Wylie Beckert was born in 1987 in Boston, Massachusetts. She received a degree in studio art from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She currently works as a freelance illustrator creating book covers, advertising illustrations, and fine art for clients such as Simon & Schuster, Young & Rubicam, and McCann. Her work has been featured in publications including Spectrum and ImagineFX. She currently lives in northern Maine with a dog, a cat, and a scientist. Her website is wyliebeckert.com.
Your artwork comes across like postcards from a world where Halloween and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day. The paintings are all very inviting, despite having subject matter that is often given a darker treatment by most science fiction/fantasy illustrators. The paintings are also warm and analog in feel, despite being created, at least in part, through digital means. Are you deliberately challenging notions of what digital work can look like?
I love that description, and I wish I could restructure my calendar accordingly! I think much of the tone of my work comes from my love of Golden Age illustrators (Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley are two of the most obvious); I’ve always tried to emulate their aesthetic — creepy, elegant, and charming all at the same time — and the traditional-media feel is a big part of that.
I do feel that the chasm separating digital and traditional media isn’t as vast as we sometimes make it out to be, and there is a lot to be gained by borrowing freely from both sides. Traditional media has a distinct advantage, in that it shows the hand of the artist so plainly, even in a pencil sketch; digital media seems to demand a greater mastery of the tools for that unique essence to come across. This is why pencil underdrawings are so important to my process — no matter what media I use to finish out a piece, that individual thumbprint is always present under the surface.
I often cannot identify the gender of the characters in your paintings with confidence. Very often, they could as easily be artsy, bookish male characters with long hair as they could be female characters without makeup or revealing clothing, or else people somewhere confidently vague between the binary poles of identifiable gender. Is this a response to the depictions of female figures in traditional science fiction/fantasy illustration?
There does seem to be a tendency to homogenize female characters in fantasy art — you’ll see an artist designing these awesome inventive male faces with stylized bone structure and a sense of character and dimensionality . . . and then the corresponding female faces are just soft, glossy ovals that don’t convey much about the character other than “pretty” — and it always seems like a missed opportunity.
I wouldn’t say that I intentionally design androgynous characters — but while I always know what gender I want a character to be, it’s rarely the main point I want to make about who that person is — so sometimes a female character will end up a bit more rugged or bony than is de rigueur, and will come across as masculine. I have noticed that women tend to read the more ambiguous characters as female, and men tend to read them as male — so if there’s a silver lining, I suppose it’s that my characters end up more broadly relatable than if they exhibited a more typical sexual dimorphism.
Can we talk about the motif of swirling, fluttering things in your work? You’ve got swirling fabric, swirling vapors, swirling fish, swirling water. It’s like rhythmic gymnastics done by jellyfish in a whirlpool, or like Yoshitaka Amano (of Final Fantasy fame) painting a cyclone hitting a handkerchief factory. Can you talk to us about the power of the swirl and the flutter?
I don’t tend to paint very “action-y” scenes — I think there’s often more interest and emotion to be had in quiet moments or suspenseful turning points. The downside is that these scenes can come across as somewhat static; my solution to this is to find movement within the piece — whether literal (as in trailing fabric, smoke, or water) or abstract (in surface patterns, gestures, or a flowing arrangement of compositional elements) — to create contrast, and to maintain a sense of energy. Plus, these things are just fun to draw!
Even though your works are clearly narrative illustration, there is an element of abstraction in them. If you turn many of them upside down, and squint until they’re fuzzy, the paintings look like abstract paintings. There is so much delirious motion, but it feels like you’ve harnessed the power of the chaos for your own purposes. Is that because you have incorporated elements of chance into the compositions? How much does chance play into your work? Do you have any formal mechanisms to incorporate chance? For example, the Surrealists played a game called “frottage,” which means rubbing, in which they would rub the outline of a tossed length of rope onto a surface and then paint around whatever image that rubbing suggested. Philip K. Dick famously consulted the I Ching at every critical plot juncture to ask how to proceed when writing The Man in the High Castle, a novel that is in part about chance and the I Ching. Do you have any such formal mechanisms to incorporate chance and harness the power of chaos in your work?
Chance plays a major role in my compositions — sometimes it’s the only thing to fall back on when my imagination fails me and all my ideas start to look the same. Studying natural, randomized elements like tree bark or smoke helps remind me that shapes don’t need to be precise or carefully planned to be beautiful — borrowing from these sketches and snapshots provides a wealth of new ideas which, combined with unexpected details culled from reference photos or stray pencil marks, can generate images with a lot of abstract appeal.
I’ll even recycle elements of my older work for a randomized effect — to create a thumbnail sketch for my recent piece Sword of Purpose, I assembled a digital collage out of snippets of my old pencil drawings, then set out to find suggested forms within the chaos and developed them into an entirely new scene. It’s a technique I’m hoping to experiment with more in future pieces.
Visual tricks aside, chaos is a great source of conceptual ideas. Random word generators, word association games, and idea maps help me pull new ideas out of the ether or examine an existing concept from a new and more exciting angle.
You also have a motif of winding paths in your work. There are literal paths, such as the piece with the path snaking through the woods beset with creatures lying in wait but also marked with warnings from prior travelers. Travel along a path seems to be a regular theme. Further, there are visual paths all throughout the works in the form of the meandering lines created by swirls of fabric, smoke, etc. They evoke endpaper maps of fictitious kingdoms that so many growing, young geek brains nourished themselves on. Is this motif of a winding, map-like path just a visual preference for you, or does it have a more personal or thematic significance?
Endpaper maps! So many of the books from my childhood had them, and they certainly had an effect on how I viewed works of fantasy — each one taking place in its own distinct and cohesive universe. The fantasy worlds I would imagine and write about all had their corresponding crayon-drawn maps, and even now I like to think of my personal work, in part, as snapshots from travels in surreal foreign landscape full of strange sights — people and things that a traveler might encounter over the course of a journey along those uncharted roads. Many of the characters in my work are on journeys or quests of their own through this landscape, and so the path theme certainly has some significance in that respect; it’s also a natural tie-in with the winding shapes I love to include in my compositions.
I see that you did a painting, the one with the giant snail, inspired by The Magnetic Fields song “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old” from their immortal 69 Love Songs album. The band’s leader Stephin Merritt is a friend of mine. He is an art lover and I think he’ll be amused to see his song given visual identity. Have you done other works inspired by other art forms?
A number of pieces in my portfolio are inspired by other works — most notably, Tam Lin was inspired by the Child ballad of the same name, and Cold Wind was based on a short story by Nicola Griffith. Other pieces are less traceable to a single source; fairytales and legends are always a source of inspiration — they’re an interesting combination of common threads that exist across cultures and eras, and bizarre, distinctive details that set them apart from each other; they can be endlessly scrambled, recombined, and embellished upon. In a similar vein, I’m always getting inspired by lines in songs and poems; they’re good at evoking a certain mood or tone, and are often open-ended — another medium that leaves plenty of room for artistic interpretation and invention.
What are your greatest influences as an artist? Other illustrators? Fine art painters? Film? Architecture? Nature? Athletics? Fashion? Music?
I think my main influence is the natural world — there is such an infinite variety of forms and patterns to draw from that the tiny sliver I’m able to actually include in my work always feels frustratingly abridged. I especially love the forms that have been shaped by external forces, like trees twisted by the elements or earth shaped by erosion — they have a built-in narrative that makes them especially relevant to an illustrator!
The work of other illustrators has also been a major influence — fairy tale artists like Arthur Rackham, decorative artists like Alphonse Mucha, and commercial artists like J.C. Leyendecker, along with too many modern-day illustrators to name. I think the common feature that draws me in is the strong graphic look of their work, and their attention to line and detail. I also love how distinctive the styles of these artists are; each seems to have taken such thorough ownership of their own aesthetic that there’s no mistaking their work for anyone else’s.
What is your dream project?
Art directors always seem to find my work a little hard to place — a bit too playful for most adult genres and too peculiar for children’s products. I’d love to take on a huge, immersive narrative project of my own creation — like an illustrated fantasy volume, or a traditionally-painted, sweeping epic of a graphic novel — where all my fierce characters and obsessive, swirling detail work would fit right in.
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