Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Insightful elegance: A conversation with Bryan Christie

Lying woman, by Bryan Christie

A while ago, my friend Jaime Serra, recently recognized as the most influential infographics designer of the past two decades, coined a saying that summarizes a great portion of my own philosophy: "Infographics cannot be art, but a piece of art can certainly be an infographic". I remembered Jaime's words while revisiting several of Bryan Christie's projects after I interviewed him on his way back from a two-month sabbatical.

Bryan Christie is, today, the most successful 3D artist in the U.S. The work of his studio, Bryan Christie Design 
artists Joe Lertola and Jeong Suh, and managers Erica Schwartz-Hall and Maryanna Sutterhas been showcased in dozens of publications, and his style has become the cornerstone of a new way of approaching three dimensional illustration in information graphics, one that is grounded in precision, crisp detail, and sober elegance. In the words of a reviewer, Bryan's work is beautiful and deceptively simple.

Your studio seems to have developed a quasi-monopoly in the 3D science illustration market. Do you think that the peculiarities of your style have something to do with that? And, in that case, what makes your work so different from other artists'?

Philosophically, I think differently about 3D. To explain that, I will need to go back in time a bit. When I started out as an illustrator at my father's studio in 1996, I learned Adobe Illustrator 5.5 and did a lot of work for Home Mechanics, drawings of water heaters, roofing, how to clean your gutters, stuff like that. I became very familiar with two-point perspective and technical drawings. I enjoyed it a lot. About a year into doing that my father started experimenting with digital 3D. And I honestly hated it. Everything looked so plasticky to me. Illustrator felt much closer to traditional drawing.

I was with my father for a year, freelanced on my own for another six months or so, and then took a job at Scientific American. SciAm is, I believe, the oldest 
continuously published magazine in the United States. They started in the 19th century and they have a library of all their old back issues. I completely fell in love with its old graphics and illustrations from the 19th century up until the 60s and 70s. I loved the line work, and how they turned technical constraints into advantages: they could only print in one or two colors, so everything was very clean. There was nothing extraneous in their illustrations. From those old projects I learned that, in an illustration, every stroke should have a meaning.

Would you say that the approach that you developed thanks to those influences is minimalistic?

In some sense, yes. In those
SciAm illustrations every notation and every mark had a function. It was very pure in its illustration. Which is basically, from my perspective, the opposite of what most contemporary 3D is. 3D graphics are, in general, much more show-business than information. 3D tools were created, for the most part, to make photorealistic visual effects for Hollywood movies. That's the aesthetics those tools impose on you, somehow. But I was not interested in photorealism at the time, and I am not interested in photorealism today either.

When I looked back at old issues of Scientific American I asked myself: What if I use a very minimal color palette and use color purely for meaning? So I started to make some aesthetic decisions and I loosened the stranglehold on the need for photorealism. It's funny, with the sabbatical I took, I've been thinking about this a lot, about how my 3D art seems to mimic the way pencil and ink drawings look.

Magazine covers

In what sense?

When you get down to it, line work is abstraction. You are delineating the edge of a form with negative space, with a line. And that's not how our eye perceives things in the real world. We see masses. But when you draw something, that's a very abstract form.  I think that, intuitively, unconsciously, I started to render things in the way that you would just see the outlines. You can notice that in many of my medical illustrations, where you have a black background and a white edge to everything.

Another factor that I think distinguishes us a bit, besides our aesthetics, is that we are very interested in precision.
 My favorite graphics were done in the 15th and 16th centuries by a guy named Leonardo da Vinci. I love his work because of the way he mixed beauty and function. If you see Leonardo's technical illustrations, you will notice that every mark has meaning yet aesthetically they are stunning. And it’s because he was conveying the truth of objects, the truth of engineering, the truth of anatomy, the truth of water vortices, the way birds fly. It's in conveying those truths that beauty comes in.

That sounds like Eric Gill when he wrote "
If you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself."


Hands: Illustrations for National Geographic Magazine by Bryan Christie Design.

See story and animation here

Let's talk about your design process. One of your latest projects, for National Geographic Magazine, is about hands, a series of X-ray-like illustrations of animal extremities.

The hands is a unique project. It is based on an idea I pitched to Bill Marr, creative director at NGM. Somewhere I've heard Michelangelo said the hands are the expression of the soul. I don't know if I misheard it, but it's a beautiful expression anyway. The simultaneous variety and similarity between the structure of the hands of different species has always fascinated me.

We wanted to put hands of different species side by side. We started contacting scientists and getting reference, scans of bones, of the circulatory system, etc. It is amazing that many of the references we used were from the 19th century. Conceptually, there hasn't been much visual progress on anatomical drawings of animals since then. Based on the information we gathered, we first built the skin in 3D and then the bones, the circulatory system, and the nervous system. 3D can be fun, as you're sculpting out of basically digitized clay.

When I do my medical illustrations and fine art too, I really feel like my job is to completely get out of the way and let the geometric perfection of the human body jump up to reveal itself to us. The hands project is a testament to that idea.

A Season of Collisions: a map of the 537 hits to the head a single football player took during a single season. More information here . 3D art by Bryan Christie Design

You have mentioned your fine art, which is closely related to what you do for a living, scientific and medical illustrations.

I think at heart I’m a cranky artist. I'm interested in conveying information, but also in communicating with viewers on an emotional, spiritual level. For me, art is the realm that that happens the most in. Scientific illustration reveals the intrinsic geometry of reality. So does my fine art.

My fine art is not medical illustration per se but it’s all based on the same models and techniques that we use for the medical illustrations we do. There's nothing made up. I'm working with these digital models of humans and all their systems and it's all correct, anatomically correct. It's the way I set up the camera and the angles and superimpose the images that it starts to grow to an abstract way. So it's basically a different way of looking at the human body. It creates this abstraction. This is going to sound egomaniacal but I'm developing this technique where I am showing different slices of the human body from different angles and putting them together and it looks so reminiscent of Cubism or Henry Moore.

New Woman, by Bryan Christie

Based on what you've told me so far, it seems to me that you could have been very happy being born during the Renaissance.

Indeed. A year and half ago I was in Florence for two weeks by myself and came face-to-face with the Annunciation that Leonardo painted and, oh, talk about truth, my God. Leonardo was a scientist with light. He was able to convey optics with oil on a panel in a way that just completely blew my mind. With Leonardo everything in the painting is truth. The way light is interacting with the water, with human flesh. It's just all true yet it's the most, to me, the most beautiful stuff I've ever seen. I would have been happy in the Renaissance. I think a lot of people would have.

What lies ahead for you now that you are back from your sabbatical?

I feel really reinspired. Before my sabbatical, to be frank, there was a bit of me that struggled with the illustration side of things and the fine art side of things. There was a part of me that felt like these two were kind of at odds. Then there was this kind of, honestly, this tortured artist aspect of me that was just dying to make art.

But now coming back, I see the connection between the illustration and the information graphics we do and my fine art —they are the same thing. With the illustration and information graphics we are conveying kind of like quantas of discrete information that's very clear and linear and more or less black-and-white. With the art, I am communicating things that are very murky. Very shades of gray. They have to do with emotions, things they can't necessarily be organized and compartmentalized. But it's all in the same family. It's all the same thing. It's all based on reality.

You know, nothing really different lies ahead. We're going to continue doing what we do. But I feel so much more connection to it all right now that it just feels great.

Human Hand

Human body