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 week’s interview is with the incredible Heather Theurer, who is a Fine Artist with a stunning vision. She is among other things known for her gorgeous paintings of famous Disney characters. Enjoy!
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work
I am an insane 🙂 mother of five great kids and live with them and my supportive husband (for the time being) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I’ve been working in the art industry for almost two decades. My first “real” job was working for a small publishing company creating art for college textbooks—super exciting, I know! But after the company folded and I was forced to find other work, I decided to step out into that great big scary world and become my own boss as an independent artist.
I went from droning out innumerable bar graphs and pie charts to becoming a cover art illustrator. That’s where things started to get fun. Since then, I’ve become even more brave and in the last 13 years, I’ve been attending conventions selling my own work (non-commissioned) which range from 8×10 mini-paintings to 7-foot-tall masterworks—all painted in oils.
I went from droning out innumerable bar graphs and pie charts to becoming a cover art illustrator. That’s where things started to get fun.
2. When did realize you wanted to make a career out of illustrating?
I knew I wanted to be a career artist by the time I was three or four. By the time I was in high school and attempting to make real decisions about my adult future, my dad was trying to convince me to become an engineer, but illustration was already running in my blood. I was a lost cause.
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional artist?
There were a few difficult hurdles I had to get over. The biggest one was that I was (am) a total introvert. If someone were to give me a Harry Potter closet, I would take it—and love it—and paint to my heart’s content therein. In the beginning, talking to potential clients about my art was hard. I had to learn to value my own art and try to convince others of its value all at the same time because I had jumped head first into the convention thing before I’d gotten too far into my career. Most of the time, I wanted to just crawl under the table and cry.
I had to learn to value my own art and try to convince others of its value all at the same time because I had jumped head first into the convention thing before I’d gotten too far into my career.
It took me a couple of years, but now I actually look forward to those conventions—especially Comic-Con in San Diego—because I find it exhilarating to share what I do with others. The other hurdle I had to get over, and it’s still something that I contend with, is the ongoing struggle to keep current in the market and to grow my client base. We live in a fickle world and deal with fickle markets, so I’m always challenging myself to expand and reach out until I get to that “sweet spot” in my career—if that even exists.
4. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I like being able to turn the harebrained dreams and ideas that are constantly bombarding me into reality—something tangible that someone else can grasp and connect with.
5. What do you like the least about it?
It takes a long time. Most of my ideas are fully fleshed out in my head before I even put a pencil to the paper, so having to labor through all of the layers to get it to that “reincarnated” state in paint can be frustrating—albeit thrilling and sometimes even intoxicating at the same time. I also don’t care for the business side of my job. I’d pass that off to someone else in a heartbeat if I could. It’s even more time consuming—and doesn’t leave paint smudges on my knuckles, which is no fun.
6. You work in a variety of genres. Do you have a favourite? And can you tell us a little about your attraction to the different genres?
You know, I’m not sure I have a favorite. My favorite is the one I’m currently working in, because that’s the one I’ve been inspired to do. However, if I had to pick, I think I’d go for fantasy. Actually, most of my fantasy work is in reality representational and symbolic in nature, not straight up “fantasy”. I like that I can infuse fantastical things with human elements, ideology and emotion, yet take on any form I choose. That’s a freedom I love.
I like that I can infuse fantastical things with human elements, ideology and emotion, yet take on any form I choose. That’s a freedom I love.
7. One thing I really admire about your work is how much it connects to the viewer. You really manage to create contact between the subject and the viewer. Can you tell us a little about your process?
Whenever I begin a new painting, I don’t start out by thinking, “oh, geez, I’ve got to tell a story or convey a message.” Usually, there is an image in my head—that I don’t often contrive on my own, but instead “comes to me”—which then takes on a life unto itself. Because those images aren’t forced, they’re formed by experience or something I’m dealing with personally at the time. Oh, of course, I do concern myself with the important things, you know, like composition, line, form, lightning and so on, but I don’t let those things overpower the original idea. As I work through the details, that human element that drove the painting to begin with reveals itself, even if there isn’t a “human” in the picture. Then the story starts to unfold. That’s why I think the viewer can connect to my artwork. I’m not trying to force an experience on them. They can interpret it themselves; and let me tell you, when I see in the eyes of the viewer them making that connection, it is one of the most satisfying feelings!
(...) the story starts to unfold. That’s why I think the viewer can connect to my artwork. I’m not trying to force an experience on them. They can interpret it themselves (...)
8. Your Disney paintings are simply amazing. How did you come to work with Disney Fine Art? Did you reach out to them or did they find you?
That was a funny round-about story. A few years ago, I was at San Diego Comic-Con when I was approached by a marketing rep from Disney who pitched the idea that I create Disney characters in “my style”. Yeah, that was a cool idea, I thought. Why not? So I submitted a handful of sketches—and then heard the chirping of crickets for almost eighteen months. Nothing happened until I decided, what the heck, I’ll just paint them anyway—approval or not—and take them to my next show to see what happens. At SDCC two years after the original contact, I put them up and the images went viral. So I decided on a whim to show up to Disney Expo a month later. I couldn’t sell anything there since I didn’t have a license, but enough people went over to the Disney Fine Art booth to insist that they pick me up as one of their artists so they could buy something from me that, sure enough, the entire lot of Disney folks came by my booth to ask if I’d sign a contract with them. The rest is history.
The best advice I received on my artwork was that it sucked.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
The best advice I received on my artwork was that it sucked. Any time that someone has given my work strong (even cruel) criticism, I’ve turned it to my advantage. (Okay, so after a little bit of crying first…) Hearing those things meant I had work to do, and I was going to do it, no matter what, because this is what I wanted to do and I want to be great at it. The best career advice I’ve received has been to never fear failure. Try. Then try again. Put yourself out there as many times as it takes until you finally reach somebody with your art. And by all means, do not try to be someone else. I have to have my own story, my own driving force, my own personality that makes me unique. I don’t have to be a crazy nut job that lives in a yurt at the edge of the planet surviving on eggs and licorice candies to have a story. I just need to be meaningful and memorable to someone.
10. Do you have a philosophy behind your work? If not, then what are some of your goals for the future?
My philosophy is beauty inspires. Not the kind of beauty concocted on the pages of People magazine, but the kind of beauty that can be found just as easily in the lumpy texture of a snapping turtle’s skin as in the delicate petal of a flower. The beauty of the earth and all that is in and on it inspires me. If I can uplift others by recreating or transforming even a portion of that beauty in one of my paintings, then I feel I’ve (hopefully) left this world a little bit better a place.
My philosophy is beauty inspires. Not the kind of beauty concocted on the pages of People magazine, but the kind of beauty that can be found just as easily in the lumpy texture of a snapping turtle’s skin as in the delicate petal of a flower.
Thank you for your time and I can’t wait to see more of your stunning artwork, Heather.
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View all Women in Fantasy Illustration interviews here.
Heather Theurer’s Website