Welcome to the Women in Fantasy Illustration interview series. I am interviewing a selection of women whose work have made an impact in the Fantasy Illustration Industry. You will find the links to more interviews at the bottom of the page.
Today’s interview is with illustrator Cynthia Sheppard. I first became familiar with Cynthia’s beautiful work through Awesome Horse Studios online and later on I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at New York Comic Con and IlluxCon. Cynthia is such a warm and lovely person so I am very excited to share this interview with you.
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work.
Hi, I’m Cynthia. I’m a full-time fantasy illustrator working mostly in the printed game industry (Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy Flight Games, etc.). I mostly work in digital media, though I also enjoy pencils and paint.
2. When did you start drawing? And when did realize you wanted to make a career of it?
I was really young. My dad is an artist and he started me on the foundations of art training when I was just a toddler. I’ve always been surrounded by art and art books for as long as I can remember. Observing art and putting ideas down as visuals on paper is one of the most deeply-ingrained parts of who I am.
Observing art and putting ideas down as visuals on paper is one of the most deeply-ingrained parts of who I am.
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
Money and my relationship were two major struggles. I got married around the same time I started working professionally (about six years ago, give or take), and I had to postpone my transition to full-time freelancing for a few years beyond what I’d planned on so my husband could go back to school and change careers. When I left the relatively stable world of corporate web design, my income decreased more than 50%, so budgeting is a continual challenge, but something I’m willing to deal with to get to do what I love every day.
(...) My income decreased more than 50%, so budgeting is a continual challenge, but something I’m willing to deal with to get to do what I love every day.
4. Do you feel like you have faced any challenges particular to being a woman working with Fantasy Illustration?
In some ways I think being female has made things easier for me, especially when meeting people in person at conventions. The artist community has been very accepting of me, and I don’t feel like I’ve been denied any opportunities for work because I’m female. The only real disconnect that still exists seems to be the perception of the general public; when I say, “I’m an illustrator,” most still assume I paint kids’ books, or more traditionally-feminine subject matter.
I think being female has made things easier for me, especially when meeting people in person at conventions.
5. What do you like the most about illustrating?
Increasingly it’s about storytelling and narrative for me. I won’t lie- I started out as someone who just wanted to make portraits and pretty pictures- everything illustration teachers hate! But I feel like now that I’m a little older I have more to say, and it’s starting to show in my work. We all start somewhere. I do still enjoy illustrating other peoples’ ideas, too, but the more it’s connected to a story or interesting world, the more I enjoy it.
I feel like now that I’m a little older I have more to say, and it’s starting to show in my work. We all start somewhere.
6. What do you like the least about it?
Waiting to show off work until it’s commercially released is still super hard. UGH. With most work under nondisclosure, there’s about a year between completing a piece and the date it gets published, and there can be a lot of artistic growth during that time. It’s sort of sad to release work into the wild that I would do differently if I had the chance to do it again, and I still haven’t gotten used to that feeling.
7. About a year ago you made the choice to focus on digital art over oil painting, both mediums which you produce excellent work with, what spurred on this choice and how has the choice impacted you?
This was a really tough decision. In 2010, I had decided to make an effort to incorporate more oil paintings and traditional media into my portfolio, a decision that was mostly influenced by the traditional-only exhibition IlluXCon, and its founders. It was a strangely uneasy road for me, and I got mixed results and reviews.
I haven’t expressly given up on oil painting, but am definitely more comfortable (and growing) with digital, and I’ve been able to focus more on storytelling and composition better without having to struggle so much with the medium itself. Working more in oil is something I’ll revisit eventually, but not today.
I haven’t expressly given up on oil painting, but am definitely more comfortable (and growing) with digital, and I've been able to focus more on storytelling and composition better without having to struggle so much with the medium itself.
8. Life recently threw you a curve ball, which led to you producing one of your best pieces yet. What is your experience with putting yourself into your work? (ie. Is it difficult? Does it help work through some emotions? Does it improve the work?)
The aforementioned curve ball is my recent divorce, which resulted in this painting:
Not to sound overly dramatic, but pretending I was fine when I wasn’t had become its own full time job for a while before the separation, and it was having a serious negative impact on the quality of my work. If I hadn’t done that painting right then, I think I might have set something on fire- it was a release of months of pent-up emotion. So on the one hand, putting myself wholly into my work can have good results like that, but if I’m not careful, a bad day can translate into a bad painting, too. Simply put: art tends to help my emotions, but my emotions don’t always help my art!
9. How do you balance your client work and personal work? Do you ever struggle with restrictions of art orders from clients compared to the freedom of doing your own work?
Usually client work wins out. I haven’t done many personal works over the past three years, but I’m hoping that will change now that I’m living on my own again- I’m hoping more personal work will find its way into the balance.
10. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
Rebecca Guay stressed at the Illustration Master Class that we all need to make art for us- even when it’s an assignment, find something you love about it, and paint with that in mind. It took years for that message to sink in with me, but it’s at the top of my advice-that-needs-taking list.
Rebecca Guay stressed at the Illustration Master Class that we all need to make art for us- even when it’s an assignment, find something you love about it, and paint with that in mind.