Ian Ruhfass | A Lifelong Passion for 2D & 3D Digital Art
Ian is a digital artist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not producing incredible animations at Elastic, the agency where he works, he’s selling his own custom texture brushes for Procreate. Ian and his team have won multiple Emmys for his work in a popular Superbowl commercial and multiple Game of Thrones episode intros. Here, he shares how he’s reached this level of success and how he hopes to inspire others in the future.
Experimenting with Different Mediums
Ian knew he wanted to be an artist from a young age. He partially credits this to his grandfather, who gave Ian access to his oil paints and encouraged him to contribute to his work.
“He would create these immaculate landscapes,” Ian said, “and then trust me to add in bits and pieces like some clouds or snow on the mountains, after showing me his techniques. I was so worried about ruining his masterpieces, but he didn’t seem to mind at the time.”
Although Ian loved painting with his grandfather, it turns out that painting wasn’t Ian’s true calling. The cinematics in the popular video game Starcraft shifted his attention to 3D art at the age of 13. Ian immediately began using computer programs that allowed him to experiment with various 3D creations.
“It was so much fun for me because I thought of it as the equivalent to oil painting,” Ian told me. “I could sculpt landscapes with light, and throw on different materials instantly.” He followed this passion to Savannah College of Art and Design, where he graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, focusing on the lighting, texturing, and rendering aspects of 3D art.
Taking Big Risks Leads to Big Success
During the summer break before his senior year of college, Ian flew out to Los Angeles for an unpaid internship for the company Blind to try his hand as a 3D Artist. He wasn’t sure what would come of it, especially since the giant City of Angels is so different from the small Pennsylvania town in which he grew up.
Looking back, he feels that he made the right choice. “It was one of the best decisions I made because it opened up a lot of future opportunities for me,” Ian said. These future opportunities included going on to freelance for big companies like Luma Pictures, Psyop, Full Tank, Logan, and Elastic, where he still works today.
After that move, Ian realized that taking risks can be valuable. He’s taken on jobs which he thought were impossible at first, only to learn that they actually were, in fact, possible. Doing so has completely changed the way Ian now approaches big challenges. “Funnily enough, those projects almost always turned out to be the best achievements in my career and the projects I am most proud of,” Ian told me. “Now when an impossible project comes along, I greet it with open arms!”
These so-called impossible projects have even led to Emmy Awards–three of them, to be exact. “In 2009, I was a Lighting Artist at Psyop on the team that created “Coke: Heist” - a Superbowl spot that won an Emmy for ‘Best Commercial,’” Ian said. “In 2011, I was the Lighting/Shading Lead at Elastic for the Game of Thrones intro, which won an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Main Title Design’. Then, in 2019, I was the 3D Lead Artist for the reboot of the Season 8 Game of Thrones intro, and we won again for “Outstanding Main Title Design”. Being on stage at the Emmys was the highlight of my career!”
Big risks, but big wins indeed.
Jumping Into Entrepreneurship
While working at Elastic, Ian was introduced to Procreate on the iPad by his friend and well-known artist, Max Ulichney. Ian loved Procreate so much he created an Instagram account to show timelapse videos of his illustrations using the tool. He was shocked that it quickly grew to 50,000 followers in just 6 months.
Ian experimented with many different types of brushes, but similar to the fabled Goldilocks, he could never find a pack that was just right. So, Ian created his own brushes with his ideal set. “My experience as a texture artist in the 3D industry definitely helped the process along nicely,” Ian said, “and before I knew it, I had a Procreate texture brush pack that I fell in love with. It has everything that I love using daily like photo-based textures, noise, grunge, and canvas textures.” Ian received so many questions on social media asking about the brushes he’d made, that he decided to sell them on Gumroad.
And, although he says he doesn’t have much of a marketing strategy, he’s doing quite well. “A good video post of mine will get upwards of half a million impressions and around 200k direct views,” Ian said. “So that’s quite a lot of eyeballs each week.” Ian posts his timelapses both on YouTube and Instagram.
Inspiring Others & Building Community
Although Ian plans to keep 3D art his main focus, he’s really enjoying the 2D art that he creates with Procreate. “I think what I initially wanted to show with my illustrations was that you can create eye-pleasing artwork quickly by keeping things simple,” Ian told me. “I love creating cute and simple paintings, especially with silly faces. There’s just something about slapping a face on an inanimate object and bringing it to life that brings me joy!”
It seems that others agree. This is clear both from the number of people following his accounts (he has 56K+ on Instagram and over 2K subscribers on YouTube) and from the messages he receives on a daily basis.
“Each day I get people messaging me on Instagram telling me that I’m a huge inspiration to them, or that they got inspired to create their first piece of digital art because of me,” Ian said. “That is now my biggest driving force and motivator. When I see that I’m pushing people to become artists, it really is one of the best feelings in the world.”
Ian’s Advice for Aspiring Artists
Avoiding Burnout & the Importance of Work-life Balance
Ian cautions against taking on too much at once, which is a common theme seen in the creative world. “Burnout might come from working on a few difficult jobs in a row, or it might become harder and harder to come up with new ideas,” Ian said. “If this happens, it’s a great idea to take a step back and get your mind off of work for a while. I think it’s totally OK to take a sick day or two just to get your mind back on track if it’s needed.”
In addition to that, Ian says that keeping a healthy work-life balance is vital. “I totally understand the mindset of having a deep passion for your job or hobby,” Ian told me, “but it can be too easy to let life pass you by in the background.”
Do Whatever It Takes
“Getting that initial job can be the hardest part, but once you get it you’ll find that others will come much easier,” Ian said.
Remember his internship in Los Angeles? That opportunity got his own foot in. From there, he was able to branch out and work for the companies mentioned previously.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Ian also suggests that artists figure out what they’re most passionate about and pursue that. “Find what you enjoy doing the most within your industry,” he said, “and focus 100% of your energy on getting into a great company and becoming an expert on that specific thing.” Ian encourages trying new things and making big moves to get to where you’d like to be.
What’s Next for Ian
Ian has many plans for the future–not only for himself, but for the community he hopes to continue inspiring. “There are tons of artists out there that have greatly inspired me and helped me in one way or another over the years,” Ian said. “So, I’m just passing that gesture forward to the amazing community out there.”
To do this, Ian wants to continue making Instagram and YouTube videos that motivate others to make their own art. He’s also applied for a booth at the Lightbox Expo in Los Angeles, an annual festival that allows fans to meet the artists behind various digital art mediums. “It would be fun to meet some of my fans face-to-face,” Ian said, “and help get the luma_llama name out there in the process.”
Ian also has some exciting entrepreneurial projects in the works and is anticipating releasing them to his audience soon. He wants to keep working on his brushes, of course. Keep an eye on his website for updates!
But most of all, Ian just wants to keep making art. “As long as I can continue to have fun and continue growing as an artist, I’m happy.”