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.
This interview happened upon an email recommendation. Emily Fiegenschuh creates beautiful traditional illustrations and have worked for a number of prominent RPG companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Paizo. It a real pleasure to have an opportunity to interview her and I hope you will enjoy the interview as much as I did.
The Shadows that Rush PastCover © 2011 Inhabit Media
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work.
My name is Emily Fiegenschuh. I’m an illustrator that has been working professionally for almost fourteen years, and I’ve been drawing in general for about thirty years. I draw pretty much the same stuff I did as a kid, except now I get paid for it! Almost all of my artwork falls into the fantasy genre. A lot of my work is also for kids and young adults. I’ve been a bit typecast that way, but I’m alright with it.
I draw pretty much the same stuff I did as a kid, except now I get paid for it!
I live in the Seattle, Washington area with my husband, five guinea pigs and two bunnies. I go to bed too late, and I like baking vegan sweets and – of course– eating them.
2. Your biography states you have been drawing fantasy worlds from a very young age on but when did realize you wanted to make a career out of illustrating?
I had always been interested in animation and I was leaning towards that as a career relatively early on when I was growing up, but I had a few other interests in school that I thought could become potential careers, too. I was in high school when the idea to become an artist solidified.
I actually entered Ringling College of Art and Design as a computer animation major, but I switched to illustration when I realized I wanted to keep drawing and painting. While computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple decades, I have always loved traditional, hand-drawn animation. I feel that it has a real warmth and evidence of craft that is sometimes missing with computer animation.
I have always loved traditional, hand-drawn animation. I feel that it has a real warmth and evidence of craft that is sometimes missing with computer animation.
In addition to animation I was also influenced to become an artist by the concept art and illustrations I saw for video games. I discovered Yoshitaka Amano’s work for Final Fantasy after playing the first game on Nintendo, and he became one of my favorite artists. I used to buy video game strategy guides just for his artwork before I was old enough to attend conventions and before the internet made it easier to buy art books online.
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy CreaturesCover ©2011 Emily Fiegenschuh
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
I didn’t run into too many difficulties becoming an illustrator – I’d say it’s more difficult to maintain, especially as a freelancer. I got a job right out of school as a product designer at The Franklin Mint. After the entire art department was laid off a couple years later, I got my first freelance job with Wizards of the Coast to begin my illustration career.
I didn’t run into too many difficulties becoming an illustrator – I’d say it’s more difficult to maintain, especially as a freelancer.
Supplemented by my unemployment income, I was able to ease into freelance illustration with that little bit of backup at the beginning. I still have that backup in a sense now, because I’m married and my husband also works. A double income can make it easier to be a full-time freelance illustrator by helping to manage the ebb and flow of work and paychecks.
4. What do you like the most about illustrating?
There are a few special things about illustrating that I like and that keep me going. For one, I simply enjoy creating characters and worlds. I like connecting with people through my work and hoping that I make some kind of positive impact on people’s lives through escapism, or by showing them something they find pleasing or beautiful. It’s also gratifying to have a unique skill for which people want to hire me.
I make some kind of positive impact on people’s lives through escapism, or by showing them something they find pleasing or beautiful.
5. What do you like the least about it?
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but aggressive feelings of self-doubt. It’s hard to reconcile the enjoyment of the art process with the nagging feeling something is wrong with my piece – it could be better; it isn’t perfect…This plus the competition for work. Sometimes looking at amazing artwork will end up blowing my confidence rather than inspiring me. For a less depressing answer: the constant need to self-promote can be taxing.
The Faerie LocketCover ©2011 Wizards of the Coast
A Thoughtful Young WizardInterior illustration for A Practical Guide to Wizardry © 2008 Wizards of the Coast
Sometimes looking at amazing artwork will end up blowing my confidence rather than inspiring me.
6. You work in traditional media which such is a real treat. Can you tell us a little about your process and your choice of medium?
I have always been drawing but not always painting. I feel like drawing is my strongest suit as an artist. I chose to start using transparent media because I could keep my drawing intact as I worked and build on top of it. If I lose my drawing I’m in trouble! I find that working transparently and building up layers of paint is most important for my illustrative work – especially on stuff I imagine. I do better with value and rendering with opaque media if there is something right in front of me that I can study, like a figure model or still life.
I do the drawings first, usually in a sketchbook, and then scan them in. Then I print the finished drawing on watercolor paper using my Epson printer. I can only do this to a maximum size of 13 x 19 inches, so when I want to paint larger I have to transfer the drawing the old fashioned way with a pencil and light box.
I work in gouache, but I tend to wait to use its opaque capabilities until the last minute. I use it more like watercolor, building the color up in layers. I’ve been working mostly in this fashion in the last couple years vs. earlier in my career. When it’s not a vignette or spot illo that requires a white background, I start with a wet-on-wet wash that I try to keep loose and expressive. I drop in color and texture, some of which I usually try to leave as-is in some areas until the end of the painting.
The Crowned Ibak©2011 Emily Fiegenschuh
I like to try to leave white for the highlights because the white of the paper creates a more luminous quality than using opaque white gouache. I would like to get to a point where I am fully comfortable working in two styles with gouache: one transparent, like watercolors, and one opaque, like oils.
Call of the ForestCover for the Pathfinder Player Companion Animal Archive © 2013 Paizo Publishing, LLC
7. You studied at Ringling College of Art and Design what was the art school experience like for you?
I was someone who needed a little bit of direction to force me to learn how to draw and paint new things rather than the stuff I had always been drawing, though I did have some instruction on drawing from life before I got to art school. I was happy to have the chance to study painting and experiment with new media because I rarely had the opportunity for that sort of focused study before attending Ringling.
I was someone who needed a little bit of direction to force me to learn how to draw and paint new things rather than the stuff I had always been drawing (...)
8. Would you recommend art school to young people interested in pursuing a career in illustration?
Yes – depending on the school, and whether they can afford it. The most important thing is that one is strongly motivated to learn and practice regardless of whether or not they choose to go to art school. There are more resources for self-instruction now than when I entered school, like workshops and instructional videos. However, the art school experience was invaluable for learning about a lot of things important to making a career, like self-discipline, business and communication and even life skills.
And you can have more confidence in the quality of the instruction with an art school vs. some of the other learning methods. But it is true that for most art jobs you are hired based on the strength of your portfolio, not your degree.
Downammar©2013 Unrestrained Games
(...) the art school experience was invaluable for learning about a lot of things important to making a career, like self-discipline, business and communication and even life skills.
Elven Mage©2012 Emily Fiegenschuh
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
I was at a little painting demo hosted by Omar Rayyan at GenCon a few years ago. This was not advice given to me directly, but to all the people in the room. It had a big impact on me because it came at just the right time. I was frustrated that I didn’t have the right portfolio to break into a different category of gaming illustration.
His advice was to avoid struggling towards a style you don’t enjoy only to land what you see as a prestigious job, because then you will be stuck doing that work you didn’t enjoy if you manage to get it.
His advice was to avoid struggling towards a style you don’t enjoy only to land what you see as a prestigious job, because then you will be stuck doing that work you didn’t enjoy if you manage to get it. If you do what comes naturally to you, eventually you’ll find clients who want to hire you for what you can bring to a project that maybe no one else can. It made me realize that I should continue to improve my work, but that it was ok to develop my style towards projects for which I was more naturally inclined.
The Sphinx©2011 Emily Fiegenschuh
10. What are your hopes for the future of your career?
When I was in high school I had these high hopes –arrogant dreams, even– of all the awesome stuff I was going to do: make a comic (that of course everyone is going to love) make video games (that of course everyone is going to love) and make a company with all my art stuff and make a lot of money!!
My aspirations are a lot more humble now: to keep finding work as an illustrator; to try some new things with new media and see how I like them; to maybe get to the point in the future where I am able to focus on my own projects in a way that will appeal to my audience as well – in other words, learning to work “for myself” while still connecting with other people. Finally, to learn to be happy and comfortable with my work.
A Practical Guide to Dragon RidingCover ©2008 Wizards of the Coast
Thank you, Emily and best of luck with your beautiful art in the future!