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Timothy Smith’s Modern Masters Portrait Series

By Dustin Driver

Classically trained artist Timothy Smith brings traditional oil-painting techniques to his work in Adobe Photoshop CC. His Modern Masters portrait series is a visual artist’s celebration of the musical artists that inspire him.

Oil is a fickle medium. Lay down a mark today, and tomorrow it’ll be completely different. Time, chemistry, temperature, and a million other things can and will transform your work. Digital works, while they are in some ways more ephemeral, are in this sense much more lasting.

“Oil paintings are never really done; they’re just abandoned,” says San Francisco artist Timothy Smith. “You can work on an oil painting for hours and not make any progress, or even backtrack. Working with digital mediums is refreshing—what you see is exactly what you get.”

A portrait of Dan Auerbac
A portrait of Babtunde Adebimpe
A portrait of Ben Gibbard

Dan Auberach, Babatunde Adebimpe, and Ben Gibbard—portraits by Timothy Smith.

Smith is a classically trained artist, a graduate of the New York Academy of Art’s very traditional program. He learned oil painting techniques from greats like Steven Assael and Will Cotton in French-salon-style settings. He was fascinated by traditional techniques and methods—enthralled by the masters. But soon after leaving the school, he realized he would need to diversify. “Today’s artist needs to be extremely versatile,” he says. “I didn’t want to live in an 18th-century bubble, pretending I’m in the Renaissance.”

The artist applied his classical training to the digital arts, using traditional techniques with a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. He became a freelance illustrator and designer, working on commissions for companies around the world. Today he works as a digital artist for a leading international bank, using Photoshop to create murals for local branches.

Portrait of Jack White
Portrait of Conor Oberst
Portrait of Noah Lennox

Jack White, Conor Oberst, and Noah Lennox—portraits by Timothy Smith.

Using the same classic techniques he learned in New York, Smith composed his Modern Masters portrait series entirely in Photoshop. He picked a dozen musical artists born in the sweet spot between 1975 and 1980: artists like Jack White, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, and Babatunde Adebimpe. “I was born in ’79, so I may be biased,” he says. “But a lot of musicians that really matter to me were born within those years. I don’t know if our parents were listening to classic rock when we were growing up, or if it’s that we’re old enough to remember the ’80s and the musical movements that happened throughout, or maybe it’s the fact that we were teenagers when the grunge scene hit.”

portrait of Kevin Drew
portrait of Isaac Brock
portrait of Julian Casablancas

Kevin Drew, Isaac Brock, and Julian Casablancas—portraits by Timothy Smith.

Smith starts with sketches; then he layers on brushstrokes with his Wacom tablet. “The way I work digitally is very similar to how I work with oils,” he says. “I’m a very process-driven artist. And while the medium is different in Photoshop, the techniques are the same. You just have to trust the process and your own digital skills.”

He stacks dozens of layers to give his work depth—and flexibility. “I love layers and the ability to constantly edit. It frees you up to make more marks because you know you can erase it,” he says. “In painting, everything you lay down is taking away the layer below it. You can’t just scrape it away and get what you had before. Sometimes you can be apprehensive about how to lay a mark down, because it’s permanent.”

portrait of Dan Boeckner
Portrait of Sufjan Stevens
portrait of Win Butler

Dan Boeckner, Sufjan Stevens, and Win Butler—portraits by Timothy Smith.

Today, Smith continues to work full-time, take on freelance assignments, and work on his own projects. He creates digital work and oil paintings, and he is one of the few artists on the West Coast that currently produces mezzotints. This Renaissance printmaking process involves painstakingly stippling and then polishing metal plates. Each plate takes approximately 100 hours to create, but the end result is stunning. “I love the process and the range of values you get with mezzotint, from bright white to black and everything in between,” says Smith.

In the future, Smith would like to explore video game design and concept art. “I’m really intrigued with exploring environments and worlds and things like that,” he says. “Anything’s possible in the digital world. With the power of Photoshop you can manipulate anything, create worlds easily and quickly.”

For more of Smith’s work, check out his Behance profile.