Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beginnings - Part 2 - Burning the Midnight Oil

A continuation of -this post- from several weeks ago.

In 1998 I started working full time as a software engineer at Plumtree Software, in San Francisco. So the funny thing about me and software is, that I didn't actually hate it. There's a part of my brain that really enjoys problem solving. In a way, I look at art and the creation of a painting the same way. Composition and color are all part of a puzzle that you piece together organically. I had a blast living in San Francisco as well, and the office was six blocks walking distance from my apartment. Which meant minimal "commute" time, so that I could do other things (i.e. paint).

I did initially consider going to the Academy of Art in SF, instead of taking a programming job. It would be a chance to take art classes that wouldn't sneer at anything that looked remotely representational; since they did have an illustration department. But when I realized that route would put me in debt about the same amount my starting programming salary would give me...I decided instead to go with programming.

Rather than a compromise to my goals, I formulated what I wanted to achieve in the next two years (which would be the time I would otherwise spend in a Masters program at the Academy of Art). Two years to get a serious portfolio together, start approaching publishers, get my website together, attend conventions, and market market market myself.

Well that was the plan. And it did kind of happen like that, more or less.

At the time, most of my portfolio consisted of digital art. I got really excited about working digitally during college. And actually I really cringe at the sight of some of that older work now. It's a testament to what daily practice for 10+ years can do when I look at the old-art and the now-art. Anyway, I went to the bookstores and game stores and browsed through all the role playing game books and anything else that looked of the sort I would like to do. I wrote down the publishers names. Went home and investigated them on the internet to find their submission guidelines. When there were no guidelines to be found easily, I would call and ask for the art director, or for information about art submissions. I aimed pretty high initially, and among the first few publishers I contacted was Wizards of the Coast.

The art director of Magic: the Gathering actually got back to me. I still remember how dazed I was when I got a response. He told me (...wait for it...) that it looked pretty good, BUT (...and you'll never guess what the "but" was...) he didn't really use digital art. "Try working in some traditional medium and come back to me in a few months with your portfolio again," he told me. Yeah, pretty funny now to think that digital wasn't really an acceptable medium huh?

So while the rest of the illustration community has gone from traditional mediums -> digital over the past decade, that is the story of how I did the direct opposite and went from digital -> watercolor (and have never regretted)!

Anyway, I really wanted to do some M:tG cards, and his response had been very encouraging. That week when my uncle Horatio Law was visiting and we went gallery-hopping through SF, there was one artist in a little gallery that caught my eye - Daniel Merriam. I was immediately captured by the brilliant jewel-tones of his watercolors. I had never imagined that watercolors could be so vibrant and beautiful. And remember I hadn't even been allowed to consider watercolors as an option during my Berkeley days.

That night I realized my preferred technique with acrylics (many glazed layers) was actually much more suited to watercolors, so I pulled out some old paints and did this piece over the next few nights. "Dreamcatchers" - I worked with basically only two colors; I figured I'd keep things simple after not having ever considered watercolors as a viable option all these years.

I was pretty happy with the results. In fact, over the next few months I fell in love with watercolors, and started doing fewer and fewer digital paintings in favor of watercolors.

By the way, all this was happening while I was working super long-hour weeks at Plumtree Software. Basically I would codecodecode all day, then go home and paint between 2-4 hours every night. Somehow I had time for a boyfriend (he was a software consultant...he worked longer hours than me!) and flamenco 3-4 days a week. Honestly I don't know how I did it. It makes me exhausted just to remember it now. But I had that two-year deadline I had set for myself and I really wanted to meet that goal.

So after a few months of watercolors and a few acrylics, I sent in a new portfolio to WotC again. The AD told me he was happy to hear from me, and by the way, "We do accept digital paintings now too." (Doh! Though as I said, no regrets!) And then he assigned me three cards to do. I was skipping for joy that day.

I eventually did some artwork for Forgotten Realms as well, and art directors from some of the other companies I had written to and mailed my portfolios out to also started getting back to me. One company that approached me through my website (I'll get to that in my next posting on this topic) had a new game concept ChessMage. They commissioned a few pieces, and wanted to debut their concept at GenCon. They wanted me to appear with them at GenCon, and it sounded like a perfect opportunity to me. That year I went to GenCon for the first time, and in between wandering around wide-eyed at this HUGE convention (compared to the tiny 2000 attendee one I had gone to locally) I did actually manage to show my portfolio to numerous other art directors and get work out of the trip. Alas ChessMage did not live on, but they did have a very interesting concept that I've seen played out among many bigger ccg companies in the intervening years.

.to be continued.

Perseid meteor shower to watch right now!

(Part 3 - Continuation of this thread can be found -here-)


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us!
    I'm making my first steps into the watercolor world and I'd like to know if you use easel in your watercolor painting? I've seen a few painters who use it, but I'm slightly puzzled because logic tells me that watercolors are very watery (doh!) and the paint would drip all over the lover sections of the paper because of the angle.

  2. Agapetos -
    No I do not use an easel. I prefer to work flat, although it does get a bit hard to reach the top edge of a painting when I work on something that's taller than 20 inches! You can work with an easel as long as you are not doing super wet washes all the time. I think that I could actually work on one if I wanted to, once I'm past the initial laying down of colors in broad washes. When I work on details it's not super-wet.

  3. Steph:
    Have you ever thought going back to get an MA or MFA? I know grad school helped me to expand in ways I never thought possible, especially with research and writing. My impression is that you would really enjoy it. I was about your age when I pursued mine and I feel it was one of the best things I ever did.

  4. This is very interesting, and helps a lot. As a younger artist, I feel like I'll have difficulty 'making it' in collage applications and once I get out in the work world. I'm glad to see your views and how you've gotten started in watercolors and in finding work. Thanks a lot!

  5. This makes my whining about not having enough time to peruse my artwork, down right laughable!

    A very inspiring story - thank you!

  6. Hi Lisa! No I don't think I will go back for that ever. I'm pretty happy these days exploring on my own. If I ever considered going back to school it would perhaps be for something like Folklore!

  7. Stephanie, I've been a longtime admirer of your work since before you vended at Faerieworlds Festival in 2004 or 2005. Or was it 2003? I can't remember which year to be certain.

    I love reading about your background and inspirations in this blog, and especially in these Beginnings posts. However, my jaw dropped when I read the name Horatio Law. He taught me photography when I was up in Portland!

  8. Hey Steph. Lisa didn't go back for art either. She went back for Jungian Psychology/ Art (which included folklore). From my POV, it made her a much more confident artist & author. To each her own though. :)

  9. Hi Kort! Yeah that does sound a lot more interesting than just art!

    Alicia - small world sometimes! :)