In just four years, Zheng Wei Gu went from bed­room hob­by­ist to big-bud­get films. Gary Evans finds out how…

ImagineFX - - Interview Guweiz -

Pre­pare to feel very, very jeal­ous. Guweiz, who took up draw­ing aged 16, re­cently com­pleted art­work for the live-ac­tion ver­sion of Ghost in the Shell, fea­tur­ing Hol­ly­wood star Scar­lett Jo­hans­son. He’s 21.

Grow­ing up in Sin­ga­pore, the artist – real name Zheng Wei Gu – fo­cused on do­ing well at school, pass­ing ex­ams and get­ting into a good uni­ver­sity. He planned to be­come a phar­ma­cist. Then he saw a video on YouTube, a tu­to­rial on how to draw an anime face. He gave it a go, and man­aged to repli­cate the pic­ture pretty well.

“It was prob­a­bly a video meant for 12 year olds,” he says, “Given that I was 16, it wasn’t too hard for me to end up with a de­cent copy. Still, I filled up a few pages try­ing to copy the steps.”

Over the next year, Guweiz spent ev­ery free mo­ment draw­ing. Then he en­listed for na­tional ser­vice (a manda­tory two years spent as a full­time sol­dier in the Sin­ga­pore army), which gave even him more time to draw and think about draw­ing. Yet with no for­mal train­ing, he was “draw­ing blindly” and mak­ing plenty of mis­takes. As the artist puts it, “I was like a ran­dom guy who de­cided he was go­ing to start mak­ing gourmet soup, but with only mem­o­ries of the re­ally good soups he’d tasted be­fore.”

Guweiz searched the in­ter­net for ref­er­ences. Pho­tog­ra­phers be­came a good source of in­spi­ra­tion. He stopped draw­ing blindly and based work on the real world. So­cial me­dia be­came his art school. He used it for ad­vice and feed­back, for val­i­da­tion that he was mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion. His posts of­ten reached hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple.

But it wasn’t un­til 2014, a year and a half af­ter Guweiz took up draw­ing, that he de­cided to prop­erly study the fun­da­men­tals. That’s when things re­ally opened up. “It was kind of like tast­ing bland soup so many times – one fully re­alises how far it is from the de­sired qual­ity,” he re­veals.

Out on his own

Guweiz’s pro­fes­sional ca­reer only got go­ing in Septem­ber 2016. He started work­ing as an il­lus­tra­tor for Le­gend of the Cryp­tids, the bat­tle card game by Mynet Inc. Things moved quickly. He re­cently com­pleted pro­mo­tional art for the big-bud­get film Ghost in the Shell.

“I’m mak­ing a pretty good liv­ing for a 21-year-old artist work­ing full time. That fills me with a sense of ur­gency though, re­mind­ing me that I’m re­ally on my own, and es­sen­tially out of the sys­tem, while most peo­ple my age can ex­pect guar­an­teed jobs when they ob­tain their de­grees.”

Ini­tially, he found it dif­fi­cult work­ing with art di­rec­tors, par­tic­u­larly hav­ing to pitch idea. But they’ve all been pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences – even the first time when some­one painted over his work. “I just thought it was a re­ally amaz­ing thing that I’m get­ting guid­ance on how to make an im­age bet­ter,” Guweiz says.

When com­plet­ing work for a client, the artist be­lieves the most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber is that he’s telling some­one else’s story. But be­cause he se­cures as­sign­ments based on his port­fo­lio, he usu­ally gets to put his own stamp on things.

“My Ghost in the Shell piece for Paramount is a pretty good ex­am­ple,” the artist says. “The brief gave me a

good idea of what’s go­ing on, and as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor I had a quick ver­bal dis­cus­sion and pitch with the client side, and then sent in a few of my sketches.

“None of those made it to the next stage, but what they did was to con­vey to the client what kind of gen­eral im­pres­sion I was aim­ing for. A quick prompt later and I was able to come up with a sketch and com­po­si­tion that the client and I both re­ally liked.”

ask­ing key ques­tions

Guweiz says that an im­age’s suc­cess usu­ally comes down to how solid the un­der­ly­ing idea is. He re­veals that an idea of­ten takes a few days to “ma­ture” in his head, but a new pro­ject al­ways starts with the same ques­tions: “What’s the im­pres­sion you want to make? Does your sub­ject and gen­eral con­tent in the piece help to make that im­pres­sion? Is there a bet­ter sub­ject or a bet­ter com­po­si­tion?”

The artist splits his per­sonal work into three main cat­e­gories: colour sketches (usu­ally an environment and sim­ple char­ac­ter, fo­cus­ing on mood and story); char­ac­ter draw­ings (zoomed in on a char­ac­ter); and photo stud­ies (to sharpen his skills). Next comes the cam­era an­gle – the po­si­tion from which the viewer sees this im­age. Guweiz uses brightly coloured boxes to show where ma­jor shapes go.

By keep­ing things sim­ple, he can eas­ily move stuff around and ad­just con­tours. He’s look­ing for the most “read­able” im­age pos­si­ble. For speed and flex­i­bil­ity, he works dig­i­tally. If he feels he’s lost his way then he goes back to an ear­lier draft to see where he went wrong. It’s a kind of re­verse engi­neer­ing that helps him to cor­rect any tech­ni­cal mis­takes.

I was like a guy who de­cided to make gourmet soup, but only with mem­o­ries of the good soups he’d tasted be­fore

Guweiz main­tains a sim­ple, but disciplined rou­tine. He wakes up at 7am, eats break­fast, and paints for the rest of day. A film or doc­u­men­tary plays while he works, but never mu­sic. He uses Pho­to­shop and draws on a Wa­com Touch, the same one he’s had for years, even though he re­cently in­vested in a 27-inch Cin­tiq. How long he works de­pends on how well the work’s go­ing. Some­times, he’s still at it come 2am. He al­ways tries to start a new piece be­fore go­ing to bed, so he doesn’t wake up to a blank can­vas.

The shadow of Shang­hai

Guweiz gen­er­ally de­scribes his work as fan­tasy, but can pin­point the big­gest in­flu­ence on the look and feel of his art, the foun­da­tions for every­thing he builds on fam­ily vis­its to Shang­hai. “I har­boured a strange and prob­a­bly un­healthy love for the hazy smell in the air, es­pe­cially when it came with the oc­ca­sional fog that would roll around and ob­scured the Huangpu River and the Ori­en­tal Pearl Tower, the view from my un­cle’s bal­cony, dust­cov­ered plants, grimy sub­urbs with clut­tered apart­ment stair­wells and win­ter days spent play­ing ar­cade em­u­la­tors with my cousin. I sup­pose that’s why I as­so­ciate grey­ish days and grey­ing places with happy thoughts, and be­cause of that I tend to grav­i­tate to­wards grey­ish, am­bigu­ous moods.”

Guweiz is think­ing big for his fu­ture. And why not, con­sid­er­ing all he’s achieved in four years? He con­tin­ues to work on monthly il­lus­tra­tions for Le­gend of the Cryp­tids, but wants to cre­ate char­ac­ter de­sign for a AAA fan­tasy game or film. He’s even con­sid­ered mov­ing into art di­rec­tion.

“There’s a lot of un­cer­tainty as to how I can get there,” he says, “but I’m also aware that self-im­prove­ment is my only op­tion of hav­ing a shot at these goals. Not be­ing in a real-life art com­mu­nity with pro­fes­sional peers is a dis­ad­van­tage I have to over­come.

“Given my slow start in art, per­sonal work and con­sis­tent study is the rea­son be­hind why I was able to start mak­ing art as a ca­reer in the first place. I feel it could eas­ily be my down­fall, if I let com­pla­cency take root…”

Not be­ing part of a real-life art com­mu­nity with pro­fes­sional peers is a dis­ad­van­tage I have to over­come

Wan­derer “This is one of the first pieces where I framed the com­po­si­tion around the char­ac­ter. I learnt I needed to be more ac­cu­rate with shapes, to di­rect fo­cus around the im­age.”

Af­ter Prac­tice “I was in­spired by pho­tos of ze­bra cross­ings, with blurred traf­fic in the back­ground. The chal­lenge was to ex­plore mul­ti­ple colour schemes, see­ing what worked.”

Nier Fan art “There are char­ac­ter de­signs that look sim­ple but achieve a level of ap­peal that just stuns the crowd – me in­cluded. 2B, from the new Nier: Au­tomata, is such a char­ac­ter.”

Flute “Land­scape por­traits are a bit of an oxy­moron, but once in a while I find such com­po­si­tions pow­er­ful to use. The hor­i­zon­tal ori­en­ta­tion of the flute and pose suit the scene.”

Flats “Some­times I like to build a sketch around one idea. In this case, I thought a sit­ting pose on a side­walk bench could look cool.”

Pipa “This was an ex­er­cise in val­ues, shapes and edge con­trol. Get­ting the ba­sics in place was sat­is­fy­ing and re­sulted in an im­age that could be read eas­ily.” Lady Maria “The Dark Souls and Blood­borne fran­chises have al­ways been a great source of in­spi­ra­tion for me. I learnt that there’s beauty in struc­ture and form, even when we hold back on colour.” Rooftop “I like low cam­era place­ments be­cause they en­able me to have full con­trol over the over­laps go­ing on in the back­ground.”

Grey­hound “I tried to achieve a cin­e­matic feel, based on ar­mour ref­er­ences. The pose may not make much sense, but there’s value in pre­sent­ing com­po­si­tions that make a strong first im­pres­sion.” Ar­rest “One of my ear­lier pieces, but I feel it’s aged well be­cause I paid at­ten­tion to paint­ing ac­cu­rate forms. I was happy with the slightly warm colour scheme be­ing ap­plied to a rainy set­ting.”

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