Friday, January 3, 2014

Published Interview: Steven Belledin

I had the privilege to interview an extremely talented artist for the Russian Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazine Mir Fantastiki! This is an English transcription of that interview, which was done in English. The rest of the article was translated from Russian, though I've taken out the uniquely Russian Idioms that don't translate well into English. Special thanks to Sergey Serebryanskiy for the intro and formatting and to Mir Fantastiki for allowing me to post this!

A Conversation with Steven Belledin
Belledin was born and raised in Pennsylvania. After high school he moved to New York and studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Over the years Belledin has worked closely with Wizards of the Coast. He started illustrating Dungeons and Dragons books and then became one of the leading artists working on the collectible card game: Magic: The Gathering. In addition to concept art, Belledin works on covers and interior illustrations for various projects.

"The main thing is catching the mood."

When and why did you become an artist?
It was just something I did and enjoyed since I was a little kid. For whatever reason my parents were encouraging so from a very early age this was something I wanted to do. I had some really excellent art teachers in school and I ended up going to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. That's where I learned the nuts and bolts of how to put a real painting together and learned the craft. I've always taken art very seriously, as a profession. I didn't really understand what the lifestyle would be but I understood that I wanted to make art for a living. I'm not sure that if I really understood [what it entailed,] that I would have made the same choices but now that I'm where I'm at I wouldn't change a thing.  I just wanted to make cool pictures and tell stories visually. I didn't really have anybody telling me that I couldn't or shouldn't be doing it. I was just very fortunate because I was always encouraged and I happened to be decent at it. It was one of those things where I've had a fairly realistic view of how good or bad I am and at the very least I feel like I can say "well at least i'm decent enough to warrant getting jobs here and there." I'll probably never be Frazetta* but I'll keep doing it because I'm compelled.

*Frank Frazetta - The famous American artist of science fiction who has had
a big impact on fantasy art.

What projects do you enjoy the most and why?
Any project where I really get to explore more introspective or moody imagery because I like to explore broad emotional cues. I'm much more interested in the quiet moments and thought driven imagery as opposed to cool battle scenes and giant swords. I love all that stuff but what I feel most fulfilled by is the weird, austere, emotive exploration.

Some people see your art as being somewhat dark. Would you say it's something that you put into your work or do people seek you out to create dark images because it's something you're good at?
I think it's much the latter. It's not something I ever set out to do as far as the imagery goes. Perhaps the people that assign work to me see it in me or they were curious to see what I would create with that subject matter. It's one of those things where it's sort of self-propagating. Someone will say "Oh, he's done this well so let's give him more of it!" For the most part I don't really mind as long as it's not over the top. Darker imagery doesn't really bother me. I didn't set out to become a horror artist but in a strange way I've sort of stumbled into it.

You once said that the beauty of the horror genre is "what's not shown," as opposed to gore or gratuitous violence. In your opinion, what is more characteristic of modern horror?
There's room within the genre for both but for awhile there was a trend towards more explicit torture or blood and guts films. I think there was a whole sub-genre for a few years called something like 'torture porn' and that's what horror became for awhile. I think people like Guillermo Del Toro really appreciate moody, suspense-driven horror which is my cup of tea way more than the blood and guts. I also think it's a little more universal. 

Do you have any favorite horror films?
I'm still a sucker for Jaws but I don't know that people would really call that horror by today's standards. To me the idea of it is really horrifying and I still don't like to swim. I think it's a good example of "things not seen." Of course Spielberg couldn't show the shark because the [mechanical] shark didn't work but [as a device in horror] it worked. That shape in the water basically takes on whatever you impose upon it. To me that's always more interesting.

Tell us how you first got involved with Wizards of the Coast and Magic: The Gathering?
I played [Magic] in high school and college but when I graduated I could basically afford art supplies or Magic, so I chose art supplies and stand by that decision. I got involved with Magic because I was doing Dungeons and Dragons [Edition 3.5] work for years. I did artwork in 20 or so books so while I was in Seattle I got to take all the art directors I ever worked for out to lunch. While I was there I figured I could maybe get an interview with the art director for Magic. He agree to see me but as far as I was aware he didn't like anything in my portfolio but he hired me for the next set.

There are many differ artists who work on Magic: The Gathering. What unites them in their works and would you say that there is a MTG style?
I don't know if there is a specific style but, at least currently, Magic is driven by more realistic artists. There's a lot less stylization than there used to be in classic Magic. It's very much a realist-driven fantasy aesthetic. There are no caricatures anymore and there's an effort to try to make characters and environments as realistic as possible.

Are you often given strict guidelines in your creations? 
It varies. Some assignments have been extremely explicit with "this is exactly what we want, please make this for us." Others are very broad. To me, and probably for most artists, the broader assignments are the most fun simply because there's more wiggle room. The less we as artists get to bring to the table the less interesting things tend to become. The more open ended and the more abstract it is, the more fun it is.

Do you prefer to work from your own creative imagination or other people's ideas? How often do you think clients restrict your creativity?
I enjoy doing everything and get bored very easily. I think that even in working on my own stuff constantly I'd eventually get bored so I really enjoy the challenge of having to work within the confines of clients' needs. Restriction is inherent to assignments but whether restriction inhibits creativity probably varies on a case by case basis. Creativity thrives from problem solving and usually [as an artist] you're given problems that you have to solve. Sometimes the solution is obvious and sometimes it takes a lot of thought and exploration to come to the solution. There are some clients that crush a certain degree of creativity by dictating everything down to the color pallet or composition of a piece but in general restrictions within the confines of an assignment aren't restrictive to creativity. I'm game for anything at the end of the day.

What inspires you? Where do your characters and ideas come from?
I'm mostly inspired by "old timey" painter guys, basically the American golden age of illustration. That's one of those things that has always recharged me. As far as i'm concerned the kings of that era are N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, the Leyendecker brothers, and Norman Rockwell. They're just visual storytellers who were amazing painters. I grew up not very far from where N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle lived and worked and they've always been a huge inspiration for me. Rockwell was everywhere when I was a kid too. There was a Rockwell calender up in just about everyone's house, it seemed. Those were the guys I looked to while growing up and who I still look to for inspiration. If i'm not sure how to approach a painting, I'll go back and look at their works or even go further back and look to Jacques Louis David and a lot of 19th century heavies. A lot of 19th century painters also serve as my inspiration.

What fantasy/sci-fi books or movies do you like and do you think they influence your work?
I'm all over the place. I'm more of a movie guy than a book guy for whatever reason and when it comes to Sci-fi, modern sci-fi always aesthetically comes back to Blade Runner. I'm a big fan, aesthetically of Dune (The Kyle Maclachlan version, not the SciFi Channel series) as well.  Fantasy wise, oddly enough I like the 1980's movie Dragon Slayer with Peter MacNicol. It's pretty cool. The design of the dragon is interesting and it's got a very earthy, used, and dilapidated feel to it. It's really atmospheric and cold, as well. The hero of the film is some shmo [Interviewer note: word meaning "a nobody" or "an insignificant person"] who's thinks he's a wizard. I saw it when I was relatively young. And of course Star Wars is huge (the old ones not the new ones) and as far as fantasy: Lord of The Rings (both the films and the books).

You have very strong beliefs on how you portray women in your work. Could you elaborate on them and talk about your views on the oversexualization of women in fantasy art and video games?
I think it's something that's coming more to light as more women start to play video games, as more women get involved in gaming in general, and as more women get into the genre. There is objectification of both sexes but there's a huge disparity between the breadth of ways that men are portrayed in science fiction and fantasy versus the very narrow way that women tend to be portrayed [in those genres]. At the end of the day there's always going to be people who continue that narrow depiction of women. Ideally I would like to see less of it, but the only thing I really have the power to change is my own work. I've been surrounded by very strong women throughout my life and I find that more inspirational than anything. I just can't see myself doing something that depicts women just as sexpots because it doesn't ring true to the women I know and have known. So that's one aspect of where I'm coming from. Another aspect is that a lot of the products I work on are targeted at people who are between 15-35 [years old] but there's a lot of younger people who get into it [Magic, D&D] much younger than 15 and I don't want to color their perception or contribute to little boys seeing women a certain way and little girls seeing themselves a certain way. I want to give them way more options than that if I can.

Do you think the limited portrayal of women in these mediums will change in the future?
I think it can. A surprising number of art directors and decision makers within the industry are women and their numbers are increasing. Their awareness of the subject is very real and the industry will change because they'll make it change. I strongly suspect it will, anyway. It's not that I have anything against sexiness or sex. What bothers me is that sexiness is what they use to define women, whereas it should be character first and sexiness if it applies. That's the thing, I like depth to every character and I think women are just as deserving as men of that kind of depth.

Do your values bring you into conflict with prospective clients?
They have. I don't work with certain clients because of it and I've almost lost jobs over disagreeing with changes to pieces. I try to work a middle-ground as much as possible and I've compromised more than I'd liked to on certain pieces, which I have regrets over. I have tried to stick by what I want to do as much as I can but it's kind of difficult because a lot of clients expect certain things out of you and you do have to eat. A lot of people have a very difficult time finding a path. I'm very fortunate in that I can afford to turn down certain jobs, but not everybody can.

Do you ever reject offers for being boring or do you try to make them interesting?
I reject certain clients because the aesthetic they require of me is not what I want to do, sort of like forcing a round peg into a square hole but I can't say that I've found something so boring I didn't accept it. I'll give anything a shot and feel on some level that if it ends up not being interesting it's because I'm not interesting.

You work by hand. A lot of your work is by done hand. Where do you see the profession of the artist evolving (or not) in the future?
In general everything is becoming more digital. I'm always at a disadvantage there because I work traditionally and my stuff has to go through a process of digitization to work in those mediums. I wonder whether there will even be actual books or just [digital] files except for very rich collectors 50 years from now. Despite the rise of digital media, there's been a growing population of people interested in owning original artwork. I suspect that there will always be people collecting art, passing those pieces on to their kids, and stoking the fires of the collector inside their kids. If that's the case, then there will always be room for traditional artists but I think the evolution is clearly progressing in a digital direction and there's no escaping it. 

Do you know any Russian artists?
As far as Russian painters there's a guy by the name of Viktor Vasnetzov who did these really fantastical but realist paintings. They're really cool. If I recall he lived in the 19th century and while I don't know much about the politics of Russian history of that era, a lot of his work was allegorical to what was going on at the time.

Do you have any advice for any young artists?
[Jokingly] Don't do it! Ha ha... Building a community of peers is really essential, people you can trust to tell you the truth about your work whose criticisms you can take but not take offense to. They can help push you in a positive direction, slap your wrist when you make mistakes, and urge you towards getting better while you return the favor. You also get to grow together and build upon on another's successes. For me, personally, that has been one of the huge hallmarks of how I got where I am.

You can see more of Steven Belledin's work on his website. He also maintains a weekly blog, outlining his latest projects.

Overgrown Tomb - A rare landscape done for Magic: the Gathering. I always enjoy doing this kind of thing, and this piece is among my favorite things I've painted for the brand.

Izzet Chronarch - A recent image done for Magic: the Gathering where I was asked to create a new version of a classic Magic image. This kind of thing is always difficult when I'm familiar with the original art because I find it hard to get the old image out of my mind. Hopefully I did the original image justice.

Nightveil Specter - This piece took a long time to paint. I'm still not entirely happy with it, but it's gotten a really positive reaction from fans. I think if I had more time, I might have made the city below more detailed.

Surrender - The bottom half of this was used for a Magic card, and this remains the sole image I've ever done for that game that I will never sell.

Valentine - One of the few comic-related projects I've ever done. It's the cover for a printed version of an online comic. It was a lot of fun to work on and the client was really easy to work with. I wish every client were like this!

The Battle of Badass -  The most recent in the Badass book series. This time the book focused on amazing historical battles. It was an interesting job because it had to feel consistent with the other two covers. I ended up making subtle changes to the piece for myself after I handed it in. I'm happy I went back into it.

Badass - The cover for the first in a series of books about amazing characters throughout history. A ton of fun to work on and my first job for a non-gaming client.

The Legend of Badass - The cover for the second book in the Badass series. This one was about fictional and mythological characters. The cover turned out to be quite a challenge as I had to repaint half of it due to a last-minute change in the characters they wanted me to depict.

First Born - This was done during a week-long intensive class. It was a great opportunity to focus on a piece for myself and to do some science fiction imagery for a change. It was also the largest piece I'd done professionally until quite recently.

Grizzly - This is an old personal piece that was completely inspired by the stuffed bear. My wife has had that bear since she was very young. She dragged the bear everywhere she went and as a result its color faded and it became very worn. I don't know why, but I became fascinated by the idea of a man who was a worn out as the bear, and so I painted this.

Teutoberg Forest - Of the interior pieces I've done for the book series, this is my favorite. It's simple, moody, and says exactly what it needed to. It's also the first piece I've ever done fully digitally.

The War of Arauco - Another rare all digital illustration done for the historical book series. I was inspired by comics more than anything on this one. It was a chance to do some fun, over-the-top action imagery and it was a blast!

Kono Michiari - Another of the small interior black and white paintings for a book series. One of the best parts of these illustrations is that the work was not mired in strict historical accuracy. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of really amazing and excellent historical paintings that are thoroughly researched and truly accurate, but I'd probably go mad if I had to do one, myself. Instead, I get to just go for these really dramatic contrasty images like this where the detail becomes mostly obscured.

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