Digital artist and founder of HE–Studios Harrison Kuykendall on the magic of Photoshop
Harrison Kuykendall is a digital artist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the owner and founder of HE–Studios, a creative studio specializing in still and animated retouching for large-scale global advertising campaigns. He’s worked with clients such as Target, Stella Artois, Lady Gaga’s Haus Labs, Aveeno, Champion, and Diane von Furstenberg.
Originally from Chicago, Harrison moved to New York after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) with a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design to start a full-time role at 3.1 Phillip Lim. Harrison was in charge of the fashion house’s emerging e-commerce department. “In my senior year of college, I co-founded a magazine with a friend of mine who's a fashion photographer, and so that really led to an interest in art direction and creative direction for fashion and beauty.” After he left Philip Lim, Harrison went on to work full-time at different advertising agencies over three or four years before founding his own company. “I was either working as a video editor or a graphic designer or retouching a project. I was able to touch on all these different points of creativity and get comfortable with the 360-degree creative process.”
Creativity runs in Harrison’s family. His mom owned a children's theater, meaning that going to acting classes became Harrison’s alternative to daycare. “My mom also went to school for interior design and worked as an interior designer. She definitely had a creative spirit, and that was passed down from her mother, who was a graphic designer before graphic design really existed: she would do newspaper paste-ups. My grandfather and my other grandmother were ad execs. My grandma also worked at Pixar and Lucasfilm.”
Looking back, Harrison explains how even as a child putting on performances in his basement, there were early signs that he was drawn to design. “I was always putting on plays and making posters for the plays. I was into filmmaking, but I wasn't necessarily into filmmaking; I was into designing the poster for the film and the DVD box art. I discovered my passion really lies in packaging things, making them look their best, advertising, and promotion. From a very young age, I was designing posters and merchandise for my mom's theater–I would do all their T-shirts!” Harrison credits a high-school art teacher for nurturing his innate ability and guiding him up until he went to college.
An expert in Photoshop, in his Domestika Basics, Harrison teaches everything you need to know to become proficient in Photoshop and develop your own style, from using the software’s basic tools to creating an animated GIF. In this blog post, we caught up with Harrison to discuss what it’s like to run a studio and work on large-scale projects.
You’ve worked with such clients as Stella Artois and Lady Gaga. What is it like to work with major international brands?
It's fun. When you work for big brands and A) the budget is big, and B) there are so many people looking at it that have a financial stake in what you're doing, you face this challenge of pleasing everybody while still keeping it natural and fresh. There's a lot of tendency in the advertising world to really clean things up and clean things up and clean things up, so I feel like it's my job to take in everybody's feedback but still keep it looking beautiful and not over-processed. It's a challenge, but I love retouching, so it's a challenge I'm up for.
Your studio started out as more of a post-production agency but has grown into a creative studio that also works on campaigns from start to finish. How do you set about working on a new project and coming up with ideas for a campaign?
My first step would just be having a conversation with the client and outlining what are the expectations and what exactly is it that we're creating. Then from there, I think you can sort of tailor it. Then, I just go crazy pulling swipe and pulling images from online. I'll usually start by getting a Pinterest board going. Then I have other resources I have picked up.
There's a site called Trunk Archive. There's The Fashionisto. There's Models.com. There are so many places online that archive print magazines. Tumblr! A lot of the time, everybody starts looking at the same inspiration on Pinterest, so from there, you need to then go and look at books and magazines. Finding things that haven't already been collected by somebody is super important: film references are always great. However, I'm not gonna say I don't start on Pinterest because I always do!
What is creative retouching, and why do you love it so much?
I love putting the final gloss on a project. There's just a satisfaction I get out of retouching. I always say it's like finishing a puzzle. All the creative is set in place. All the decisions have been made, and now it's my job to add the final gloss. I say “creative retoucher” because I think a lot of times people hear “retouching” and think you're taking away a pimple or just fixing a wrinkle. What I do, it's almost more like photo illustration, and “creative retouching” describes it more accurately.
My favorite thing to do at the end of a project is to click the before and after on and off. I'll do that for like 20 minutes. Retouching is so much more than just clicking a few buttons and adding contrast. I try and approach retouching from a design perspective.
What tips do you have for those looking to improve their techniques?
Take advantage of those online resources. I was so happy that Domestika asked me to do the course because I learned retouching from online tutorials. Online videos didn't really exist when I was learning to retouch, so they were written-out tutorials with screenshots. I mean, I'm not that old, I'm 30, but YouTube didn't exist when I was 12 years old. But now, the collective wealth of knowledge from the world is out there on platforms like Domestika, so that it's so easy for you to find what you want to learn and teach yourself.
Also, do everything! Even if you're not going to pursue painting, learning color theory and how to mix oil paints together is going to make you a better retoucher. Art skills all feed into each other. If you have confidence in one skill, you can bring that confidence over to another medium. That's made me more confident as an artist.
How do you find the business side of running a studio?
The business side of it isn't fun. I don't like putting together estimates or sending invoices, or really updating my website or LinkedIn. None of that is fun, but if you want to get to the part that is fun, which is the creativity, which is why you're doing it in the first place, I think you just have to step up to the challenge.
Also... hire a great accountant! You have to get to a point where you know you can do a lot of things yourself, but if someone can do something better, put that responsibility on them. I have a great accountant who does my books and keeps me in check. You have to know when to ask for help.
The New York-city ad scene has a reputation for being full-on and fast-paced. What’s your experience been?
During those 3-4 years where I was working full-time at different ad agencies, there were many nights where we were there until 4 am, and then you would go in at 9 am the next day for a shoot. I just had to throw myself into it. That was my life, and that was all I did.
I think you also realize that you do have to pay your dues and that if you want to get to a point of running your own agency, then you really need to listen to the people who are running the agency. Was it fun working until 4 am and then going to a photo shoot the next day? No, it was horrible, but I learned so much from those experiences and that made it worth it.
I'd say to throw yourself into a situation that's scary and maybe not comfortable or the most fun, but you can do anything for a year, and you're going to learn from that experience, and you're also going to learn how to deal with people.
You're going to encounter people who are difficult, people from different backgrounds, people who work a different way, and you have to learn how to conduct yourself and how to communicate. Otherwise, you're not going to be able to do that on your own. Also, find what you love. I can truly say that I love doing retouching and graphic design, so I think that's why I'm able to keep doing it.
In his Domestika Basics, Adobe Photoshop for Beginners, Harrison teaches you everything you need to know to become proficient in Photoshop and develop your own style, from using the software’s basic tools to creating an animated GIF.