How Bernd Wagenfeld crafts medleys of mouthwatering food

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When it comes to food illustrators, few people can match the detail and perfectionism of Bernd Wagenfeld. Years of honing his craft, experimenting with process and watching an ever evolving industry have left him with a deep understanding of what constitutes an effective food illustration. From plump fruits with shiny skins to delicate petals on an almond blossom, he is adept at handling various textures and subjects.

What makes a great food illustration?
The goal is to show food from its best possible angle. You want the product to shine on the shelf so you should work on an illustration with the same care and heart as a portrait. Make it look better than the original food, to the point where the viewer almost smells and tastes the flavor. Then it becomes great looking.

The main elements that an image need are accuracy, love of detail, a fresh, juicy look, good composition and nice presentation. The composition should look believable (no flipping and reusing or repeating of parts, accurate shadows, light always from one main direction, no use of cheap and fast Photoshop effects etc.). Nothing should look dry, gray or moldy, which can happen fast with a specific light situation. My work on food illustration is a path of finding and using the best of exaggeration (hyper-realism), a photographic look and naturalism plus a pinch of extra effort and passion

Why do you think clients choose illustration over photography?
Sometimes the law says no photo because the actual fruit or ingredient is not in the product, just the flavor. Therefore it has to be illustrated.

In handcrafted illustration every detail goes more through eye, mind and hand. There is constant subjective decision making which helps to create the best possible idealized image. With my many years of experience, I’m able to handle a food illustration with more flexibility. If I don‘t like the texture of an apple or the shape of a stalk or a leaf, I‘ll change it. The end result is a flexible layered Photoshop document that the art director can manipulate. He or she can move elements of the illustration around for different formats or media.

How did you get into food Illustration?
While I was in college I worked as an assistant for an airbrush illustrator. This was before digital cameras and computers. We were illustrating product presentations, which would be too expensive to photograph or simply didn‘t exist. For example, we did a ski suit in an ice block. We also worked on very aromatic looking fruits for a tea company.

After college, when I first started out, I took every job I could get, from a children‘s dictionary to maps to food and comp illustration. Then I went digital and worked on some food jobs where I developed that strong part of my portfolio.

What advice would you give to aspiring food illustrators trying to learn this art?
For gathering experience, it‘s really useful to draw and paint food from scratch. Also take macro photographs to develop a good feel for texture, form and light, what looks good and what to avoid.

How do you go about acquiring reference?
Usually the art director provides a fairly tight layout of the motif. Depending on the assignment and challenges, I start either with pencil sketches or by taking photos. I try to get the best-looking foods for the assignment. From there I take photos of the best parts with a macro lens and stitch the focused parts in together in Photoshop. That way I have a solid detailed high-resolution file as my starting point. For things I can‘t photograph myself and have to paint, I buy stock photos for reference or search the Internet or library.

Then, I manipulate everything by painting over it in Photoshop. I keep everything on separate layers for later adjustments. Keeping the image as flexible as possible is important for fast changes.

How do you use flowers, herbs and other elements of styling correctly?
Flowers and some herbs, even some fruits, are usually unavailable or not fresh enough. I paint these photorealistically with the same light situation as the other elements I photographed in order to blend them together perfectly.

Do you have any lighting tips?
Most of the time I want to have the lighting as neutral as possible as a starting point, then for further mood I can add it digitally. A big window works best for me. I soften direct sunlight with thin layout or tracing paper. Sometimes a regular light bulb works.

Explain the difference between realism and photo-realism?

Yes, in a briefing that can become confusing. There is realism, naturalism, hyperrealism and photorealism. Photorealism achieves a specific, very detailed photographic look. In food illustration, it means that there are no marks of painting or drawing required.

But a very realistic painting is not automatically photorealism. Art directors usually ask me to do an image that shows no brushstrokes or any other personal style or interpretation. Ironically, it should not look “illustrative“, just like the pure object at its best. Clients think that a photorealistic food illustration is more believable, even if it‘s completely manipulated. In a time where photography is so dominant, it seems to sell better.

How long does it take you on average to do a food illustration?
Let’s say a smaller group of fruits with maybe a flower or nuts: Depending on the complexity of the assignment usually three days including research, sketches, photo shoot, composing and finishing.

What are the most difficult foods to illustrate and why?
An open maracuja, for example, looks slimy, but it taste good. To illustrate that fruit in an appetizing way is a big challenge. Pineapple and meat, all foods with very complex surfaces, are also difficult to illustrate. How the light interacts with these surfaces can become difficult to control. Painting water drops, ice cubes and waters plashes are difficult because of their complex reflections.