I have a real treat for you today; an interview with illustrator Elisabeth Alba. This interview marks the beginning of a new blog post series featuring interviews with women in Fantasy illustration.
I came to know of Elisabeth Alba’s work through our common friend; social butterfly, illustrator and art director Marc Scheff. I had a chance to meet her at The Society of Illustrator’s MoCCa Festival of Arts last year. Elisabeth works mainly in watercolor and acryla gouache with a touch of digital. Although her published work is mostly children’s and educational illustration, much of it is also Fantasy related. Enjoy!
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work:
Hello! I’m Elisabeth Alba. I have lived in New York City since 2006 when I came here for grad school. Since graduating in ’08 I have been drawing my weeknights and weekends away, much to the dismay of my non-artist friends (sorry, dudes). I have a day job at a private school, hence, the weeknights. My clients include Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Oxford University Press, and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Though the work I’m doing for publishers is often of the educational sort, my true passion is fantasy art, and I am working on focusing my portfolio in that direction.
2. When did you start drawing? And when did realize you wanted to make a career of it?
As all artists say, I was drawing since I can remember. My parents indulged my artistic whims, buying me art supplies and letting me spend hours on the computer scanning and learning how to color and draw digitally.
I roleplayed online and was constantly drawing my characters and my friends’ characters. I also always had a book in my hand, usually a graphic, YA, or historical fiction novel. Most importantly, though, my parents never swayed me away from considering art as a career.
In college I majored in both art and English. In my English degree, my concentration was in children’s literature. I just enjoyed drawing so much; I wanted to get better at it, and nothing else seemed to hold my attention enough (though I had a couple of strong impulses over the years to drop illustration and go into art therapy, or to drop art all together and go back to school for astronomy…).
My parents never swayed me away from considering art as a career.
3. You hold a Masters degree in Art. How was your art school experience? Would you encourage young people to attend art school?
Because I went to a state school for undergrad (University of Florida), I had no idea how to go about being a professional and networking and the whole business aspect. My fine arts teachers were… fine arts teachers (though wonderful ones!). I was lucky that they still encouraged me to do illustrative work though. In my English program I had a great professor (shout out to Dr. Cech!) who wrote children’s books and books about children’s books, and he introduced me to enough about the industry to get me started.
I was just so inexperienced, so I went straight from undergrad to grad school. If someone had gone to SCAD or RISD or some other school for undergrad, maybe they wouldn't need grad school.
I was just so inexperienced, so I went straight from undergrad to grad school. If someone had gone to SCAD or RISD or some other school for undergrad, maybe they wouldn’t need grad school. But for me, it was a fantastic decision. For one thing, it got me out of Florida! And there was no way I would have figured it all out; my life might have gone down a completely different path.
The SVA Illustration as Visual Essay program brought me to NYC and introduced me to amazing people. It brought me out of my shell. I learned how to network, and I learned more about the business than I wanted to. In short, yes I encourage art school (and the SVA MFAI program especially), but I know I was extremely lucky to have had financial help from my parents. I can’t imagine having even larger student loans… I would tell artists who are considering it not to jump straight into it if they know they might have difficulty financially. Also know that it is not the school that gets you work, it is your own determination and constant improvement.
4. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
Early rejection was hard; I knew I just had to shrug it off and keep working. Finances and knowing that part of the career I have chosen means I will always be concerned with finances. Having a really good few months, and then having a really bad few months and wondering if I’ll ever get work again. Time. It’s hard to juggle it all: day job, family, friends, the need to be alone, fighting the cabin fever by getting out of town. Living in New York City doesn’t help… we’re constantly bombarded with stuff to do and people who demand our time.
I've never met a nasty illustrator. Everyone is just so supportive and generous.
5. What do you like the most about illustrating?
The community! I’ve never met a nasty illustrator. Everyone is just so supportive and generous. You become friends with people all over the world, and even though you don’t see each other more than once or twice a year, or even at all, you’re still constantly connected via the online art community. I love going to art openings and conventions, meeting new people, being introduced to new styles and techniques. I love talking about art. It’s just really really FUN. Being an illustrator can be hard and take a lot out of you sometimes, but when you think about how much fun it is, it’s totally worth it. I love you guys.
6. What do you like the least about it?
Ugh, the lame business aspects. I do my own taxes. You really have to learn how to do a lot of stuff on your own, stuff most people take for granted when they have an HR director dealing with it all… and I’m not even solely freelance yet. Sometimes you just feel like you’re being attacked on all sides. See question #4.
You really have to learn how to do a lot of (business related) stuff on your own.
7. Who are some of your main inspirations in your artwork?
My favorite children’s books growing up and now (I still buy them!) are the highly detailed, lush, fully illustrated books with fairy tale, historical, or fantasy elements. I’m drawn to classic illustrators like Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, and N.C. Wyeth; the Pre-Raphaelites; and contemporary illustrators like Omar Rayyan, Jody A. Lee, Charles Vess, Rebecca Guay, and James Gurney. I also love animated movies and fun books like the Harry Potter series, which kept me active as a fan-artist for almost five years.
8. You are engaged to Scott Murphy, who is also a professional illustrator. Can we hear a little about your story? Did art bring the two of you together?
We actually met on OKCupid! Illustration is definitely what brought us together though. After some back and forth messages and going on our first date, we realized we had a ton in common, and that our illustration networking circles overlapped.
Scott’s style is very different from mine (realistic oil painting, fantasy… but manlier fantasy), and we never feel there’s a competition. It’s awesome to have a fellow illustrator as a partner though; he will tell me if something in my art is wrong, even something minor, instead of just saying, “looks great!” Sometimes it is enraging, but in the end, it’s a good thing. It’s nice to have someone who gets you so completely, because he’s doing the same thing with his life. If he has to work every hour of every day for a month, and I don’t get to see him much, that’s fine, because I know. And vice versa!
I also don’t know what I would be doing in my career if I hadn’t met Scott. I was in an art slump when we met. My work since has developed into what I am more interested in. I’m less into picture books now, which my style just isn’t often suited for, and more into the middle grade/YA market, and am pondering the gaming and collector’s market. I started tagging along to conventions as his sidekick and people didn’t even know I was also an artist. But now I have booths at conventions too (come visit me at MOCCA, Gen Con, and IlluXCon this year!)
I have never been critiqued by anyone who has been able to see into my artistic soul like Rebecca Guay.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
Oh gosh, this is why I need to write things down when I hear them. Probably something Rebecca Guay told me in SmART School. Actually, everything she told me. I was in her first class, and it really jolted me. I can’t pinpoint any particular phrase, but I feel like I was a sponge and just absorbed the entire class. I have never been critiqued by anyone who has been able to see into my artistic soul like Rebecca. The 6 of us in the class had different styles and interests, but she was able to go from one to the other and just nail it, and tell us exactly what we needed. So maybe the best advice I got was to sign up for SmART School?!
10. How important is it for you to get away from your desk and seek inspiration outside? Many artists complain they end up living like hermits.
Well I still have a day job, so I don’t feel too isolated yet. I’m afraid I would be when I go freelance though, which I plan to do at some point. It doesn’t bother Scott because he can’t stand the masses, but I love my coworkers and having lunch with them every day and talking about stuff that isn’t art. As for seeking inspiration, Scott and I both love to travel and get out of town and reboot our brains. We’re always planning our next big adventure.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Elisabeth. 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. The next interview I have planned is with Wylie Beckert, so stay tuned!