I first became familiar with Wylie Beckert’s beautiful work through a Facebook art group called Team Awesome. Wylie’s work has a very distinctive and eye catching style, that I really like.
Since I first came across her work Wylie’s career has really been of to a good, well deserving start; recently she was published on the cover of ImagineFX, one of the most popular magazines for Sci-fi and Fantasty Art. I’m curious to see where her work will take her in the future to come and I hope you will enjoy this interview with Wylie.
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work
My name is Wylie Beckert; I started freelancing on and off about two and a half years ago, but I’d say that it’s only in this past year that I’ve started to take illustration really seriously, and started to focus on creating art for the SF/F genre. My most recent professional projects have included cover art for ImagineFX and Annick Press and card art for Fantasy Flight. My current work is a combination of digital and traditional media; I love creating stylized, somewhat whimsical fantasy art with an emphasis on vivid characters and storytelling.
2. When did you start drawing? And when did realize you wanted to make a career of it?
I’ve been drawing all my life – and drawing very badly for most of it. I always assumed I would be an artist, because that was the skill people always told me I was good at; but looking back at my abysmal art from high school and college, I have no idea why everyone allowed me to labor under this delusion. Towards the end of college, I think I started to realize how lacking my art was and got discouraged, because I didn’t pursue any work in the industry for a few years.
I've been drawing all my life - and drawing very badly for most of it.
Then, while I was working a totally non-art related office job, an old school friend contacted me with a small freelance job. Working on that handful of illustrations reminded me how much I enjoyed doing art (and how much I hated doing office work) – shortly thereafter I quit my job and set out to build a career in illustration.3. Have you gone to Art School? If yes, what was the experience like?
I got an art degree from a non-art school – I like to call it an “arts and crafts” degree, because most of the curriculum consisted of projects like scrapbooking, tracing photos, and building things out of cardboard. There were a few solid artists among the faculty, but they were fine artists exclusively, and I left school with only a hazy idea that illustration was a possible career path (I don’t think I can entirely blame this on the school I attended – I’ve heard similar complaints from artists who went to more legitimate art schools).
Years later, I came across Jon Schindehette’s ArtOrder blog, which exposed me not only to the illustration industry, but also to a number of resources that would turn out to be really valuable in helping me take my art education into my own hands. My most recent venture into art education was through SmArt School last summer – I took a course with Marc Scheff and Lauren Panepinto, in which all the information I’d been absorbing about the illustration process on my own clicked at last and (I like to think!) finally pushed my art to a professional level.
4. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
It was surprisingly hard to learn how to assess my own work objectively – but that’s one of the most important skills to have as an artist, especially when you’re trying to break in to the industry. Once I developed a more critical eye for my work, I was able to build a clearer picture of where my weaknesses were – and I was able to start addressing those weaknesses and building a broader range of skills.
Once I developed a more critical eye for my work, I was able to build a clearer picture of where my weaknesses were - and I was able to start addressing those weaknesses and building a broader range of skills.
The other major difficulty for me has been attracting the genre and level of work that I want to be doing – in part because when I was starting out, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my art, and the (mostly small) commissions I took were all over the place. Last year I narrowed the scope of my portfolio to focus almost exclusively on fantasy art, and made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t take on any work that didn’t 1) pay well or 2) bring me closer to my goals as an artist – and that made it a very slow year for business! On the plus side, I was able to devote a ton of time to improving my art, attending my first illustration convention, and figuring out where I wanted to go with my career. Marketing my work and finding new freelance clients are still major hurdles for me – but the new work I’m putting out has been getting a ton of attention, and I feel that my prospects are much better than they have been in past years.
5. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I love being able to use my illustrations to tell stories; I feel like storytelling is one of the most important aspects of my work, and the one thing that really makes it original. With so many artists in the world, it’s impossible to have a style or subject matter that’s completely your own; but in deciding what story to tell – how the image is composed, who the characters are, what details are included or omitted – I feel like I get a chance to actually create an illustration that is personal and unique. This is why I sometimes go overboard with thumbnails at the planning stage – I want to explore all the options, and make sure my choices aren’t too obvious or automatic.
This is why I sometimes go overboard with thumbnails at the planning stage - I want to explore all the options, and make sure my choices aren't too obvious or automatic.
The other thing I love is seeing the time and energy I’m putting into my work pay off – and that can be any number of things, from getting a paycheck in the mail, to getting the hang of a new medium, to seeing an idea that existed only in my mind come to life on paper. Positive results remind me that I’m not throwing all this effort into a black hole, and motivate me to keep working and improving.
6. What do you like the least about it?
Setting aside the universal artist gripes (poverty, undesirable revisions, the threat of carpal tunnel), the early stages of an illustration can be really stressful for me – very rarely do I read an art brief and have a great idea for an illustration just pop into my head. Usually it takes many hours of ugly scribbling and countless dead ends to come up with a really solid concept and (even harder!) find a good way to present it visually. Until I hit on a sketch I like, there is always a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – what if this is the job where I can’t come up with anything good, and am discovered to be a hack?
7. Who are some of your main inspirations in your artwork?
I love artists with strong graphic styles and a great sense of design – Arthur Rackham, Alfonse Mucha, and JC Leyendecker were huge influences when I was first getting into illustration, and continue to be so today. Different artists inspire me for different reasons – I really admire Sam Wolfe Connelly’s ability to create mood and atmosphere, Justin Gerard’s quirky visual storytelling, and Jon Foster’s energetic, stylized poses. I’m still in the early stages of figuring out where exactly I want to take my art (and what I want it to look like), so it’s always exciting to come across an artist who uses an unusual medium or unexpected technique that makes me revisit how I create my own work.
8. You work in a combination of digital and traditional media, please tell a little about your process.
I always start an image with a good amount of planning and thumbnails – at this stage, my goal is to come up with an engaging story and build a visually pleasing composition. I try to dissect the story I want to illustrate – taking notes on the characters, the setting, and the major themes helps me define what’s most important about the narrative, and also can lead me on tangents that generate new ideas (what might a certain detail suggest about a character’s personality or background – and how can I bring that to life visually?) or help me view the narrative from a different angle. Once I have a clearer picture of my story’s essential elements, I start developing these ideas into thumbnails, either on paper or digitally – experimenting with possible camera angles, poses, and layouts while trying to build a readable value structure.
Once I have a thumbnail I like, I’ll generally scan and sketch over it digitally; I’ve found that it’s helpful to flesh out my ideas with this rough intermediate step, rather than jumping straight from thumbnail to final image – it lets me evaluate the image on a larger scale (it’s often hard to spot potential problems in a 2″ thumbnail), and frees me up to experiment and make major changes to the image. I print my sketch and transfer it to my drawing surface with a lightbox, then begin the final rendering. For the majority of the current work in my portfolio, this means a clean pencil drawing with a reasonably well-established values (powdered graphite is an awesome tool for this); but I’ve been experimenting with other media recently and am finding that a monochromatic oil painting works equally well.
I try to treat this underdrawing/underpainting stage as a finished black and white piece – a clean, nicely rendered drawing makes my job easier at the color stage. I scan my pencil drawing (or photograph my oil painting), and use Photoshop to apply color in transparent layers – usually in Overlay or Multiply layer modes, but there’s usually a certain amount of experimenting to get the look I’m going for. I top everything off with a layer of opaque highlights and, if all has gone as planned, call it finished!
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
I think one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve gotten comes from Jon Schindehette’s portfolio building series. It was to view the best piece in your current portfolio as the worst piece in your “ideal” portfolio – that theoretical collection of your future art that is full of projects you love, represents you perfectly as an artist, and attracts the type of work you want to be doing.
(...) View the best piece in your current portfolio as the worst piece in your ``ideal`` portfolio - that theoretical collection of your future art that is full of projects you love, represents you perfectly as an artist, and attracts the type of work you want to be doing.
For me, it was very eye-opening to start looking at my current work as a building block for better things to come, rather than as a representation of the best I could do. Another great piece of advice (this one picked up during Marc & Lauren’s SmArt School course) is to turn commissioned work into work you would want to do anyways. The reality of being a professional artist is that not every project will be exciting to you personally, but if you’re able to find some aspect of an otherwise underwhelming project that makes you excited to do it – working in a technique you’ve always wanted to try, for example, or shoehorning some detail or subject matter you love to draw into the piece – then you’ll have a chance of getting more out of it than just a paycheck.
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.
I’m a complete shut-in. Getting out into the world is one of those things that I know is important, but almost never actually do – largely because, for the past few years, I’ve been living in a corner of the country where unpleasant weather keeps me indoors most of the year. While this means that there aren’t many things to distract me from my work, it can also leave me somewhat short on inspiration. Luckily for me, the internet does a pretty good job of filling this void – I love going off on unnecessary research tangents when I’m working on a piece, and learning about the things and places that I will hopefully get to sketch from life someday. I’m definitely looking forward to living somewhere with a less post-apocalyptic vibe that will allow me to go outside more, hang out with other artists, and see some of these fancy trees, rocks, and buildings that I hear so much about. Ask me again in a year!
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Wylie. 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 Cynthia Sheppard, Zelda Devon and Kimberly Kincaid so stay tuned!