Interview with Ursula Vernon

Well, I've moved so often that I don't know if I'm really "from" anywhere anymore. I grew up in Oregon and Arizona, moved to Minnesota for a decade, and now I'm in North Carolina. I'm 27, and I have a husband and a cat. I'm a freelance illustrator. Um. I'm possibly a little weird. I like wombats and fettucini alfredo, although not in combination. I fear millipedes. I never know how to answer these questions...

Do you have any formal training in art?

I went to college for anthropology, actually--I had watched "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" several thousand times at a formative age, that's the only explanation I can offer--so I went to Macalester College in St. Paul, and while I took a few drawing classes there, it was very much a fine-art kind of establishment--very into "What is the meaning of the abstract spoon?" sort of things. And I wanted to be a schlocky commercial artist, so a lot of my stuff got dismissed out of hand. But I learned a lot anyway, and having access to life drawing models is useful for anybody.

Most of the work that you've posted is digital, however some of your newer works are in traditional media. What do like about working with one medium or materials as opposed to others?

*cough* Money. Seriously, that's a large motivator--selling originals generally makes rather more than selling prints, so I've been getting more into physical media. For commissions and so forth, though, I still work primarily digitally--I have a lot more control, and I'm a lot more confident, so for stuff that absolutely positively has to come out a certain way, it's digital all the way.

Can you describe your creative process - how you come up with ideas for a new work and how you take those ideas and create a finished piece of art? Describe your working method and technique for creating your pieces.

How I come with ideas for a new work varies...sometimes they just show up out of nowhere, sometimes I'll kind of free-associate one into existence, or one will evolve from trying to explain something entirely different to a friend. Sometimes a word or a phrase will get stuck in my head, like "There was an old woman who lived in a rutabega," and I'll come up with a painting based on that. Sometimes I'll be doodling and one thing will lead to another. Fairly often, I will simply wake up in the night, clutch my husband's shoulder, and utter something like "If storks carry babies, then vultures must carry zombie babies!" He is fairly good humored about this, probably because he never remembers it in the morning. Occasionally I'll get out of bed, fumble through the room, find a sketchbook and scrawl down a thumbnail sketch and accompanying sentence, and then puzzle over it in the morning.

Anyway, once I've got the idea somehow, I usually do a thumbnail, which is a little sketch maybe an inch and a half on a side, that sort of roughs out the composition. These are exceedingly crude, and generally nobody else can see anything but scrawl in them, so I think it's more of a visual shorthand for me than anything else.

Then I go to the computer. After a decade or so of doing digital art, I actually sketch much better and more confidently digitally, so using my trusty Intuos2 and Painter 7, I'll draw some black and white roughs. I use a very loose, scribbly kind of style, and I never erase--if I want to get rid of a line, I draw over it in white. This is when the image really starts to come together, and I'll gradually refine it with smaller and tighter scribbles, until I've got a fairly solid sketch. (This is actually how I do my webcomic, Digger, too--I call the style 'megascribble' for lack of a better term, and I just keep refining until I've got a black and white image.)

If I'm doing a digital painting, then I move straight to the painting, using my scribbly sketch as a sort of underpainting--I just paint right over the top in Painter. If I'm doing a physical painting, I'll print out the sketch and transfer it to canvas/board/paper/whatever with a projector if it's a complicated scene, or just freehand it if it's a reasonably simple character.

Then it's all just paint!

Describe a typical day. What kind of schedule do you make for yourself?

Well, I get up around 8:30, not out of any great virtue, but because that's about when my husband turns on the coffee grinder thingy, and the mechanical grindy noise speaks to some deep, coffee-lusting part of my brain. So I stagger upright, drink coffee, eat a big breakfast (he's a believer in breakfast being the most important meal etc) answer e-mail, wander the web, and around an hour later get down to work.

I take a kind of carrot-and-stick approach--paying work that needs to get done gets priority, but I tell myself "Okay, get this chunk here done, and then you can go work on your stuff for a few minutes," and then I'll get to muck around with one of my random sillinesses, or if I don't have anything in the works, surf the web for a few minutes, blog a little, whatever. Lately I've been working in physical media a lot, so I'll lay down a wash or two on something in the studio, and while waiting for it to dry, I'll return to the computer and work digitally for awhile. I knock off around noonish for lunch for fifteen, twenty minutes, read a little, then go back to work. Around three pm, I'm always dragging--my entire life, no matter when I get up, I am dead at three in the afternoon--and the great thing about being self-employed is that now I can just take a nap for an hour and be refreshed. Then I settle back down, work through until dinner. Depending on my schedule, I usually stop working on paying stuff around seven or eight, and then either work on my own projects, or, if I don't have anything on my plate (which is very rare) I'll play some computer games. Generally, however, I'm working until nearly midnight.

Occasionally my friends descend on me and haul me out for lunch or a walk or something, for which I am grateful. The problem with working at home is that you're literally always at work. People occasionally ask me "How do you do so many paintings?" and part of that is that I work pretty fast, but it's also that I work twelve+ hours most days. In the last year or so, I try to take weekends off, but it doesn't always happen--or rather, I'll just work on my own art rather than on commissions.

You recently had your web comic Digger syndicated online. How did that come about?

Digger was sort of a testament to the power of serendipity. I had been noodling around with the comic format for a year or so--I'd done a few unfinished vignettes, and one 30-odd page piece that I was rather proud of, but I knew pretty much nothing about comics--never really read them as a kid, had read a few things friends handed me, but that was about it. And I'd written the first dozen pages of Digger as an experiment in this megascribble style--it was being well recieved, but it was primarily just an artistic experiment, hadn't given much thought to where the plot was going, was doing things mostly just 'cos they'd be fun to draw, no script whatsoever.

So then I was an art Guest of Honor at Trinoc-Con, in Durham. And my husband was along to help with the table and all the usual stuff, and at dinner the first night, WHAM! breaks a tooth. And you cannot get a dentist anywhere in the South on a weekend. So we wound up at the emergency room, and the doctor, who would presumably have been great with a sucking chest wound, could only say "Yup, that's a broken tooth all right!" and gave him enough Vicodin to mellow a charging rhino.

So poor drugged James was manning the table the next day, and along comes T Campbell, who does the strip "Fans!" And James, who is normally a quiet, shy individual, but now quite gregarious on painkillers, and who is a big fan of "Fans!", collars T and insists that he check out my comic work. T, possibly believing that he was lucky to escape with his life, does so, and later tracks me down and asks me to send a submission to this new site he's editing--"Graphic Smash"--which was a spin off of the Modern Tales subscription webcomic empire. (Which I had never heard of, because I was not at all active in the webcomic community.)

Believing deeply that I have no chance whatsoever--I mean, I don't know comics, I don't read comics, I've been doing these on a lark, and Digger, to make matters worse, is a fantasy about a wombat--I sent in a submission with a script I hammered out in one evening. And it got accepted, and I was left going " did that happen again?" And we just passed our hundredth page milestone, and we're coming up on a year of Digger in a month or so, so it's been really exciting so far.

What advice would you give to new artists who are just beginning to develop their talents?

Don't get discouraged.

Seriously, that's about the best general advice I've got. A lot of people, I think, get depressed after years of working a day job and not having illustration take off as a career--I've been there myself!--but if you're lucky and work like a dog, it does come through eventually. The common wisdom is that you starve for five years, break even for five years, and then start to make money. (I'll let you know in another three years if I start to make money!) but I think a lot of people get very discouraged in the first five and don't stick it out.

Also, if you can get a spouse with a good day job, that never hurts.

What do you think the most important thing is for an artist to learn, technically speaking?

Well, as someone told me once--and I cannot remember who, alas--"Draw what you see, not what you know is there." And I think that's the big technical thing to learn--to draw what's in front of you, not what's in your head. A lot of people start out and do these very stylized things--you see this a lot these days with people who learn to draw by copying anime, for example--and the end result is that they can't draw from life worth blazes, they can only do this kind of rote figure drawing, based on a bunch of stylization conventions, not on observational skills. Anime and cartooning and whatnot is great and wonderful, but I can count on the fingers of one foot the number of good artists I know of who don't have a solid grounding in realism. You need to get the reality down before you can apply style. And after that, you can draw whatever weirdness out of your head you want, because if you pay your dues to reality, you'll be able to include all the little elements that tell the viewer's brain "Hey, this is REAL," and your work'll be a lot more convincing. But you can always tell when someone's gotta bad case of "drawing-out-of-their-head"-itis--there's a lot of little signs, and it's generally just not as convincing as people who draw based on a background of drawing from reality.

Unfortunately, still-lifes and plain life drawing are often boring to draw, and it's way more fun to do wildly stylized figures and firebreathing dragons, but them's the breaks.

What do you do when you're not working on art? Got any interesting hobbies?

Not working on art? What is this thing of which you speak?

Seriously...not really. I used to do a fairly obscure martial art called "iaido" which involved katanas, but then I moved across the country a coupla times, and now I can't find a dojo that does it. I play computer games occasionally, I read a lot, I blog, but mostly, I make art.

If you could work with absolutely anyone (artists, companies, writers--anyone at all) on a project, who would it be?

Phew...well, if somehow, somewhere, a project occurred that brought Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, James Christiansen and me together, I could die happy.

Aside from exposure on your website, what other venues is your art presented?

The web is the main venue for my art in and of itself--the various RPGs and books/magazines/whatnot I've done art for probably don't count. There's a book scheduled for this fall, from Sofawolf Press, that will be a collection of my sketches and associated commentary, so that should be cool. I'll be at Trinoc-Con and I'm a GoH at Midwest Furfest this year. I usually try to make Anthrocon if at all possible. I'm only now getting into the Con scene, though, so I don't do too many yet. Hopefully that'll change!

And, it wouldn't be an Epilogue interview if we didn't ask, what cartoons did you watch as a kid?

Well, when I was very young, my father and I would watch Looney Tunes religiously every Saturday. I really identify with the Coyote, and the Martian. Then...oh, the usual, Smurfs and the Superfriends (I really liked the Wonder Twins) and a little later the Ghostbusters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes to mind...I loved Master Splinter.

Be sure to visit Ursula's web site at Metal & Magic!

Art at its best.