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Geared Up: The 3D Illustrations of Katt Phatt

By Scott Kirkwood

Take a look at the portfolio of illustrator Katlego Phatlane (who goes by the more memorable moniker Katt Phatt), and you’ll quickly discover someone who’s obsessed with details—details like the curve of a letter, the glow of neon, and the various ways that light reflects off of polished surfaces. In fact, he pays such close attention to the details in his work that it’s a little hard to believe that none of his 3D creations actually exist.

Phatt created this 3D lettering for Creative Mornings (see more of this project on his Behance page). 

Phatt’s 3D work frequently features very realistic looking neon, such as these examples of projects (some created in collaboration with other artists). 

As a child growing up in South Africa, Phatt was fascinated by the gears, springs, and levers that make watches tick. Years later, when one of his college professors asked the class to illustrate a cookbook using a particular motif, Phatt stumbled on steampunk and fell in love with the visual language that expressed his childhood fascination. It’s a language that he now speaks fluently, as evidenced by paid work for Adobe, Creative Mornings, and O Magazine, as well as self-initiated projects that revolve around Adidas, Nike, and Puma.

JUST A FEW OBSESSIONS

That obsession with sports brands stems from Phatt’s youth: as a teen, he had hoped to become a professional soccer player, playing for top-tier youth clubs in Pretoria and Rio de Janeiro until an injury brought an abrupt end to that dream. Plan B was a career in architecture, but when a high school teacher introduced Phatt to the world of graphic design, he quickly saw the opportunity to meld the structural aspects of both arts. 

Phatt worked with an Adobe team to create this beautiful typographic illustration celebrating Adobe’s 35th anniversary.  

Phatt learned the basics of 3D illustration at the Open Window Institute, fell in love with typography at Inscape Design School, and graduated with a degree in advertising and branding from the Vega School of Brand Leadership. From nine to five, Phatt works at the Johannesburg agency Joe Public, focusing his talents on high-end digital work including typography, animation, retouching, and print design. In the evenings, he pursues his freelance work and continues to teach himself new skills with the competitive mindset of the athlete he once was.

“If I see someone’s creative project online and I don’t know how it’s done, I get very uncomfortable—like there’s something I’ve missed somewhere,” he says. “I love learning new things and playing with new software tools—for me, experimentation is always the best way to understand how a tool works.”

Phatt can turn to the internet for indexes that help calibrate reflections off of dozens of materials, but 3D illustration requires plenty of experience setting up virtual photo studios with lightboxes and other elements. Once he’s exported an image from 3ds Max or ZBrush, he still faces hours of work in Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, often moving from program to program several times.

“Working in 3D software is a lot like being a photographer,” he says. “You need to know how light works, how it bounces off certain substances, and how to isolate certain objects to create images.” When he’s completed a project, he’s left with a massive 3D file that allows him to easily change angles, adjust lighting, swap out color palettes, or even animate the scene with a camera moving through the space. The process itself is quite labor-intensive and time-consuming, but the ideas behind the illustrations themselves are generally quite simple—a deck of cards, a quote, or a corporate logo that you’ve seen thousands of times before.

A 2014 commission for O Magazine was a turning point in Phatt’s career. 

SIMPLE CONCEPTS, EXTRAVAGANTLY EXECUTED

“The concepts that I come up with aren’t too complicated, because I want people to get a quick glimpse at what I’m attempting to do,” says Phatt. “For me, the amount of detail is what tells my story; when I’m working with a brand’s design team, they require my execution of the work to be as good as their conceptual skills. I like playing to people’s strengths, and my strength is the craft and the detail.”

“The first time I thought ‘Can I really make this amount of money on a single project?’ was when Hearst Publishing got in touch with me about a typographic project for O Magazine, in 2014,” says Phatt. “I was just shocked; they had seen something I had done and basically wanted me to re-create the exact same design. That was when I realized I needed to start pushing out even more of my ideas so that someday an art buyer somewhere might say, ‘Hey, let’s get this guy.’”

Those big-name commissions have helped in other ways too: Both of Phatt’s parents are academics, and early on they were less than thrilled with his pursuit of an artistic career. “They came around a long time ago,” says Phatt. “As soon as I showed them my first few invoices, they said, ‘OK, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.’”

The support of family and friends definitely helps any artist, but in Phatt’s case, the support of thousands of strangers means something too.

“Social media is a very big deal for me,” he says. “If I see someone else put work on Behance and get more views or more likes than me, that makes me want to push myself further—it’s a game that I’ve always played with myself, following people that I admire and figuring out how I can get to that stage. In doing that, I’ve been able to rack up quite a huge following [to the point where] I’m getting feedback and people are replicating my work—honestly, I never thought I’d be the guy that someone else wants to copy.”

Playing-card designs from a project Phatt is currently working on. 

“Social media has allowed me to engage with a lot of the artists that I looked up to when I was just starting out,” he says. “Now I’m on a messaging basis with a lot of them and I’m even collaborating with a few of them, which is so exciting.” Phatt’s recent work on a set of steampunk playing cards led to one such collaboration with Billelis, a 3D artist who lives in the UK. The two are working to complete the deck’s backs and packaging, with the hope of selling them one day—turning a virtual 3D object into something you can actually hold in your hands.