Spotlight on Otto Schmidt

Moscow-based Otto Schmidt's art is shockingly direct, viscerally graphic and unabashedly sexual.  Sift through the many layers and you'll find generous doses of cuteness and humor as well.  Babe Lab was able to pull Otto away from his workstation long enough to ask him a few questions.

Babe Lab : "Schmidt" is a German name meaning "someone who makes things." "Otto" is likewise German. How did your family come to live in Russia? Or did you just make the name up to sound cool?

Otto Schmidt : I agree it sounds cool. But, from the other side, I never had a choice because my family has German ancestors who moved to Russia in Reformation times. They were Lutherans, which made their lives tough, and there were also a lot of military riots and conflicts between Germany's principalities. That’s why my ancestors decided to move to Russia. There they were given land on the Volga River area. In that hard time, a lot of people immigrated to Russia from Europe. Since then, they all lived together in a German enclave on Russian territory before World War II.

As for my nickname, well, there is no special intrigue. There was a hero, scientist and polar explorer Otto Yulyevich Schmidt in Soviet Russia. "Schmidt" is actually my last name, and my middle name is Yurievich, which sounds close to Yulyevich, so people were just confused and ignored my real name, Evgeny.  They kept asking me, ”Are you a relative of Otto Yulyevich Schmidt?” That's how I became Otto Yulyevich over time, or just Otto.

Later in my adult life it was funny to watch the reactions of people who found out that “Otto” is my nickname and “Schmidt” is my real last name, because everyone who didn't know me since childhood usually thought the opposite : that “Otto” was a real name and “Schmidt” was a nickname.  These days people might call me Otto, or by my real name.  I’m fine with both, but for an artistic nickname, "Otto" definitely sounds more interesting than "Evgeny." :)

BL : Russians and their complicated names!  So...level with me all women in Russia look like your drawings?

OS : Yes, every one. But I’m not sure all of them are Russian ;)

BL : How did you get your start in cartoon illustration/animation, and what are some of the clients you've worked for?

OS : I started working as an illustrator relatively recently, about 7-8 years ago. Before that, I worked as an art director for Networks RA, as a concept character artist for the video game industry, and also as a animator for a TV studio.  I moved to the illustration field and left my career in advertising, and I don't regret this decision.

Before that, I worked for brands like Toyota, Motorola, FHM, Unilever, KraftFoods, Schwarskopf, Gillette, Tuborg, FinnFlare... and a lot of others brands only Russians would know about.  Illustration became my outlet for creativity and horrific experiments in poor and illogical ideas.  I have an Italian agent, TomatoFarm. There were a few book covers as well.  In the past, and these days, I have a few projects for European and American comic book covers.

BL : You're as bold in your application of color and light as you are with your lines. How long do you spend on a typical piece, like "MaBaker?" [above]

OS : It’s a very popular question about how much time I spend on this or that piece, and it's a hard one to answer. Sometime it’s 2 hours, sometimes it’s 2 weeks and, at the end of both periods, the two pieces might have no visual difference between each other in their amount of detail or how complicated their compositions are.

As for "MaBaker", it’s a very old art work.  I mean, the sketches, characters' variants, pencil drawing, colors, composition variants -- all these I did 3 years ago. I did this art to 70-80% and right after that, I just stopped. I didn't like this picture anymore, and couldn't see how to finish it. I started to feel like I “tortured” this painting, which is the worst scenario. I put it under the table to let it rest for some time. I could afford to, because this picture was supposed to be for my personal project, "Mikka", and I didn't have a deadline. I switched to different work and, not long ago, while I sorted some of my art for prints my agent asked me for, I found her. Even though I had trouble scheduling my main work project, I just sat and repainted everything for 2 hours, and that’s it -- the lady was done. However, as it turned out, I needed to fix the text since English isn't my strongest point.

To sum up, I spent 2 hours or 3 years on "MaBaker." But usually, for this type of job, I spend 4-5 hours.

BL : Photoshop, Sketch Book Express and Painter -- What are the advantages of each, as they pertain to your workflow? Do you use any other programs?

OS : Photoshop.  Its main advantage is its universality. Latest versions give the artist a terrific set of opportunities for self-expression. But some people have the opposite opinion : that this wide variety of tools is too much and makes artists lazy when it comes to studying the fundamental basis of drawing, color and light. I agree that version 5.5 was the apogee of appetite for a system and its capability as a program.  As for me, I think ctrl+z is the main evil.

SketchBook Express is a different type of program.  Even though I didn't work with it for long, I found it more convenient for tablets with touch screens, ModBooks for instance. This is a small program adapted for small displays, with a layer system interface.  But, compared to Photoshop, I would use SketchBook for sketching and storyboards.

Painter...I’m done with Painter after version 7.  It was a very resource-wasting program. That's why, when I was still new to CG painting, I didn't feel the need for a real painting imitation.  In those days, I also was doing video composing and art direction, so painting was only a hobby for rare personal free time.

I also use CorelDRAW for vector graphics.  Sometimes I need this program for logo creations, along with AdobeStreamline, just out of habit :)

BL : This Alenkiy Tsvetochek PSD [above] is meticulously organized -- different parts on different layers. Is this so that the elements can be level adjusted, or moved around within the composition?

OS : Layers and layer group organisation helps me a lot to not get lost in my own work, and keeps track of my timeline if I have more than 5-6 layers. For long-term painting it helps a lot as well.  All elements can be easily moved or transformed. As for “Alyonushka”, well, there was originally an absolutely different composition and it had been transformed many times. Its center and horizon had been changed many times, but with this workflow I figured out the perfect solution.

BL : You use a variety of tools. Modbooks, ipads, cintiqs, tablets, pencils, watercolor, just to name a few. Which feels the best to you?

OS : I don’t use an iPad simply because I don't have one. I had a chance once to try an iPad for painting, but I wasn't impressed. It felt wrong after using a ModBook.  I totally understand that this device wasn't originally intended for artists; it's just not my thing.

Cintiqs are a very interesting variant, but they're kinda too pricey. I like the idea, but I can’t see how I'd fix a display that was worn out after repeated use. Buying a new Cintiq isn't an option. I haven't decided for myself yet.

Recently I’m working on an Intous 3 (a4 at the office or at home, and a5 for travelling). Intous 4 slightly disappointed me, probably because I've never used the tablet’s buttons.  Keyboard buttons were always enough for me. I was waiting for Wacom to make a tablet with more pressure sensitivity and dpi resolution, but instead, we got a shrunken workspace and an even more shitty, brand-name surface sheet. I really miss Intous # A5's width.  That was an ideal tablet for work, home and travelling.

I love pencils. I’ve drawn with pencils since childhood, because I could control the drawing process.  Paint was too messy for me and only disturbed my creative process. I started to love painting when I was a student and had an oil painting course at my university. It was a slow process, but I figured out how to mix paints and how to work with colors. Watercolor has always been hard to reach, so I just admire other artists who can work with this material.

BL : Your women are skinny, but not skeletal. What are some Otto Schmidt Rules of Thumb when drawing pretty ladies?

OS : The secret here isn't thinness, but elegance.  Even the skeleton has some elegance :)  I wouldn't call it a set of rules or secret bible. It's all on the surface : not-too-wide bones, narrow joints, tiny details and a true love of the female body :)

Yes, my bodies aren't perfect, but I’m not a photographer. Yes, I always idealize and present an unreal archetype. But this is my show and my rules :)  At the same time, I’m against putting "ideal" on some production line. My life in the USSR has trained me to run to the identical clones crowd, to sameness.

I’m absolutely fine with natural beauty and silicone beauty.  Holy wars on this theme always make me laugh. The secret of drawing a pretty girl is in her own prettiness. If you like her, you will always forgive her if she's overweight or too skinny. At least for drawn girls; in real life it's not so simple.

BL : Your girls' hands are phenomenal! Is there a secret to this? Lifedrawing, reference or good old fashioned know-how?

OS : Phenomenal? Thank you :)  I wouldn't say so.  Actually, hands are one of the most complicated things to draw. I very often re-draw them and tweak composition, position and motion. Figures and faces might never get changed at all, but hands always do.  The best reference is lifedrawing of course.  But, if it’s not possible, I just draw my own beauties and change them as needed.

BL : What's the worst piece of art advice you were ever given?

OS : Hmm..worst? “Something's wrong with your anatomy here.”  I’m not a saint, and I’m not a realistic classic artist either. Even with all my desire to make a perfect picture, I try to avoid maniacal depressions about quality. Perfectionism is very egotistical, and at secondly, the ego is an artist itself. And it often happens that perfectionism, like a parasite, kills its carrier.

BL : Profound!  Thanks so much for talking with us, Otto.

OS : Nazdorovie!

You can follow Otto's prolific output by visiting the following links.

Special thanks to Tamara Bakhlycheva for her help in translating this interview.