Why art? Why Science Fiction and Fantasy?
When I was nearing the end of high school, my father sat me down and said, “Son, don’t ever make the mistake of making a career out of something you can learn in a week. Pick something you can never fully learn, something which will always challenge you.” At first I thought a career as an attorney would meet those criteria, but eight years of legal practice taught me that it was a lot of stress and bother to little real purpose. I began to dream of being an artist. Any spare moment found me with sketchbook in hand. I thought: if I win the most important legal case ever, it will be entered as a statistic in a book and forgotten next week. On the other hand, if I were able to create a work of art which inspires someone or just brings them a smile two hundred years after my death, that would be something.
In 1977 I was in my second year of legal practice. Drawing was still a hobby. Then my sister, Carolyn, sold her first book, Gate of Ivrel, to DAW Books. She was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of the Year. The award ceremony was to be at a large science fiction convention called a WorldCon, and she asked me to go along for company and moral support since the whole affair was kind of intimidating. She would not know anyone there and would suddenly be expected to mingle with people such as Robet Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, etc., etc. Her heroes. I said I would go, wanting to cheer her on.
Both of our lives changed that weekend. The paths we would take for the rest of our lives were laid out before us. We each took our first timid steps on those paths and knew we had chosen well. We went home from the con filled with hopes, aspirations, and determination.
Carolyn won the Campbell Award. Rather than being intimidated by the luminaries at the convention, she found herself welcomed by them and very much at ease. She had found her place in the world and was ready to spread her wings.
I had certainly not attended expecting any such revelation for me, but I received one anyway. I had never been to a science fiction convention, much less a Worldcon. It was big. As I wondered around, I saw a sign pointing toward an art show. I went and poked my head in. I wasn’t wearing a convention badge, but they let me in anyway. In my three piece suit I must have looked like hotel security. I crossed a small open space to where the art show panels began and was immediately confronted by a large painting which froze me in place. It was it was the original painting for the cover of the book I was reading back in my hotel room, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Bloody Sun. It was large and beautiful. But beyond that there were two important things. First, it was done by the same artist who was doing my sister’s covers for DAW Books—Michael Whelan. And second, it was for sale.
Now it may seem ridiculous, but until that moment it had never occurred to me that book covers were done by freelance illustrators who, miraculously, seemed to be making a living at it. Wow! Could that be true? My folks had always assured me that artists would starve to death. Obviously there were some exceptions to that rule. And they were getting to paint scenes of fantasy, science fiction, and high adventure. Wow again, I thought. Sign me up for that! And I hurried back to the hotel room, hoping Sis would be there because I wanted to share this thought with her and ask whether I was crazy. I knocked on the door and she called for me to come in. With her was a woman I didn’t know. She introduced me to her new friend. It was Marion Zimmer Bradley. Wow again. My head was spinning. Could this day get any better?
Later that weekend, the Wollheims (owners of DAW Books) graciously took all their people out to dinner, and I was able to meet Michael Whelan. He was cool and collected in that unique Whelan way of his, and I was a stumbling fan boy hanging on his every word (doing my lawyerly best to look disinterested but failing badly).
When Carolyn and I returned from that trip, she was firmly established as the rising star of science fiction publishing, and I found myself planning how in the world I was going to leave law and become a freelance illustrator. It took a while. Five years, to be exact, before I could even leave the law firm, and four more after that practicing. I had a few problems to overcome. For one, I could barely draw and couldn’t paint at all. Except for Pat Riley’s art class at John Marshall High my senior year (which I took to avoid some guys in study hall who wanted to beat me up), I never had any art lessons. Pat was a great guy, but he didn’t actually teach much. He was more apt to just hand me a brush and some paint and say, “see what happens!” and give me this big smile. Huh. Modern art. What are you gonna do? At least I got to have fun with my friend Steve Noyes, paint a few things, and I didn’t get beat up. A win for me.
But none of that was going to be any help trying to catch up to the likes of Michael Whelan, Don Maitz, Tom Canty, Kelly Freas and the other top illustrators of the day. It was a daunting task. I tried doing art in my spare time, but an attorney doesn’t really have that much spare time. Time passed and I was getting nowhere. Then I remembered one of my favorite quotes from Steve McQueen in The Reivers: “Sometimes you gotta say good-bye to the things you know and hello to the things you don’t.” So I called up all my clients, told them I was leaving legal practice, and provided them with a list of local attorneys capable of representing them in the future. To stay alive, I ended up working twenty hours a week for one of those local attorneys, doing things I could do from home. That left me 90 hours a week for art.
The style of art I wanted to study had not been the mainstream of art for over a hundred years, so that was another problem. There were not many books with anything useful in them. The internet would have been helpful. But this was 1982. No net. Lacking other viable options, I developed the locked room theory of art education. I figured if I locked a person in a room for two years with nothing but a guitar, he would be a pretty good guitarist by the time I let him out. So I pretty much did that to myself and replaced the guitar with art. It was not a chore. It was a fascinating, energizing, fun time for me.
You know that whole right-brain, left-brain thing? I tested out as whole-brained, equal parts right and left. I am fairly analytical in my creativity, or maybe along side it. To me, successes in my artwork were prized, logged, and stored away for future use. They were interesting but not my main interest. My main interest was locating the holes in my knowledge and skillsets. That was where I had to focus, so it was the failures that really drew my attention. They were the signposts, pointing to what I had yet to learn, the keys to making progress. I would get really excited when I found one. I hate that helpless feeling when a painting has failed and you look at it over and over, unable to identify what went wrong. But if you can analyze it clinically, dispassionately, and finally isolate the problem—Wow! (again). It is time for celebration. All you need then is a fix for it, and you know one has to exist. So you research, chat with other artists, test methods and hypotheses, and eventually eureka. You find it. And suddenly you are a more capable technician as an artist.
Gradually, I got better until one day I found myself winning awards right along with some of the top professionals. Things began to gel for me, and I was able to leave legal practice altogether. I was 27 when I attended that Worldcon, 32 when I shut down the law firm, and around 36 when I felt I could hold my head up, at least occasionally, as an illustrator. I tell my students that there is always a road to take you from point A to point B in your life. But it is a toll road. You just have to pay the price, and you can get where you are going. I have done well, overall, but I have never reached my point B so far in my life. I am still on the road, still paying tolls, still traveling toward my goal. I think my Dad was right. It is a good idea to pick a career that you can spend your life learning to do well.
So. That tells you how I came to be an illustrator. But it leaves questions such as what are my influences and what I want to “say” with my work. I have found this to be dangerous territory. So, please understand that I intend no offense if my prejudices do not mirror your own. My greatest artistic influence when I was a child was my sister, Carolyn. She was the artist in the family, not me. And she was really good at it. Still is. When she was 10 or so, she ran out of interesting books in the library and started writing stories of her own. When she was 13, she happened to have an art teacher who actually knew what she was doing. Even though I was only 6, Carolyn would come home and teach me what she had learned. Later she shared her textbooks covering art though the ages. My favorite pictures were those of the Hellenistic sculptures. Even though those were so ancient, I saw nothing done after them that came close to my idea of artistic perfection, except perhaps the works of the nineteenth century masters of the royal academies of England and France. Jean Leon Gerome, William Adophe Bouguereau, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, to my mind, had brought painting almost as close to perfection as the Hellenistic sculptures. I longed to study under such masters, but, alas, none were left.
Over a hundred years ago the academic world, with its usual good taste and wisdom, had turned its back on the pinnacle of painterly perfection and declared that it was suddenly what art “should never be.” Like a bunch of hippies, getting high, blowing bubbles and calling it art, the academic world declared that such concepts as skill should be confined to mere crafts, such as basket weaving, and never be associated with art. And like a bunch of sheep, the rest of the world said, “Really?, OK” and believed them utterly. They were, after all, the experts, right?
Brilliant. That brought us 100 years of “modern” art, where the value of any given work is measured by the strength of the sales pitch behind it rather than the quality of the art iself. Just brilliant. Well done, academia. Well done.
So. How was I going to learn how to paint properly if the art world had decided to fleece the public by hanging toilet seats on the wall and calling it art? Strangely, miraculously, it turned out that those in the profession which I so admired, that of the science fiction and fantasy cover artist, were busy addressing that very problem. I had expected the pro illustrators to be at least somewhat territorial and unwelcoming. Try breaking into the world of western art at the Prix de West shows in Oklahoma City. You will see plenty of that. But the science fiction illustrators were a different breed. They had, themselves, faced what I was facing. Instead of being shunned, I was welcomed as a new comrade and researcher. I recall, when I had finally done a painting that he could legitimately praise, Michael Whelan tracked me down, at whatever convention we were at, because it had made him happy to see me progress, and he wanted to tell me that I was doing well. James Gurney and Paul Chadwick were the same. They studied the old texts and passed around cassette tapes of readings from them. I recall one they sent to me which was readings from Ruskin (or some such) and which gave the particulars of the palette used by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. There were amazing, noble people in the field then, and I was blessed to know them and work along side them. Real Musgrave, Bob Eggleton, Don Maitz, Janny Wurts, Jael, Stephen Hickman, Tom Kidd, Kelly Freas, James Christensen, Colleen Doran, Kinuko Craft, Rob Alexander, and Jim Burns, were just a few of the people I expected to see at any big show. We were competitors, but whichever one of us won, the others would cheer him (or her) on.
It is a paradox that, in order to properly illustrate most fantasy or science fiction, an illustrator needs to develop, among other things, the skill, technique, and control to bring an image to the edge of reality—the idea being to create a window into a world that never actually existed except in imagination and allow the reader to experience it. For that, we all had to study painters like Gerome and Alma-Tadema. So we all helped each other. We all still do since we are all still pushing to learn more and more.
So. What do I want my art to say? Just this: If we can dream noble dreams, we have a future where the good guys win.