September 1, 2011 12:54 pm

Windows 7 themes: the surreal illusions of Josh Sommers

In my previous Themes Thursday blog post I introduced the photography of Josh Sommers with the HDR and double-exposure images in the Beach Sunsets theme. This week I have the pleasure of bringing you another theme featuring Josh’s work: this new Illusions theme provides a more complete introduction to the breadth of his creative style.

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I discovered Josh’s digital art years ago on Flickr, and was impressed by the range, originality, and quality of his work. Some of his inspirations (Escher, Droste) are self-evident, but in almost every case he takes the image to the next level in ways that are unexpected, darkly humorous, poignant, or visually stunning.

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Many of Josh’s digital artworks use his own likeness, sometimes transmuted into a tree or animal, sometimes traveling through vortexes or trapped between dimensions. The effect of paging through these galleries is of watching a familiar character embroiled in one surreal Gulliver-like adventure or nightmarish mishap after another.

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I wasn’t surprised to discover that in addition to being a visual artist, Josh is also an actor, since his dramatic skills are evident in these images. But I was a bit surprised to learn that on top of that he is also a classically trained vocalist and pianist, writes songs, and plays guitar, ukulele, banjo, accordion, and acoustic bass.

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If you are starting to feel that this is too much talent for one person, you are not alone. Meanwhile, for a complete change of pace, Josh’s “day job” is as the Lead Software Developer and Creative Director at Interbill.

How does one person have time for all this? I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to pursue a demanding career and also have enough time and energy for one’s art, so I asked Josh how he does it.

“Well, it ebbs and flows for me. I have periods of artistic hyperactivity and periods of little to no creative activity, but not much in between. When I am hyperactive, making art can be like an addiction and I usually sacrifice sleep, exercise and social activity for countless hours in front of the computer. Most of my art is created between 8pm and 2am.”

Are there connections between his various artistic pursuits? “Music does inspire art and art does inspire music for me. I think ultimately it all comes from the same creative pool, so there is always the potential for cross inspiration. As for finding time, it’s the same with anything creative, and for me I tend to have one creative addiction at a time. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s theatre, sometimes it’s photography or art. This too ebbs and flows, and sometimes years will pass before I’ll return again to a particular interest.”

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Another question I had for Josh is how he became so skilled with Adobe Photoshop and other digital art software. I was surprised to discover that he is entirely self-taught.

“I think a key factor in my abilities with Photoshop is the age at which I started using it. I was 12 years old and I had nothing but time on my hands. While some of my friends would spend summer vacation playing football, I would often spend my vacation perched in front of my parents’ computer just playing around with Photoshop. My advice to others in gaining a high level of expertise is pretty straightforward: use it a lot, and always press yourself to improve upon what you’ve achieved in the past. For me that means I’m always pushing the envelope and holding myself to the highest standard, which requires a lot of persistence. If I am not 100% satisfied with a piece, I’m willing to scrap it and try again. I’ve spent a lot of time banging my head on the wall trying to achieve something specific, and I think to gain a high level of expertise you have to be willing to endure those moments, and keep trying until you get what you want.”

Josh also credits his parents. “I think that coming from an artistic family and having my creativity encouraged throughout my childhood was really important, too. Before I ever discovered Photoshop, I was always interested in drawing and other arts and crafts. Photoshop just became a new medium for expressing my creative energy.”

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The support Josh’s parents gave him is illustrated by two of his memories from grade school. “I would often get in trouble for being artistic. In second grade we were asked to draw a self-portrait. For my self-portrait I drew myself as a young man with stubble and an earring and spiked hair. I thought this was creative, and my parents did, too – but the teacher called a parent-teacher conference because of it and claimed that the act was not creative, but rather a failure to follow directions. The next year a similar incident occurred where we were asked to create a picture of an animal using scraps of wallpaper. I created a picture of a parrot, but the tail feathers fell well off the bottom edge of the paper. Again, a parent-teacher meeting was called because I was not following directions; I was not “staying within the lines” so to speak. In both cases my parents defended me and praised my work. They taught me never to question my creativity and assured me that what I had done was not wrong.”

As for the spark that set off his current outpouring of creativity, there were two key catalytic agents: getting a digital camera and discovering the image-sharing communities on Flickr. “One of my friends purchased a Canon Digital Rebel. Out of jealousy I decided it was time for me to get a dSLR too, and I ended up with the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. That was around November of 2006. A few weeks later I joined Flickr, where I saw the work of many talented photographers and artists, and something clicked inside. Suddenly I made the connection between my photography and my lifelong experience with Photoshop. All of the work I had done in Photoshop up to that point had been OK, but I never really felt very proud of it. To me it was all just digital doodling, and I never felt that I was truly expressing myself in any way. But that all changed in an instant. With the vast amount of inspiration I found on Flickr my creativity just exploded. The result of that explosion is represented by the complete contents of my Flickr stream, all of which has been created since I purchased the Digital Rebel.”

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What else is in Josh’s essential toolkit? “My tripod, my flashes and strobe lights, my panoramic tripod head, my gradient ND filter, and my Wacom tablet are all essential tools that I rely upon to create my images.”

With many of Josh’s images, I feel like there is a “backstory,” and I find myself wanting to know what it is. I asked if when he is composing a new image, does he think about it in terms of a dramatic narrative, or is the inspiration solely visual? For example, the picture of Josh in a gas-mask, clutching a hoe and staring upwards at the viewer. What is happening in that image? Did he have a story in his mind, or did he just think “Hey – me in a gas mask with a hoe in a corn-field at night would look really cool”?

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Josh answered, “It works both ways. Sometimes I create what I would call digital doodles to explore visual effects that really don’t arise out of any particular dramatic narrative; you can see many images in my stream that are in this category. But other times I have a very specific idea or story that I want to convey. Regarding the specific image you mentioned, it was the summer of 2008 and there were wildfires burning out of control all over California. Where I live the air was heavily polluted with smoke for several weeks, and I found myself thinking about how toxic the air must be, and the idea came to me while working in the garden one day that I should be wearing a gas mask. With an image like that, I really enjoy executing the vision, and allowing viewers to find their own story or interpretation of it. The fact that you see the image and want to know more about it is exactly the kind of reaction I like to evoke.”

For more of Josh’s photography and digital art, keep an eye on his Flickr photo stream. And for more décor for your desktop, keep on checking back on the Windows 7 themes gallery.