Creative Case Story: Chris Sickels’ Illuminating 3D Illustration

Chris Sickels

Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio is famous for his endearing 3D illustrations. Here’s the backstory of how he created a captivating portrait of a fellow illustrator.

The Society of IllustratorsAnnual of American Illustration showcases the best work from around the country. Each edition also features a portrait of that year’s chairperson. The most recent chair, Chris Buzelli, asked his longtime friend and fellow illustrator Chris Sickels to do his portrait. (View the finished “Fire Fly” illustration here.)

Sickels (pictured) is the founder of Red Nose Studio. He’s primarily known for his quirky 3D characters that he builds by hand, then photographs. Sickels’ style is unmistakable and he’s garnered many awards and big-name clients along the way. Here’s an inside look at Sickels’ unique creative process:

The Idea

Sickels first took some reference photos of Buzelli, and then started sketching out ideas, trying to capture his essence. “As I was sketching, I really felt like his likeness goes beyond his physical features. It’s about what he paints and creates as an illustrator, and a lot of his work revolves around light,” Sickels notes. “He’s known for having themes that have a glow to them or internal light source, and also he’s got some amazing crossovers with creatures as mythological characters.” A sketch depicting Buzelli as part man and part firefly became the favored concept by both illustrators.

The Process

“As with most of my work, once the sketch is finished, I sculpt the head first to determine the scale of everything else,” Sickels says. Using a soft polymer clay, Sickels sculpts the facial features using old dental tools, adding and subtracting to get the perfect expression. For the hair, he often uses string or thread to make little lines of clay that he can place on the head and manipulate. Once the clay is baked, Sickels paints the head with acrylic paint.

Next, he moves to the body. He constructs his characters with materials he has on hand such as wire and foam. Once the form is built, Sickels creates patterns for the clothing. “I cut little patterns in paper towels and test them on the form until I get the right fit. Then I’ll cut the fabric and sew and glue it on the form,” he says. In this case, he took an existing plaid fabric, and drew extra lines on it to accommodate the small scale of the figure. “Any fabric is game,” he notes. “I even collect vintage handkerchiefs because they have such a small thread count and really nice lace work and embroidery that makes for a detailed surface for my characters.”

Sickels painted an S on the T-shirt so it looks like it’s silkscreened. “Chris’ wife’s name is SooJin, and they have a dog named Sota, so this was my way of representing them in the portrait,” Sickels says. The wings were made of vellum, with wire on the top. Using India sepia ink, Sickels drew the veins on the wings and shellacked them in an amber tone.

Since Buzelli likes the outdoors, Sickels designed a wooded background. The final touch was installing the little light in the hands. Sickels then photographed his work, which he admits, is often the most challenging part. “Sometimes the lighting can be a real bear,” he says. “I’m technically not a photographer or set builder or lighting technician, so I dabble in all those aspects. Sometimes my inexperience will yield a happy accident, but more often than not, it yields cuss words and struggling with it until I get it to work.”

The Result

After the piece was finished, SooJin wanted to purchase the character and give it to Chris as a gift, Sickels says. “We agreed on a price, and I decided that I would need to build a special base that housed a battery pack and a button to operate the light,” Sickels adds. “The next morning I decided that I wouldn't be able to sell it to SooJin. It just didn't feel right. I told her that I would give the piece to her, and that payment would not be accepted. After they received the piece, Chris offered to send a painting of his, so it’s a win-win,” Sickels says.

Buzelli says he was beyond ecstatic when he saw the finished piece. “The incredible craft and thought he put into it were more than I expected,” Buzelli says. “I was stunned to see this creature with my eyes looking back at me. The little details were just perfect, from my flannel work shirt to the S on the shirt for SooJin and our dog Sota. I was truly honored to have my portrait done by my friend.”

The portrait print and sculpture is on display now through August 15, 2015, at the Society of Illustrators in New York City as part of the Artists Illustrating Artists exhibit.

Image courtesy of Chris Sickels.

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