Today’s interview is with Winona Nelson. I first met Winona Nelson at IlluxCon in 2012 where she gave a great lecture on Self-Teaching & Self-Design. Winona Nelson is an inspiration, not only because of her fantastic work, but also because of her approach towards learning as well as her work methods and ethics. On top of that she has a really funny sense of humor.
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work
My name is Winona Nelson, and I’m a freelance illustrator and concept artist. I’ve worked for Magic: the Gathering, Warhammer Black Library, Kabam, and other video game and tabletop gaming companies, and did the art for the webcomic Artifice.
2. When did you begin drawing? And when did realize you wanted to make a career of it?
I began drawing as a toddler. My parents are both artists, so I never lacked for encouragement or understanding from them, but neither makes their living from their artwork. I didn’t think of it as something I could do for a career until I was a teenager and saw Magic cards and the booklets that came along with Final Fantasy 7 and Xenogears and realized there had to be artists drawing those characters. From then on my dream was to be a character designer for video games and paint for Magic: the Gathering.
I didn’t think of it as something I could do for a career until I was a teenager and saw Magic cards (…)
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
I haven’t faced much of what I would call “difficulty.” I’ve always understood you don’t get a gig until you are better than those who are currently doing it. I wasn’t good enough for the jobs I wanted when I was first starting out, but knew that would change with time and practice.
I’ve always understood you don’t get a gig until you are better than those who are currently doing it.
I suppose making money in the early days was difficult, but I grew up poor and hated working at a regular job with a schedule and the same tasks every day. Making very little money but having my daily freedom was still quite luxurious to me.
4. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I’m at the point where most of my clients trust my design decisions and hire me for very self-directed projects. That’s a wonderful feeling, being valued for your ideas as much as your painting skill. Even more than that, I love the fact that every artist’s career is different and that it’s your own choices and strengths that create your path. It’s a real meritocracy and there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
That’s a wonderful feeling, being valued for your ideas as much as your painting skill.
5. What do you like the least about it?
Occasionally I have to take on a lot of work at once and don’t have time for personal projects, and then it starts to feel like a day job where each day is the same. I don’t like that, I prefer a lot of variation.
6. Who are some of your main inspirations in your artwork?
This list would be too long, I’m sure I’m going to forget a lot of people. But right now I’m jamming on Julie Bell, Boris Vallejo, Rebecca Guay, Charles Vess, JC Leyendecker, John Williams Waterhouse, Donato Giancola, Edmund Dulac, Katsuhiro Otomo, Arthur Rackham, Yoshitaka Amano, Sergio Toppi, Ivan Bilibin, Kay Nielsen, Willy Pogany, Petar Meseldzija, Mike Mignola, Lucas Graciano, Noel Stevenson, Jaime Jones, Min Yum, Joy Ang, Mingzhu Yang, Jo Chen, Tom Scholes, and Karla Ortiz.
7. Please tell us about your process and your choice of medium.
I work in acrylic, oil, and/or digital. My process depends on the assignment and deadline. If I need to work fast, I use digital, but I prefer to use traditional media when I can. Sometimes I mix them by starting out in acrylic and then photograph it and work on top of that digitally. Since I learned to paint digitally first, I don’t really keep things separated but jump from one method to another as often as I feel it’s necessary. I’ve also been using Copic markers for comic projects lately and have been really loving them. I guess I’m still experimenting a lot.
8. You are in a relationship with Anthony Palumbo, who is also a very successful artist. Can we hear a little about your story? Did art bring you together?
Yes, art brought us together. We met at the Illustration Master Class. I lived in San Francisco at the time and was working at Planet Moon Studios, but had been trying to transition to doing more illustration work. I knew Tony’s brother Dave first, so when I arrived at IMC he introduced me to Tony and it was love at first sight… or at least, I thought he was really cute, but really it wasn’t until I saw his amazing sketch for the piece he’d be painting that I took him seriously, haha!
(…) but really it wasn’t until I saw his amazing sketch for the piece he’d be painting that I took him seriously, haha!
We were both at the very beginning of pursuing illustration as a career, and meeting him was the perfect motivator to leave my job and go fulltime freelance. We’ve grown as artists together since then and still work for a lot of the same clients. Our goals are very similar and we cheer each other on and support each other through deadline crunches and down times. At the same time, our artistic styles and processes are different enough that we are still always learning new things from each other. Tony’s parents, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, are huge inspirations and role models not only artistically but in terms of having a healthy, loving relationship while working from home and being together every hour of every day.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
Rebecca Guay has taught me so much that I can’t pick just one. She told me if an idea you have is scary, you NEED to do it. There’s a reason it scares you and it’s because it’s connected to the deepest parts of you. It’s honest and people respond to that just as deeply as it affects you. I also learned from her to pick and choose your assignments to fit your artistic voice rather than doing work that doesn’t suit you and winding up with a portfolio full of things you hate to paint. And to never phone in an assignment no matter how busy or tired you are, because once it’s out in the world it’s connected to you forever.
She told me if an idea you have is scary, you NEED to do it. There’s a reason it scares you and it’s because it’s connected to the deepest parts of you. It’s honest and people respond to that just as deeply as it affects you.
10. How important is it you for to get away from your desk and seek inspiration outside? Many artists complain they end up living like hermits.
Absolutely essential. Tony and I break up our work schedule with a lot of travel, and when we’re home we go out for walks to the art supply store whether we need anything or not, just to get out, or go out for a movie night with Dave and our friends. Sometimes we take our work and just go to a different place. For instance, this past fall we rented a studio space in the desert in Arizona for a month and worked there instead of at home. But overall I think the hermit feeling is less pronounced for us since we work at home together and we have our cat to provide some daily comedy.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Winona. If there are any professional female fantasy artists you greatly admire and would like to see interview with, please leave a comment with their name and a link to their website. I have future interviews planned with Wylie Beckert, Zelda Devon and Kimberly Kincaid so stay tuned!