Tod Kapke Illustration

Based in Denver, Colorado, Tod Kapke has been good enough to provide a close insight into his mesmerizing photography-based illustrations. His work demonstrates an artistic direction that is both hard-hitting, amusing (often in a dark way!) and extremely innovative. This post looks into how he got into the work he does and how he does it.

tod kapke illustration

tod kapke illustration

How did you get into the work you do?

‘I have always been interested in becoming an artist in some sort of way or another. I had a lot of interest in painting, drawing and printmaking in junior high/high school. I ended up taking some photography classes in school and really liked the immediacy of it, not to mention being able to play with lots of nifty gadgets. I was able to get the level of detail and texture that I could not get with my painting and printmaking. I spent a lot of time looking at magazines and time at the library researching artists. I ended up running across artists like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Joel Peter-Witkin, Matt Mahurin, John Heartfield, Hans Neleman and comic works by Bill Sienkiewicz. Something just sort of clicked’.

tod kapke illustration


‘I started messing around with assemblage type work, building really crappy sets, abusing my friends as models taking pictures of them, printing them out, painting on them and then rephotographing them again. I had no idea how these artists were creating the work they did so i just started to experiment. I ended up winning some national arts awards in high school for some of my photo work. I thought it was a sign, so I went off to art school with some friends who were also attending.

It was more a commercial art school. I realized quickly that my work did not fit in with the school. I was told by a few of the faculty members that I should think about going to different school (might of had to something to do with the shellaced bird head attached to one of my pieces that I turned in, I spent a lot of time arguing with faculty and students whether my work was photography or not).

I actually learned a lot about using real studio equipment and camera’s at the school. At this time i got a chance to start doing photography and art directing for a snowboard clothing company.

I ended up ditching school to start working. We pretty much go free reign to do whatever we wanted to do and learned way more about the real world than I would ever had in school. I started experimenting more and more with assembled type work. I really started being influenced by vintage commercial type illustrators and design.

I really wanted to be a commercial photographer but would get commercial type jobs (I.e. shoot this one white seamless) and just hate doing them. The idea that i was going up against these guys with huge studios with assistants and tons of really expensive gadgets did not seem feasible to me. I realized that i liked doing this illustrative type work. i was more interested in illustration/design than photography so I began to push myself in that direction’.

tod kapke illustration


Can you describe your work process and tools used for your compositions?

‘It is hard for me to really pin down how I do my stuff. it really changes for each piece. Sometimes it could be toy cameras, digital, or large format (or all three), homemade lighting rigs, studio strobes, natural light, or just a plain flash light. This is not to mention all the props that need to be built and sourced, costumes made, backgrounds or sets made and so on.

My work process really varies. It really depends on money, time, the complexity of the idea, the props that I can find or build. Sometimes it might be completely done on the computer, other times I try to build the whole thing as a large set. if I spend too much time in front of the computer on one I will usually freak out and make myself do the next one completely by hand’.

This is a behind the scenes run through of an illustration Tod has just completed for Bicycling Magazine. The copy he had to work with was: “build yourself up, time off from riding can be a good thing-here’s how to come back stronger than ever”.

Tod’s idea was as follows, with 5 days to the deadline:

tod kapke illustration

‘I try really hard to not self edit during the idea phase. I get a rough idea of how I might do this. Usually I will just get the idea and then figure out how to execute it.

I wanted a toy bike for the cyclist to be riding. Something that looks real but is obviously a toy. I also like the whimsical aspect of the toy. I searched and found nothing at any toy stores. I found what I wanted on eBay and had it sent to me overnight. I also needed to figure out how i was going to get this scene on the models head?? I did not want to do all that in Photoshop.

I started to build some sort of bald cap and was then going to manually apply all of the trees and grass to his head. I decided that this was too time consuming. I decided on getting a foam head to build the mini set on. I went to the model store to build some scenic supplies. I also needed to find some clothing for the cyclist to wear. I have a collection of old wool jerseys. I wanted more of a vintage feel to it’.

Here is a working of the head in progress, and the model’s head, which was added in later:

tod kapke illustration tod kapke illustration

The an image of a model on the bike was required, as was a snapshot of the toy bike:

tod kapke illustration tod kapke illustration

‘I finally had all of the elements shot and it was time to start to composite them on the computer‘:

tod kapke illustration tod kapke illustration

Here is the final image, with added clouds, a background and cotton ball clouds from a previous shoot. Lighting was added with a bit of texture and colour balance:

tod kapke illustration

© Tod Kapke, 2009

Apart from this and another feature for Bicycling Magazine, Tod is also planning to get started on a small book. ‘I am not sure of the exact type yet, sort of a children’s book. It was project that I started many moons ago with a long time friend. It began life as a short animated film. The film is about a small robot that dreams of being a boy. The story is something that I cannot get out of my head and it is not going to be finished ever as a film. I decided to finish it as a story book. Maybe it will motivate me to finish it as a film that way!’

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3 Comments

  1. Its WoW, but i think where did u made the Wood Elements with?
    Irie Ites

  2. Awesome effects here. Really surreal and eyecatching. Well done!

  3. This is really great, really nice work!

Comments are closed.