Interview: Better images through mathematics

An interview with digital artist Chaotic Atmospheres, creator of Radiolaria Index

"I’m self-educated, so everything I learned came from the internet. I’ve spent hours observing accelerated videos from talented people making incredible works, reading tutorials translated from German or Russian, looking at pictures magnified 300% to see all the details. I’m not one of those super talented guys who naturally draws well and becomes CG artist for Pixar, then take a guitar say “hey, that’s really simple” and becomes a rockstar. I’m the guy who works 18 hours a day redoing the same picture 10 times before I start to feel satisfied. So my primary advice that I can give is “find your way, trust in yourself, and work fully—then work harder”. That may not sound very sexy, but it’s the truth, and if you really want to be a known and respected creator then this should not scare you.”

— Istvan, aka Chaotic Atmospheres


The team at NeonMob took a break to enjoy the holidays and came back eager to bring you our next set from 3D artist and illustrator Chaotic Atmospheres — the nom de plume of a man that prefers to remain mononymously known as Istvan.

We love getting lost in his work — from the mathematically seductiveStrange Attractors to the naturally chaotic scenes depicted in Caustic Icebergs and Crystallized Asteroids. We went in depth with him about his process, work, unique style, and where he sees digital art going next.

His 100-piece set, Radiolaria Index, offers a mesmerizing array of unexpected shapes that demand to be appreciated. You can collect them all starting December 10, 2013 at 8am PST.

Meet Istvan

NeonMob: Istvan, as a digital artist of the internet, you’re a hard man to track! You’ve got some great digital galleries out there (BehancePinterest, etc) but little information about yourself. Why is that?

Because my work is much more interesting than me! Also, talking about myself takes time (especially because I’m not a native English speaker) — time that I’d rather spend working on my personal projects. Yet I know that the work of a creative is better understood, and then appreciated, when it is related to his life and personality. So while I don’t like very much talking about myself, I’m trying to change that. In fact, I am giving this interview right now with the first picture of me I’ve ever had published on the web!

Istvan, aka Chaotic Atmospheres

Istvan, aka Chaotic Atmospheres

NeonMob: We’re honored! No doubt your fans will appreciate finally getting a chance to see the mysterious creator behind Chaotic Atmospheres.

Tell us, where did the name “Chaotic Atmospheres” come from? What does it mean to you?

I chose this name for the worst reason ever: I needed a username for an account and Istvan was already registered! So, since I wanted a username that I was sure to get on every website (BehanceGoogleTwitter, …), and I wanted to be able to get the corresponding domain name, I went with this long name made of my two main influences: “chaotic” for the fractal/procedural/mathematic influences in my workflow, and “atmospheres” because it’s the keyword that comes up the most when people discuss my work!

I admit the name is quite difficult to say, but on the other hand, I basically own “chaotic atmospheres” on Google, so that’s good! That would certainly not have been the case with Istvan because the world is full of talented and well-known Istvans! Incidentally, the mysteriousness of the name also serves my desire to remain discrete.

NeonMob: Have you always been an artist? What attracted you to creating art?

I don’t know if I’ve always been an artist, but I’ve always had the need to tell stories. I could have chosen to use other mediums: music, theater, or writing. I’d love to make comics or anything that allows me to share what’s in my mind with the rest of the world. I love nearly all forms of creation but I’m better at making digital art, so I make pictures.

I remember exactly when I chose this path: I was fourteen years old and saw on TV a documentary about “Lord of The Rings” (it was in 1996, and Peter Jackson was trying to get the rights to make the movie). The documentary showed paintings from John Howe — including “Sam and Shelob”. This was it! The image stayed on screen for only a few seconds, but it was enough to convince me.

“Sam and Shelob” by John Howe

Sam and Shelob” by John Howe

I have serious arachnophobia — it’s not a little apprehension — it’s a real instinctive fear of spiders that nothing else on earth makes me feel. This picture was so spectacular, so technically perfect; the story was so clear: a full universe in one picture with three characters and an empty background. And here was the biggest spider I’d ever seen, yet it didn’t inspire any disgust. I could bask in the details. It was terrifying and beautiful.

I was instantly in love. I said to myself “Now I know what I have to do. Let’s get to work.” Since then, I’ve never stopped trying to reduce the technical gap between artists like Howe (and many others) and myself. Howe painted this image when he was 32 years, and I’m 31, so I might make it yet!

NeonMob: What do you find most challenging about creating art? What about being an artist?

Everything is challenging when you create something. When you want to be an artist, you’ll have to accept a lot of compromises. You’ll have to work for making money in order to have time to create what you like. You’ll want to tell everybody that you’re an artist, but your work as an artist will not sustain you (at least in the beginning). You’ll fret over whether you’re really an artist or just another wannabe. You’ll have to accept being judged by everybody, because everyone has a particular taste. You’ll have to accept that some people think you’ve chosen the “easy way”, but in fact you’ll need to work harder than in any other job you ever had.

When you become an artist you get freedom: the freedom to work as you want, to go where you want. But this freedom, as always, has a price.

First of all, and this is the most obvious part, you can’t live on fan admiration alone. If you’re not a famous artist, you certainly will have to make a lot of concessions to get paid work. If your style (as mine) is “particular” and not very conventional, you’ll have to change your style to meet your clients’ needs. But if you do so for too long, you may lose yourself and become just another “multipurpose graphic designer” (as I did some years ago). It took me a lot of work to get my own style back.

But really, the biggest challenge is to know what to do of all this freedom! You’ll have to search for good direction, and make the right choices. Even when you make a choice, you’ll never be sure that it was the right one. History will determine whether you were right or wrong, but you might not be there to see it. You’ll have to travel your path — proud of what you’vedone — even if you think you should have done more, or done better. If you are not sure about what you’ve done, no one will be. So for me, the most challenging thing about being an artist is not to find a path or a style; it is to trust in your own abilities and to follow your path beyond all difficulties, without a guarantee of success.

When I started to upload my work, I had no idea if it’d be appreciated. I feared remaining invisible — lost amidst artists more talented than me.

In all this darkness, there is light! For me, the comments of supporters from the internet have been the most important. When I started to upload my personal work, I had no idea if it would be appreciated. I feared remaining invisible — lost amidst artists more talented than me. But people started to comment on my work and send me positive messages, full of love and consideration that I never received when I worked as a graphic designer. What a relief! It encouraged me to keep at it, despite the the fact that I was getting no income from that work. Eventually I found paying clients that wanted my work for the first time. And that was my second source of relief!

Still, the income itself wasn’t the most important thing; what really mattered was that someone wanted to pay me for my workmy universemy style. I mean, who cares if you get thousand of likes on your Behance account? That doesn’t translate into paying clients. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime.

The Art of Chaotic Atmospheres

NeonMob: So, let’s talk about your art. The thing that I can’t get over about your work is how textured and natural it feels, while yet clearly being entirely (or nearly entirely) generated on the computer. How do you — as a creator — balance a digital or geometric aesthetic (like with yourLow Poly Butterflies) with the wonderfully organic textures and scenery that you’ve developed in projects like Taraxacum Seed Head and White Trees?

Low Poly Butterflies by Istvan

Low Poly Butterflies by Istvan

Taraxacum Seed Head by Istvan

White Trees by Istvan

White Trees by Istvan

After this answer you’ll better understand the “chaotic” part of my nickname!

When I start new work, I don’t set out to achieve a specific goal and I don’t always realize that I’m starting a project. A project is just something I did that happened to go better than previous efforts. I work this way because my experiments always start with fractals, math functions, procedural textures or terrains, generative software, random seeds, and so on. When I’m working, I see opportunities at every stage to get an effect or technique to be used in a different way. It’s very experimental. I imagine variations that can lead me down many different directions. I use a lot of 3D software: Cinema4DVueZBrush, but also free software developed by enthusiasts like Mandelbulber,TopModStructure Synth, etc. The possibilities are literally endless. The hardest part is finding the best compromise between all these sources. And somehow, when a project is finished, I’m always left disappointed because there’s this finality in the result that feels like it was the best compromise… but was it? I can never be sure!

But even if the technical aspect changes on every project, the subject is always the same. I never trade off between digital and organic because I use the former to achieve the latter. What I loved about procedural/math/fractal techniques is that the final result always produces more natural shapes than you can get with traditional sculpting or painting. Math doesn’t care about the preconceptions of the human brain. The brain always wants to organize things — to make them look better or more rational. And when it attempts to smooth out randomness to be “more natural”, it fails because nature looksrandom but is not.

Math helps us understand nature.

Math helps us understand nature. Computers applying math canapproximate natural phenomena. For me, this allows me to represent nature digitally. The look is different — not totally natural, not completely digital — but the feeling is familiar. Sometimes I emphasize the digital parts, and sometimes the organic — but even that is quite random!

Especially in my Strange Attractors series, many people see nature in these shapes even though it’s the most “digital” of my projects — and that’s exactly what the math equations depicted represent!

NeonMob: Building on this, it seems like you have a signature style, but that you play with different variables in your projects — like depth of field and detail in Mandeloculars, temperature, color, and viscosity in Caustic Icebergs, stopped time and lens flares in Crystallized Asteroïds, and complexity in Eroded Leaves. How would you describe your process for determining the technique you’ll use for each project, and the variables you want to play with?

Mandeloculars by Istvan

Mandeloculars by Istvan

Caustic Icebergs by Istvan

Caustic Icebergs by Istvan

Eroded Leaves by Istvan

Eroded Leaves by Istvan

Although my process tends to be random, changing, chaotic, or not clear in the beginning, by the time I get to the small details that really define the lookof the image, it’s no longer random and chaotic. These small details (lens flaresdepth of fieldatmospheric effect, etc.) allow me to get a consistent feel across my images. Of course, other elements unify my series (centered subject, very detailed textures, and so on) but what makes my pictures mineis the post-processing I do in Photoshop.

It goes like this: when I get some result that I like — usually combining one, two, or more 3D apps — I render an image with the maximum detail I can get (depth, object masks, global illuminationsubsurface scattering, …). I then head to Photoshop and explore. I do a lot of post production, adding textures, changing colors, cutting things, making fine adjustments with myIntuos. I’m not a technician and for me the final result is the only thing that matters. The result is good when the feeling is good. There’s no special trick to sensing when a lens flare will be better than narrowing the depth of field or adding dust particles in the air. Sometimes I use effects that don’t make it into the final image because I progressively masked them over without even noticing. My “signature” is the atmosphere of the picture (again, a connection to my nickname!), and this atmosphere is the result of combining and playing with all these different variables.

The process

NeonMob: Let’s get deeper into your process: each of the projects I mentioned above look like a substantial amount of work — a lot of play around a theme. But with Math:Rules, you took it up a level, creating 38 pieces, each depicting a mathematical formula for Strange Attractors.What was it like to create each of these pieces, and what made you decide to go with an almost-claylike texture — considering all of the other ways you might have presented these formulas?

The Strange Attractors by Istvan

The Strange Attractors by Istvan

I made this project with the same workflow described above, using Jurgen Meyer’s strange attractor plugins. I made several tests to understand what was possible with these beautiful shapes. What came out of my tests demonstrated that these shapes were so “natural” that they lost something when I put them into a scene. They just didn’t need it. So I rendered the shape on a white background and manipulated the shape until I found its most beautiful side and rendered it. I shouldn’t say this, but this was the easiest project I’ve ever done. Everything was easy, without complication, and a brief rendering time! If only every project were so straightforward! When things go so easily, it’s a sign that the choices I made were right.

NeonMob: Let’s talk about Cinema 4D. You created Math: Rules using this software and some plugins that you found online. You even put together an entire workflow guide that illustrates how you made these pieces. But while you make it look easy and straight-forward, it’s clear that your knowledge of this software and how to use it effectively is quite erudite. How did you come to know this tool so well, and what advice would you give to new creators who are interested in achieving some of the effects that you’ve mastered in your work?

I’ve been using this software for only two years now, so if it seems like I’m a “power user” it’s only because Cinema 4D is a quite easy software to work with — it’s very user friendly. I use it because I immediately liked it, so learning required less effort.

I’ve tried a lot of software and some of them are more difficult to use (Blender anyone?), but when you use a lot of them, you understand the other ones faster, like a musician that can play multiple instruments. That said, even if he can play any instrument he wants, he’ll still have his “primary instrument”, which for me is Photoshop. The reason is very simple: I’ve used Photoshop nearly every day of my life for the past 20 years. That’s 20 for Photoshop, two for Cinema 4D. The difference is, “I get exactly what I need from Photoshop”, and “sometimes I luck out with Cinema 4D”. Getting deep experience with your software is critical because what you want as a creator is not to achieve the effects I’ve mastered, but instead tomaster your own effects, based on your personality and how you use your software. You want the viewer to say: “Wow! How did he do that?”

I’m self-educated, so everything I learned came from the internet. I’ve spent hours observing accelerated videos from talented people making incredible works, reading tutorials translated from German or Russian, looking at pictures magnified 300% to see all the details. I’m not one of those super talented guys who naturally draws well and becomes CG artist for Pixar, then take a guitar say “hey, that’s really simple” and becomes a rockstar. I’m the guy who works 18 hours a day redoing the same picture 10 times before I start to feel satisfied. So my primary advice that I can give is “find your way, trust in yourself, and work fully — then work harder”. That may not sound very sexy, but it’s the truth, and if you really want to be a known and respected creator then this should not scare you.

Radiolaria Index

NeonMob: What is Radiolaria Index — the set you did for NeonMob — about?

The only thing NeonMob told me to do was to make a big series of 100 images. As I had freedom on the subject, I searched for base shapes that I could vary sufficiently so there’d be a relationship, and yet each shape would be different from all the others. I ended up representing an index of fake radiolaria inspired by SEM imagery and the incredibly detailed illustrations of Ernst HaeckelRadiolaria (as described by Wikipedia) are very small “protozoa (0.1–0.2 mm) that produce intricate mineral skeletons”. These skeletons remain in the ocean floor and can only be observed with microscopes. They are beautifully geometrical.

NeonMob: What was your process for developing these pieces, and how did it compare to, say, your Math:Rules process?

Radiolaria Index Workflow

I used nearly the same process as my other projects, except for the large number of variations that I had to produce. I created a piece from start to finish to establish a repeatable workflow, starting with geometric base shapes in TopMod, a topological mesh modeling software. Although it’s no longer developed, this free, useful software has unique functionality:

by simply adding and deleting edges, handles can be created and deleted, holes can be opened or closed, polygonal meshes can be connected or disconnected.

I then took these shapes into Cinema 4D for fine tuning and rendering, and finalized the image in Photoshop.

When I was sure that I would be able to make enough variations and that it would not take months, I decomposed the workflow into smaller routines like “make the base shape”, “add details”, “render”, and then repeated the process step by step. I made all base shapes first, checked that they were all different (but not too much!), detailed all of them, checked again, and so on — until the end. What a marathon!

NeonMob: Each of the pieces has location, dimensional notation, and a number on them. Tell us about your intentions with that element. What’s the significance of these places to you?

Radiolaria Index Teaser

Radiolaria Index Teaser

I’ve created the set by keeping in mind what I like as a collector. As I wanted to represent a big index, giving each piece a name and some “scientific” number was logical. This allowed me to give a more unique look to each sub-series. I chose to use colors for the same purpose. A real index would have the same background for each object, but as a collector, when I open a pack and I see the new cards that I got, I want some kind of “wow effect”— I want colors!, I want to be surprised! — and then I want to get another pack! So TetraHexaDodeca, and so on refer to the base shape of the object: tetraedra, dodecahedra, et cetera, with shortcuts like Myria (meaning an object with 1000 faces) to refer to all objects with “a lot of faces”. I was not very literal on that. The number refers to the amount of faces of the final object I imported in Cinema4D. As you may notice, some of the objects have the same polygon count even if they look very different; that’s because I started from a very few base objects and even if I used a lot of topological tools (extrusion, remeshing, dividing polygons, etc) they all divide or multiply the polygon count by a fixed ratio, resulting in some objects having the same reference number in their name.

For the city name I chose cities that have a link with science, biology, or techniques that have achieved witness to see infinitesimal things. In Berlin, Max Knoll & Ernst Ruska (teacher and student from the Technic University of Berlin) invented the first TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy) and received a Nobel Price for this invention. In Geneva lies the Large Hadron Collider, one of the most incredible experimental technologies of mankind, made specifically for observing the smallest elements of our universe. But I could have chose a dozen other cities — so why these? Some of them are special to me (I was born in Geneva, I lived in Paris as a student, and so on) and others were chosen to match the color scheme I wanted (Barcelona for the warm color and the “Gaudi look” of the objects; Oslo for the cold blue and the winter mood).

The Future of Digital Art

NeonMob: Shifting gears slightly, as a digital creative — where do you see your industry going? How does access to high quality 3D tools like Cinema 4D change the game, and how do you see yourself making a living in the next five to ten years?

There is now a wide choice of free software that can help artists get started without spending a ton of money. And nearly all commercial software has an “education”, “trial”, or “feature-limited” edition for a lower price. I have developed my style for years with these opportunities. Computers — and now the internet — offer people more new tools for creating than in any other time in history. The computer presented new tools, but it itself is a tool for creating new tools. Every tool upgrades itself each year, as though the brush of a painter was, every year, capable of new things. Just think: “New upgrade for your brush — now it paints symmetrically”. As creatives, we have chances like never before. And the internet has spread our reach to potential clients the world over.

As a Swiss designer who needs a big income to live decently in Geneva, I’m in competition with designers from all the world — and nearly everywhere in the world is less expensive than Geneva. So I can’t be price competitive even if internet allows me to get clients worldwide. That’s why you must take time to develop a unique style by working for yourself instead of lowering your price because you think you’re not good enough to demand a decent income. If someone wants you because he loves your style — because your unique universe fit what he needs perfectly — he will trust in you.

As a digital artist who sell prints of his own work, the web is the best chance I’ve got to reach my customers. Digital art is a new domain. Even the name “digital art” didn’t exist when I was young. I wanted to “make paintings with computers”, but this discipline had no name. The web has changed the way we create art. Digital art was born worldwide simultaneously. It is not a cultural peculiarity that only reached some countries. Digital art culture has been — from its beginnings — transcultural, multiple, and of course, it is a culture of masses. The fact that my pictures are seen worldwide and that everybody can see them for free doesn’t mean that these pictures will never have a true value. Maybe in some decades, digital artists from today will be considered the predecessors of a new way of making art.

We are the early artists of a full new medium of expression, and it’s a big responsibility and a big opportunity.

Now, we are in the right time to make a difference. It’s our work that will be loved by people, confronting other types of expression. We are at the starting point of Digital Art: we are the early artists of a new medium of expression, and I feel it’s a big responsibility and a big opportunity. The web generation grows up thinking of digital art as a real artistic medium, because they will see more digital art in their life than they will see analog paintings. One day, digital art will become a truly respected domain of creation — like cinema, or traditional arts. I don’t know where digital art will go in the next twenty years, but I’m sure that in the end, people will accept it as part of global culture. And then, like photographers or designers before us, we will be rockstars!

NeonMob: So, this interview wouldn’t be complete without a question about NeonMob. How about this: when people collect your set, what feeling do you hope it inspires in them? What would make you feel the most proud about your work?

I hope to make them want to open another pack ! As a collector I like discovering new designs in every card, but I also like to get a big set full of colors and variation on the same theme. I’ve always liked the impact of a big amount of work presented in one time. That’s why I like collecting: when I open the first pack and I like the theme, I have to get the full set to see its true power. So I’ll be proud to see people trying to complete my set!

Radiolaria Index, a 100+ piece set by Chaotic Atmospheres (aka Istvan) will be released tomorrow, December 10 at 8am PST on