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Catching Up: The Chief Artist Of Kansas City, Chris Sembower, Part 2

In the second part of our conversation with Kansas City's "Posterized" artist Chris Sembower, we will watch some footage of him making his art from a blank canvas and get some true insight into how the magic is made.

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Welcome to part two of "Catching Up" with Chris Sembower, if you missed the first part of our discussion, you can check it out here.

Chris Sembower is the creator of the "Posterized" Kansas City Chiefs series. If you are unfamiliar with what that is exactly, just look at that picture depicting Romeo Crennel's gatorade bath after the huge win against the undefeated Green Bay Packers at Arrowhead Stadium in 2011.

Now picture trying to make that with a blank screen on your computer and a flashing cursor. That's what Chris Sembower brings to the table. Now, let's take a look at just how he goes about doing that:

SBNKC: How long does it usually take you to complete a project from start to finish?

Chris Sembower: One of the questions I seem to get the most, but one of the hardest to answer in a general sense. The real answer is that they all take a different amount of time depending on what is involved (usually that means how many people are in it), but the general answer is that they take 20-50 hours a piece.

SBNKC: We are going to show a couple videos of your creation process, can you give everyone a brief rundown of what they will be seeing? Chris, they truly are astonishing to watch as you create every pixel from a blank white screen; what is the most common reaction that people give you after they view you working in this fashion?

Absolutely I can. Well, I do actually start from a blank white canvas, just as you said. I think that may be the most surprising thing to anyone who sees the end product. There was a perception that these were "Photoshopped Pictures" at the start of this, and that's what ultimately led to the filming. What I do first is establish a quick sketch that includes very little information, really.

What I'm doing here is establishing my basic composition. Sometimes this occurs in the form of what I think a lot of people would consider a "sketch", which would be the line drawing (as in the Romeo sketch video). The other way I do this is to block in color at a fast pace (as in how I started the Berry sack painting). Both have their advantages, depending on what kind of information I'm trying to figure out myself. I try to keep all my layers tidy and precise so that I can move things around easily to dramatically change the composition at the drop of a hat.

One thing I am trying to figure out around this time is where my light is coming from. I utilize light in a lot in my paintings. I'm a big fan of the Hudson River School approach to painting. Artists like Thomas Cole were known for creating romantic (in the thematic sense) and dynamic paintings, often landscapes, where they would drop you into the perfect moment using innovative lighting to complete the experience. They would create these pools of light that would give them the ability to really separate their subject from it's foreground / background.

I always enjoyed the idea that I could design with light, so that is more or less what I am trying to do here. The background in a lot of these paintings are determined in the middle of the process for me. Not as an afterthought, but to help me accentuate more features of my subject on purpose. For example, placing a scrum or dogfight at the line of scrimmage set against the busiest part of the stadium with lights, fans, towels, electricity, scoreboards, etc. may not be the best option (for me) because the two would start to compete with one another. All of that is determined around this stage.

After I get the color all blocked in, I start to create some of the detail. Facemasks, dirt, subtle facial features and jersey numbers are all examples of things that are added in this phase.

After I'm relatively happy with all my detail work, I work hard on implementing my lighting scheme. Sometimes this happens right on my layers that contain the actual player, and sometimes it is done over all of them using a technique I have developed called Global Dodge (based on the old school photography developing technique, "dodging"). During this stage is really when the depth starts to be added to the painting.

Eventually, final detail work is added. This usually consists of things like dirt specks, sweat, helmet reflections, and jersey damage / stains. The only filters I use during this whole process are the blur filters within Photoshop. I hate filters generally, as they tend to give a canned look that is usually easily picked up on.

A typical response that I get is awe, generally. I think part of that is due to the timelapse aspect which naturally makes it look a little more magical, and the fact that the digital painting medium is still in it's infancy. There aren't a lot of people who fully understand it, even avid digital artists. Some of my influences back in high school that helped me learn about the medium include Ryan Church (really, the entire ILM creative staff), Feng Zhu, Scott Robertson, Stephan Martiniere, or anyone that was involved in a Gnomon Workshop video, really. I soaked all that stuff up.

Posterized: Eric Berry | The first Three Hours ~Chris Sembower (via christoffer3d)

Posterized: Chris Sembower Sketches Chiefs Romeo Crennel after Ruining the Packers' Perfect Season (viachristoffer3d)

SBNKC: When you are in the process of making your artwork, do you find yourself taking a lot of breaks, those videos make it seem like a sprint... is it more like a marathon? Perhaps, you can you briefly take us through your typical day painting.

The videos are usually created in multiple parts and then stitched together. When I paint I try and stay aware of my own focus and concentration level. I'm a big advocate of balance, and taking breaks when you feel like it's necessary. I do take more breaks when doing the videos than I do regularly, however. Mostly because this is one take when it's said and done, and I want to make sure I'm on the right path.

Because of the way I work, and the fact I work from home, I've been able to build my painting stamina up, so to speak. I will paint for a few hours and then take a ten to thirty minute break, rinse and repeat. I love what I do, and because of that I'm constantly working into the night. In fact, I would probably say that I do my best work past 10pm. It is really the only time in my whole day that I don't have to worry about my phone blowing up, deadlines for anyone who operates within normal business hours, or obligations to friends and family. It's my time.

It's not uncommon for me to look up at the clock and realize that the little hand has swung a full 180° since the last time I looked at it. 12-14 hour painting days are very common for me. Especially on Mondays and Tuesdays in the fall.

SBNKC: Going back to last fall, how much did it melt your heart when Eric Berry went down last year in the first game? He seems to appear quite often in your "Posterized" series and I would think that might make the injuries like Berry's even harder with how close you get to your work, would that be accurate?.

I was absolutely devastated when I saw him go down. I was actually at that game against Gailey's Bills, sitting on that end of the stadium about ten rows back. My brother and I watched in horror as he tried to man up and get back on the field, only to see his knee buckle for the second consecutive time. We knew after the first that he was done. Watching that second play made my brother and I cringe.

He does find his way into a lot of my paintings. The guy's just electric. Everything he does on the field is amplified in my mind, because we "weren't supposed to draft him." Nobody drafts safeties that high. He's not worth it. He'll play corner in the pro's. Then you have the quote by Thomas Dimitroff right before the day of the draft. It was like a dream. Especially once the season got going and we realized that he was probably going to be every bit the player (and maybe more?) that we hoped he would be. I felt the exact opposite of all of that excitement when I saw his knee go out that day on the field.

SBNKC: To move on to a little happier time, what was the best part of painting "Romeo Crennel's First Gatorade Bath" for you?

One thing I've worked hard on is creating an emotional connection with my audience through my paintings. When I say emotional, I simply mean that I want you to feel something, even if that feeling is hard to describe with single words. The feelings I try to solicit from the people that look this are joy and nostalgia. It takes you back to that perfect moment where the the elation and excitement of everyone involved is practically palpable. It just makes you smile. Crafting that experience is what I consider the bigger victory for myself, rather than any technical or formal aspect of the piece.

SBNKC: Can you describe just how difficult is it to capture such happiness in your artwork? That really is a great scene in the moment and it truly shines through in the painting, but it must have proved challenging in development.

It is very difficult. There is so much involved in creating this magical moment. It's a mish-mash of tiny things that all work towards the end goal, and that's "the sell."

I've always described my style as exaggerated reality. Sort of like a lot of Pixar films. They are definitely fantastic and caricaturistic in nature, but they still utilize realistic lighting schemes and concepts like gravity. They ride that fine line very, very well. But if one aspect of it was off, they would have a harder time selling that reality to you, the viewer. Those are similar things that I battle with in my paintings.

There is a lot about this painting that is not totally realistic. For example the character that the Gatorade has, the subtle facial expressions, the way the light blooms off certain surfaces, and the general composition all contribute to the selling of this entire experience. I consider each one of those to be individual design problems. If the individual aspects of this failed, it would be much harder for the viewer to connect to it, I think.

SBNKC: Could Todd Haley have won that Green Bay game for the Chiefs, in your opinion, or did Romeo really find some football magic that Gatorade soaked day in Arrowhead Stadium?

I'm torn on that. I like Todd Haley. I feel like he was / is a good coach (I know, not a popular opinion around here). But I also felt like he got in his own way at times (often?). It's hard to get where you want to go when you're constantly tripping over your own feet.

When that game began, you could just sense that the team was operating with a little more confidence, expediency, and dare I say it, even a little bit of quiet swagger. We mixed in the running and passing plays a little more effectively I felt, ran some more screens which I had been yearning for all season, and seemed to play very good complimentary football. The team didn't change their philosophy dramatically, but what RAC did do was just enough to seriously frustrate Aaron Rogers, which caused their entire offense to stall out to a degree.

I do actually believe that Todd Haley was capable of implementing those changes, but the question for me is, would he have? Probably not, but who really knows how all that would have panned out. The other X factor in that game was that the team really seemed to want to play and win for RAC. That was something I hadn't really seen from the team this past year. So I guess I'd have to give the advantage to RAC, ultimately.

Check out the final installment of our conversation with Chris Sembower coming up tomorrow.