Julie Dillon received her BFA from Sacramento State University and continued her training at the Academy of Arts University, San Francisco and Watts Atelier. Julie has created illustrations for clients including Simon & Schuster, Tor Books, Penguin Books, Oxford University Press, and Wizards of the Coast. Her work has won a Hugo Award and two Chesley Awards, and been nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Julie currently lives and works in Northern California. Visit www.juliedillonart.com to learn more.
The Chinese-American author Ha Jin once said something along the lines of, “We would not have to ask images to reflect reality if we did not ask reality to reflect images.” Your work reflects so much more diversity in the characters depicted than one often sees in SFF illustration, especially fantasy illustration. Non-objectified women, people of color, people with physical challenges, people of different body shapes. Your depictions of same-sex love and affection in SFF settings are particularly memorable. Your work embraces the reality of who is reading/viewing SFF work today, and includes groups not used to seeing themselves reflected in SFF illustration very often. Did you feel there was a lack of sufficient diversity in SFF illustration and was this a conscious response?
It is a definite conscious response now, but I have to admit that earlier on it wasn’t something I fully realized. When I was first getting into art, I was trying to paint like everyone else and fit in with the other digital artists of the time. Looking at everyone else’s art, I just thought SFF art and concept art was supposed to look a certain way, and that particular look tended to feature only certain types of people, in specific and rigid gender roles. As time went on, I slowly stopped worrying so much about fitting in with the concept art crowd in general, and focused more on creating more of what I wanted to see, both in terms of subject matter as well as in the types of people I drew, particularly in terms of how I drew women. I wanted to draw women in particular being active participants in their own stories and surroundings. It also helped that I started seeing more art from other artists who were doing the same thing. Now that I’m more tuned in, diversity is definitely something I push for. I want everyone who enjoys SFF to be able to see themselves reflected in artwork, and if I can help do that in even a small way with my art, I want to try.
Have you met with any resistance from publishers/clients when you have included diverse characters in your work? How did they respond? How did you respond?
The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The only time I’ve gotten feedback from a client asking me to change a character is if that character was intended to look a certain way. But I wouldn’t call that resistance, but rather the art director making sure the author’s character was drawn the way they wanted. The only negativity I’ve ever gotten was from a handful of random people on my social media sites (like DeviantArt or Tumblr) who occasionally complained that the women I depicted weren’t drawn in a way that they deemed attractive. Whenever that happens, I just tell them that I don’t necessarily care about limiting my work to what they find sexually attractive.
Many of your works have a joyful, utopian feel, especially the pieces that incorporate animals. While you do have works with elements of darkness and menace in them, bleakness and cynicism seem entirely absent from your work. Even the piece with the towering minotaur in a spherical labyrinth is more awe-inspiring and wondrous than dark. Again, did you feel that there was an overabundance of bleak and cynical imagery in SFF illustration and was this a conscious response?
When given the choice, I definitely prefer to do something more hopeful overall. There is enough cynicism in the world as it is, and I want to try to make sure that I’m putting positive things out into the world instead of adding to the cynicism. When I do draw something darker or sadder or violent, I try to have a thematic or narrative purpose, and not make something dark just for the sake of being dark. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I personally like to do when left to my own devices. My favorite SFF stories and films have always been ones that uplift and fill you with wonder. Dark, gritty, dystopian settings just aren’t my thing. When I was first starting out, most of my commissioned work assignments were for gaming and called for depictions of warriors and monsters killing each other. That definitely can be fun, to an extent, but after a while I wanted to spend more time drawing people working together, people being happy, people exploring and discovering new things, and doing things other than fighting each other. I wanted to work towards painting what I wanted to see, instead of just what looked cool.
Your work seems to have a wide appeal to different age groups. Did you intentionally wish to embrace viewers of different ages in your work?
I don’t think it was an overly intentional choice; it just happens that the work I like to do frequently ends up being suitable for people of different ages. I don’t generally set out trying to make pieces that would specifically be for kids, and on the whole I don’t think you necessarily need to. I think you can be honest with your approach and ideas in your work without watering things down, and kids can still enjoy it. Sometimes I stray outside the all-ages acceptability bounds, though, but not too far, and not too often, in part because I still worry too much about what people might think. I worry that I would have to hide it from some audiences, or that it wouldn’t appeal to many people. That’s a hang-up that I need to work on and move past. One thing I’ve been learning these past few years is that the more honest and open I am in my approach and the more I put of myself into my work, the better and stronger my work is.
Talk to us a little about your technique. Your work is digital, but it seems like you are trying hard to maintain an analog feel to your works. Is that intentional and can you explain in layperson terms how you achieve that?
I think it’s partly intentional, partly that I have a hard time getting my work to be really polished and clean, which means I end up with a more painterly look. That said, I really like the look of big thick paint, of deliberate brush strokes and bold choices, and I feel like that is an exciting look in any medium. I still tend to overwork things and repaint areas over and over until I get them right, instead of being able to lay a color down confidently the first time. More than a specific style, I strive for confidence in the placement of each brushstroke, using my time to layer the color the way I want rather than waste time trying to figure out what a form is supposed to look like. It’s something I’m working on, and I have been slowly getting better at it.
Getting an “analog” look, for me, is more about trying to keep in mind the lessons I picked up working with charcoal and real paint — focusing on line control, building a solid composition, balancing light and color, having variation in hard and soft edges, instead of making everything plasticky and airbrush smooth. The faster and looser I work, the more it looks painterly, and while that is more fun, it doesn’t tend to look as finished as I feel is needed for publication, so I’ll go in and finesse and refine things to get them to as much of a polished finish as I am reasonably capable of. It’s hard sometimes to find a balance between keeping the energy of a more loose piece versus an overly polished piece, though.
What is your dream project?
My dream project at the moment is being able to write and illustrate a large-scale illustrated novel of my own. I have a few ideas that I’m still brainstorming and concepting out, but it’s been so long since I tried plotting out a complete story that it’s slow going. Ideally, I’d love to eventually self-publish several books, and get the chance to flesh out and develop my own worlds and stories instead of just doing one-off illustrations.
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