Welcome to the Women in Fantasy Illustration interview series. I am interviewing a selection of women who work in the Fantasy Illustration Industry. You will find the links to more interviews at the bottom of the page.
Today’s interview is a real treat! I have had the pleasure of interviewing Terese Nielsen, widely known for her Magic the Gathering illustrations and more. She is a seasoned and amazing illustrator whose work I greatly admire.
Terese Nielsen have been one of the front runners for women working in the Fantasy Illustration field, with a successful career that spans over twenty years, she is certainly an artist to look up to and learn from. Enjoy!
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work.
I was born in Nebraska and spent my childhood on a small farm in Aurora. Many things fascinated me in my early years but art ultimately won out which led me to enroll in a junior college in Idaho right after high school. From there I made my way to Pasadena, California where I earned my degree in illustration from Art Center College of Design.
I began freelancing immediately after Art Center, contributing to everything from theme park design to editorial illustrations. In 1992, I entered the comic book field, illustrating superheroes for a variety of collectable card sets. Soon to follow were fully painted comics for Marvel and covers for Topps and Dark Horse. In 1996, Wizards of the Coast caught wind of my work and I began my long, devoted relationship with Magic the Gathering. My work was also featured on computer and video game packaging, game companies, and a medley of book covers.
I’ve been honored to be showcased numerous times in the prestigious annual, “Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art”, and I’m currently publishing “The Art of Terese Nielsen”, my first art book. I’m especially happy to say that this year, I’m developing a personal body of work which will debut in a one-woman show at the end of the year.
I’m especially happy to say that this year, I'm developing a personal body of work which will debut in a one-woman show at the end of the year.
2. You studied at the Art Center in the late 80s. What was the schooling experience like for you? Did you enjoy it?
The 80’s. Wow that sounds like a long time ago! For me it was intense beyond belief, and I can’t really say that I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like a playful frolic through the forest. For me, my recurring issue of looking stupid or inept at whatever I try to do, haunted me. In an attempt to not look incompetent on the crit-rail next to my talented peers, it required hours and hours of work. It was beyond grueling, extremely intense, and I rarely indulged in sleep. Many times, the sleep deprivation caused me to see creatures lurching into the road as I was ascending the streets to Art Center- and in case you’re wondering, I was very Mormon in those days, so there wasn’t any recreational intake going on.
Lord, a cup of coffee would’ve been nice back then! For a quiet little farm girl from Nebraska, it was stressful yet an exceptionally valuable education. Those eight semesters honed my illustration skills quickly and focused me in ways that I never would’ve had the discipline or knowledge to do on my own. I’m extremely grateful that l was able to attend when I did.
Those eight semesters honed my illustration skills quickly and focused me in ways that I never would've had the discipline or knowledge to do on my own.
3. You have worked for many big companies and clients over the years. How important is it for you to balance client work with personal work?
Oh, that’s such a good question- one I still don’t have the answer to, or at least one I haven’t learned how to manage very well. Creating personal work is such a vital, juicy process. Those are the times you have full reigns for what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what style you want to do it in. Not only that, but the imagery is an investment in your financial future. As the artist, you own all of the rights to it. Your own work has all kinds of potential income if managed correctly.
Creating personal work is such a vital, juicy process. Those are the times you have full reigns for what you want to say, how you want to say it, and what style you want to do it in.
That said, clients deadlines, four hungry mouths, and the many details of running a business have always screamed louder to me than my own personal pieces. Illustrators have to juggle and prioritize so many things in order to be successful. We are entrepreneurs and business owners, so we must develop a client base, a fan base, skills, and hopefully a name that can be trusted to deliver both quality and timeliness. Carving out time to produce my own work has been one of my biggest life challenges, and has regretfully ended up low on my production totem pole. The fact that I’m not steadily chipping away at my own body of work has gnawed at me relentlessly, year after year and decade after decade.
Carving out time to produce my own work has been one of my biggest life challenges, and has regretfully ended up low on my production totem pole.
If I ever “have/had” free time, which an entrepreneur doesn’t, I generally default to hanging out with my children or wife, or learning something completely new- i.e. gardening, cooking, mechanics, fixing things, beautifying my home, reading, etc. So, if I finally allow myself to not be painting or accomplishing other business activities, I tend to want to do something entirely different to add freshness to my life.
It’s only been in the last couple years that I’m purposely saying no to more jobs and commissions so that a greater percentage of the painting time I do spend, is for bringing ideas of my own into existence. To be fair to myself, it’s also very likely that it’s finally a stage I’m more able to entertain now, because all four of our children are in their twenties and have lives outside of our immediate home. In this last year I’ve decided to put an exclamation on the desire to create personal pieces, by having a one-woman show at KrabJab Studio in Seattle at the end of the year. This puts in place a very real deadline that I will make certain to honor.
In this last year I’ve decided to put an exclamation on the desire to create personal pieces, by having a one-woman show at KrabJab Studio in Seattle at the end of the year.
4. You enjoy portraying women in your art. What is it that particularly draws you to this subject?
Is this a trick question? I like painting many things, but I particularly strive to portray people that have a soul, a presence, an essence that you feel–as if you’re meeting an individual. For me this includes not only women, but children, men, and the diverse beings within nature.
I like painting many things, but I particularly strive to portray people that have a soul, a presence, an essence that you feel--as if you’re meeting an individual.
That said, as a teen and as a woman, I thought women in particular were generally portrayed in an exceptionally shallow way, not one that inspired me to want to “be” them. So whenever I illustrate anything, but especially women, I want them to have a brain, a presence, a personality, a reason that goes beyond,”She’s pretty”, or a nice object to look at. I’m disappointed if I don’t achieve that.
5. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I enjoy the vast diversity of subjects to bring to life and the approaches to painting it, and the subtle ways of imbuing some of ones own voice into the illustrations. As artists we are never done learning, growing, experimenting, and guiding our style and career in whatever direction we want it to go. The whole process is endlessly creative.
As artists we are never done learning, growing, experimenting, and guiding our style and career in whatever direction we want it to go.
6. What do you like the least about it?
The greatest frustration I have about the field is that the rates for illustration work haven’t risen to match the rate of inflation. Despite the fact that billions are now spent on advertising, the allotment for art has steadily diminished as a percentage of the overall advertising budget. For some perspective, during the Depression Era, artists such as Rockwell (1894-1978) could secure up to $5,000 for a single advertising assignment with which he could easily buy a house with some land. Today, property taxes on a modest dwelling might almost be covered with one ‘high paying’ illustration job. One has to become extraordinarily shrewd to corral all of the possible earning potential from each illustration job, to form multiple income streams for sustaining oneself and a family.
The greatest frustration I have about the field is that the rates for illustration work haven't risen to match the rate of inflation.
7. One thing I really enjoy in your art is the balance of line and paint layers. Can you tell us a little about your process?
Thank you. I struggle between spontaneity and calculated design. I love to see spontaneous “happy accidents” juxtaposed with highly rendered areas within an illustration. When I allow sketch lines to show through or delineate edges with colored pencils later in the process, it feels like an in-the-moment sort of decision. I’m sure if I consciously broke it down in an attempt to teach someone what influences my decision making, I could answer this question better.
Generally, I tend to toss several mediums into the mix because each has its strong points or ways in which it makes my life easier.
Generally, I tend to toss several mediums into the mix because each has its strong points or ways in which it makes my life easier. So rather than forcing acrylic to effortlessly blend like oil, I simply use oil and rather than wish oil could be applied in transparent washes that dry quickly, I use acrylic. If I want a controlled, textured, linear quality in the piece, I grab for a colored pencil. If an etherial, subtle gradation of color, light, or value is desired, then I reach for the old-school air brush.
8. What struggles did you face in trying to find your own artistic voice?
I tend to blur together artistic voice and artistic style. I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins, or if they’re really the same thing, or two integral ingredients to the final outcome. It seems to me having a voice is what you portray, which generally has, (simmering beneath it), ones interests, beliefs and morals. The artistic style is the way in which one expresses it. For me both voice and style emerge fluidly from within, and materialize in ones work, and those two elements change and morph as we learn and evolve.
If we’re talking about what subject matter or pieces I choose to paint when creating my own work, then that has been much more difficult to nail down and keep nailed down. Inspiring, uplifting and adding beauty to the planet is my deepest passion, yet I tend to waffle on how I want to depict those high ideals. Ultimately, if I get too embroiled in deliberating over that, I don’t create anything, or quit halfway. I think it’s far better to just do it and finish something and then go on and create the next one after that.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
Early on, I was taught that ones portfolio is only as good as the weakest piece in it. An art director’s job hinges on trusting you to create a great piece. So when they’re looking at your portfolio, they will try and spot your weaknesses. If you’ve got a painting in your book featuring weak hands or awkward poses, etc. they’ll know there’s a good chance that it might happen with their job. So even if you’ve fallen in love with certain portions of your illustration, but it features a critical anatomical weakness, don’t put it in your portfolio.
Early on, I was taught that ones portfolio is only as good as the weakest piece in it.
10. Where do you hope to take your art in the future?
I’ve got a lot of fun projects in the works this year. I’m getting ready to Kickstart a retrospective art book, and I’m also creating a body of personal work, the impetus being a one-woman gallery show in Seattle at the end of the year that I spoke about above. I’m painting several large pieces which focus on capturing archetypal characteristics and powers of various animals, and then symbolically weaving that with human form…hopefully blurring the lines between representational and mystical. My first portrayal is Panther, and I’m very much enjoying myself!
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Terese Nielsen, if you did please share it with your friends!