Last year Julie Dillon was on the Hugo ballot for Best Professional Artist—the first woman in twenty-seven years to be nominated. This year I am honored to be one of three female artists nominated for that award, along with Julie Dillon and Fiona Staples. With John Harris, John Picacio, and Dan Dos Santos, we make a ballot equally split between the genders: the first time that has ever happened in this category. In fact, including Julie Dillon on last year’s ballot, only three women have ever been nominated for the Hugo in the Professional Artist category.
Therefore it feels timely, and personally fitting, that this would be the summer Lightspeed dedicates an entire issue to the enormously talented and fantastically imaginative women working in the field of speculative fiction. The opportunity for me to invite other artists to be a part of the project was nothing short of breathtaking. Li Grabensetter with her beautiful handling of inks and watercolors, Elizabeth Leggett with her brilliant digital renderings, Christine Mitzuk’s rich painterly style, and Hillary Pearlman’s fantastical tinkering bring the fiction in this issue depth and texture. It was a pleasure to work with these gifted and passionate artists who are deeply involved in the speculative fiction community. My favorite part of working on this issue was sitting back and watching their amazing art come in. My second favorite part was getting to know these fantastic creators just a little bit better. I hope you enjoy this spotlight on why each of them does what they do. Which, apparently, is to destroy Science Fiction.
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You’ve been involved in several projects lately, even creating a comic for the I Was a Teenage Anime collection. Tell us a little bit about that and what other things you are working on right now.
This has been a somewhat crazy year for me, involving a more-difficult-than-it-should-have-been move and my taking on a full-time day job in addition to my freelancing for the first time in a while. I did create a comic for Brandon B.’s biographical anthology I Was a Teenage Anime, but mostly it’s been personal work and low-key collaborations with friends other than that. Oh, and working on the layout and artwork for Politics & Prose bookstore’s literary magazine District Lines. WDSF is giving me an opportunity to hop back into the fantasy illustration game, which I’m definitely ready for.
Your educational background is in printmaking and bookbinding. How did that transition into illustrating, particularly illustrating in the speculative fiction field? Who are some of your favorite artists?
Books. It’s always been about books. I wanted to illustrate, but I wanted to get at it from the very root, so I started with papermaking and bookbinding and traditional printmaking. It’s definitely given me a very particular insight into paper as a substrate and ink as a medium, and even when I work digitally I find the print aesthetic influencing me heavily. I even notice myself artificially imposing boxes into my compositions, which are definitely my mental stand-in for the edge of the intaglio plate/the line of gum arabic on a litho stone. I have a 100-year-old Baltimorean platen press, and working letterpress prints into my illustration work is definitely something I’ve been thinking about.
You can see some of my older work, high school/college, if you look at the earliest parts of my old deviantART gallery (www.teriathanin.deviantart.com).
What does your artistic process look like; how do you go from initial idea to final painting?
Stop me if I go too long on this! I like to start with a page of four to eight thumbnails for brainstorming purposes*. These will have value as well as basic concept and composition worked out, and sometimes color. Once I’ve settled on a direction to go, I generally do another set of one to three larger thumbnails, just to nail down the shapes in the piece and how they translate to a larger scale. Next I pencil the sketch straight onto the final paper, and ink it. Besides the initial thumbnails, inking is probably my favorite part of the process—it’s the most like printmaking in the sheer beautiful messiness. I use a chrome-nibbed dip pen (the Zebra Comic pen nib with the Tachikawa handle) and Dr. Martin’s Bombay India ink. Then it’s time to tape it down and paint it. I favor Yarka St. Petersburg paints, they lay down smoothly and look beautiful. This is probably the fastest part of my process, since I like a slightly sloppy look to my watercolors. I do some polishing at the end, but I like it to be obvious that I’ve worked with a physical medium.
I’ve actually been doing a little bit of digital work lately, and it varies whether I ink it by hand or digitally—I like the control I get with a computer, but I miss the hands-on portions of the process.
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You are primarily a digital artist, yet your illustrations have such a painterly quality. What is your process like? Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you go from first idea to final painting?
(My process? I have a joking response for this, a bit of a paraphrasing of a Robert Heinlein quote he used to describe writing. “Illustrating is simple. You just stare at the blank canvas till blood forms on your forehead!”)
When I start an illustration, I spend a lot of time verbally shuffling through random ideas, colors, textures, and symbols that seem to fit the theme of what I want to create. Once the right images solidify, I decide on the palettes best suited to give them voice. It helps me a great deal to think of visual art as poetry, which I guess in a very real way it is.
I moved to digital art for purely practical reasons. I needed to find a method of quick edits and timely delivery. Using a tablet allows my hand to behave as if I am working on canvas without the time constraints of drying paint. I miss the tactile nature of physically painting very much, but meeting deadlines is a crucial part of this profession.
My husband and I travel a lot. Each new place has its own light, its own identity that is completely unique from anywhere else. This inspires me. I also get a great deal of inspiration from music. The right background soundtrack can really change the direction of an illustration in very powerful ways. Then there are books or the perfect conversation or the taste of a really sweet Spanish orange. Life is an inspiration!
You’ve recently completed creating an entire seventy-eight-card tarot deck! What was working on that like and how does it compare to other projects you’ve done?
The Portico Tarot Deck was created in a single year. I had not created a single illustration in well over two years and suddenly there was a flood of creative need. I had purchased a copy of Stephanie Law’s Shadowscape Tarot a number of years before. (If you have not seen it, please do yourself a favor and check it out. It is absolutely beautiful!) A very dear friend of mine knew I had her deck and the booklet that came with it and suggested that I illustrate The Fool as a direction for my creative need. I did it. The need had not passed. She suggested drawing a card randomly. The next was the Seven of Wands. Eventually, I started drawing three cards at a time. In the end, there were 107 illustrations created for the seventy-eight needed. Later it officially became The Portico Tarot Kickstarter. I am pretty proud of it!
Tell us a little about your journey as an artist: Where did you get your training and what specifically led you to working in the speculative fiction field? Who are some of the artists that inspire you?
I came into this field through tabletop role-playing. At the time, I was the token girl at the table and while I waited for others to decide on their actions and make their rolls, I sketched their characters. I would have the Marvel Universe anatomy drawing book on one side and my player’s guide on the other. (A lot of my fighter drawings look a bit too much like Aquaman!) Because of that, I would say Jeff Easley’s work for Dungeons and Dragons and Jack Kirby’s Captain America were huge inspirations. Later, I discovered Michael Kaluta and Donato Giancola and and and . . . I love that I still feel like a groupie for so many artists. It is all about the joy, isn’t it?
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As well as being a freelance artist, you are very involved in art education and have several intriguing hobbies (archery practice and harp playing being a few!). What does a normal day look like for you?
Generally I use the morning hours for idea generation or image creation. My afternoons are usually idea execution or business-related tasks.
A “normal” day will look something like this. My alarm goes off at 6:30 am. Depending on how cold it is outside of the blankets, I roll out of bed about 6:45-7:00. I tend to the dog. Then a bit of exercise, followed by morning ablutions, and breakfast. I start work as close to 8:00 as I can (probably a remnant from my days as a graphic designer, but I just feel like I accomplish more if I do this). Next come email and Facebook. Then a bit of drawing warm-up, either using artists.pixelovely.com or noodling around in my sketchbook. Lately the noodling around is in the form of a Fake Journal for International Fake Journal Month (Roz Stendahl’s brain baby. She’s awesome. Check it out.)
Then I get moving on whatever project needs my attention first. Around 1:00 I break for lunch and a walk around the neighborhood. After that I’m back to work in my studio. My husband comes home from work and pokes his head in to say hi. Depending on the day, the afternoon session could last till dinner or only a few hours so I can go teach at The Atelier. If I’m not at The Atelier, I’ll be working on something else after dinner. Usually sketching heads from TV I’m watching with my husband, but lately it’s designing some sea-themed jewelry to go with the oil painting I’m working on. No, you can’t see it yet.
As for the harp, I played for over ten years performing here and there. Now I play for myself when the mood strikes me.
As for archery, I started that hobby well before a certain book series turned movie hit mainstream. Now that the weather is getting nice, I’m looking forward to getting out to the range for some practice.
You use a wide range of mediums, including traditional mediums like oil painting, watercolor, pen and ink, even scratchboard! Plus you also do digital painting as well. How do you decide what medium you will tackle various projects in? And what is your typical process like, how you go from first idea to final art piece?
Watercolor was my first love. These days my main two media are digital and oil paint. Time is the main factor in deciding what medium to use. If it’s a commercial piece where the client buys all the rights and I need to hurry up, then I’ll probably create the final art digitally. If it’s a piece for me (fantasy, still life, portrait) then I’ll most likely do it in oil. If I want immediate gratification of creating, then I’ll work in watercolor. It has the least amount of set up and clean up and I love how it has a mind of its own. Watercolor tends to find its way into my more whimsical pieces.
The more I work, my process evolves. Currently it goes something like this: research; idea generation; more research and gather reference; sketches; tighter drawing; value and color studies; final.
I’ll either have a prompt from a client or my own idea. Brainstorming comes first. I make lists of words, either pulled from the prompt or related conceptually. Then I do a bunch of thumbnails with pencil on paper. If I can’t visualize something, I set up my camera and take a bunch of shots, acting out the idea. I try not to let the inner critic look over my shoulder at this point. Next I pick the thumbnails I like and do larger sketches, with basic values blocked in. I try to make them legible to someone besides me so I have to sort of detach a little and make sure my imagination isn’t filling in any visual gaps. This is usually where options would go to the client. Next I get photo reference, either on my own or with the help of my photographer buddy David Ginsberg (eclipseproductions.org). If necessary, I hunt down or create costume bits and props. Next I bash together a rough comp with all my reference using Photoshop and convert it to grayscale. Then I do a line drawing, value studies, and color studies. Finally I paint. Sometimes the painting just pours out. Sometimes there’s an ugly phase where I’ve lost the trail and need to get back to the values and impetus of the piece.
Who are some of the artists who inspire you?
My tastes fluctuate, but these are some of the artists I keep returning to. Susan Seddon Boulet (I want to have more mystery in my work and I love the mystery she created in hers). Greg Manchess (his compositions, brush work, and nailing values). Barry Windsor-Smith (I love his lyrical line, specifically in Gaia and Fire). Mucha (his lithographs are lovely but I enjoy his oil paintings and the lyrical line in his drawings more). Cheng-Khee Chee (love his watercolor paintings of fish, lots of mystery there), Joaquín Sorolla (value, color and brushwork). The prints of Yoshida Hiroshi.
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You have an eclectic background in art-making, experimenting in a variety of mediums (including mechanical/musical sculpture!), even studying for several months with a calligraphy landscape master in Wuhan, China. Tell us a little bit about your journey as an artist so far and what’s next for you.
I was a member of S.F.S.F.S (the South Florida Science Fiction Society) as a fetus. I grew up in libraries, museums, and Tropicon. Even as a kid I would walk through the art show at Trop several times a day. I was absolutely fascinated with epic spacescapes, monsters, dragons, you name it. Movies like The Dark Crystal really fueled me, I wanted to be the person responsible for THAT shot, kind of thing. I wanted to create crazy worlds and universes that people had never seen or conceptualized. I spent my days there in my mind, much to the disdain of all my school authorities. My journey as an artist has been more of a gaining of perspective. Washing my eyeballs with everything I can lay them on. The landscapes always came very naturally; the most important thing I learned while under the study of Cha Jiàshóu (Professor Cha) was not to fear the canvas, whatever it may be. At the time that was rice paper and he was smacking the back of my head at mistakes, Kill Bill-style, but I learned more from him in the three months I was in the Wuhan, China area than I could possibly illustrate with words. One maybe: “attack.”
What is your process like? What is your favorite medium and how do you go from first idea to final art piece?
When I was back in the US, my attention turned to color. Chinese watercolor is traditionally very dull; I’m a kid from South Florida, I was starved for bright and noisy. As I was learning more about color, by proximity I learned how to think in terms of problem solving. I’m still learning and hopefully will be until death or dementia. The beginning of that mentality was the beginning of my quest into recycling and recovery.
The musical instruments were another natural progression. My mother, Dina Pearlman, who is also a fantastic fabric artist, was in a folk/filk group when I was little called Orion’s Belt. They would rehearse in our living room. Music has always been a part of my life, and instruments have their own life, I simply seek to extend it in memoriam with functionality. My process is evolution. I don’t usually repeat a lot; everything I do ends up being more. Sometimes “better,” sometimes “worse.” I have managed to train myself not to set fire to everything I dislike that I make. I got yelled at a lot for that. My mission is to keep growing, for as long as I’m able.
What led you to working in the speculative fiction field and who are some of your favorite artists?
Well, the first and third inquiries have a similar answer. (See above.) More often than not, my obsessions swing between Vincent Van Gogh, Michael Whelan, and Bill Watterson . . . that can move towards H.R. Giger on darker days. At the moment, I’m incredibly grateful for my opportunity to work with the fantastic people of Lightspeed Magazine, illustrating stories from authors I love, and Waking Dreams Games, for whom I have the luck of illustrating a gamers manual for their Legends of the Dragon Keeper tabletop series. Thank you universe! Thank you, Lightspeed. Thank you, Galen Dara, for everything.
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Li Grabenstetter is an illustrator, writer and designer living in DC by way of the Netherlands and Hungary and other interesting places. With a BFA in printmaking and minors in bookbinding and drawing, they came to illustration through a consummate love of books and other printed matters. Influences include art nouveau, the symbolist movement, and the art of Harry Clarke, Ivan Bilibin, and Yoshitaka Amano. Li’s work has been featured in such diverse venues as GUD Magazine, AE, Crossed Genres Magazine, and several US patents. In their spare time, Li likes to read about monsters while surrounded by trees. Twitter-ites can find them at @magneticcrow. Their website is www.magneticcrow.com.
Hillary Pearlman is a Baltimore based artist with an eye for trouble, and an art for whimsy. She has a love for found objects, recycling and bringing new life to the hollow. Formal training includes months under the guidance of a calligraphy landscape master in Wuhan, China, where she resided for part of 2007. Her heart is in fantasy and science fiction, but the rest of her does what it wants so there’s always an interesting string of results. Her website is https://hillary-pearlman.squarespace.com/.
Elizabeth Leggett is a 20 year veteran freelance illustrator. Her artistic influences include Micheal Kaluta, Donato Giancola, John Jude Palencar, and Jeremy Gedes. She completed a 78 card tarot in a single year and launched it into a successful Kickstarter. (Portico Tarot and Art Prints) In December, she won two places in Jon Schindehette’s ArtOrder Inspiration challenge and is currently under consideration for inclusion in Spectrum 21. Her website is https://www.archwayportico.com.
Christine Mitzuk is a Minnesota based artist. She loves creating visual narratives fueled by traditions, tales, the world without and within. You can find her around town at drawing co-ops or out enjoying a walk with her husband and their four-legged friend. She teaches classes at The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art in Minneapolis, MN. Christine has created art for Fantasy Flight Games, Llewellyn Worldwide, and private commissions. Find more of Christine’s work at ChristineMitzuk.com.
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