A Creative Stretch with Joe Cavazos

By Serena Fox

Sometimes we all need a creative reset. Whether it’s a summer slump, the December doldrums, or just a grueling workload, it’s easy for artists to get into a rut and lose touch with their creative process.

Last winter, art director/designer Joe Cavazos was feeling the creative blues. So he set himself a challenge: Create something fun for 30 minutes a day for one month, record the process, and post the time-lapse on Instagram. The result was far more than he’d expected: He invented a new circular stretch effect in Adobe Photoshop; boosted his Instagram following seven-fold; met new designers and clients online; and—most importantly—reconnected with the playful side of Photoshop that got him into the business in the first place.

“I started recording my illustration process a long time ago,” says Cavazos. “I don’t have the best memory, so it’s kind of a digital notebook that lets me go back and say, ‘How did I get to here?’ For me, creative warm-ups are a time to do passion project work, to spend 30 minutes to an hour creating something for the fun of it and recording that process. I would do those warm-ups every once in a while, especially when I got into a funk or when I was doing a lot of logo design or branding work, which is careful and exacting and very different than just playing with Photoshop.”

“And then,” he continues, “I decided to challenge myself to do it once a day, for a whole month. That forced me to go through my whole bag of tricks, just to get something done. For me, it’s helpful to have that accountability of posting every day, whether what I do is good or not—it’s part of not being afraid to learn." Cavazos didn’t land on what he calls the Circular Pixel Stretch effect right away. He started by playing  with stretched pixels, seeing what colors he could pull and how he could manipulate the pixels. “Then I thought about using Polar Coordinates—which is an old filter that’s been in Photoshop forever—and I figured out how to marry the two. That looked cool, so I just kept pushing it further and trying out different ways I could use it,” he says.

Cavazos began his exploration by pulling colors from the pixel stretch effect. “A lot of images use pixel stretch as a playful way to show movement; that look has been around for a while,” he says. “I was trying to make it fresh and take it further.” He then experimented with Photoshop's Transform and Perspective Warp to change the angle, warp the effect, and place it into a 3D scene.

A WAY TO GIVE BACK

A freelance designer based in Mission, Texas, Cavazos says he shares his process videos as a way to give back to the creative community. “A lot of people shared their knowledge with me over the years,” he says. “I learned by watching other artist’s process videos, so that’s why I started sharing mine. Also, when I post images, people often ask how I created them. I wish I could answer every question and every message, but with the time-lapse videos hopefully they can figure it out.” From time to time, Cavazos also creates full-length tutorials on his YouTube channel. “It’s just a way to help people like me, how I was 20 years ago, trying to figure this out,” he says.

Growing up in the Midwest (Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska), Cavazos was drawn to a career in design by his affinity for digital art. “As a kid, I wasn’t very good at drawing by hand, but I fell in love with playing with Photoshop,” he says. A teacher saw his work and suggested he pursue commercial art. He studied fine art at Emporia State University in Kansas, but rapidly switched to digital design at South Point College in west Texas. “I often joke I took five years to get my Associates degree, because I took a lot of electives—photography, music, digital imaging, design—to me, college was like a buffet of classes,” he says.

After early work at newspapers and magazines, Cavazos branched out into album covers and identity design, and found a niche for himself creating art for church sermon series. “A lot of churches will focus on a topic—say, family— for two or three weeks, so they have a brand that encompasses that topic. I’d develop the key art for handouts, lower thirds, takeaways, online audio or podcasts, to help develop the identity and create a nice bookend for the series,” he says. In 2008, he took a job as creative director of a large church located at the southern tip of Texas. Cavazos and his wife moved to Mission, put down roots, and started a family of three children. It was during that time that he started his practice of recording and posting 30-minute creative warm-ups.

From there, Cavazos tried adding the effect into the circular shapes he favors in much of his artwork, to emphasize movement or color. He experimented with the Polar Coordinates filter, and figured out how to combine the two effects.

CONNECTING BY SHARING

About five years ago, Cavazos took the plunge and went freelance, mostly for the flexibility to spend more time with his family. “The thing I love most about freelancing is the variety, getting to work with different people and organizations,” he says. “It never gets old, there’s always a new project or a new person.” The most challenging part, he says, is the business side of things, and managing his time when he’s on his own.

Posting his process videos, Cavazos says, is a great way to combat the natural isolation of freelance work. The reaction to his circular stretch experiment, for example, has been “just crazy. Suddenly I’m posting to 40,000 new people I never met before. It’s been great to meet other designers and artists and make some new friends and connections. It’s been an interesting couple of months, seeing it kind of take off,” he says.

Next, Cavazos began making the circular effect a more prominent element in the image. He created a series of portraits where the effect not only emphasizes the colors or mood of the subject, but becomes an independent element with which the subject interacts. “I like how it translates the color and movement,” he says.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY

“A lot of times, as designers, we take ourselves too seriously,” says Cavazos. “Those days that I’m struggling, I think, I got into this business why? Because I enjoyed Photoshopping my principal’s head onto another person’s body. Seriously. I try to remember to go back to playing and enjoying myself. That’s huge.”

Cavazos says what he enjoys the most about his artwork is the process of making something new. “I think it’s just imagining things, finding an image and in my mind thinking, ‘what can I do with this image to make it different?’ I love the process of trying different things until the moment when it finally works. That’s probably my favorite part, going into it not knowing what I’m going to make, and figuring it out.”

Finally, Cavazos began incorporating the circular effect into abstract pieces and still-life artwork. “I enjoy creating that minimal look, something that is simple but manipulated in a way that makes it interesting,” he says. Cavazos refined and simplified the technique by using Smart Objects to create the circles nondestructively, allowing him to easily go back and fine-tune colors in the circles without having to rebuild them.

NEVER STOP LEARNING

Cavazos advice to beginning designers is to never stop being a student. “A lot of times, we kind of give up on ourselves learning as creatives. It’s important to know that this is a process, it’s a journey,” he says. “I’ve been doing this since 1998, and I feel like I’m barely getting to that tipping point where I know what I’m doing. I see artists and designers who blow me away, but you go back and study their work and you see they’re just great students, great learners. So not being afraid of being a continual student is the biggest thing in self-initiated work. At the end of the day, its not the responsibility of your job or your professor to make your work better. That’s on you.”

His second piece of advice? Seek out supportive environments. “I think a lot of designers and artists are plagued by the imposter syndrome,” he says. “Am I really good at this? Should I get another job? I think especially young designers often feel that way and quit. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I still feel like that every day. It doesn’t go away.”

“So I guess the thing I’d say to any young designer or artist is: just keep doing it,” he says. “Keep putting your work out. Surround yourself with a few key people who support you and ignore the rest. I definitely wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for a few professors and family and friends who pushed me, and said ‘Hey, you got this.’ So surround yourself with positive feedback, and get out there and play.”

You can see more of Joe Cavazos’s work, including process videos and tutorials, on his Instagram, YouTube channel, and website. And try it yourself—here's the full Circular Pixel Stretch effect tutorial.