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.
Today’s interview is with illustrator and concept artist Anna Christenson, who works for Turbine Games. I first came across Anna’s artwork on Facebook and was really impressed by her sense of value and color. It was a pleasure to get the chance to interview her and I hope you will enjoy the interview as much as I did.
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work
My name is Anna Christenson. I grew up about 20 minutes outside of Ithaca, NY in a small town called Trumansburg.
Both my parents are artists (they are divorced), and my mom’s significant other is a painter and photographer. They do very different work than me, but I really appreciate having conversations about art with them (They are Kim Schrag and Fernando Llosa, if you’re curious to look them up). I went to the State University of New York for a BFA in Illustration and Animation, and afterwards worked as a freelance illustrator for a few years, primarily doing a lot of work for Fantasy Flight Games, Wizard of the Coast on D&D, and Paizo.
I now live in Boston, Massachusetts, where I work as a concept artist at Turbine Games, which is a game studio under Warner Brothers. I have two cats, Orc and Glitch, and live with my boyfriend, Davi Blight, who is also a concept artist.
2. When did realize you wanted to make a career out of illustrating?
Growing up with so much of my immediate family being artists, I’m not sure I could really escape making art in some form. I always drew things and enjoyed being crafty.
I tend to attribute being introduced to Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s “Fairies” book as a catalyst. After that, I drew a lot of fairy women, which later morphed into women in armor, and so on and so forth. Truthfully, I think the book and the art was probably helping me overcome some emotionally difficult experiences at the time, which encompassed a rocky divorce from my parents, my dad’s alcoholism, and then shortly thereafter entering the turmoil of middle school. Escaping into fantasy and strong female archetypes must have been helping me cope.
Regarding a career however, I don’t think art was something I considered until high school when career became something to think about. I always drew a lot, but I was also really interested in science, and had considered that as a possibility too, but there was so much expectation from those who knew me that I’d “be an artist” that I think I questioned if I could do much else, and so that was the route I took.
Plus, I read a lot, which introduced me to book cover illustration, and I collected Magic cards (for the art, not to play funnily enough), and all that definitely convinced me it would be something I’d like to do. I didn’t realize concept art was a thing until college. I played some video games as a kid (mostly Diablo 1 and 2, and Morrowind), but my mom was really not into me gaming, so I had a pretty limited amount of time. We also had dial-up until I went to college (which was in 2005), so I was mostly oblivious to the internet.
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional artist?
Self-doubt and shyness are probably the biggest difficulties, and are something I still deal with. The internet has made everything so fast paced that its easily to constantly question why I’m not like person X who is outgoing, or seems really creative, or draws 10 pieces a day.
When I freelanced, I think the greatest challenge that I had personally was finding time for myself. If I hadn’t been hired by Turbine I think I would have burnt out in another few years, as I was working way too much. Work/Life balance is really important, yet I think underrated with young artists.
I hear way too many people boasting about their lack of sleep. Also, sometimes I wish I’d said no to more jobs, and spent more time finding my own artistic voice, but I was constantly afraid of having no money. Low level entry jobs in the illustration industry really just don’t pay the bills.
Transitioning to working in a studio surrounded by people has been more difficult. As a freelancer, I spent most of my day by myself, and really only had to talk with the Art Director. So learning to talk to designers, 3d modelers, animators, tech artists, other concept artists, the art director, etc… well it’s taken my little self-doubting, introvert brain a while to process.
There is also a lot less filter. You hear from everyone if they don’t like something, not just the art director (and they don’t always say it in the nicest of ways), and you can’t just go off into your studio and deal with it emotionally by yourself because you’re surrounded by people. It really takes growing a thick skin.
4. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I love those “aha!” moments when a piece starts to come together, and I’ve found a thread that I can get excited about and will carry me through painting a while.
Sometimes it is finding little tidbits of story or symbolism about the character that I can sneak into a painting. Other times it is more technical and is more about finding that flow to the rendering, or color palette, or really pushing the movement in the piece. Sometimes it requires reworking, but its OK because I’m pumped about making the piece more interesting.
I used to get a lot more random ideas about subject matter and new stuff that I was really excited about painting. I love that- the first blossoming of an idea where I just can’t wait to start thumb-nailing it out. It seems I’ve had that less lately, maybe because I think I generally have less control over my own work, but I still get it sometimes when I see something beautiful out on a walk or while being out and about, or reading a passage in a book- silly things like beautiful fruit or dead fish inspire me. The moment of inspiration is one of the greatest things.
5. What do you like the least about it?
I really hate dragging my feet with an illustration or a concept. There are always in-between stages with work where I am burnt out with the concept or I am tired of painting. Maybe I don’t really have an idea yet, but I know I have to just get my butt in gear. Maybe I’ve already been working on the piece for days (or sometimes with personal pieces months), and I just don’t feel like picking it up again. Maybe I am doubting my idea. But those moments just have to be powered through. I am still working on how to reinvigorate the process, but sometimes it is just a matter of gritting my teeth and getting it done, even if there are twenty more hours left on the piece.
6. Please tell a little about your process and your choice of medium.
I use a Cintiq, and I do my whole process in Photoshop, sketch to final. Sometimes I’ll break out the sketchbook but I do that less and less because of time constraints. It is just faster to work digitally at work. But I really like sketching traditionally, and I think it is important if you feel something is missing in your work to find out what might have changed- in my case I am really pining for traditional media. Getting back into it is a little scary, so I think I need to do it doubly so. It’s not good to be 100% reliant on the transform tool.
Anyway, my process. Usually I start with thumbnails of some sort once I have an idea in mind of what the character or illustration is going to be. Sometimes it isn’t 100% certain, but drawing thumbnails lets me get ideas out and sometimes one idea builds off the next.
I work a little differently depending on what the subject matter is. At work I usually am painting people, so I will draw out a base pose for the character and color it in a flat color, then shrink it down and replicate it. Then I’ll draw out the armor/costume in flat color over the flat color character.
I keep it really basic, just getting the general shapes. (This is kind of a new process for me, and lifted off of one of the other artist who used to work at Turbine). Sometimes this requires that I really have a good idea what I want to see though, so a lot of time I’ll start with some scribbly line art to generate ideas, find silhouettes, and then do this process to clarify what the silhouette of the character is and what the color palette is. After that it is easy to take this thumbnail, blow it up, and then just finish up the render, and add details.
With illustrations I start similarly, but I usually just do line art and value thumbnails. I will send a few refined thumbnails to the AD to pick from. Then I polish it up to a sketch (which honestly is still usually pretty messy), gather reference, and do a color comp. Sometimes the color comp presents new ideas to me that the thumbnail and lineart sketch didn’t do. It helps me get to readability issues, or lets me know that “yea that light grey looks great but really doesn’t make sense if you wanted that area to be red.” So then I have to rework my values.
After that it’s kind of just a matter of painting the piece up. I have been trying to be more flexible with letting my pieces change as they go lately, but that is difficult if you need to work within an approved sketch. It is a lot easier working in an office- the AD is right around the corner and it isn’t too hard to pop over and ask “is this OK?”
7. What is it like working for a studio as big as Warner Bros. Entertainment?
I am not sure I have a lot to compare it to, this being my first studio position. WB is broken up into a lot of different studios, Turbine is one of them. So I don’t think the studio feels overwhelmingly large in regards to day-to-day interactions. It is definitely different than freelancing because I am surrounded by people all day.
Everyone has their own ideas of what they think the next concept should be- so you have to kind of let go of the idea that you own your idea, yet at the same time you kind of need to bring your ideas to the table. It can feel very contradictory.
8. Is there a difference in how you approach concept artwork compared to illustration? Does the process differ much?
I tend to think of them a little differently. The same general artistic questions are there: color, shape, texture, what the audience is, how the piece is going to be used, what is the story of the character. However, when I am working on a concept, I am also trying to keep in mind what we can or can’t do with our tech, how it is going to read in-game, how it is going to animate, things like that.
Lately I have been doing a lot of pretty polished concepts at work- but other projects haven’t been like that. Sometimes I end up doing a lot more sketches or colored linework for concept, the really polished stuff isn’t needed. It is hard to be proud of paintovers of in-game screenshots, or of 3d models, but it is also part of concepting.
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
I’m not sure I can really look to one single thing. My dad has always said “If a job is worth doing, it’s work doing well.” That has always stuck with me. Another is getting your work done on time, and communicating clearly.
The last one that I’ve been trying to learn more recently is “You are not your art.” That one is a little harder to digest and understand, but I think it is really important. When you are sending out portfolios, getting critiques, having a bad drawing day- I think it is really important to keep in mind that there is more to you than just your artwork otherwise it catches up to you and can lead to depression or quitting.
Everyone has good art days, everyone has bad art days. Not everyone is going to love your ideas. You’re never going to be the best artist – there is always someone better. So you have to love the act of making art, and you have to love creating, but you’ve also got to OK with failing and realizing you haven’t failed as a person. I’ll let you know when I actually have applied that last bit of advice to my life.
10. What are your hopes for the future of your career?
I would like to get back into making art for myself on a regular bases. I think there is always going to be the next job, and the next company that I can strive for (I’d love to work on a title that is a little more artistically driven).
I think there is always going to be a side of art that is about earning money, and a side of art that is expressing yourself that only you have control over, and I’d like to reconnect to that side because I think that I sort of lost it in the drive for a career. Where that leads me to, I’m very excited to see.