Jeff Whitlock’s work as a high-end retoucher has been gaining notice for the last several years, and just about every time I turn around, Jeff is sharing some amazing project he’s just worked on. From the "This is not Magritte" series to his work on portraits of celebrities, Jeff has been knocking it out of the park with great regularity.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jeff to ask him a little about his process, how he learned retouching, and what advice he has for those who want to build a career as a high-end retoucher.
A Foundation in Art Is Essential
Jeff went through training as a classical artist at the Toledo Museum of Art, gaining a solid foundation in the basics of color theory, drawing, painting, and anatomy. This foundation he says is key to his work as a retoucher, especially when it comes to color grading and retouching portraits. He tells me understanding anatomy is most important, as it allows him to know when and where to adjust the lighting in an image to bring out the details of the person that might not be there but could be.
His career began as a graphic designer/illustrator, but after a brief break to pursue other interests, he felt the call to return to working on images. He recalls a trip to the book store in November of 2011 when he saw a book, Photoshop Compositing Secrets by Matt Koslowski, and heard himself declaring “That is what I want to do!” And the rest, as they say, is history.
From there, Jeff dedicated himself to learning everything he could about Photoshop and retouching, watching video tutorials, taking notes, and experimenting 8-12 hours a day until he felt he had a clear understanding of how to be a good retoucher. He emphasizes much of this was made easier because of the foundation he had as a classically trained artist.
It’s Me Versus Me!
This dedication to continually building his skills is fundamental to Jeff’s goal of being the best artist/retoucher he can be. As he explained, “My personal philosophy is ‘It’s me versus me’. At the end of the day, what really matters is what did you do with what you had?"
“So, I’m inspired to towards improving my craft every day. At least five days a week, the first half-hour of every day is either learning something new or experimenting with something I want to test and to just get away from the time clock, get away from the client expectations, and do something to make myself better.”
Not living in an area where there are a lot of fellow retouchers or digital artists, Jeff says he spent a lot of time searching for good tutorials and books on Photoshop and retouching techniques, and when he found a good source, he would studiously watch the videos, taking notes and making screen grabs to be sure he absorbed as much information as possible. Among the teachers he found most valuable, he says Pratik Naik was the most influential.
Color Grade Like a Painter
One of the more compelling aspects of Jeff’s work is the color grading he adds to the image in order to help make them look as painterly as possible. One recent series that really shows this off is the “This is Not Magritte” series he worked on with the photographer team Kremer/Johnson. This collection of images features an homage to the surrealistic painting of Rene Magritte.
Jeff recalls discussing the color grading approach for this project with the photographers and made the point that each image should reflect unique color grade, based on the imagery and theme of that image. In working on the grading process, he would sometimes wind up with multiple color adjustment layers, usually at least 10 or more, each one working to bring the color of the image into line with what felt like the color grade for that shot should be. As he built up the grade, some layers might have an overall effect, but most would targeting specific areas of the image, crafting a palette of color the way painter might approach the same image.
When asked what his favorite type of image to work on is, Jeff says: “What attracted me to doing composites is it’s exactly the same way I built illustrations before. But I enjoy retouching portraits the most. Compositing is a lot of left brain work, but retouching a portrait is a lot more free flowing. I especially like dodging and burning, because that feels the most like painting. I feel most happy retouching when I feel most like an artist and not just a technician.”
In talking about working as a high-end retoucher on commercial advertising projects, he says the most important thing is: “Foundation is key. If you don’t have that, eventually you’re going to implode, especially on the commercial jobs where there are a lot of expectations and changes. You need to be flexible; that’s the real test for commercial work. It’s very high pressure, demanding, and unforgiving.”
Study the Masters
This all ties into Jeff’s advice for those looking to build a career as a high-end retoucher. “Lay the foundation,” he says. “Go back to the resource all great artist’s use; study the Masters from the 15th Century.” He goes on to stress: “Study anatomy; when you know that well, you can add effects like highlights to bring out details that might not be there, but could be. For instance, smiling involves a muscle that starts just below the outer edge of the eye. When you raise the corners of the mouth for a smile, you also need to raise the cheek as well if you want it to look real.”
Finally, Jeff reminds retouchers to: “Train yourself to be an elite artist the same way you would train to be an elite athlete. It comes down to spending time every day, focusing on the process, and practicing to keep building your skill.”
Images used with permission of Jeff Whitlock.