Conceptual digital artist brings his unique creativity to a variety of projects
By Joe Tash
From an office in a second-floor bedroom of his family’s home, local resident John Dickenson dreams of worlds that have never existed, and gives them life, depth and color.
His tools are his computer screen and electronic drawing board, powerful imaging programs, and sometimes simple pen and paper.
A digital concept artist, Dickenson works on feature films, video games and TV commercials, and has even been called in to help with designs for theme park rides. Among his film credits are two movies based on the Narnia novels of writer C.S. Lewis: “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”
Dickenson, 57, has made his living as an artist for more than two decades; before he began working on films and video games, he was a freelance illustrator, graphic designer and comic book inker.
He was recently admitted to a union for film artists, which he expects will result in more calls from Hollywood directors and production designers. This year, two films that he worked on, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and “47 Ronin,” will open in theaters.
Dickenson said his job often begins in the “pre-production” phase of a film, when a project is being pitched to studio executives. The executives then decide whether to “green light” the project (give it funding for full production).
Dickenson starts with a script, or a conversation with a filmmaker or video game designer, then begins to make sketches of the scene or character that is needed.
“It’s my job to try to capture their vision and chase it around a bit,” he said.
“I see shapes and colors and images and start to chase them. Sometimes it comes together with minimal effort, other times it takes a lot of work. It’s a back and forth, push and pull process,” he said.
In some cases, Dickenson works from his home office, while in others, the director or production designer wants him to commute to a studio in Los Angeles.
The final product can have many sources: sketches that are scanned into the computer; photographs; digital images “painted” onto an electronic drawing board, which are then digitized; and even scraps of fabric scanned into the computer for their texture or color.
For one of the Narnia movies, Dickenson used a sketch of trees with human faces that he drew in a sketchbook while on his honeymoon.
“It scratches an itch to do pen on paper. You don’t get to do that a lot in the heat of battle,” when working on deadline on a film project, he said.
Although he always loved to draw, Dickenson didn’t focus on art as a career until he was in his 20s. He raced dirt bikes in high school, and then held a series of jobs, from working in a machine shop to driving a forklift in a warehouse.
He attended Fullerton Art College, and then got a part-time job in an art store run by one of his teachers.
“That kind of started my art career,” he said.
For a number of years, he worked the old-fashioned way, drawing with pen and ink on paper. But in the late ‘90s, everything changed when he began to make art on a computer. “The computer opened up a whole new world for me,” Dickenson said.
Using special software, he said, artists can work more quickly and stitch together images from many different sources. The ability to manipulate images so easily can be a “blessing and a curse,” he said, because he has many gigabytes of alternative designs stored away on his computer, most of which never see the light of day.
As Dickenson works to expand his contacts and opportunities in the film industry, he is batting both time and his own body. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that affects movement and causes tremors.
The progress of the disease can be slowed, Dickenson said, but not stopped entirely. At some point, he said, he won’t be able to continue working as an artist.
But for now, he has taken up the electric guitar, because his doctors have told him the activity will improve hand and eye coordination, stimulate his brain, and help keep the disease at bay. He is also planning to have a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which electrodes are implanted in the brain. He hopes the procedure will decrease his tremors and allow him to reduce his medication.
He’s also looking forward to working on new film and video game projects, and making art that — in the words of his friend and fellow artist, Justin Sweet — has the three S’s: “Startle, spectacle and spirit.”
“You strive to have that emotional connection that’s bigger than the painting itself,” he said. To see samples of Dickenson’s work, visit www.jdickensonart.com