Travel broadens the mind, as this artist discovered at an early age…
Where did you grow up and how has this influenced your art?
My father was in the Foreign Service, and we lived in some interesting locations, such as Manila and Karachi. This had an effect on my painting and writing. The impressions you take in at a young age are profound and lasting, and these places gave me a true feeling for the exotic and romantic.
When did you realise you could make a career from painting fantasy art?
Initially, I wanted to be an FX make-up artist like Dick Smith. Then the Burroughs reprints started appearing, with the Krenkel and Frazetta covers, and I saw a magic there that I became obsessed with. I worked up a portfolio that I showed around New York, and my first covers sold to Ace Books.
What was your first paid commission?
It was an illustration from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) books. I was in the eighth grade, and I got $15 for it. At the time, it was fairly sophisticated, all things considered. When you’re 12 years old, it’s not easy to get nude models.
What’s the last piece that you finished, and how do the two differ?
The difference in my latest finished painting, The Offering, and my earliest efforts would be primarily in the depth of artistic vision. That’s the single most essential aspect of imaginative realism: technique is only the means by which the vision is conveyed.
Do you have any painting rituals?
The process of laying out the colour on my palette, selecting the brushes and mixing the painting medium has a centring effect. I’ve been fascinated by the scent of turpentine as long as I can remember, and the smell of linseed oil from the paint is powerfully evocative.
Is it a challenge to paint a figure that’s been depicted countless times, such as something from Tolkien’s work?
Tolkien’s writing is a challenge to illustrate effectively, even if everyone in the world hadn’t already done it. His genius was to take stock fantasy types and to imbue them with a deep and poetic character. To capture the poetry of the stories, and not fall into the trap of doing basic character types, requires a mature vision based on a profound understanding of the story material.
A vivid and painful example of this would be to compare my own first five Tolkien illustrations with the ones I’ve done after reading the stories countless times: it’s not often you get a chance to rework such cringe-worthy efforts, and it was very therapeutic to do this.
Is your art evolving? What’s the most recent experiment you’ve made?
My motivation depends on staying interested in what I’m doing. What’s the point in doing the same painting over and over with different stuff in it? So I’m constantly trying out new things, most recently getting back into sculpting.
After writing The Lemurian Stone, do you plan to produce another book?
After 20 years I’ve been writing again. I’ve written the sequel to the Lemurian Stone, and I’ve just done the edits for a young adult novel. I’m also in the process of transcribing a science-fiction fairy tale that I want to illustrate in the tradition of Howard Pyle. Writing has an amazing effect on an artist’s ability to invent and visualise scenes – very valuable.
How has the fantasy art industry changed since you’ve been part of it?
The synergistic effect of social media and the entertainment industry has enriched the imaginative arts beyond anything I or anyone could have predicted. My own ideas have gone beyond illustration, for the most part, into private commissions and personal works.
Why do you think the industry is still the best place to be working?
Imaginative realism requires so much of the artist, that any other artistic field would be like going back to kindergarten. It’s fun to paint landscapes sometimes, though – it’s great not having to make everything up! Stephen is a largely self-taught artist, sculptor and author, who has worked in imaginative illustration for over 40 years. He lives in New York State with his wife Vicki, and is working on a series of Lovecraft-inspired statuettes. See his work at www.stephenhickman.com.
What’s the point in doing the same painting over and over with different stuff in it?
Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland “Inspired by the legend of the poet Thomas of Earlston, as related by the great Robin Williamson. The Elvish Queen takes the poet to the Bright Realm, to serve for seven years.”
The Offering “I’ve always been fascinated with the Symbolist painters in Europe, and in this recent personal work I wanted to create a painting that evokes a different story for each viewer.”