Julie Dil­lon

Six months into her ca­reer Julie al­most quit. Then a com­mis­sion changed her life...

ImagineFX: Sci-fi & Fantasy Art magazine - - Contents -

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.“

South­ern Lights

The Ar­chiv­ist

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