and blue-eyed or he’s wrinkly. But I think that that only covers so much ground. I think that it is only looking at it at face value. When you get a little bit deeper, like you could say, this guy’s parents passed away when he was really young. Or you could say he learned Kung Fu when he was five years old. So, these little things along with the physical descriptions give you a more fleshed out character. And I think that with environments, it also works the same as well. I think that giving things a sense of history really helps develop a visual distinct style.
DIM: Your environmental designs seem to be very futuristic or sci-fi, how do you come up with the concepts for your environmental designs?
FA: Well, most things in a sci-fi setting tend to be utilitarian. Because in sci-fi settings, everything has a job and a purpose designed with a use in mind. So, for example, with a specific setting, if it’s going to be a hanger, you say, "What is this hanger for? And you park spaceships in the hanger. Then, of course, I have to think in terms of scale and how big are these things that you park in here, the kind of lighting, because if you park there, how do these things need to be illuminated in this particular area. From a mobility standpoint, how are people going to navigate it and move it around? And ultimately, that gets your brain to start thinking on that utilitarian level. I have to think of catwalks to put in, big cranes that come down and pick things up, because these things are going to get worked on. Also, maybe it’s going to be lit from underneath, because if guys are going to be working on stuff they are going to need to see how they’re working. So, since everything in a sci-fi setting tends to have a purpose or use, you try to make sure that whatever you are designing follows that. But also, combining that with a sense of history, because usually I believe that the best science fiction is not just glossy and finished. I like things that are dirty, things that have grit. And I believe that THAT makes it more believable. For example, if you were comparing sci-fi movies, like Star Trek to Star Wars, in Star Trek everything is clean and well lit, very curvy and almost high design, whereas if you look at something like Star Wars, everything is dirty, cobbled and almost like junkman status. And to me, that almost seems a bit more believable, because I think human beings are like that. I mean, we do have that high sense of style to us, but I think that the average person cannot afford to have these really nice, well-designed things. The average person is going to be cobbling things together. They’re going to be mishmashing things together. They’re going to be dirty. So, I think to the everyday person, it is going to be more believable, because there is already a good mix of that in real life. In other words, there is already a point of reference in real life at this moment. So, it makes that connection more plausible and becomes easier to connect with. Because the world is not a clean place, and if the designs reflect that a little bit, your brain already accepts it on some level.
DIM: I understand that you worked for the video game company, Ubisoft and designed environments for their games. What games were your designs used for?
FA: One of the games I worked on for Ubisoft was one of the first Playstation 2 games. It was called The Legend of Alan Dar. The game was a launch title, which basically means that they are the games that come out at the time the system launches. This is when Playstation 2 was just getting ready to ship out. I was working for Storm Front Studios. And at the time, we were lucky to get this contract, because it was not an opportunity that a lot of studios get. I was part of an amazing team of creative and technical individuals. A lot of people forget that in creating these games, a lot of programming and technical work goes into it as well. We can make things look pretty, but ultimately, the functionality needs to be there and things need to work. That game was in development for about a year and a half to two years. It was tough and one of the more difficult projects that I have been a part of, because when you have a new consul or system to develop for, there isn’t a whole lot to reference to. So, a lot of the things that you are learning, you are learning on the fly. In other words, the system limitation and what it can and cannot do. For example, if I have crazy ideas to design an environment, and then, I try to put it into the Playstation and it says, “Hey, this is too much. I can’t handle it.” Then, you need to scale it back. And that, unfortunately, adds to my production schedule and I have to do more revisions, which takes more time. It is a lot of testing, because that functionality needs to be there. And that’s a big part of development that people don’t know. People think that we make these beautiful things and we just drop it in there, and it works and we get to go home, have a good old time and we’re just playing the game and having fun. But it is actually a lot of hard work, because things in games, a good 60 to 70 percent of time, are not going to work the first time around. There is always going to be a bug or something that you have to address. So, keeping those things in mind as you’re developing also teaches you to be very economical from an artistic standpoint. One of the things I learned that helps me nowadays is that I am a lot more organized when I work, because now, I’m not just letting my brain run all over the place. It makes me be more purposeful when I work, because now I think, “What am I working on and what are the parameters that I’m working within and how do I want to accomplish that?” Working on video games was good for that.
DIM: What video games have you worked on?
FA: I worked on a game for Microsoft called Blood Wake. It was a game for XBOX. We did that a little bit after Alan Dar. I did some illustration design work for a Dungeons and Dragons game called Pool of Radiance. That was actually a lot of fun, because it was fantasy and you can let your brain go crazy. It was fun to be creative. I just recently wrapped up some environmental design work on a game called Hydro Thunder 2 for XBOX 360, which is hopefully coming out late summer. It’s a sequel and a racing game. So, just designing different environments.
DIM: In a video game company as a digital illustrator, who do you work closely with? Is there a design team?
FA: Usually, in most companies there is a basic core art team, which is headed by an art director. And the way it works is that the art director is more or less, the brains. They will assign tasks, give you deadlines and a production schedule to follow. From pre-production, which I was usually a part of, it is about getting things to a certain level of finish, so that when we hand it off to the 3D modelers or the animators, they can take our design work, and already have the templates that they need to work with, and basically begin their tasks. But we also do a lot of work with the programmers, because I can’t design something if the programmer says that it is not going to work and the platform will crash. For example, if I want to design a Medusa character with snakes animating and with all this really cool stuff, sometimes the technical staff says that the technology for the game doesn’t support multiple animations for the head, and they say that you may want to change your design to accommodate that limitation. This is something that a lot of people don’t think about. Sometimes we want to be as creative and imaginative as possible, but a lot of times we do have to scale back, because we are limited by technology. And unfortunately, that is very difficult for a lot of artists, because a lot of artists just want to go wild. And I love to go wild. But unfortunately, we do have limitations that we do have to work with. But I think that the best artists can accomplish that. And in my experience, I feel that I’ve actually created better things, because I have those limitations. It forces your brain to be that much more creative and really push yourself.
DIM: Where do you come up with the concepts for the characters and creatures that you illustrate?
FA: I try to base everything on real life, if I can. For example, if it is a character, I try to get as much information as I can. I ask, “Where is this person from?” And if they say, “They are from the mountains or a cold area.” Then, I’m thinking, “Would it be someone with a Scandinavian or a northern kind of look?” And maybe they would be blond with fair skin. But if somebody says, “This person comes from a dry, desert area,” then I’m thinking that maybe this person has darker skin with maybe dark hair and brown eyes. These little descriptions and nuances influence a big part of how you start a design. With creatures, it is also the same thing. You think, what is this creature about? Is it a bipedal or quadrupedal? Does it have three legs or five legs or eight legs? Then, I reference out to animals in our animal world. If you are saying that it is an eight-legged creature, then I’m thinking about spiders, which are eight-legged. That gives me something to work with. Then, I can use spiders as a reference. If you say that it is a four-legged creature, then I can reference a horse, a dog or a cat. Then, I say, “What kind of a four-legged creature is it? Is it cat-like? Does it have movements of a cat? Or is it more like a dog, more canine, more aggressive? Is it more like a horse that has a galloping movement?” And then, I take those core principles and add design embellishments to those. I think that combining those two give it a sense of believability, because the eye already registers it with something that already exists.
DIM: So these are all original ideas for these characters that you come up with?
FA: Yes, for the most part. Unless they say that we need a guy on a horse. Then, I kind of have to keep it that way. But even with those realistic parameters, I like to change it around, if I can. Like I ask, “Can we give this horse horns or five eyes?” Because I think that you do have to push things a little bit, because ultimately that is what people respond to. Instead of someone saying, “Oh, check out that horse!" Instead, they say, "Check it out! That horse has five eyes!’” I think that those things draw attention. And it is easier for people to come in and really follow up with the rest of what you are trying to present as well. All it takes is just one little thing to grab someone. And once you hook them, then you can bring them into everything else that you are creating. And once they see that, it just begins a snowball effect in their brain [and they think] this is a cool world. This is a cool environment. And that is part of what we do. We try to draw people in and make things believable on a certain level. [We try to] create that escape and that fantasy. If you can get them in with just a little thing like that, you’re pretty much half way there.
DIM: Your Medusa (2009) image is amazing, what did you use to create this and how was it done?
FA: It was a combination of Photoshop and Corel Painter. It’s kind of interesting, because I love both of them, but [each of the programs] only do a certain number of things well. So, I feel like I have to use both to really achieve the effect that I want. For example, with Photoshop, I love the way I can just get around and navigate, because I’ve been using it for so many years. So, in Photoshop, I can get up to speed and get a sketch going and start laying tones really fast. But unfortunately with Photoshop, it gives you too much of a digital look. In other words, when you see it, it doesn’t give you that painterly feel. What I like about Corel Painter is that it has more of that painterly feel to it. So, what I usually do from a technique standpoint is do my basic sketch and color work in Photoshop. In other words, laying out my tones and composition. And then, once I’ve achieved a good thumbnail, I then bring that into Corel and really start setting up the final touches. For example, really fleshing out the lighting, the colors, and the figures. Then, I start really creating that sense of depth.
DIM: What was the Lizard King (2002) used for?
FA: The Lizard King creature was used for the game that I mentioned, The Legend of Alan Dar. He was one of the main characters. The basic game structure was that you are part of a party and you are in an adventure. It is a role playing game setting. And as you play the game, you can outfit your party with different things like weapons and such. One of the members of your party was The Lizard King. According to the story of the game, you visited The Lizard King’s kingdom, he becomes a part of your party and wants to join in on a quest with you. It was kind of an interesting design. Initially, it was supposed to be a lot more monstrous and almost like a swamp creature. We did a bunch of designs for it. And eventually, I was watching this [show] on National Geographic on snakes and I saw this beautiful shot of this snake head that was rearing it’s head out of this hole, and it had this really majestic pose, almost regal. And then I thought, "That is great! How do I capture that?" I went online and found a bunch of reference materials and basically, captured what I had seen previously. This is a creature that people would feel uncomfortable [with] seeing. [Instead], I wanted to give this creature this sense of dignity. And I think that really strikes a cord with people from a design standpoint…taking something that most people would consider as a monstrosity and what most people would not find terribly appealing, and giving it something that you would never find, which is a sense of dignity and a sense of pride. I think that isn’t something most people would put together. But I think that if you combine those elements, it gives it a different feel and makes the creature alive. It makes it seem like it is a living thing rather than just a drawing on paper.
DIM: What art medium to you like best (i.e. sketching, watercolor, ink, pencil, digital, etc.)?
FA: I would say watercolor and traditional pen and ink, because I feel that I can get my ideas out a lot quicker. And I’m starting to do a lot more of sketching on digital. If I can just sketch it out in Photoshop pretty quickly, I’ll try to do that as well. But usually, I’ll just grab a piece of paper and pencil and try to do it that way. Having that illustration background just makes it a lot easier. It gets the idea communicated a lot easier. If you are working for a client or in a production setting, it is much easier to show a sketch to somebody. Then, you can get feedback right away.
DIM: What are you concentrating on creatively now?
FA: Well, creatively now, I want to embrace painting a little bit more. And I want to really take what I know and what I’ve learned to canvas and bring it to more of a gallery feel and taste. I have a good sense of design and illustration. I feel like I’ve been just scratching the surface of some things that I’ve been dying to do and accomplish for a while now. And I feel that being part of RAW was a really good experiment. And I felt like I was really able to get to that point and accomplish what I was trying to do. And I want to explore that. I want to communicate those things that I’ve learned for many, many years and take that to a gallery setting. I want to expand on that and show people a different angle.
DIM: What artwork did you show at the RAW art show on June 4, 2010 in Oakland, California?
FA: For RAW, I displayed three pieces. Two of the pieces were for two gentlemen who were musicians. And the other was a political statement. The first of the two musicians was a salsa percussionist. His name was Ray Barretto. He just passed away in 2006 and was an amazing musician. He was one of the very first instrumentalists to really take an instrument that was thought of as more of a companionment to more of a featured, lead [instrument]. And that is something with percussion that just doesn’t happen very often. The second musician that I worked on was Sam “Lightning” Hopkins. He was a blues musician out of Houston, Texas. He was one of the pioneers of what is called Texas style blues. It’s the kind of music that Stevie Ray Vaugn played and what most people are accustomed to hearing. But [the music was] very rudimentary, almost like Delta style blues. It was just himself, his guitar and his voice. It’s almost like you are sitting on his front porch hearing him play these beautiful songs. They are very heart touching, sentimental songs. When you hear it, it just draws you in. It is very soulful. It is very inspiring to me, because it is the music that I listen to when I work. I thought it would be a great way to introduce people to somebody that maybe they hadn’t heard of. And I think that these musicians get lost in the mix with the Internet and pop music. A lot of these musicians of the past get lost or do not have people rediscovering [them]. So, I thought, “I’m an artist and I have an opportunity to have a voice and to show something to people. Let me present something to the viewer. Let me show something that they might be interested in and might want to appreciate.” So, hopefully that might open the door for them to a bigger world…like somebody that has never listened to blues or “Lightening” Hopkins. If they see one of my paintings, they might think, “Who is that guy? I like him! What’s that guy all about?” And if I say, “That’s ‘Lightening’ Hopkins…go on YouTube and check it out!” The best compliment that I could get would be if somebody said “Your painting was great, but I heard ‘Lightening’ Hopkins and HE was great!” Or “I heard Ray Barretto and I want to pick up all of his CDs now!” Because then, I feel like I’ve done my part as an artist. I feel like I’ve contributed to culture and to people becoming more conscious of what people contribute to society as a whole, in a positive way. I don’t mind being appreciated for my work, but I would get more of a kick if I contributed to a greater appreciation of art and music. Because I’m only a small part of that, but I feel that if I can bring people into the realm that I just happen to be a part of, then that is great! Then, I feel that collectively we are opening the world to somebody and it’s a good feeling.
DIM: I understand that you have done some music album cover artwork. What are some of the covers that you have worked on?
FA: The last cover that I worked on was for a band called Dgiin. They are a local band based out of Sonoma. The music that they play is amazing. It’s basically a marriage of Latin rhythms with traditional French gypsy acoustic. It’s an intense mix. You either want to bob your head or dance. On top of that, I am great friends with the musicians. This is the first CD that they recorded. They were signed to a label. I was complimenting them on the amazing music they’ve been working on and they said, “Freddie, you do art, would you be interested in doing our CD?” And I was really honored. So, we did a piece on the concept of Dgiin, which is French for the word genie, the spirit in the bottle. The CD cover was using smoke as a form to define that infectious spirit that is kind of playful and mischievous. So, creating the art was bringing all of that together and while I was putting the artwork together, I was also listening to their music. Everything that I felt came out on the cover. And I think it worked out beautifully.
DIM: How are you involved with the community organization “Youth In Arts Street Painting Festival”? How long have you been working with them and how does this organization help the community?
FA: The way I got involved with Youth In Arts was actually through my buddy, Will. He had been doing this painting festival for a couple of years before I joined in. And at the time, we had also been asked to speak by Youth In Arts at schools, because unfortunately, a lot of kids these days don’t get a lot of support in believing that art can be a legitimate career. I think a lot of parents are stuck in the mentality that art is not a viable employment. Will and I were able to get in touch with Youth In Arts and they were like “You guys are still younger and kids would actually believe you guys, because you’re not frumpy old guys walking in and telling kids that they can do this.” So, we took in a lot of our video game work, and video games are actually a good way to get kids hooked, because all kids love video games. And we took in a lot of the production work that we had done. We took in demos. We set up a Playstation, so right off the bat kids were like “Wow, you have a Playstation in here?! What’s going on?” So, before we talked, we fired up the video game and played it. And we said [to the kids], “What if we told you guys [that] you could create everything that you see on that TV screen?” That’s a big draw for kids, because the kids start thinking “I could do what I love! I could actually work on something that I have a passion about. How do I do that?” Then, we sit down with kids and we say, “Okay, art can be a job. Art can be a career. There are production artists that make upwards of $60,000 to $100,000 per year. It happens. It’s doable. How bad to you want it?” But at home if your parents aren’t supportive or you don’t know where to find that support, “Talk to US! We can tell you how to find these outlets and these support venues. Get in touch with Youth In Arts, who will get you in touch with art instructors that may not be available at your school, or maybe they can expand on what the art teachers at your school are already doing through after school programs and fieldtrips.” One of the things that I love is that they take kids to the MOMA and expose them to Diego Rivera and Warhol. And for kids that have never seen this and can visually see the painting before them…that [has an] impact. I think as a child growing up, it lets you see that art is something that you can be a part of. It’s not just something that they [merely] saw in a book or that a teacher [had] taught them. When you see that it is something that is obtainable, right then and there, the child feels like “Okay, I want to get on that track. How do I do that?” Kids are pretty focused, so once they have that stuck in their brain, all you have to do is point them in the right direction. Also, it keeps them out of trouble. It’s a positive influence. It keeps kids off the street. Too many times kids fall under the wrong influence, because they are not given those outlets [of] music, art programs, and after school programs that they can come in and be a part of. So, I feel that it works great on two fronts. It keeps kids on the straight and narrow, but it also gives kids that really want to pursue art as a career, the means to do so.
DIM: How long have you been working with this organization?
FA: For about 10 years now. This is community funded. It’s all done through parents and people volunteering…people like ourselves. I could be working on my own stuff right now, but I choose to be here, because I feel that as an artist, I feel that I have a little bit of responsibility. Because ultimately, art has given so much to me in terms of an education, finances, and personal enrichment. I feel that this is a way for me to give back to them and it is a way for me to contribute to hopefully getting kids on that path as well too. Because I was a kid once too and I could of gone on the wrong path, but the fact that I was able to discover art and find my own passion within it, it opened the whole world for me. And if I can do that in some minor capacity and if anything, at least contribute to opening the world up to a child, then I feel that everything that I’ve done is ultimately justified.
DIM: What is in the future for Fred Aquino?
FA: I’d like to start doing my own production work at this point. Maybe set up my own production company where, instead of coming in as a contractor, setting up a real good avenue for companies to come in and talk to us. And team up with other artists and create a production group. People have ideas left and right, and people are always going to need to have those ideas visualized. I always thought it would be great to have some sort of a company or group or collective where we as artists, not only can we share the work, but share the profits that could be available. And there are already things like that set up, but a lot of that is heavily marketed to be way too production based and not artistic based. In other words, rather than just having a collection of illustrators, you would have illustrators, photographers, traditional painters, digital artists…so therefore, [a company] can say, “Let’s go talk to THAT company, because they have everything.” So, it’s a one in all solution. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about doing for a while. And I’ve made a lot of friends throughout the years in all these different disciplines and it’s something that we’ve all discussed as well. It’s also a way to learn from other artists. Because if we’re all working in that sort of collective base, if you’re an artist, you’re going to learn from [other artists]. There’s going to be a natural cross pollination of skills.
DIM: What do you like to do outside of art?
FA: Music is a big part of what I do. My brothers are musicians and we usually come together and play around. I’ve been doing a little bit of work with music programs on the computer. It’s great, because it’s almost like an audio sketchbook where you can take very basic samples and begin constructing and layering from a sonic standpoint. And it’s interesting because you can almost take the same concept of layering in a painting or illustration and apply it to sound to create that composition. Also, I’m interested in doing more production in creating gallery shows. RAW was a great experience and I was able to help out a little bit on the production side with curating, looking at artists and making the art blend together well. So that as a viewer, when you come in, your eye will just naturally follow that course as you walk along the walls. It just becomes an absolutely wonderful journey for you to be stimulated. Those are a few of the things that I’m working on.