Artist Spotlight: Graham Hutchings

From concept to cover, Hutchings uses LightWave to create revolutionary images for many of today's popular magazines

Posted: Sun 15 Jun 2014

Sometimes a concept is so complex that words alone are not enough to explain it effectively. Or, the design is so revolutionary that it earns a spot on the cover of a well-known technical publication. And, sometimes, those images are created by graphic artist Graham Hutchings of Cardiff, South Wales, using LightWave 3D software.

This past spring, Hutchings’s illustration of a prototype vehicle being built to break the land speed record graced the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine – a huge honor for any graphic artist, especially one who is a digital graphic designer specializing in Web/apps and animation. And, this wasn’t the artist’s first Popular Mechanics cover. In 2013 alone, his work was featured a number of times both on the cover and inside various issues. Hutchings’ designs also have been used in a number of other technical publications, such as Prevention and Fast Company magazines.

Hutchings describes himself as a graphic designer “with a love for all things digital.” This encompasses a broad world, including animation, 3D illustration, motion graphics, Web creations, and graphic design. Various concepts, illustrations, ideas, and imagery he has created lives on Sinelab.com, a menagerie of product concepts, architecture, vehicles, medical visualizations, and more. It is a place where scientific meets artistic, where he showcases the “graphical, stylized” imagery he creates using his imagination, scientific or mechanical data, and the vast tool set available within LightWave.

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Graphics created for the Blood Hound cover from the March 2014 issue of Popular Mechanics.

“I mainly do stylized work conveying complex ideas and engineering projects in a simple, digestible manner so that all can understand it,” says Hutchings. “I also approach each project in my personal work with this in mind.”

Consider, for instance, the Blood Hound cover from the March 2014 issue of Popular Mechanics. The initial brief was to illustrate the prototype for a car that is under development in the UK with the goal to break the land speed record by traveling at 1,000 mph. Hutchings received a JT file of the model, which is a 3D data format developed by Siemens for product visualization. He then used JNETCAD, an online tool from Johannes-Raida, which enabled him to view the car and convert it to an OBJ file.

Hutchings worked closely with art director Michael Lawton, and they decided that a stylized approach would suit the project best, since the car was still in development. “They wanted to show that the car was still in prototype mode; they also wanted to convey that it was high-tech and used state-of-the-art technology,” Hutchings explains. With this in mind, he began to pass concepts back and forth, with different ideas and finishes. “LightWave was great for this, as it was simple to amend the model and resend it quickly and efficiently. After a few tests, the client loved the glass style, as you could see all the car’s internal elements, while the wireframe style gave it a high-tech finish – the combination of these two styles answered the brief perfectly.”

Nailing down the look was just half the battle. Issues arose with the model itself, which had been converted from a CAD file, and the polygonal flow of the geometry was “too messed up to use as a wireframe,” Hutchings says. The flow issue was also affecting the glass texture. To rectify those issues, he isolated the main problem areas and outer shell, and began re-modeling the vehicle using SubPatch modeling. “I only had a few days to turn it around, but SubPatch let me do this quickly,” he says.

Next, Hutchings duplicated the outer shape layer and froze it, then switched to edge mode. “I selected all the edges, copied and pasted them into a new layer, giving me a wireframe that I could add surface attributes to, with the luminosity set high so you could see it through the glass,” he explains. “With the original modeled layer, I added a glass texture and, in layout, added hypervoxels to the vertices. Tweaking the SubPatch level allowed me to affect the amount of hypervoxels on display. I played around with the level until I was happy with it.”

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Sidewalk graphic created for Fast Company magazine.

Developing Alongside LightWave

Hutchings developed his interest in art at an early age with sketching and painting, and studied general art and design with as specialty in product design as an undergrad, where he further honed those skills at Bournemouth & Poole using traditional hands-on methods, and later at Newport South Wales. His initial foray into the digital realm occurred while working at Frontier Medical as a product designer.

“They had an early version of 3D Studio Max there, and I signed up for a course in 3D Studio during the evenings and began to learn [the software],” says Hutchings, describing the experience as “a frustrating four weeks.” “I didn’t really get on with the interface and modeling tools.” Nevertheless, his design skills flourished, landing him a fellowship from the Royal Society of Arts RSA in London, which enabled him to travel to the US. There, in 2002, he was exposed to LightWave while visiting various design agencies.

“I was really impressed by what I saw. After returning home, I purchased a student version and started playing with the software. In two weeks, I was modeling and rendering,” says Hutchings. “The things I learned in the Max course, I found much easier to do in LightWave, like setting up lighting, and modeling seemed so much more fluid and natural. I bought a copy and just stuck to LightWave.”

After using LightWave for just a few weeks, he produced an image of a power plant for a large energy company’s brochure. “There wasn’t a steep learning curve. It came with a lot of content resource scenes and objects that could be dissected to see how the lighting was achieved, how the textures were done, and so forth.”

A multi-disciplined designer, Hutchings tries to infuse an experimental bent to his work, as he tests and develops his skills. This was especially true in the early days of the Web when he was greatly inspired by all the Flash experimentation sites on the Internet. “It was exciting times seeing these artists marry code, vector images, and 3D elements into experimental art, [and] I had to have a go at it,” the artist says.

He secured the domain Sinelab.com and began experimenting with visual language, using 3D and photography. After posting work on the site, it attracted attention and landed him some magazine work. “I didn’t really know how to do what they were asking at the time, but LightWave has a great community that is willing to help out,” Hutchings says. Another project followed, and he began to learn more “on the job.”

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Earthquake-proof bridge design for both the magazine and tablet version of Popular Mechanics (the magazine won first place for the illustration at the Society of Publication Designers gala).

“LightWave is a great, intuitive artist tool to learn fast – with just a few tools you can create models,” Hutchings says. “It’s the complete package that I work in, from conception to the finished image.”

Today, Hutchings’ clients are based in the US, and LightWave’s ease of use enables him to work up concepts quickly and share them with clients via the Web. The projects include 3D illustrations and animations. “I’m a generalist, really,” he says. He still enjoys traditional sketching every now and again, but since the birth of digital, he prefers “pixels to paint.”

The artist put those pixels to use when illustrating a new sidewalk design, a concept devised by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects and featured in Fast Company magazine. The bold, new street design proposal attempted to prevent pedestrian deaths. Hutchings used LightWave to model, light, and render the sidewalk, incorporating a single light source and global illumination.

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Medical image produced for Prevention magazine in a story about telomeres on chromosomes.

A Future with LightWave

As Hutchings explains, magazine illustrations are far different today than they were when he first began. “They no longer just require an image. With most magazines now on the iPad as well, they require very short animations to accompany an article,” he says. “LightWave allows me to develop concepts very quickly [while] being remote, working to very tight deadlines of days, not weeks. It allows me to interpret the style the art director is visualizing for an article. I also find that I can render images quickly using LightWave’s native render engine, so I usually can deliver my work without the need for a renderfarm.”

For example, Hutchings crafted a new earthquake-proof bridge design for both the magazine and tablet version of Popular Mechanics. He kept the style simple so the concept would be clear, particularly on the iPad version, since “there wouldn’t be much time to show how [the entire concept] worked.” (The magazine won first place for the illustration at the Society of Publication Designers gala this past spring.)

At this time, Hutchings uses LightWave 11.6.3 running on a 64-bit PC with an Intel core i7-4770 CPU (approximately 350GHz), with 32GB of memory, along with an NVIDIA Quadro K4000 graphics card and two 1TB SSD drives. In addition to LightWave, the artist also uses the full Adobe suite for compositing, Web design, and image manipulation.

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Hutchings used LightWave SubPatch modeling when creating a hydroptere sailing boat for Popular Mechanics (2013); the ocean in the image was made using Houdini’s Ocean plug-in.

It should come as no surprise based on his projects that Hutchings loves the LightWave Modeling tools, especially SubPatch, because it is natural, easy, and enables him to model very efficiently. “Morphs are also great, as they allow me to set up a lot of animation in the Modeler as I create the work,” he adds, noting he likes the fact that Modeling and Layout are separate entities, enabling him to organize his projects more linearly. “I like to get all my models prepared and scaled prior to introducing lights and cameras.”

He counts the Instancing tools as his favorites, which Hutchings says have been especially useful in the latest versions of the software. “I love the AE interchange, as it has made things easier for getting data out of LightWave for post,” he says. “But for me, the rendering engine is very good quality and so fast. I love how you can get fabulous renders by just switching a few buttons on it.”

The artist also points to the many free and low-priced LightWave plug-ins available to users for extending their work, such textures, tool kits, and nodes from Denis Pontonnier (RmanCollect, DP Kit, DP Filter, DP Light, Cushion, RadialShift, and more). Hutchings also recently used TF camera (from Samuel Kvaalen), a time-freeze camera for creating bullet-time, as well as Extrude+ (from Arts Sphere) and C-worm (from Pictrix) for pipes. “There always seems to be a plug-in to solve a problem,” he says. Recently, Hutchings used MK¬ Spiral Staircase (from LWITA), which proved a timesaver when modeling stairs and rails for a project.

With each new project, Hutchings tries different styles – he especially likes using Swiss grid system design. “I am constantly learning new things. “I try to push each project. I love futuristic-style artwork and would like to develop more of that in the future,” he says. “I think any kid born in the late ’70s has a lifetime fascination with Star Wars.”

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Hutchings' image of an X47B plane received a Popular Mechanics 2013 Breakthrough Award and was featured on the cover of that issue.

Last year, his image of an X47B plane received a Popular Mechanics 2013 Breakthrough Award and was featured on the cover of that issue. The design varies significantly from the medical image he produced for Prevention in a story about telomeres on chromosomes. In further contrast is a depiction of an automated parking garage planned for Manhattan, which appeared in Popular Mechanics (2013).

Over the years, the artist has grown more confident in his skills and in his work. Thanks to LightWave, he is doing more 3D work and less interactive and graphic design, and with that has come more opportunities.

“LightWave has let me develop my skills. Years ago at the start of a project, I had no idea how I was going to achieve the image. But with LightWave in my tool set, I know I can always find a solution, and with its great community of users, get advice if needed, so I can deliver to the client on time.”

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Automated parking garage planned for Manhattan, which appeared in Popular Mechanics (2013).