Six months into her career Julie almost quit. Then a commission changed her life...
Rather than taking notes during lectures on computer science, Julie Dillon sat and doodled in the margins of her notepad. Technical theatre didn’t capture her imagination either – not the same way that drawing did.
The American hadn’t gone to art school because she saw it as an expensive gamble, with the odds stacked against her ever making it as an artist after graduation. Being a painter or an illustrator, making a living from art, building a career in the creative industries… these were things other people did.
Julie switched from one course to the next until, in 2015, she graduated from Sacramento State University with a degree in fine arts – a course she found unsatisfying and prescriptive.
“Sac State’s art programme was, at best, unhelpful," says Julie, “at worst, it was discouraging and damaging. I tried to learn what I could from that school, but the faculty were all very anti-illustration, many even anti-traditional skill building, instead forcing students to focus solely on their approved version of postmodern and abstract art. I think there’s a lot to appreciate in modern and postmodern art, but not if that’s all you’re teaching. Students still need help with anatomy, colour theory and composition.”
The graduate signed up to classes at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. Julie couldn’t afford another full degree, so focused on the basic skills she felt Sacramento State overlooked. These
fundamentals became the foundations on which she built her whole career.
“Thanks to the internet, I realised art jobs existed and that normal people like me could potentially succeed in those fields. I took the classes I could afford, tried to learn on my own, and pieced together my education where I could. I might have had a more successful career earlier on if I had gone to art school, but I also would have been lugging around massive student loan debts, and not having that on my shoulders has been a huge help financially.
“After a few years of study, when I felt ready, I made the decision to really push for full-time work as a freelancer. It took about six months of steady job hunting – sending out my portfolio, contacting art directors – before I started getting regular gigs.”
Six months into her career as an artist, Julie almost quit. But then Dragon magazine – the now defunct Dungeons & Dragons publication – contacted her, asking for character designs to illustrate an article. The work came just in time and led to commissions with Tor Books and Wizards of the Coast. “It took a few years to get to a point where I was bringing in a somewhat regular income. If it hadn’t worked out, I might have pursued theatrical design or defaulted back to computer science.”
Multi awa rd-winner
In 2015, for the second year running, Julie left the Hugo Awards ceremony having been crowned Best Professional Artist. She’s won four Chesley Awards. Her work regularly features in Spectrum – the annual celebrating the world’s best sci-fi and fantasy art. All this in a career not yet 10 years old.
“I don’t know that it’ll ever not feel surreal. I know I have the awards, but I don’t really think about it all that much. It still feels like I got them too early on in my career, like I’m not at the level I feel like artists should be at before they start getting really noticed. It’s definitely an encouraging ego boost that helps one’s self confidence.
But I’m very aware that I still have a lot of hard work to do. It’s important to not rest on one’s laurels.”
The freelancer works at home in northern California, maintaining a loose routine that tightens around deadline. The perfect days starts early, several hours of brainstorming and sketching, before a mid-afternoon break to walk, bike ride or garden. Detail painting – which Julie finds relaxing – is left until the evenings. When her workload’s heavy, the artist selects two tasks each day and gives them her full attention.
Julie fills sketchbooks with notes and thumbnails, but rarely develops ideas on paper. She made the switch to digital painting while still in her teens. An intricate piece can require as much as 20 hours’ work. The more work the freelancer won, the more important it became to work efficiently. Creating pieces digitally, with Photoshop’s option to quickly lay in flat areas of colour, helped significantly with speed. Julie sped up her process further by again going back to basics, hitting the books and brushing up on figure drawing, anatomy and still-life studies, casting a critical eye over the art of both peers and masters.
“I start with a general concept or feeling I want to convey," she says. “Sometimes the composition jumps right in my head, exactly the way I want it. But often I have to brainstorm a little bit to figure out the
If things hadn’t worked out, I might have pursued theatrical design or defaulted back to computer science
best way to approach the concept, to best express the idea I want to express. I work on rough sketches and thumbnails in Photoshop, and either decide on one myself or, if it’s client work, send it off to an art director for approval.
“From there, I develop the sketch a little further, making sure the basic composition and lighting is roughed out and that figures are detailed enough to see what’s going on. Once the sketch is blocked in, I add colour by creating a new layer in Photoshop, setting it to Hard Light blending mode, and painting in big areas of colour. This blending mode enables me to create a vibrant underpainting on top of the sketch, and once I have the basic colour areas figured out, I can create a Normal layer and begin painting. From there, it’s just a matter of rendering the piece until it’s done.”
a future full of Fine ideas
In the future, Julie plans to both illustrate and write her own stories, experiment with sculpture and perhaps even return to fine art. But she’s not giving up on the kind of art she’s become famous for – even if she has trouble defining exactly what that is. “My art is a means of visual and symbolic expression, a way to convey ideas or concepts that are easier to express visually than verbally or logically. When I try explain why I do what I do, it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what to say beyond, ‘It felt right, looked right.’ That said, my work tends to be colourful and evocative, hopeful, with a strong focus on narrative – whether it’s an overt narrative or a more subtle, symbolic one.”
Julie often wonders if she could have composed a piece differently, presented a subject from another angle or combined colours to greater effect. The image onscreen rarely appears equal to the vision in her head. Her success comes from the tireless pursuit of that vision. “To tell a good piece from a great piece, I ask myself: is this piece executed with technical proficiency, does it have heart, and does it say something of meaning or interest? It’s hard to get all three working in a single piece. A lot of times, even though a piece looks decent enough, I can feel something is off. I have to figure out which area it’s lacking in and try to correct it. Unfortunately, this usually involves having to rework parts of the image to give it the punch it needs.”
She has some advice for aspiring artists. “Just because you don’t make it right away doesn’t mean you never will. Just because you aren’t good at something right away doesn’t mean you’ll always be terrible at it. It’s okay if you mess up. Don’t despair. Trust in yourself and do what you love. It will work out.”
When I try explain why I do what I do, it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what to say beyond, ‘It felt right, looked right’
Sun Shepherdess “I love working mythical and celestial elements into my art, to help it feel larger than life.”
Seeking Without “This is a little different in tone than what I normally do, but I just really felt I had to paint it.”
Flesh to Ashes “I was a big Magic: The Gathering fan in my teens, and it was exciting to finally do some cards for them.” Future of Huma n Aging “This was commissioned by Popular Science Magazine. The theme was aging, and I wanted to show a positive take on having an artificially extended life.
“I just thought it would be fun to do a piece where women are riding magical polar bears in Patagonia against the backdrop of the Southern Lights.” “I’m intrigued by breaking up space into geometric or abstracted forms, and I loved the visual idea of a library
consisting of floating cubes.“