Q&A with Mike Campau, Digital Artist

Mike Campau has gone through a number of experiences over the past 20 years in illustration, graphic design, photography, and CGI. He’s been featured on Behance over 100 times whilst on this journey, and he’s not planning to stop there.

Luiza, our Content Creator, jumped on an online video call with Mike to chat about his journey to becoming a successful Digital Artist, his tools, workflow, key tips and much more. Check out the below video of the Q&A session with Mike.

Please Note: A transcript of the Q&A session is available below the video.


Q&A Interview - Video

Q&A Interview - Text Transcript

With hard work and talent, Mike has earned himself a reputation of a multifaceted Digital Artist who loves to create images that tell stories. His powerful combination of skills allows him to create original and stunning images to elevate brands, support social causes, or just simply to express his creativity in form of art.

Budweiser, ASICS and Under Armour are just some of the brands that have put trust in Mike's ability. 

Mike's campaign images for Budweiser, ASICS & Under Armour
Mike's campaign images for Budweiser, ASICS & Under Armour

Luiza: Let’s start off with you telling me a little bit about yourself. Tell me about your background. If I’m not mistaken you went to two different universities - what did you study?

Mike: First, thank you for having me. I’ve been a digital artist for over twenty years. When I went to school I originally went in Fine Art. I dabbled a little bit in everything, switched to scientific illustration, but just didn’t find it very creative. It wasn’t a creative outlet - obviously you can’t be very creative with scientific illustration because you are supposed to be drawing anatomy and surgeries for doctors - so I switched over to graphic design. I emphasised in digital imaging while I was in the graphic design programme and that’s where I really dove into Photoshop and a little bit of CGI. This was in the early nineties, so Photoshop had just started. CGI was pretty much still in its infancy but I had some education in it. I found it really interesting, but I ended up just graduating in graphic design and then went onto a retouching photography studio after that.

Luiza: What did you do after you graduated? Did you dive into your field straight away or did you have a break and do something else?

Mike: I took a small break while I was on the job hunt, just kind of searching around and then a friend of mine said, ‘Oh I know this guy who owns a retouching studio, automotive retouching in Detroit’. So I went and interviewed, was hired on the spot and started working there doing retouching for automotive clients at the time. That was more of a design studio as well, so a lot of graphic design, retouching, different elements for advertising. We moved that studio in with a couple of photographers and then we had an 80 sq.ft. photography studio, so I got my feet wet as far as the whole photography side of advertising and then the retouching side of things. That was right out of school, and I did that for almost fifteen years. In that period I started discovering CGI again and seeing how it could be used in that field.

Luiza: After you started discovering CGI again, did you find there were any challenges that you were faced with and if so how did you overcome those challenges and obstacles?

Mike: When we were starting to use it, the technology wasn’t quite up to speed yet to get completely photorealistic stuff, so we were using it for parts and pieces - maybe like a tyre rim or something - to fill in, to supplement the photography. Or, if something changed and the photo studio wasn’t set up anymore, then we would try to do things like that. It was a struggle because of the technology, but also because of the mindset of the market at the time in agencies. Nobody knew what it [CGI] was, they didn’t think it would work or could be photorealistic enough. It really made us be creative and push the technology as far as we could to get it to work in the photography side of things at the ad agency. 

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: You said that no-one really knew how everything worked exactly. Do you remember your breakthrough moment, where you started feeling like you were really confident and comfortable with CGI, with a combination of photography and retouching and all of that? Do you remember that moment?

Mike: Yeah. Actually it was kind of a build-up, but I do remember the moment where I made a decision in my career that I was going to focus on photography and CGI and push everything else to the side. I stopped doing corporate identity and traditional graphic design. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I knew what I loved to do was make images, so I really jumped in and put my focus on that. I would say the series of Motion and Air - my original series where I combined some CGI elements with some stock photography - really pushed the recognition of my name brand and elevated my career at that point because it went viral. It got noticed pretty well and got picked up by some agencies for clients. They contacted me to do some similar work, so that was the tipping point for me. I also think that’s where all the hard work up to then started to pay off, where I started to get things, understanding lighting and shadow, more of a photographic element into the CGI world. I think that was the moment for me where it clicked and started getting momentum and building from there.

Luiza: You said it’s gone viral and I assume lots of hard work has gone into that in order for this to go viral. Do you think it would happen again? Good timing, good place as well - did that contribute for it to go viral?

Mike: No, I think it’s more it speaks to the work. I think nowadays with social media and the internet if it’s something that really strikes people or is different, it just naturally progresses that way. If it causes someone to have a reaction when they see it, I think it does it on its own. You have to put it out there, in the right networks, in the right places for people to view, but at a certain point if the work is good or if it has the right message, or just a different kind of visual, it gets picked up and goes viral on its own. It wasn’t a strategy of mine to try and make things to go viral because no-one knows what that is until it happens.

Luiza: I agree.

Mike: It’s kind of hard to plan things to go viral. Obviously everyone in the business, in the industries, is trying to make things to go viral, so again I think it comes down to the concept and the work itself.

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: All these years, so many years of experience, how is your life looking now? Do you find yourself still facing challenges or any obstacles or is that in the past now?

Mike: I think there’s always challenges and obstacles, but they’re different. Early in a career the challenges and obstacles are the learning side of it, trying to figure out the technical side to where you’re comfortable and not thinking of those things anymore, you’re thinking more of the concept and the image, concentrating on light and shadow composition. Those things you are always learning, you are always growing or crafting, learning to craft your images better. So I think the obstacle now, it’s less ‘How am I going to do it?’ and more ‘Why am I going to do it?’. ‘What is that I’m going to put into the image?’

I’m making more creative decisions on the fly, I’m faster now than earlier in my career. I think there’s always challenges and obstacles going forward. For me, one of the big ones is trying to block out all the new technology - everyone talking about the new render engine or the new graphics card or the new whatever - and focusing less on that and more on the craft of the image. I feel like you can get wrapped up into that - the newest and latest - and I have to constantly remind myself, ‘it’s not the graphics card that makes the image, it’s the artist that makes the image’. So yes, it gives you some slight advantages, but just because you go out and buy the latest gear doesn’t mean it’s just gonna make the image for you. So I think that’s one of the obstacles, especially now, just being bombarded by all the different companies and technologies, real-time rendering and all that stuff that’s coming into play. It’s hard to tune that out and focus on your craft, but I feel, for me, that is the biggest obstacle now, it’s the FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. I make a conscious effort to block that out and just focus on what I’m doing.

As I’m making creative decisions and moving lights around [in HDR Light Studio] it is giving me instant feedback.

Luiza: I one-hundred percent agree, it can be very overwhelming. Especially nowadays where everything is new still.

Mike: It moves so fast, you feel like you’re always trying to catch up. That can cause anxiety in an artist thinking ‘I don’t have the latest, I can’t keep up, I can’t compete with other people’. But I think, if you focus more on your craft and what you’re doing and less on how you’re doing it with the technology, I think that’s a better place to be in for sure.

Luiza: That’s great advice, Mike. If you had to choose just one key to becoming a successful 3D artist, what would it be?

Mike: Practice, practice, and more practice. The other thing I tell a lot of junior artists and artists just coming up is… A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you have a tutorial for that?’ or ‘Can you show me that?’ and I’m a true believer that you should try to take that path or figure that out yourself. If you see something that you like, you have to ask yourself ‘Why do I like it?’. Or, if you see something that you don’t like, you have to ask yourself ‘Why don’t I like it?’. If you’re trying to put some of those things into your work, don’t just follow somebody else’s tutorial or roadmap on how they got there because you’re not making those creative discoveries along the way. It might be good for the technical side - how to learn things on a technical side - but to just copy their imagery or their tutorial and just put it out there as yours - they’ve already made the creative decisions for you. So my big thing is: do tutorials for learning, but have a little exploration on your part in order to make those creative decisions - the whys and the why nots, what looks good to you, what doesn’t look good to you. I feel like you will get further along as a digital artist if you’re making those decisions, as opposed to following other people’s creative decisions and just becoming technically good at something - those are two different things. You can be a good technical artist but have no vision, no understanding of light or shadow or why they did certain things and then you’re just rubber stamping it. So I think that’s the biggest thing, a lot of the very successful digital artists out there created their own look, created their own style and I’m sure that came from exploration on their part. They didn’t come across that just by copying other people and all of a sudden one day saying, ‘Oh look, I’ve got this great style that people are hiring me for!’. 

The light painting by clicking on the object - I think that’s what everyone loves about it [HDR Light Studio].

Luiza: For sure. With that being said, do you have any advice for other 3D artists on how they can get their work recognised a bit more or how they can stand out?

Mike: I think again it comes with time. I would say: publish work when it’s ready to be published. And what I mean by that is, take all the learning and all the practices... I wouldn’t put all that up there as a project, I would wait until you have something that’s pretty finished and that’s your best work and put it up there. 

And when you put it up there… Don’t do one offs, like one image and then some process, because that doesn’t show that you have the capability to duplicate that look or that render more than one time. I find the projects that are in a series - minimum three, at least four or five - do way better because it shows that you were able to execute your concept or your thought throughout a series of images or tell that story.

Then, also give a little process behind it, show some of the work in progress or some of the iterations. People just love to see the screenshots of the wire frames or working files for some reason, they dig into them and see what was done in CGI, maybe what was done in post. 

A lot of people will post five projects in a day and then not post for a while and that doesn’t really build momentum. Like anything else in marketing it’s better to let them leak out, because if you dump them all at once someone might not look at two or three of them, because you just dumped a whole bunch of projects at once, so they saw one or two and then they moved on. It’s better to slowly roll out a project, maybe wait a week, every week or whatever, however many projects you have. I’d say those are probably the key elements to get noticed.

Then, obviously, it’s got to be good work. That’s how the whole website’s based. The more people that like it and it connects with, the higher it will get up in viewing rankings. That’s just how it works. You can do all the right things on posting, but if the work is not really good, it’s not going to get the attention it needs.

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: You grew quite a following on Behance. Do you think that has helped with your career? Is it still helping your career to have all those followers seeing your content on a daily basis?

Mike: Yeah, absolutely. I was a believer in Behance when it first came out, just because of how it curated images and curated work, because it put the cream of the crop at the top, visible based on how people reacted to it. So for sure, I’m a huge believer in Behance and it has led to more than half of my business over the years. I think most of my requests start with ‘Hey, I saw your work on Behance…’ then into the introduction. So I would say, for sure it has had a major influence on my career, even to this day, and I would highly suggest people get on it, set up profiles for sure. It’s good to have stuff everywhere - just in case - but I’m a pretty big believer in it, just in the field that I’m in. I’m in more of the advertising, commercial work, so a lot of direct companies and agents go there for reference and inspiration and come across my work and that’s how they’ll usually find me. 

Luiza: You have a very unique and varied style of work. You do a bit of CGI photography and then retouching. How do you decide what approach you take on each project?

Mike: It’s always based on timing, budgets, what is practical, and then what the end look is going to be. Can we create everything CGI, make it look photorealistic? Yes, but is the time and effort put into that worth it for the outcome? Especially if we’re doing a one off image for advertising, I’m not going to spend weeks getting this thing nailed down when I can just go into the studio on one day and shoot it and strip it and get the same result. It’s more a balancing of those things.

I know there’s a lot of CGI artists that take it as a challenge to themselves and I get that, but in the practical commercial world they have a budget, they have a timeline. What’s the best approach to get that image created in that timeline with the vision and the quality that you want? So it’s always a balancing act of which part you do CGI, which part you do photography, how much you can put together in retouching. I’ve been doing it for so many years, it’s just second nature when I look at a project and say, ‘Well, there’s no point in doing that CGI, when we can just go into a studio and shoot it in a couple of hours’, as opposed to me taking a week and trying to get it CGI. It’s just not a good use of anyone’s time.

I’m more in the still imagery market. If I was doing motion, obviously I’d have to set more of that up CGI, because it would have to be captured in motion and it would be harder to do in camera matching and compositing. It would be better to do it sometimes full CGI. For me, doing stills, I think I have more freedom to say parts and pieces we can do and shoot, use CGI, and other parts we can do photography and it’s just a balancing act.

Luiza: What 3D software do you use at the moment and what renderer? Do you use any plug-ins as well?

Mike: I’ve always been a huge Modo guy. It’s what I know like the back of my hand, I’ve been using it for so long.


Luiza: Is that the first 3D software that you learned?

Mike: No, when I first started in the early nineties there was Forum Z and Strata StudioPro - those were way back in the day. When I was in the studio we did some Autodesk, we had Alias and Maya. They were very technical and I was more of a Photoshop guy, so that when I stumbled across Modo it felt natural to me. It had a layer system and the UI was really nice back when it first came out. I just gravitated to that, plus it was the first 3D that had interactor real-time preview of what you were doing. A lot of other programmes caught up down the road, but that was the reason I got into it. So that’s my mainstay.

I’ve been doing some Blender stuff too and then my render engine is primarily V-Ray. I like the look of the render for my style and the type of work I do. I like the GI, and the look of the GI compared to other renderers. Not that it’s the fastest - I do it as more of an artistic reason. I’ve tried other ones - Octane - but I feel like V-Ray fits my style best, so that’s what I use right now.

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: And speaking of plug-ins, do you use any plug-ins and if so which ones?

Mike: Not really, V-Ray is technically a plug-in for Modo. There’s not too many plug-ins I use - obviously the HDR Light Studio connection with Modo - but that’s pretty much my workflow. If I have speciality things where I need simulations or something a little bit more complex, I have a team of guys that I reach out to if I want simulations done, or Marvelous Designer work or cloth work. I’ve got guys on my team that I can just reach out to and get that done. I could do it all myself, but I prefer not to, I prefer to be the person who puts it all together and that does the finish, because that’s my strong point. The same with modelling too - I can’t stand modelling! I can do it, but it’s more on the engineering, technical side and it’s not something I enjoy doing. I can do it and I’ll muscle through it, but I prefer to team up with somebody who can do those things all day super-fast, and it gives me time to do what I do and it’s more beneficial for my clients. I’m in budget, as opposed to trying to do it all myself and drag it out.

Luiza: You said you didn’t like modelling when compared to other elements or processes of 3D. In your opinion what is the hardest process of 3D in general? Modelling for example, texturing, lighting, or anything else? Is there an element where you think ‘I’m weaker in this element, in this process, than in the other’?

Mike: I would say for sure it’s the modelling, just because I don’t love to do it, so obviously I’m not going to put all my efforts and dive into the modelling side of it.

I also think material setups can be pretty complicated. There’s a lot of presets and things. People drag and drop, but if you really want to get into making a material right for what you’re looking for and make it photorealistic, there’s a lot more detail to get into it, more research. 

The lighting part is probably the easiest for me because of my photography background and retouching background. In that part, I can make up for some of my shortcomings in other areas, by doing really good lighting and scenic composition to where maybe that’s not needed at the level that some other people could do it.  

Luiza: Speaking of lighting, when did you first hear about HDR Light Studio?

Mike: You guys started about ten years ago and it was probably shortly after that and I’ve always been intrigued by it. I just never had a use for it for the type of work I was doing initially, but then over the past few years I’ve been doing a lot more product work, more product beauty work. Another artist that I work with had been using it beforehand and he’d always send over the HDR files that he’d come up with, which got me interested and I thought I’d give it a try. Now I use it for my product stuff, because it helps me move faster. It’s all the stuff I can do in the programme, it just helps me work faster to get there. 

Luiza: Does HDR Light Studio fulfil your needs? What features are your favourite features?

Mike: Yes. I like that it is tied into the actual programme, so that when I’m in Modo and I have my real time render preview in V-Ray it’s all linked together. As I’m making creative decisions and moving lights around it is giving me instant feedback. That part I love about it and that’s the whole reason I added it to my arsenal, my process and my pipeline. And then obviously, the light painting by clicking on the object - I think that’s what everyone loves about it. It is very easy to start placing lights and then once you get in an area you can tweak it. I like the instant ability to rotate, widen and change the width and heights of lights pretty quickly and easily with sliders. It’s a little more intuitive than grabbing handles and doing it that way. Those are probably the key reasons why I added it to my toolbox.

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: That’s great. Because of your photography background you’ll be in a good position to have a say in this: Now that you’ve got some experience of HDR Light Studio, do you think our software helps with understanding or learning the art of lighting? Is it a good tool for learning how to improve your lighting techniques?

Mike: I think it can. It might be a little confusing for someone who hasn’t been in a photo studio to correlate it to the photography side. It would almost be like a 3D view of photography and learning lighting that way. I can relate, when I bring a soft-box in or a reflector dish I know what the difference of those lightings can be in a studio environment. To bring them into 3D, they are slightly different, but pretty much the same outcomes as far as shadow quality and stuff. 

I think they can learn photography techniques, but it might not translate to the real world to them unless they get into a photo studio and actually do it, because it’s a different environment when you are doing virtual lighting compared to real lighting. There’s some nuances that are a little different and you have to know those or adjust for those, which is what I do when I shoot for projects that composite together. I know, when I’m in the studio, the type of modifier I’m using and how that translates into the 3D software, and if that’s a point light, or an area light, or a directional light, what modifiers will be similar or the same - so that when you put them together it looks like one shot. 

[In HDR Light Studio] I like the instant ability to rotate, widen and change the width and heights of lights pretty quickly and easily with sliders.

Luiza: Speaking of the subject of the project - like cars, products, makeup - do you have a favourite?

Mike: No longer cars because I did automotive for fifteen years and I don’t want to see another car ever! I like consumer goods for some reason - I don’t know why, but I’ve gravitated toward that recently. I think it’s because I can get in studio and shoot and then get on the computer and play off the best of both worlds. If I want to do something against the laws of physics, I can do it in CGI, and if I want to bring some surprise photo element to it, I can do that. Recently, as far as commission work, I’d say that’s probably where it’s at. For me doing personal projects, that’s always just open to anything or it is more about the concept, so those are the projects that I really enjoy doing - just more of a creative outlet, to get away from ‘product’ sales type stuff - so yes, I’d say between those two.

Luiza: Do you have any favourite projects that you like to work on?

Mike: The next one is always the favourite project! I love doing collaboration projects where I’m working with other artists or photographers because I feel it helps elevate my work, or it builds in this team making an image as good as it can be. Then you have somebody else that’s pushing you, and you’re bouncing ideas back and forth. So I’d say the collaboration projects are by far my favourite, especially if I’m in charge of the CGI digital side of it, and they’re in charge of the photography side of it. They can go in studio and come back with something that’s completely different from what I was thinking, and it’s one of those wow moments or those shock moments that you can give each other. A photographer will send me an image and I’ll send it back to him and he’s like ‘Whoa, I didn’t even think of that!’ or ‘Wasn’t thinking that way, but it’s really cool!’ Those are the projects I find the most rewarding, usually the ones that are some of my best work are the collaborations for sure.

Luiza: Nice, that’s very true. I myself like to bounce off of team members and I feel like it does improve work. It’s all about the feedback and discussing your ideas and having to explain your thought process as well, so that all helps.

Mike: Yeah. Especially in a visual world, you have something in your mind’s eye and you go to put it together, but if you give that same concept and idea to someone else and then they send it back to you visually, it’s always going to be different. They have a different point of view, so it’s pretty nice because it opens up. ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that!’. And then you might roll with it now that you’re thinking the way they are, and it just adds a twist to the process that I like the most.

Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio
Lit by Mike with HDR Light Studio

Luiza: How would you like to progress as an artist further? Do you have set goals, challenges that you would like to accomplish? Or are you at the point where you are fully satisfied with your achievements and you’re just going?

Mike: I don’t think I’d ever be satisfied as far as my work is concerned. Where I am at in my career I’m pretty satisfied, but in my work I’m always trying to improve. Whether that’s learning new things or trying out different techniques or working with different artists or photographers, my goal is to improve the work. I don’t necessarily have a goal as far as the number of clients, or types of projects I’m going to work on, or the recognition thing. I don’t want to become instagram famous, that’s not my thing. I worry more about the work and improving as an artist, and getting as good as I can be at my craft. That’s more of an everyday goal, where you just wake up and try and get better every time you work on something over time. Like I said at the very beginning, it’s practice, practice, practice. I’m still working on stuff and it’s technically me just practicing getting better for the next project. Every project I work on I see things slightly different, I do things a little bit better, I get more efficient. Those are always my goals every time I’m working.

Luiza: So, like you say, you’ve got goals and I think that’s really important - to focus on your craft and have goals to always improve - because I feel like if you don’t have any goals, if you’re just fully satisfied, you might start losing the passion for your craft. Do you think that could be true?

Mike: Yeah, plus I see a lot of artists that will get stuck in a rut or they start echoing their work over and over to the point where, for me, that wouldn’t be satisfying to keep echoing the same visuals over and over again in different scenarios. I think you can, as an artist, get burned out, but also your audience or the public would get burned out of seeing it as well. No matter how many times you can do a variation of that look, it’s still the same visual, it’s the same concept. For me, I always try to not echo something I’ve done in the past. If I do, I want to try to put a new twist out there - something that I see differently now, or a new technique that I feel worked better for that type of image. For me, that’s also part of the goal - to not keep repeating myself, but to get better.

Another artist that I work with had been using it [HDR Light Studio] beforehand and he’d always send over the HDR files that he’d come up with...

Luiza: And just to close things off and have a nice closing message for other 3D artists, do you have the biggest tip for a beginner or aspiring 3D artist? What would be your biggest tip or advice to them for the future?

Mike: The advice I give to a lot of juniors… I do a lot of portfolio reviews for college, high school students too, and I always say the personal project is probably the biggest differentiator between being a good artist and becoming an excellent one. There’s a few reasons for that: One, you’re in charge of the whole vision. Two, you’re probably picking something that you love or that you are interested in, or that you like so that you’re going to be motivated that way. But more, it shows people how you think in your process. You’re not just executing part of a vision or a client’s vision - or someone’s coming to you saying ‘Here, just do this!’ and you’re just spitting it out. That’s how you learn how to create images on your own, because you’re not having people telling you what to do or the creative motivation behind it, or giving you the concept and you’re just executing. It’s hard to start doing those, especially early in your career because you’re still trying to learn all the technical stuff, you’re trying to learn the hows, not so much concentrating on the why - which is usually the personal project. I would say to always keep trying those, because the more of those you do, the better you’ll get. It’s just like in sports - you don’t just pick up a basketball and go to the NBA the first day you pick it up.

The other thing is, when you are doing these projects, don’t spend so much time worrying about the thinking or the concept behind it. Sometimes people will try to brainstorm, come up with the best concept possible before they actually start working. My advice is to do a list of concepts and just pick one and jump in and start doing it. I find once you are in the creative moment and you are creating and things are happening, that’s usually when those little sparks and moments of magic happen, because you’re in there doing stuff and you might see something that you think ‘Oh, that’s a little bit different’. It might swerve you away from your concept, but it’s taking you down a road that’s even better or that you recognise as better. You would never have found that out if you were just sitting there trying to brainstorm the concept. It’s better-to-do-than-to-think philosophy and it took me a while to figure that out. I used to think I had to have the perfect concept and have it all thought out before I could start it, and sometimes it’s better to just do it.

I know a lot of photographers who will have an idea, but they’ll get in studio and play - and, same thing - all of a sudden you’re thinking, ‘Oh wait, that turned out pretty interesting, I didn’t think of that!’. Those moments would never happen if you didn’t just jump in and start doing it. That would definitely be my number one advice - even to senior artists who are finding themselves in a rut, or stuck executing other people’s ideas - get out and take on a personal project, see how that feels, or get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you’ll just create things you weren’t expecting to create. 

Luiza: That’s a very interesting angle and advice in general. Rather than think about it too much, just do it. What you just said, I think it applies for everything in life.

Mike: A lot of it is a fear factor too for people, they let the fear make their decision to not do things sometimes, or they’re afraid to get started. Sometimes just getting started alleviates that fear because you get into the moment and realise ‘I’m doing this!’. You might fail, it might be miserable, but at least you got moving and the next time it just becomes easier to do it and it just snowballs. Each time you do it, it gets a little bit easier and a little bit better too. That would be my advice.


Luiza: Thank you for all of that, Mike. It’s been very nice talking to you and we appreciate the time.

Mike: Thanks for having me, for sure.