Photographer's Blog: Working With the Über-Talented Rich Lee
My attention was drawn to Rich Lee's MotoGP illustrations some time ago when I stumbled across his work on Facebook. As a long-time graphic designer who has worked with many illustrators, I am often amazed at what folks like Rich are able to do: draw! I can't draw at all. Not even a little bit. Just ask my 7-yr old daughter. "That doesn't look very good, Daddy." Seriously, you'd think a half-way decent dog would be pretty easy to draw. Perhaps I'm a photographer so that I can take a picture of a dog that looks just like a dog.
As a designer I'm also very familiar with the software digital illustrators use to turn their sketches into finished art. I use them for my own projects at a level that doesn't come close to that of which these applications are capable, so when I see a skilled illustrator do the kind of shading and detail evident in Rich's work I'm further amazed and humbled.
The idea of making even a small contribution to one of Rich's drawings appealed to me immediately, and in October I invited him to lunch so we could meet and get an idea if it might be possible to work together on some sort of project. I was pleased to find that Rich was as nice a person as I've ever met. Friendly, easy-going, and incredibly talented is a great combination of qualities, and I was hopeful that something tangible might result from our meeting.
As we discussed how he works, he mentioned that he was thinking of doing a drawing based on Marco Simoncelli. Given that Marco was one of the most exciting riders to photograph because of his aggression on track and body language on the bike, I thought this was a great choice for Rich's style. Rich likes to emphasize certain elements, such as tire size and rider position, to focus the viewer's attention on details that make MotoGP so exciting. It's the same thing I try to do with photographs, but the results of these similar intentions are quite different.
Rich told me how he often begins with a photograph he's found somewhere that inspires him to develop the basic image into something in his unique style. We agreed that I would look through my archive for photos of Sic that might give Rich a spark of inspiration. For my part, I hoped he would pick an image that, if not uniquely mine, was at least indicative of my own style of photography. The first thing I thought of was glowing brake discs at Qatar because, ever since 2009 when I was the only photographer standing at Turn 1 at Losail, I've considered the glowing brake disc shot a contribution that I helped make to the standard Qatar repertoire. I sent Rich a selection of photos and he picked this one from which to begin his process:
At this point all I could do was wait and see what he came up with. While I waited I grew curious of how he began and which steps were involved in going from beginning to end. I asked him to keep track of his drafts so that we could share his process in this article. Though I did not see a draft until a week or so later, this was the first sketch Rich did, pencil on paper, then scanned into his computer.
You can see that the sketch is basically a pencil drawing of the photograph. The proportions are very close to real life and the image looks like a recreation of the photograph rather than an artist's interpretation, but that process has already begun in the first attempt. Notice that Sic's left leg is a bit larger than real life in the sketch, and his left elbow has begun to tuck inside the knee. This will become part of how Rich emphasizes Sic's size as one of the larger riders. Next came this one:
Suddenly things are going in a much different direction as Rich's graphic hyperbole sets in. In addition to changing the rider-bike proportions even more and moving Sic's elbow from tucked inside his knee to the other way around, Rich has started to include elements from some of the other photographs I provided. The front wheel is out of alignment with the chassis under braking, and the exaggerated rear wheel steps out as Sic tries to control the forces of heavy braking. RIch has taken the basic details of the photos and combined and exaggerated some of them to crank up the tension in the image. The tires are different sizes, and Marco has grown even more in stature. He's not Pedrosa after all, he's a tall, lanky guy trying to fit onto a bike designed for someone much smaller than he as he fights to control the incredible pressure placed on the front suspension.
At this point Rich was ready to show me something, and emailed this:
Though very similar, it's a separate drawing from the previous image. Tiny details give it away, such as the hairline accent over the rear wheel and the curves that define the rear tire. Once recognized as separate sketches, it's interesting to me that they are so similar in so many ways. That Rich can redraw something with so many lines nearly identically to the previous sketch is pretty amazing to someone who can't draw a decent dog. Rich has also begun to use a detail truly unique to MotoGP, that of Sic's flowing hair escaping from his helmet and imaging in his own way that Sic's speed might cause some hair to come loose from the mane barely contained within the crash hat.
Rich then got back to work by adding some background detail and sent me a second preview:
This one shows how Rich is planning the entire composition, where it is placed in the background, and what the background will look like at least in general terms. With this plan in mind, Rich then set about creating the actual piece in digital form.
He started again with much finer lines, now that the basic elements of the illustration are in place. To add detail, Rich asked for more photos showing the profile of the Gresini Honda so he could get, for example, the vents behind the seat just right. One of the amazing things about Rich's drawings is the degree of detail, and in this early state those details are starting to take shape, including such instances of the lighter pressure of his pinky finger on the clutch lever.
At this point Rich is working with much greater care and we can see how precise every line is. No longer sketching in pencil on paper, he is drawing with a pen and tablet directly into Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. With the outlines in place, Rich starts to fill in the basic colors of the Gresini San Carlo livery and add basic textures of elements such as the exhaust pipe and the tire compounds.
The basic shadow is now present, since the final image will be under Qatar's lights, but the image is still flat with no highlights, reflections or shadows other than the most basic one on the ground.
The next layer is for the decals, again all recreated with amazing precision. Little details add a lot to the overall effect, such as how the baseline of the Bridgestone decal on the swing arm is not straight, but has a slight bend to indicate the curvature of that section of the bike.
Now Rich has gone to the next level by adding shadows and highlights on the bike and rider. Notice how dark Sic's chest has become compared to the previous version and how these shadows increase the impression of his posture on the bike. This layer is perhaps the one that impresses me the most. For example, the details of the swing arm add a depth to the element simply by drawing the small but precisely placed and designed highlights. These small touches are added judiciously all over the bike and rider and have a cumulative effect that makes the difference between the previous version and this one the most remarkable in the series to me.
More highlight details are added, bringing great depth to the image. Again, look at the swing arm and how a few tiny additions of highlights and reflections add so much to that part of the illustration. Such small touches are placed all over the illustration and may not be noticeable on their own but again have a cumulative effect on the overall look. The glowing front rotor makes its appearance as well.
The background is now ready to join the scene and begins as a combination of blurred pavement and rumble strip, and the green, gray and black of the Losail setting.
Glowing halos of the lights are added on top of Sic's logo number in the background.
The two sections are then composited to reveal the final illustration. A few more touches are added, such as the exhaust flame and some over all color adjustment to account for placement on the background and to show the influence of the ambient lighting.
Rich says it takes him between 40 and 50 hours to complete one of his drawings, and I think seeing this series of steps shows how this can easily be the case. Because Rich earns his living by creating such illustrations for the growing audience of those of who appreciate his work, we found ourselves in a tough spot after Sic's tragic accident at Sepang. We were both concerned about being perceived by those who do not know us as trying to capitalize on the accident by offering this work for sale.We deliberated for several days before deciding, in Rich's words, that "there's no better way to pay homage than to continue as planned." I agreed with this opinion partially because I support Rich and his desire to bring his work to his audience, and partially because I knew some people would be looking for ways to remember Marco. Some would see Rich's illustration and it would speak to them, so to stop Rich's progress and abandon this work would deprive those folks of a valued remembrance, something they would appreciate and treasure as they kept Marco alive in their memories. Out of respect for the loss of this unique rider, Rich and I decided to donate a portion of the proceeds to Riders for Health in Simoncelli's name, since he was a generous supporter of this excellent charity whenever asked to participate in Riders' fundraising activities.
We hoped this would be an honorable solution to a difficult problem, and some have agreed without decision, while others have not. You can find every opinion under the sun on the Internet, after all, and in the Internet Age never has it been more true that you can't please all of the people all of the time. After the illustration was announced as available for purchase, we received both compliments and appreciation as well as criticism, which has made this project unique in my experience. What I'd hoped would be a special item that would both honor a rider I will greatly miss in the paddock, and further the career of a talented artist I respect and like personally, has also become a source of considerable disappointment for the level of disagreement that has resulted from our well-intentioned desire to create something special in honor of this amazing rider.
Whatever your thoughts on the ethics of this work, I hope you can step aside for a moment to appreciate Rich's talent, the display of which is the intention of this post. More of Rich's work can be found on his website, www.richleedraws.com