'Delivering in the Clutch' (An Interview with Digital Artist, Lee Olsen - 2020)

It is near impossible for one to possess the “drawing skills of an 8 year old” and ever realistically have their work be showcased and shared all over the world on social media, various websites, posters, in newspapers and as part of a globally acclaimed video game franchise. As all the motivational phrases profess- yes, anything is possible. However, how many of us can actually pull that feat off? Becoming an accomplished, professional artist, with seemingly basic “artistic” talent, as jokingly implied by our next featured artiste?

Unless you possess the passion and skills that have been incubated and refined for years (and have a good sense of humour), as is the case for Digital Artist and Graphic Designer Lee Olsen, very few of us would be able to make that above scenario a reality! So, if you were thinking of visiting that craft/art store on your way home, with the hopes of immediate success built on basic artistic skill, stick to your day job and leave the paint brushes and art pencils alone!

Lee's self-deprecating, modest and humble character shone through our intercontinental, WeAudition supported interview but there's nothing quiet about his work. Incorporating bold, vibrant, edgy and eye-catching graphics and aesthetics into his designs, it is clear to see why his artistry and Shift Refresh brand have contributed to him becoming such a sought after Digital Artist. His stunningly creative digital portraits evoke visions of the past and future in renderings of some of the world’s most famous faces and environments, in ways that people can only imagine and are definitely worth a peep.

Born in Cairns and now residing in Townsville Australia (both cities on the north-east coast of the continent, facing the Great Barrier Reef), Lee enjoyed drawing and continued that pastime up until that age of 8, remembering he was actually quite “decent” for his age. However, like some people who take meandering routes to eventually become masters of their craft, he was taken off the artistic path and stopped drawing, due to what he believes may have been a diversion in interest; normal for a child who had not even reached double-digits in age. Whilst he did relinquish his HB2 pencils, coloured markers and paint sets for that moment, internalising and appreciating art (whether architecturally, painted or visual art in any form) and recognising the magnificent Aussie vistas around him, he was still constantly stimulated by his surroundings and able to mentally visualise creations. His creative sixth-sense remained in-gear and in-time, it strengthened its hold of his artistically experimental mind, eventually pushing him back into pursuing art. This time however, he would transition into a more technical form of the discipline. He would come to rely on his previous drawing skills again but in a newer and more complexed way.


Whilst in High School, Lee would begin to build new skills, constructing architectural designs as a student in technical drawing/architectural courses. Having excelled in those classes and demonstrating his prowess using set-squares, protractors and drawing boards (in the days before computer aided design software was introduced into his High School), Lee knew at that point, his life would revolve around design and art in some way. Armed with his impressive portfolio of hand-drawn architectural designs after graduating, Lee interviewed and successfully enrolled on to a Graphic Design degree at James Cook University, in North Queensland. There, he was exposed to a range of skills, tutelage, new technology and software. He ultimately fell in love with Adobe Photoshop, the popular and “industry standard” programme of choice for photo editing, during his studies. His introduction to Adobe began a technical relationship that he nurtured intently. Fortunately, he has continually been rewarded by his love for it, keeping him successfully buoyant now as a self-employed professional, in a field he has grown to enjoy and master. The fields of Digital Art and Graphic Design however, have become suffocatingly competitive, with many other talented artists surfacing daily around the world. Setting himself apart from them was not just a desire, it was a prerequisite for credibility, longevity and success.

The secret to Lee’s success was passion and dedication that was seemingly effortless and maybe initially borne out of necessity. “I didn’t have a [driving] licence [to aid my mobility and travelling to campus whenever I wanted like some of my peers], so I basically parked myself in the computer labs at the university, [until one of my parents could pick me up, late in the afternoon; after being on campus from early morning. This happened] pretty much [for] 3 straight years and [with all this extra time on campus I built my skillset and]…was just learning everything I could about Photoshop and experimenting. From there, my interest in design and stuff just continued to grow!”

After university, Lee was fortunate to obtain a job at a local web-design company in Townsville, where he worked for 4 years, harnessing his skills predominantly in website design, whilst also coding HTML/CSS templates for various government projects. Whilst employed there, he built a robust professional portfolio of skills and work that grew his confidence. He also acquired industry respect and accumulated a rolodex of important clients that could vouch for his professionalism and credibility. This would become handy when he was forced into self-sufficiency as a freelance Digital Artist, when the company shut down.


Opportunity for Lee arose after a friend passed on a news article that highlighted Australian artist Tyson Beck, who had earned a contract with the NBA. He was commissioned by the league to design digital art for the fans on their social media platforms, after he shared some artwork of his favourite basketball player, Kobe Bryant. Tyson’s seemingly unprecedented deal sparked major interest in Lee, as he himself was a massive NBA fan and was also a very talented Digital Artist.

Lee remembers, “My friend, knowing that I was a designer and…loved the NBA, was like ‘mate, check this out, you can do this [too]!’….and so I read up on it and I was like ‘wow, I could do this!’…So literally within that 24-hour period [of getting the news], I think I fired up a page on Facebook for my business…[created] an Instagram and Twitter [account] and I literally just started working on sports designs and throwing them out there and tagging whoever I could, just spamming organisations…It was actually pretty quick, within a couple of months, some people started reaching out to me and I started to land some work here and there!”

Lee was aware however, of the immense competition he faced with this trending discipline, which created a new marketplace and great demand for that skill, in a world that was clearly moving towards more digital and social media marketing. Digital Art and Graphic Design therefore evolved extremely rapidly and right before his eyes. Access to opportunities would now be easily achieved from anywhere in the world with just access to a computer, or even the ubiquitous mobile phone. The race was on and getting his creativity recognised and achieving some form of "first-mover" status in the newly emerging markets was quickly evaporating, essentially becoming a Mount Kosciuszko-like, uphill battle.

“When I jumped on Instagram there was a large amount of young designers trying to break into the game…[So getting that] initial client [who offered paid work] was probably the biggest challenge…Many kids [then and] nowadays know their way around Photoshop and can get an image and make it look ‘cool,’ but how many of those people have a proven track record of delivering for business for over 10 years and can meet deadlines[?] On the outside to a client, everyone looks the same until you can get your foot in the door and prove yourself and build from there.”

Lee did just that, not only to just get his work noticed and the proverbial foot in the door (in most cases from halfway around the world) but was able to display his professionalism, work ethic and desire to excel. This allowed him to leapfrog many aspiring artists who either just did it for fun or plainly didn’t know what it meant to deliver in the clutch.

From his early-identified drawing skills before the age of 8, to his eventual architectural design work and later, working on website designs and HTML/CSS coding, Lee has accumulated a range of artistic and technical skills and experiences that, when combined with his love for basketball (and sport in general), created the perfect scenario and template of artistic expression for a sports-crazed artist. It was a match made in graduate heaven; a past student creating opportunity, using the skills and talents he diligently nurtured and strengthened at university and now successfully applying it to a hobby and consequently making money from it!

From there, Lee was off and running, generously building personal, corporate and global followers of his work. His reproductions only increased in quality as he continued getting more reps to showcase his abilities, all whilst using his favourite sports stars as human canvases for his creativity. The offers of contract work kept flowing in from companies who gushed at his designs and wanted his skill to be vibrantly splashed into their marketing campaigns, on logos, posters, social media pages and much more. All this from him sharing creations he made enthusiastically in his spare time of featured athletes from around the world!

Lee’s work can be found front-and-centre on loads of mediums, some taking a life of their own after being shared and liked constantly on Twitter, Instagram, Behance and elsewhere, due to their cultural significance, viewer admiration and just the straight-up entertainment and cool factor that is undeniable. With a client base that includes the National Rugby League in Australia, Charles Darwin and Griffin Universities, the NBA, Bleacher Report and most notably 2K Sports video game franchise, his portfolio extends broadly...not just obscurely in Townsville Australia but worldwide!                             


It was interesting then to learn from Lee, what he thought people’s perspective was of digital art and whether its appeal and artistry could be considered a standard form of art and entertainment. Considering his work is widely used on entertainment platforms like 2K Sports, it’s hard to disagree that it doesn’t belong in the realms of art and entertainment. However in isolation, Lee believes there’s still more work to be done to get people on board with the idea that Graphic Design is actually a form of art and can also be reasonably classed as entertainment.

In response to whether he thought Digital Art is held in the same esteem as canvas paintings, drawings, sketches and other low-tech forms of revered and painstaking creativity, Lee offered the mixed response that some people can stumble through when considering this genre. “I guess, in some respects but…I still get the vibe that not quite so much? I think it’s getting respect but I still sort-of see them as two different sorts of elements…I guess it depends on if you talk to people from the Graphic Design industry, they’d be obviously very passionate about it and as far as they’re concerned it is art and that’s fair enough...Then there are those that will turn their noses up and say well that’s not [art], so it’s in the eye of the beholder I think…If it’s me and I’m trying to sell my value to a client and show what I can do for them, then of course it’s art, ‘cause they’re paying me [to produce] art!” Lee candidly offered with a chuckle. “Creative is a good catch-all [term used] these days…it’s creative, regardless of [how it is produced].” His take exemplifies how fresh the burgeoning market for Digital Art is, especially with how it has risen into people’s conscience as an accepted form of art, only very recently. It may take a little while for art ‘purists,’ who perhaps prefer hand-painted, canvas creations to appreciate this novelty in the same vein as the works of Picasso, Van Gogh and Michaelangelo from yester-yester-year.

“[In this area of work], you’re after an emotional response [from people] to something [you’ve created],” Lee explains, giving his rationale also to why he thinks his work can specifically be classed as a form of entertainment. “Particularly with the work [I] do with sports…imagine someone is on their phone, scrolling through something, you want [your work to] grab their attention and that can be done either through some sort of visual impact or an emotional impact. It might be their favourite player reacting to something or a quote about something or nostalgia or pop culture or something like that. So, while they may not be entertained for such a period of time [as when watching a music video or movie], you’re still getting a response from them. So, I would tend to agree it is a form of entertainment.”


Lee spoke from his position as a creator and an experienced artist, about capturing an audience’s attention with impactful artwork above. However, little did he know that he would prophesy a truth that would resonate so deeply and that his art would emotionally impact and soothe students as far as the American state of California and touch every other corner of the globe, with its shocking relevance and hair-raising depth…and not just in an artistic sense! Lee published a trio of renderings on each day from the 4th- 6th of November 2019 via his Instagram account that creatively mimicked the NBA’s “There Can Only Be One” playoff campaign from 2008, which merged faces of team stars who battled each other for the championship that season. This time however, he created similarly blended, painting-inspired portraits of NBA superstars and their super athletic kids. One however, would bring itself to the forefront in dramatic fashion that Lee himself could never dream of, in his lifetime!

Unless this minute you’ve returned not only from just under a rock but maybe from the centre of the earth, you’d know that NBA mega-star Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, tragically passed away in a helicopter crash over the hills of Calabasas, California. At the time of Lee’s interview for this piece with The Actor’s Post, Kobe was alive and well, celebrating the on-court advancements of his daughter, who was growing into a talented women’s basketball player and also praising the individual accomplishments of Los Angeles Lakers’ Forward LeBron James, who just a few days earlier, passed him for third on the all-time scoring list in the NBA.

Lee’s depiction of Kobe and Gianna’s faces merged into one portrait was liked and shared thousands of times before landing on the screen of student artist Noelle Nguyen, who decided to reproduce it as an actual mural in her school, Duarte High School’s gym, as a way to help her and peers pay tribute and come to terms with Kobe and Gianna’s untimely passing. Her art (which was completed in 7 hours, with the help of friends), was so well received that local news channel, CBS LA came round to interview the talented artist and also rightfully referenced Lee as the originator of the image in their report, from his November 6th, 2019 publishing on Instagram.

Lee would later tell Alister Albert, Founder of The Actors’ Post via Twitter direct message:

“That [Kobe-Gianna] image has been crazy. I posted it in November but [it] started going viral as the news broke of the [helicopter] crash. I then realised Kobe himself had liked it on Instagram at some point between November and his death. I didn’t realise it [until] after the fact!”

Lee would get a resoundingly positive and emotional response to the piece from admirers of the portrait around the world! Many persons have since used it as their personal display pictures/avatars on thousands of social media profiles, including current NBA star Marvin Bagley III. Also, other sports stars in other disciplines have taken notice and special interest in it, even using it in high profile ways to pay tribute and memorialise Kobe and his daughter. Croatian WWE superstar Dominik Dijakovic for example, recently sported a sweatshirt with the image as he entered the wrestling ring for a prime time match-up. 

Unfortunately and in some ways expectedly, some profit-motive individuals have used the image on items to sell memorabilia, even after Lee kindly shared the high resolution image for private use to the world and urged, out of respect, that it not be used for commercial gain as that would understandably be in "poor taste."


Like with all The Actors’ Post artistes featured, Lee gave some insight about who some of his favourite movie stars and films were and his responses were also peppered with all-time classics! “I am a bit of a movie buff…[but] since taking on the sports stuff, my movie watching has dropped down a little bit….but at the end of the day, the more I think about it, I think Pulp Fiction is my favourite movie.” He continued and delivered some more box office nostalgia noting that as a child “…Terminator 2 was my favourite movie [and] I was a big Arnie fan!” He also mixed in a recent blockbuster for good measure, giving high praise to an award winning Quentin Tarantino film saying “I’ve seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood three times now! I remember the first time I saw that, I was thinking ‘this could rival Pulp Fiction for me!’…[and] Boogie Nights would be just below Pulp Fiction I think!”

Jake Gyllenhaal, the veteran triumvirate of Al Pacino, Robert Dinero, and Christopher Walken were grouped together as the second entry and Eddie Murphy rounded out Lee’s top 3 actors, though he clearly cheated with his trio in the middle. He did acknowledge however how tough it was to only pick 3 actors and that if asked the following day that “top 3” would most likely change.

After sharing his movie knowledge, Lee imparted the all-important advice and wisdom that this platform seeks to inspire aspiring entertainers. “You can’t teach passion, you can’t say ‘have passion about something,’ you either have it or you don’t. So, [if] you have it…you’re going to be trying to get into the industry; so the next thing is to hustle, to keep working, keep practicing on your craft, keep putting your work out there, getting your name out there! Don’t be ashamed to tag people you want to work with, get their attention! They might think its spam and they might ignore you [or] they might not! They might see your work and think it’s great and go from there. Reach out, make the use of social media, it’s an unbelievable tool. It is starting to get crowded but there’s only one way to break through and that’s to keep pushing [yourself and work] out there.

Having “passion” for something obviously isn’t the formula to definite success. Faking enjoyment and passion will get snuffed out really quickly, even by untrained eyes. Having effortless passion, combined with hard work and enjoying the ups and downs that comes with the learning process is the real winning combination. Lee added “You have to [enjoy it]!...Every time I get a 'like' from a big name [on social media], I’m like a kid inside and it keeps me going!....It’s like a drug, it’s crazy! Hustle!"

We all may not be talented artists but we all do have things we are deeply passionate about and are good at. It may be useful to have a think and review your strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to magnify your strengths and reduce any threats to your success. "Hustle" with that passion; perfect the craft and put yourself out there. It was a combination that worked perfectly for Lee and ignited a career of artistry that has earned him the credibility and a steady stream of work he actually enjoys.

We obviously can't guarantee the kind of success that he has had and will continue to have for yourself but if you proceed with enjoyment, passion, patience and hard work, your persistence is more than likely to pay off...eventually. Kobe Bryant, who himself was famously an Academy Award winner, in addition to a basketball savant and many other successful performers/entertainers (past or present), who rigorously perfected their craft would have it no other way! It's fitting then and why Kobe's phrase "Mamba Mentality" will probably become the enduring words of inspiration that will dominate our lifetime...especially for those who chase excellence!