It’s life, but not as we know it. From forest glades to mountain vistas, lonely seascapes to snowy hillsides, Josh Pierce is a world-building digital artist, able to manifest parallel universes at the click of a mouse. There’s flora and fauna similar to those in our own world, but it’s somehow more intense, more vibrant. One of the most striking signs we’ve left planet Earth is the presence of neon signs and symbols in the sky – energy forces that transcend the landscape. There’s a sense of peace and tranquillity, but also curiosity – where have we landed, and what’s happening here? It all looks so real, like a photograph, and yet we realise all of this has been created by a mortal man.
We’ve gone inside Josh Pierce’s mind, and it’s truly a beautiful place to be. In his compositions, the sunlight, shadow, reflection, mist and cloud formations all look so tangibly real, and yet they have each been meticulously created through digital wizardry. There is an intriguing juxtaposition at work here, in these pieces that seem to evoke the natural world so faithfully through digital means. It leaves us asking the question – if a man could create this, what else might human beings be capable of? Man and machine are already working together to manifest the imaginary.
But on closer inspection of Josh’s work, we see the details of these images aren’t as fully formed as we first thought. In fact, our minds are being manipulated to fill in the gaps, and it’s no longer Josh creating the image but our own brains. The same could be said for the reality we all see each day – we pick and choose what we want to see, and how to see it.
As a wise person once said, ‘a man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts.’ And how lucky we are to witness the dreams of Josh Pierce!
Exclusive Interview with Josh Pierce
An industry leader in the digital art world, you’re considered a master of the latest digital techniques. Have you always been focused on purely digital art, and what drew you to that world rather than more traditional art forms?
Thank you, that’s a great question. Growing up, I was always very artistic and loved doing drawing and sculpting and building little things out of paper and tape! I also loved to code and build little video games in QBASIC programming language and loved creating art on the computer, even though it was at first Commodore 64 and then a 486. As I got older, I started learning Photoshop and 3-D studio max, while simultaneously getting deep into pen and ink line drawing, and psychedelic art. I always found that the computer was an incredible tool to do so much of the heavy lifting and tedious work allowing me to be more creative and freeing my ideas to really blossom. Once I had a good grasp of the tools, I never really turned back to traditional art except as a therapeutic outlet or just for fun sometimes. Today, I’ve spent years honing a particular technique and I feel like I’ve really discovered my artistic voice and visual language through a symbiosis with the software and technology.
When I began creating digital art regularly it started as a way for me to connect with the present moment and to disconnect the thinking part of my mind as a way to bring about a sense of calming stillness.
Mindfulness and meditation is an ever present theme in your art, allowing us a quiet moment of peace and serenity in the midst of an unknowable universe. How does meditation and spirituality impact your work?
That’s definitely an important question for me to answer; it is a huge factor in my work for sure. When I was doing those early intricate line drawings, I realised that kind of work brought me into a flow state that had a lot of similarities with deep meditation and mindfulness. So when I began creating digital art regularly it started as a way for me to connect with the present moment and to disconnect the thinking part of my mind as a way to bring about a sense of calming stillness. Initially the work didn’t necessarily reflect this mind state, however over time the pieces began to take on those characteristics. I began having awareness of something entering into the work from beyond. I am a daily meditator, and I also do a lot of mindful walking and reading spiritual material. So it’s become clear to me that how I connect with something greater is simultaneously a way I can communicate that beautiful experience to others who enjoy and appreciate my art.
You draw on the beauty and serenity of the natural world, creating awe-inspiring, almost real landscapes. These are often inhabited by transcendent signs and symbols from another dimension, reminding us this is all a digital construction by a mere mortal! Spending so much time in the digital world, do you find it important to reconnect to nature and the physical realm?
Absolutely. I grew up running around and playing out in the forest where I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I’ve always had an affinity for lush greenery, plants, nature and mountains. Since I was a kid, I have always been inspired by travel magazines and books, nature photography and landscape painting. I dreamed of travelling to these heavenly natural abodes and feel deep connection with the organic world. There is no doubt some presence or force radiates from these special places, and I have taken to representing this energy with both abstract forms emitting light, and glowing figures signifying the human experiential presence.
I’m definitely drawn to being outside, and having a closeness with plants especially. I try to take some time every day to be outside, and regularly to go hiking, running, surfing and swimming. I love travelling to natural places to get inspired such as the nearby Santa Monica mountains, as well as farther destinations like the Pacific Northwest, the southwest and Arizona, the Great Lakes regions, and the forests of my northeast childhood. Some of my favourite places are Sedona in Arizona, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, and the Finger Lakes.
It’s incredible how much the silhouettes or outlines of shapes suggest the forms we are looking at, while the brain fills in much of the details that are perceived to be there and gives a sense of feeling photo-real.
At first glance, your landscapes look so real they could be mistaken for fine art photography, but on a closer look you realise it has all been created from scratch. What is your process when creating a piece with this level of detail, with so many varied textures?
I definitely consider myself a process oriented artist, and I love to speak to this topic! Over the years, there’s been a lot of help from the technology getting better and better, and vast improvements in speed and fidelity as well as resolution and variety. I’ve been refining and honing my techniques for quite some time. I usually begin by sculpting on a plane and defining the basic shapes of the terrain that I am visualising in my head. Then I begin to add texture from my custom curated library of assets, and adding in details such as plants and rocks. The sky and the lighting are key to creating a sense of realism.
It’s incredible how much the silhouettes or outlines of shapes suggest the forms we are looking at, while the brain fills in much of the details that are perceived to be there and gives a sense of feeling photo-real. I often add things layer by layer, building up the details and creating more complexity. This is where the technology really shines in its ability to handle highly complex scenes. After the rendering process, there is a bit done to the initial composition to enhance the depth, lighting, colour and contrast. This is all for one image, but often I also add animation which entails rendering many frames and repeating the process for a linear timeline, and carefully creating seamless loops. Really, I have an incredible enjoyment of every step of the process, and I feel so fulfilled when a piece comes to fruition!
In your ‘day job’ you’ve worked on design and animation for a variety of big brands. How would you say that experience has impacted your personal artwork and style?
Creatively, I don’t know that it impacted my style a great deal but technically there was so much that I learned that I would never trade it for anything. My style really has a natural vibe and uses a lot of richly organic themes. I spent a lot of my professional career doing sports work and packages for those kinds of related programmes for television. I did learn a great deal about the software and about colour, composition and animation. If anything it did allow me to know that I didn’t really want to do very much in terms of technical things like sci-fi or mechanical elements in my personal style. Not that I ever rule anything out, but I do feel like it pushed me in a more natural direction.
With your recent pieces Divine and Dissolve, you’ve incorporated some movement allowing us to peer further inside these intriguing worlds. Is this something you’re looking to explore further going forward? How do you see your work evolving in the future?
Yes, I love to create animation and subtle movement that can give a cinemagraph type effect. I like to create a space where there is a lot of stillness and ability to reflect and meditate on the scene and the emotions being evoked. So, a little bit of very subtle motion works really well for me along with my original sound design. I have up until now released only one immersive space but the plan is to work towards building more places where someone could actually walk inside my art and experience it from the inside. I really believe that what I create is helpful for people to pause and reflect within. I would love to create environments that could be experienced in 360°, so VR is something I’m really interested in looking at.
I’m also really interested in creating a gallery installation space in which all four walls could in some way envelop the viewer inside one of my pieces. All in all though, my main goal is to continue creating the pieces that I love to make and to create art every day. I also would just like to say thank you very much for asking all of these great questions and allowing me to speak about my art and my vision and my goals. Appreciate it so much, and looking forward to showing everyone what I’ve got coming next!