Artist Interview with Darko Vucenik

In this interview we talk with Darko Vucenik (First place of the CG Boost Alchemist Challenge and CG Boost Time Travel Challenge  and third place of the CG Boost Ice Cream Shop Challenge) from Croatia. He will give us some insights of his journey as CG Artist and a look behind the scenes of one of his winning artworks.

Darko's winning artwork of the Alchemist Challege

Darko Vucenik
Lead 3D artist at RC Anima
USA, Georgia

Follow Darko:

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?

I am a 3D artist and illustrator from Croatia, now living in USA, Georgia. I work in advertising and gaming industry.

2. Tell us more about your creative path: How did you get to the point you are now?

I loved drawing since I can remember so I always followed a creative path.
I went to art high school learning illustration and graphic design. School taught traditional techniques but there was a room full of computers, that was when I first started experimenting with use of computers in my work. Back then my program of choice was Corel Draw, then I discoverer Photoshop and a bit later 3D Studio Max. Since then I was hooked on 3D but I never abandoned 2D art either.
Along with school, I started working as a freelancer illustrating books, magazines and creating packaging designs. My high school graduating project was my first 3D cartoon. That project landed me a job in my first studio where I worked in Lightwave as an animator. After a few months I enrolled in Fine Arts Academy, animation department to pursue a Masters degree in animation. During my college years, I continued to work as freelancer adding various 3d projects to my experience. After graduating I started working in InFine studio which was back then the biggest CG studio in Croatia. That was a very interesting experience. Later I switched to RC Anima studio where I still work as a lead 3D artist. Despite working in studios, I always kept a parallel freelancer career which allowed me to work on projects that are simply not available in world of advertising, book Illustration and video games. Along the way I kept learning, new software and refining my skills, not just for work, but for myself, to satisfy my personal need to be creative.

3. What was your main motivation for participating in the challenge?

Since my earliest efforts in the world of 3D, I used contests as a big motivator to push my skills to a higher level in a fun setting where it is easy to see how other artist approach the same problem. Back then CG Society was the big game in town when it came to competitions. I would often compete in their challenges knowing that as a beginner I had no chance of winning. Despite that I saw great value in my attempts because no matter how the competition turned out, I would end up leveling up my skills in the process and hopefully creating a nice new piece for my portfolio. My goal was to one day be as good as the winners. I kept pushing until I finally won, first a few minor prizes and then finally the first place in CG Society’s Decisive moment challenge. I kept entering various challenges and pushing my skills. In each challenge piece I try some new technique or software to learn something new.
Then I moved to USA. Starting fresh across Atlantic got me so busy that I had no time for challenges so I stopped entering them for a while. I missed them and when I caught a bit of free time I decided to enter another one for fun. I went to CG Society but the challenge they were running at the time was closely tied to their sponsor. Topic was a video game that did not resonate with me, it did not inspire me. Then my wife discovered CG Boost on Facebook and sent me the link. Ice Cream Challenge was running. Great image by Cesar Verastegui (he ended up winning) greeted me as I opened the page. It was very impressive and in a cartoony style that I am partial to. The topic was cool too and I was hooked. Despite there being only few days to the end of the challenge, I decided to enter. I won second place and that encouraged me to try again and do better so I entered the Time Travel Challenge. For this one additional motivator were cool prizes too. I am learning Blender so all the tutorials for it in the prize pool looked mighty attractive. I was thrilled to win. I actually did not plan to enter the Alchemist challenge but a friend of mine from work entered so I did too so we cold encourage and motivate each other pushing our images further. CG Boost community is very friendly and participating in challenges is so much fun.

4. Where did you find the inspiration for your latest entry, and what inspires your work everyday?

Alchemist is such an interesting topic but also, depending how freely it is interpreted, hard to distinguish from wizards, witches and magical things in general. That is why I wanted to show something that is very stereotypical of alchemists, immediately recognizable to almost everyone. Turning led to gold and creating life in a jar seemed most common topics to imagine when thinking of alchemists and since homunculus are so much more interesting than transmutation of metals, the decision on what to make was easy. One of the things that make challenges like this so much fun is the freedom to do whatever you want within very broad theme. When it comes to inspiration in general, I can find some almost anywhere. For instance, imagining a tree stump I saw while walking my dogs as a weird creature, interesting rust pattern on an old abandoned oil drum in the grass, burn marks on top of a breakfast pancake forming a cool shape and of course, more obviously, so many impressive images from various artist that can be seen on sites like Art Station or Zbrush Central.

5. What software (and plug-ins) did you use to create this image? Are there some other tools that make your life as artist easier (maybe not only CG tools but also something you use to organise your work etc.)?

I use 3D studio Max as my main 3D program coupled with Fstorm render engine. For sculpting I use Zbrush, for texturing Substance Painter, for sketching and illustration Clip studio Paint, for cloth simulations Marvelous Designer and After Effects for compositing. For this project I added ty flow to my toolbox, a really awesome particle system for 3D Max (currently free in open beta stage).
I use a whole bunch of other software packages dependent on the needs of the project and clients pipeline but now days I don’t think that software matters as much as it once did. For instance, Blender is more feature rich than Max and often the only limitation of what you can create is the level of familiarity with your tools rather than what exact tool you are using.
Sometimes in professional workflow, you need to use specific tool to fit in to the studios pipeline but even that is less often the case than it once was.
I do not have any particular organizational tool instead just practicing good project organization with clear naming conventions and folder structures.

6. Are there any particular techniques that you use often?

One of my favorite techniques is to block out complex shapes from simple 3d objects such ascylinders, boxes spheres and 3d splines, then merging them together into a new object withuniformly sized polygons over entire surface (in Zbrush that is the Dynamesh option) that I canthen sculpt into more refined shape with medium detail level. Then I retopologize the object fornice polyflow and sculpt the details on the resulting mesh. This method is very fast and preciseway to form various complex objects.

7. Can you give us a short breakdown of your entry?

 I start by creating a few rough sketches. How different this sketches are one from another depends on how clear is the idea in ma head. In case of Alchemist, a had a pretty clear vision of what direction picture should go so they are quite similar

Next, I will do a quick block out in 3D Studio Max using super simple geometry to see if the composition works in 3d. For characters I will often use CAT, a system intended for rigging but works great for super quick blocky 3D sketches as well. 

Next step is to create more detailed versions of all the object in the scene usually starting with the most important elements such as characters and the jar in this scene. I did not have to build this rough version of the characters from scratch in the case of Alchemist picture. Instead I cut apart various characters from old project and merged them together. This method creates a very messy mesh but that doesn’t matter as I will dynamesh everything in Zbrush, drastically reshape it and then retopologize the mesh. Then comes one of may favorite parts sculpting details in Zbrush and poly painting some of the objects. 

For clothing I will use Marvelous Designer. The costume is further improved by adding small wrinkle detail in Zbrush and adding decorative stitches, fabric fuzz and buckles in Max. 

Textures and lighting are done bit by bit during the whole project, gradually improving to compliment the scene.

I often render a lot of various passes for maximum control during compositing, but in case of Alchemist the initial render test looked good so the few passes I did render were mainly to better control the depth of field by separating the background and foreground element from the rest of the scene. 

Finally, I used After effects to composite all the layers together and image was done.

8. What was the hardest part on creating your entry?

Managing time. I get very ambitious with my pictures when it comes to the level of detail and it was quite difficult to get all the objects done in limited free time I could dedicate to the challenge.

9. Have you learned something new from participating in this challenge and if yes, what?

Learning something new is for me a big part of entering challenges. For Alchemist Challenge I learned 2 new thing. I used a new particle system ty Flow to create bubbles, smudges, blobs and vines at the bottom of the jar.

Second thing was Geo Pattern, a feature of Fstorm render engine that uses a 3d modeled piece of geometry as a sort of a 3d texture using another objects UVWs for distribution.

I also appreciate constructive criticism. It is easy to get tunnel vision while working on a project so outside input is always welcome even after the picture is done as I will take it on board and make the next picture better

10. Any advice for people who want to learn 3d art or join challenges like this? 

When learning 3D it is important to get to know your chosen 3D application so that technical aspects don’t bug you down but it is also very important to learn core art skills such as composition, color theory or anatomy if you do characters. Most 3D tutorials that I encountered focus only on learning the application assuming you already know the rest, so it is not a bad idea to look for the info on more general aspect of art in tutorials that are not meant for 3d artist. For instance I found tutorials that teach how to set up ligating for photography very useful when it comes to improving lighting in your 3d renders.
When it comes to joining art challenges, I would say have fun, enjoy the process of creating, learning and comparing your results to other competitors. When creating your stuff, keep in mind the time constraints and plan things out before you actually start modeling.

11. Who are your favorite artists, traditional or digital, and can you explain why?

Some of my favorite artists are Marco Bucci, because I find the way he deals with colors so amazing, Marek Denko for the incredible level of detail and richness of shaders in his models, Carlos Ortega Elizalde because I just love a well executed cartoony character art, and Bobby Chiu for his polished creature illustrations.

11. Any good books, podcasts, youtube channels or other useful / inspirational content you can recommend to other aspiring artists?

Thanks for the interview Darko!


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