How photographer Renee Robyn built a career with dark and moody compositions
An artist we love is definitely Renee Robyn – wanderlust afflicted, a cloud addicted, shade seeker from Canada. As a commercial photographer, she has some amazing digital editing and compositing skills. Her images are dark and moody, “an ethereal combination of fact and fiction”. Created mostly on grey backdrops, she is an Adobe Photoshop alchemist.
Listen to Renee Robyn talk about her work, the development of her style, her success and what is important to maintain a life and career.
Do you consider yourself successful?
In order to consider yourself successful, you have to define what success is. For me, the definition of success changes every 6 months to a year.
So, I am perpetual unsuccessful.
I think it keeps things interesting. If you achieve a goal, you have to set another one. If you perpetually set new goals, eventually they get so big and hard it gets impossible to attain. Success goals for me mean, changing what it looks and feels like.
What is the Renee Robyn style?
What is the Renee Robyn style? I am not sure. It is the visual expulsion of ideas from someone who grew up on a farm. Watching wildlife and listening to fairy tales of Native Americans and European culture and reading a lot of fantasy and graphic novels. Also playing video games. And all of a sudden it turns into what this is.
Every single person looking at my work seems to have their own idea of what it is and means. So, I would say I am not sure. I just make it.
Why do your clients hire you?
I think my clients hire me because they are looking for something different. Which is ironic because so many artists are creating so many different types of work, and it is all excellent.
I just happen to have a style of different that works for a lot of people.
How did it all start?
My style started in my mid-twenties. But as it turns out, might have started many years before that.
I recently looked into an old photo album from when I was 6 years old. And I found out that I used to take these pictures of cats. I mean, we grew up on a farm, animals everywhere. I would take these pictures of my cats and I cut them out with scissors and glue them onto different things. Like fishtanks. I would have a picture of my cat jumping off the bed and glue it so it jumped into the fish tank.
That is why I think compositing started a lot earlier for me. I would see what was there and wonder what could it be. However, that is only a recent discovery. I didn´t discover these photo albums until recently. Consciously, it happened in my twenties. Every time I thought: this is what I see, but what can it be.
When Adobe Photoshop came along, I think I was in my teens when I discovered it. I wasn´t using it for what I do now, at all. But it was the opening to a very small door. Like a crack. What all of a sudden, later, became this massive pouring of creative.
How much is travel a part of your life?
Travel is most of my life. It´s a lot of it. I´ve spent the last year trying to slow it down because it´s so much. At the hight of my travel, I was in a different time-zone or at least a different city every 7 days. For years on end.
Everyone I talk to says: OMG travel must be so amazing. And it is until you have to have to travel with 60 pounds of gear. Everywhere, before even your clothes get added to it. So, it´s work. It is a lot of work.
What kind of photography inspires you?
Photography itself isn´t the thing that speaks to me. I make my living with photography, but it is not the thing that gets me going. I am inspired by it, I think it´s beautiful and I love the stories that people make
I have met incredible people because of photography, but what really gets me going is an illustration. And I am a compositor because I am a crappy illustrator and I am working on it. Trying to be better.
How do you find inspiration?
I think often times when I am looking for inspiration, everything is like… This is going to sound weird… The slight bit of perfume on a breeze in summer from a tree and you can´t really identify.
So I wait for those little pieces. When I go to these castles and other places around the world. Or when I meet with people and designers, everything is this little piece of something floating in the air. And I am just trying to reach out and catch it. If you grab too fast, it disappears so you have to grab it at the right speed.
I am always listening and feeling, waiting for that right moment. And every now and then things come together, but sometimes ideas end up taking 10 years. I am just waiting for the right combination of these little pieces to come through.
I am very interested in a lot of things, but I only take a micro piece of each idea to turn it into something else.
What is so fascinating about Europe?
Europe is fascinating to me because I grew up in Canada. I had my first studio was in a 100-year-old historic district in Eddington. When you go overseas to EU – reading novels from a young kid on about dragons, castles, knights and all that. As a kid, I could not fathom standing in front of a building that was 1200 years old.
That was so beyond me that the science, mathematics and engineering were there to build such incredible structures and yet here we are, sometimes 5000 y later and I am living in a house made of wood.
So, I find it really boring, lacking in creativity and lacking lasting power. It lacks inspiration, it lacks art. It is a pure function which is useful, but I do not know how much I really appreciate being surrounded by it.
What is important in your work, the photography or the retouching?
The importance of paying attention to detail, at least for the work that I do, I don´t want people to know what is real and what has digitally been manipulated. I want it to all look seamless and want people to go: “wow that is really cool”! or “that´s repulsive!”
I just don´t want people to see where I have digitally manipulated an image.
Where do you get your education from?
When I am educating myself, butt in chair, trying new stuff, knowing where my weaknesses are and just keep chipping away at them.
Say I am struggling with color harmony that means I am going to dedicate 6 months trying to get better. Or I am struggling with vanishing lines or perspective points or whatever. I pick it and then decide, every single job I´m doing from here on out I´m going to take a few minutes on each artwork and try to make this better. It doesn´t mean I am going to do a giant course on it or only do that for 6 months but I am going to take every single day or the time I work in Photoshop and take 5 minutes and improve.
Is there a big difference between craft and being an artist?
I think there is a massive difference between craft and being an artist. I personally put myself in the crafts category.
There is such a thing as an artist in every level of creativity. Whether that´s programming, illustration, automotive work, creative writing. There is a level of artistry in all of these fields But I do think that craft comes in when you´re using many tools to make your life easier to create.
In digital art, we have Photoshop, Painter, all these programs that make it easier for us. We literally have an auto-color grade button which in my mind is not making art that is using a tool to create something. But you are not having an active process in it. You´re just kind of hitting these automated actions that spit out certain results. So that puts me firmly in the crafts category and I love playing with color.
Many people get offended when I say, there is craft and then there are artisans and how they are different. Craft is just as important as art, in my mind. There is no, one is better than the other. Both are about creating things that people love and enjoy. It is a way to be creative and express yourself in the best and more efficient way you can.
So, I don´t think they’re the same thing at all and I definitely think the work I do falls into the crafts category.
What does it take to be a freelancer?
A question I get asked a lot. Is it courage, is it daringness or whatever. Then I say, it is always the thing that works for you. Whatever this might be. If being brave and going against the norm is what works for you then do that. And commit to it.
I have seen a creative work for every single personality type and for every single reason.
So, it is about finding out most about your most true, authentic self and owning the shit out of it!
How can people learn to do what you do?
Anyone who is looking for education or tutorials that I´ve been a part of there are 2 RGG tutorials that I´ve done and super proud of. They are both the exact type of tutorial that I´ve always wanted to make.
You can find them at rggedu.com and I really hope you´ll like them.
BONUS video! Here´s a cool behind the scenes.
Videographer: Ruben Wijnheimer, interviewer: Jens Kellersmann