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Interview: Kaspar Tamsalu

Illustrator and concept artist Kaspar Tamsalu reminisces about gaming piracy in Eastern Europe in the 90s, and talks about working at ZA/UM Studio, and the pitfalls of comparing great artists

Illustrator and concept artist Kaspar Tamsalu reminisces about gaming piracy in Eastern Europe in the 90s, and talks about working at ZA/UM Studio, and the pitfalls of comparing great artists

3dtotal: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Kaspar Tamsalu: Hi, my name is Kaspar Tamsalu and Im an artist at ZA/UM Studio, where I do concept art and level design. I also do illustration work as a freelancer, and whenever I feel the spark I work in honest-to-God oil paints and paint my friends and family. I live right by the sea with a panoramic view of amazing sunsets in Põhja-Tallinn in the capital of Estonia.

First poster for the 17/18 season of TIKS. It is a nod to the Estonian artist Eduard Wiiralt and his print <em>The Cabaret</em>. For this series I pay homage to past and present Estonian artists to celebrate our country's centennial

First poster for the 17/18 season of TIKS. It is a nod to the Estonian artist Eduard Wiiralt and his print The Cabaret. For this series I pay homage to past and present Estonian artists to celebrate our country's centennial

3dt: What inspired you to get into art? Who are your favorite artists?
KT: Funnily enough Ive come full circle. I mean, I always drew, I was that kid, but I only seriously wanted to get into art after I first started up my bootleg copy of Fallout. Were talking about Eastern Europe in the 90s. Games were not sold; faded CDs were smuggled into the country through Russia. As I was installing the game the digital painting by Justin Sweet was burned into my retinas forever. I realised I wanted to become a concept artist! I was nine.

Ten years later I moved move to Russia to study painting in St. Petersburg at the Repin Academy of Fine Arts. Another decade later Im working on an isometric role playing game. My favourite artists are many, but I have to mention out Paula Rego, Pierre Bonnard, Edward Hopper, Lucian Freud, El Greco.

A painterly character concept for <em>No Truce With the Furies</em>

A painterly character concept for No Truce With the Furies

3dt: You have a remarkable variety of styles, from cartoonish to painterly; how do you decide what a piece is going to look like?
KT: I constantly have this feeling that Im running out of time, so I say Yes to a lot of very different things (YOLO.) My calendar is usually so full I dont really leave myself with too much time to experiment, but the disparate commissions allow me to work in different ways. On a Friday after a day of working on our game I might stay after hours to finish a gig poster or go home to pull a weekender on an illustration for a magazine or film.

TIKS poster art. Here I used the Estonian printmaker Paul Luhtein's <em>Jazz</em> print as inspiration

TIKS poster art. Here I used the Estonian printmaker Paul Luhtein's Jazz print as inspiration

3dt: What medium do you tend to work in? Digital, paints, a mixture?
KT: Lately it is 90% digital. All 2D work is in Photoshop and Ive started to use Lazy Nezumi because I just cant ever tweak the sensitivity settings to natural-media-like enough. Its a very nice little tool because I work with lines a lot. Sometimes I sketch and do thumbnails in my sketchbook. When I do analog, I use ink and brushpens. At the studio I paint in both oils and acrylics, but that is never for work. That is for me time.

Oil painting of my friend Peeter, a disc jockey. I do the TIKS posters for him

Oil painting of my friend Peeter, a disc jockey. I do the TIKS posters for him

3dt: What skill, technique or style would you like to learn in the future?
KT: This is what I like about art you dont really know anything. Ever. When I started working at a video game studio I had to learn 3D from scratch; modeling, texturing, the works. This opened up so many new avenues for me and interestingly enough; not only in 3D. My thinking changed, I perceive the world in a slightly different light. So Im going to keep doing different things and see how the disciplines affect each other.

This TIKS illustration is a nod to Concordia Klar

This TIKS illustration is a nod to Concordia Klar

3dt: What are your experiences of working at a studio like ZA/UM?
KT: Oh boy. It is great! I worked alone for years before I came here and I think I actually went a little insane. But here everybody is insane! And theyre massively talented to boot. I had to open up to both constructive criticism and collaboration. At ZA/UM were approaching this video game design gig like its an inter-and-multidisciplinary artwork. It incorporates writers, coders, musicians, artists and the occasional polymath. Wagner would be proud.

A different take on character concepts for <em>No Truce</em>. On the left is a first iteration and on the right the final one that heads off to the modellers

A different take on character concepts for No Truce. On the left is a first iteration and on the right the final one that heads off to the modellers

3dt: How do you keep your portfolio up-to-date?
KT: It can be tough. Ninety per cent of my concept design work is under wraps because it is for a project thats in the works for several years. But I do keep doing freelance work so I can switch out some of my older pieces for newer and hopefully better ones.

3dt: What are your artistic ambitions?
KT: I think the most important ambition an artist can have is to keep working and keep on doing art. In this economy and with my personality there are days when I should rest my wrist for a second and thank the Fates that I can keep doing this. Eventually Id like to teach. Which leads us to the next question...

TIKS illustration. Homage to an awesome draughtsman and printmaker Kristjan Raud

TIKS illustration. Homage to an awesome draughtsman and printmaker Kristjan Raud

3dt: If you could give your younger self advice when it comes to art, what would it be?
KT: Im an avid reader of comics. Because of my background in fine art painting at one point I started finding inspiration with both the old and the modern masters. For years I was torn between the two. I would pitch Hokusai against Paul Pope. Idiot. Embrace what you love and use it.

An environment concept for <em>No Truce With the Furies</em>

An environment concept for No Truce With the Furies

3dt: What are you working on next? Anything we should keep an eye on?
KT: What I can say for sure is that every month I will do a brand new poster illustration for TIKS, a popular local music event. But the biggest and most ambitious thing in the works hands down is No Truce With the Furies. As I alluded to before the talent on it is amazing. Check it out at zaumstudio.com!

This is a twist on the Estonian painter Elmar Kits' 1941 painting <em>Carnival</em>

This is a twist on the Estonian painter Elmar Kits' 1941 painting Carnival

Related links

Head over to Kaspar Tamsalus site to see more of his incredible art
Check out ZA/UM Studio
Grab a copy of Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop

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