Where did you grow up & where do you live now?
I was born (in 1967) and raised in Colchester, Vermont, USA, a township near Burlington. After graduation from Syracuse University I moved to New York City and have resided and worked in Brooklyn since 1993. My wife and I have two daughters.
How did you first get into art?
What is your educational background?
Drawing was my passion pretty much from the time I could hold a crayon. Throughout childhood and adolescence I made models and toys, copied pictures of military hardware and spaceships, and produced 8mm films. Dungeons & Dragons particularly channeled my creative energies. To support my avid play, I painted lead figurines and created detailed maps and character drawings. (One of the more elaborate maps hangs in my studio today.)
Art was a passion, but only a hobby, as my formal art training came late. After starting in electrical engineering at the University of Vermont, I dropped out that course of study in the middle of my third semester. My grades were fine, but I felt frustrated with and unmotivated by the lack of creativity in engineering classes. Uncertain of my path, I enrolled in an art course for my very first formal lesson. After creating some horrible oil paintings, I realized I needed guidance - lots of guidance.
In 1989, I enrolled at Syracuse University, majoring in fine art painting. The exceptional faculty at SU introduced me to the key concepts that underpin all great art: color theory, composition, anatomy, paint techniques, experimental drawing, and post-modern, modern and abstract theorizing. SU also gave me a studio, and I spent nearly all my free time in it, working not only on class assignments but also on numerous personal projects. I worked relentlessly during my three years at Syracuse, finishing my BFA in 1992.
How did you first break into commercial illustration?
The Sal Barracca Agency, which represented artists in the book cover illustration market, gave me my first break into commercial illustration. Sal and his friend art director, Joe Curcio, went above and beyond for me, and I will always be grateful to them. After viewing my work at a Syracuse University portfolio review in New York City, Sal thought I had potential but was still too raw to bring me on as an associate artist. He told me I needed to have a few professional quality samples to show. Sal's specialty was representation in the New York book publishing market. I saw my chance to become a book cover illustrator, concentrating in the science fiction and fantasy field.
I went back to my parents' house in Vermont, and painfully, slowly, made the best paintings I could at the rate of one per month. Every month I would make the trek down to New York for Sal's patient and excruciatingly thorough review of the paintings' many deficiencies and then go back to Vermont to rework them and make still more.
In September 1992, I made the move to New York City to be closer to the largest arts scene in the world, and develop my working relationship with Sal. I resisted the temptation to get a 'regular' job and supported myself through part time work at the Society of Illustrators. All of my free time was spent creating monthly illustration samples for Sal, visiting museums, examining other illustrators and artists work, and attending life drawing classes and art openings. I shared a small apartment with two other aspiring artists, and painted every day for 8-12 hours.
After nine months, Sal finally felt my work was worth showing to potential clients. He called on a December Monday with my first three commissions for classic science fiction novels: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. I could not have asked for better commissions for initiation into the work of professional illustration!
How would you describe your style?
My thoroughly modern works unify abstraction and figuration to evoke the greatest of the Western painting tradition. From the grand triptychs of Peter Paul Rubens, to the intimate manuscript renderings of the Limbourg Brothers, to the sublime graphics of Mondrian, my paintings mine classical draftsmanship, narration and aesthetics of composition to lay a foundation rich in historical associations. Italian figuration, Rembrandtesque lighting and Flemish perspectives merge with the power of modern color field theory, gestural abstraction, and post-modern concepts to create convincing, accessible illusions and contemplative narrations. Complex assemblages of characters and subjects interact through ambiguous dramas -discontinuous narratives- and often in fantastical environments. These discontinuous narratives - suggested stories the viewer cannot really know but only speculate upon - invite the viewer to resolve the implied image into numerous outcomes. Through these fractured narratives I make conscious efforts to find and preserve those forms of expression which best define our humanity. Unifying modern aesthetics, narration and deft craftsmanship, I bring old master style into the 21st century.
Where do you find some of your inspirations as an artist?
I find inspiration through studying the world's greatest art masters, in the real world about me, and in photography. Some of each of these elements can be found in my most successful works.
Are you inspired by other artists work?
Some of my favorite painters are Hans Memling, Jan Van Eyck, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Ribera, Rubens, Titian - and Mondrian. I strive to bring their complexity into my work, melding classical aesthetics with modern abstraction.
You can see both types of influences in some of my illustrations. For example: Cartographer is inspired by Lorenzo Lotto's portraits; the dense compression of figures in Faramir at Osgiliath combines Caravaggio-like renderings with Modrian's surface patterning; and the vertical columns in Ashling recall Barnet Neuman while building upon the atmospheric illusions of Van Eyckian perspectives.
Visiting the actual paintings is what most inspires me. While images of many great paintings can be readily found in books, nothing impresses as much as being in the presence of the real works. How can a book convey the almost overwhelming scale of a 16' by 10' Velazquez painting, with life-sized figures? Or the squinty, exquisite detail of a tiny, 8Ó x 12Ó Van Eyck? I habituate the many great museums in my home city, New York, and no vacation is complete without a pilgrimage to another great art museum.
Does music ever inspire you?
The Minimalist music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass mimics some of the patterning I used in my art, but my tastes run larger, too. I love to listen to whatever John Schaefer chooses to play on WNYC as well as alternative rock, and Rush for nostalgia's sake!
What do you like best and least about your profession?
What I like best about making fictionalized art is the broad range of interpretations open to each and every piece. There are NO bounds. No one knows how magic works, what another world would look like, or get upset over surreal juxtapositions of elements in art. Everything is on the table for redesign and recreation - from human interactions and clothing to architecture. In addition, millions of people see your commercial illustrations in stores, on shelves or in games.
The part I like least about what I do is that there is no escape from the boss. I am completely immersed in my work. There are no days off. I am constantly thinking about art.
Where do you usually do your work?
The top floor of my Brooklyn home is my studio. Many days, I never leave the house.
What materials do you need to create your artwork?
My studio contains many different oil paints, brushes, turpentine, linseed oil, palettes, paper, Masonite, panels, art boards, rags, easels, photographs, cameras, mat boards, frames, studio lights for photographing models, and props for the models (cloths, costumes, etc.). My shelves are filled with books of reference for costumes, landscapes and architectural designs. My office contains, a computer, printer, various papers, templates, rulers, etc.
The most necessary and favorite tool I could never do without is a pencil.
A list of my palette colors and mediums are in my technique section
Do you prefer models, photos, or illustrations as sources for references? I see evidence of all three in your work.
When creating an illustration I primarily work from photos but always produce gesture drawings from live figures. The many happy accidents and discoveries that occur from real life cannot be anticipated or made up. I use these gesture drawings as springboards for the final illustrations and paintings.
I don't use 3D models in creating my architecture, dragons or aliens - not from lack of desire but rather from my inability to create a nice miniature.
Do you have to travel for your work?
I do not have to travel, but I love to travel when I get the opportunity. I frequently appear and lecture at conventions, Magic tournaments, and colleges. I have attended events in Chile, Italy, England, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Russia, Germany and France, as well as all around the United States. Needless to say, I always find time to visit the museums and other art holdings of whatever place I am visiting.
Which painter would you go back in time to watch painting?
I would love to sit next to Diego Velazquez to view his working methods in oil technique and speak to him regarding the psychological structure of narrative story telling.
What piece of art are you most proud of?
The Hobbit: Expulsion is the piece I most treasure. It represents everything I aspire to and am passionate about in my career as an illustrator and realist painter: interpreting J.R.R. Tolkien's work, displaying the humanity of characters in epic conflict, and creating large, emotionally charged paintings. Inspirations accumulated on trips to museums around the world finally found expression in a work like this. This piece, coupled with The Lord of the Rings (made for a unified edition by the Science Fiction Book of the Month Club), has proved to be a major springboard for a large body of work now comprising my second stage of narrative picture making.
What has been your greatest success in your artistic career?
There are a few great successes, but none so far as equaled the chance to illustrate the covers of two of my favorite and most inspirational books: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit .
How do you get your jobs?
At the beginning of my career I used paid advertising and a representative, but the best form of advertising is word-of-mouth recommendation. A maxim of the self-employed is that you are only as good as your last job. Now, in addition to focusing on producing the best work for each of my clients, I enter a couple of juried competitions and exhibit at a few conventions each year to show the public, clients (current and potential) and other artists what I have been up to over the past months.
What other work have you done besides illustration?
During college and on vacations, I worked a few years selling retail electronics in Vermont and landscaping in the summers. After graduating from college in 1992 I spent a few months working as a staff member at the Society of Illustrators, helping to hang exhibitions, send out mailings, hang coats at openings, etc. Since then I have worked as a freelance artist.
What trends are you seeing in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre?
Currently the increasing presence of digital illustration with its faster production time and on-the-fly-changes is shrinking the market for traditional illustrators who work by hand. Nonetheless, those with creative ideas and the strong skills to realize them can still find a niche. Furthermore, digital hardware still does not substitute for a powerful idea, strong composition, and developed narratives which form the foundation for all quality art, no matter how it is made.
I really like to draw. What is the best advice you can give me?
Practice. Practice. Practice. Visit galleries, exhibitions, other artists studios, and museums. Take art classes and try to draw things you like. Learn to struggle. Challenge yourself constantly and learn to draw people.
Can you recommend some good anatomy books?
Anatomy Lessons from the Great Masters (Paperback)
by Robert Hale
Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters: 100 Great Drawings Analyzed, Figure Drawing Fundamentals Defined (Paperback)
by Robert Hale
An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists (Paperback)
by Fritz Schider
Topics on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
When did you first read Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS and what was your
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 13. Without exaggeration, those books changed my life. The elaborately detailed fantasy, the plot's epic sweep, and the characters' classically heroic qualities grabbed hold of me and never let go. I obsessed over them, frequently referring to the appendices at the end of The Return of the King: Who was Beren? How old Moria? When was the First Age? It took forever to read each chapter as I referenced names, places, and events in those notes: each offered a trip to another time and a story as complex as the tale I was engrossed within. Very so afterwards The Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales and The Simarillion were a part of my canon after reading them at my local library.
I still have the books I first read, with paperback covers by Darrell Sweet. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase his original cover painting for The Hobbit. It hangs in a place of honor in my entry hall.
What makes Tolkien such a challenge to illustrate?
You make it a challenge! The admirers of Tolkien know no mercy when it comes to deviations and inaccuracies, myself included! While I know those books inside and out, mistakes creep in. I now run my sketches past fellow fans to catch any errors. Luckily Tolkien provided artists with a large loophole for illustrating his novels: very little physical descriptions of either characters or places. His descriptions are more emotional and for that reason resonate with the reader more than the offerings of other authors. This is what I love about illustrating these works: a strong emotional foundation upon which to build a very broad range of physical interpretations.
Given the commission to illustrate THE LORD OF THE RINGS what would you do?
I have always sought great challenges in my art. To this end when looking for inspiration to illustrate novels and stories, I have always attempted to render those moments which are ill described or fleeting in nature, yet capture the essence of the characters and narrative. Simple 'domestic' scenes are difficult to compose to appear compelling, yet a successful painting in this manner can carry much more power than a heroic battle scene. Consider your reader and viewer, they most likely have never experienced the intensity of conflict nor the range of extremes most heroes travel through. It is upon a common ground of emotion with which I attempt to build my narratives. And it is with these simple scenes that J.R.R. Tolkien makes us feel the humanity of his characters; the depths of utter darkness in Moria; Merry and Pippin smoking pipe weed after the destruction of Isengard; Frodo and Sam cooking a brace of rabbits in the Shadow of Mordor.
As for the quantity of illustrations necessary to illustrate the three books, I return you back to my childhood. I was happy to have only the three cover images from which to inform my imagination of The Lord of the Rings . I think I would have been even pleased with none. The power of Tolkien is that he does not need an artist to interpret his works for them to come to life. Yet when the artist successfully steps beyond mimicry, something more is added than mere words can describe. The two art forms resonate and create an emotional response greater than the parts. This cannot always be achieved, as any artist, but when it occurs, it is magical. I cannot say what number would be correct for the illustrations, only that they should feel properly placed in the context of the books.
How did you first come to illustrate Tolkien?
Outside of my constant fan art work as an adolescent, my first professional illustrations of Tolkein's works were in 1996 for the card game The Wizards, by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE). Unfortunately, the company no longer exists. I was an avid gamer back in high school and college and began collecting the ICE modules from Middle-earth, both for using them in games and for the wonderful art on the covers and in the interiors. Being a huge Tolkien fan and an aspiring artist I sent ICE my portfolio during my senior year at Syracuse University.
It wasn't until 4 years later that I received a call from their art director. They were looking for new artists for their upcoming Middle-earth card game : The Wizards- and was wondering if I could send a new portfolio. An open offer was placed before me, how many cards would I like to take on One? Five? Thirty? I settled on fifteen and had a wonderful time working on a subject I loved dearly. Needless to say they kept coming back with more commissions.
When the movies came out, many of the inner pictures of characters and scenes in the mind of the readers have been replaced by actors and settings from the movie. Did it happen to you as well? Did you try to prevent it?
When the recent movies interpreting The Lord of the Rings were released, many artists became heavily influenced by what they saw onscreen. A movie is a very powerful form of artistic expression through the use of atmospheric lighting, movement through time, experiences of scale and immersive sound- it is easy to have the world view of the content dictated by what happens on the big screen. Luckily I am not one of those easily swayed.
That is not to say there are designs and elements which I found utterly compelling to absorb and enter into my visual language of painting, but rather my expression of Tolkiens' Middle-earth was set long ago and very deeply before the movies were released. One of the major pivotal experiences came when I was 16 years old and a friend handed me the Tolkien Bestiary edited by David Day and included the amazing work of Allan Curless, John Blanche, and most importantly Ian Miller. Here in my hands was a stunning collection of art inspired by the words of Tolkien, and all of it through various artistic expressions. This pluralistic tome made it easy to see my own art as a valid form in interpreting and adding to the voices singing the praises of Middle-earth. It has been that way ever since. Each new artist I discovered interpreting Tolkien was just another voice in the chorus. Peter Jackson now takes a seat next to Alan Lee, Ted Nasmith, John Howe, Darryl Sweet, David Wenzel, etc... All equal, and none better than another. Just different.
Thus I did nothing special when I experienced the films in order to protect that artistic voice I hold. It was so deeply rooted that the movies blew past like a wind storm, dropping their wonderful treasures about my play space. And when they are gone I will continue in my development of Middle-earth as a conversation between me and J.R.R Tolkien...
Beyond LotR, what would you have liked to illustrate from JRRT's other
I would find immense pleasure in tackling illustrations from any of the works related to Middle-Earth, from The Lost Tales to The Silmarillion .
Topics on Magic: The Gathering collectable card game
What do you like about making art for Magic: The Gathering Collectable Card Game?
The greatest pleasure I get from Magic is know that millions of people will see and enjoy my art. I particularly love sharing my work with other gamers, since I am a gamer myself.
Which Magic set did you start on, and how did you go about getting the job?
The first Magic set I worked on was the Mirage expansion deck in 1996. For that deck, I researched the dress, jewelry and design styles of eastern African cultures to lend the cards authenticity. Grinning Totem, Amber Prison, Village Elder, and Moss Diamond are still among my favorite pieces created for Magic.
I got my first job with Magic after seeing some artwork created for it by my friend, Bryon Wackwitz, and after his prodding to give Wizards of the Coast a call. The game itself as well as its creative potential for artists both impressed me, and I quickly sent my portfolio to Sue Ann Harkey, Wizard of the Coast's gracious art director. She commissioned the four pieces above.
Why is Sisay's Ring your personal favorite piece for Magic?
The eloquent hands (which can describe a person as thoroughly as a face), the maps, and a strong classical feel really come together in Sisay's Ring. In addition, the hand model was a friend of mine, a mechanic who lived down the block here in Brooklyn.
What work have you done outside of Magic?
While creating paintings for Magic has been among my most pleasurable work, it forms a relatively small part of my artistic output. I have painted hundreds of book covers, magazine covers, video game covers, stamps, editorial illustrations, and concept designs. My clients have included Playboy, National Geographic, Hasbro, StarWars, The United Nations and private individuals. Both my commercial and personal work have appeared in various galleries.