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Invisibilia

October 30, 2010

A few days ago I was having an argument with Rhodri Marsden on Twitter about how the mainstream press rips content off the internet without crediting or paying the original creators. I was arguing that the mainstream press treats the Internet as a treasure trove of material it can “borrow” without payment. I was mostly refering to text. Anyway, I forgot about the argument until tonight…

Back in 2004 I was playing around with a technique in Photoshop that involved tracing people. I’d always enjoyed drawing/tracing and generally fucking around with photos. This time I decided to trace a person but leave the background intact. It looked good. The figures had an odd, slightly spectral quality. I assumed loads of other people would have already used the same technique, but I couldn’t actually find any examples. There were lots of traced or rotoscoped images, but none in which the background had been left untraced. Similarly, there were lots of instances where cartoon characters had been drawn on photographic backgrounds, but none where a real photographed figure had been “removed” through drawing. Hooray.

I did about 10 or 12 of these images, either using family snapshots or photos I’d found on the internet.

I gathered them together and made a gallery for them on my website. I called them: Invisibilia. Boosted by an unashamedly pretentious piece of introductory prose (I’ve since toned it down) the pictures turned out to be really successful, with loads of linkblogs (this was the days before Facebook and Twitter) pointing traffic towards my website.

People really liked the pictures. I did get quite a few comments saying that the pictures were reminiscent of the classic A-HA video for Take On Me. In fact, the Take On Me video is more like rotoscoping. There’s lots of tracing and there’s merging of live-action and animation but the visual style is very different – a loose, sketchy pencil style – and a lot of the video is just old-fashioned animation with no photography involved.

I kept getting emails asking me how to recreate the style, so In 2005 I created a simple photoshop tutorial explaining how I did it. Over time, the Invisibilia series has been linked to thousands of times, and thanks to the tutorial, lots of people have tried their own versions of Invisibilia pics, as this Flickr search demonstrates.

Since then I’ve continued to do the Invisibilia pictures – because I enjoy it. Even when I’m sick of writing, I rarely get sick of drawing.  I stopped using photos from the Internet and started using only my own source photos. And the pictures continue to be very successful, as these links suggest.

This afternoon I was at my mother’s house and happened to see the back cover of this week’s Time Out London magazine. The back cover was an advert for Madrid, courtesy of The Spanish Tourist Board. It looks like this:

In terms of style and overall effect, it is very, very similar to my Invisibilia pictures. And the odd thing is that the advert doesn’t really explain itself – it’s not really apparent what the point of the ad is. It’s almost as though a designer has just said: “Hey, this is a good visual gimmick, let’s use it on an advert” and the client has agreed.

Now, I am not saying that whoever designed the advert ripped me off. It’s entirely possible that they developed the style independently. More importantly, is it even possible to “rip off” someone’s style? All artists borrow techniques and styles from one another. One artist will paint lines inspired by Picasso, another will use brushstrokes taken from Cezanne. There’s always been a lot of debate in the world of comics as to when a tribute becomes a blatant steal. And it’s not like I was the first person to trace someone in Photoshop. Still, the overall effect of the advert is oddly similar to that of the Invisibilia pics. And the advertising industry has a very bad reputation when it comes to borrowing ideas from artists and writers. There are whole blogs dedicated to pointing out the similarities between original work and copycat adverts.

I don’t know if I have a leg to stand on or not. Maybe the designer just saw the Invisibilia pictures and decided to do some of their own. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Anyway, I am curious to investigate, so on Monday I’m going to try to find out which agency commissioned the ad. We shall see where it leads…

12 comments

  1. Can I ask, if you have an issue with other people using your technique, why would you put a tutorial on the Internet?


  2. Interesting technique. Interesting blog. I very much like your story of the 1997 man. Might one ask if you are a fellow Philip K. Dick afficionado?


    • Yes, I am a Philip K Dick fan, although I’m a recent convert.


  3. Interesting technique.


  4. What is your name??!?!


    • My name is Greg.


      • Greg what??


  5. http://www.themanwhofellasleep.com/aboot.html


    • Thank you!


      • Why did you ask?


  6. Because I’m probably going to use your style of drawing on photographs as inspiration for my A Level photography personal study.. I need the names of the aritist/photographer’s I;m studing.


    • Ah, ok. Good luck.



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