Artist Interview: Charles Vess
by Beth and Mike Zipser
Cover Artist: Photo of Charles Vess by David Shane Odum
Review by Beth & Mike Zipser
Date: 28 May 2014
SFRevu: What drew you to Science Fiction/Fantasy art?
Charles Vess: As a young man who grew up in the 1950s I watched the usual assortment of sf/fantasy and monster movies on our b/w TV (I never saw The Wizard of Oz in all its glorious color until after I'd moved to NYC many years later) but it was the Tarzan films (starring Johnny Weissmeller, Buster Crabbe, Gordon Scott, etc.) that really fired my imagination. I tracked down and read as many of Edgar Rice Burrough's novels as I could get my hands on. And, since the early 1960's was a boom time for re-publishing his work, I was soon neck deep in stories featuring John Carter, David Innes and Carson Napier. And the cover art on those Ace paperbacks detonated in my brain like all Halloween let loose. Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkle quickly became my art gods making my fingers start itchin' to draw.
Later, at the local barbershop I discovered that there were Tarzan comic books too! Then came the adventures of Uncle Scrooge followed by The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and many, many more comic book favorites. Again, it was the art in all of those books that first drew me in but it was their wildly imaginative stories that took hold of me and has never really let go.
SFRevu: How did you get started in genre illustration?
Vess: If Iíd known about the existence of fandom and fanzines I think my artistic life would have been very different. As it was I had very few friends and only one of them was at all interested in sf/fantasy. My parents didn't read and I was too shy to ask the local librarian where the books I wanted would be on the shelves so I had to stumble by accident over things that came to mean so much to me.An article in the local paper about four young boys in Richmond, VA, who were drawing their own comic book adventures lead me, a few years later, to apply to art school at Virginia Commonwealth University in that same city. And I did, eventually, meet all four of those boys, and, a bit later, I shared an apartment with one of them after I had graduated and then moved to NYC. Michael Kaluta became a mentor of sorts to me. And through him I meet many other artists, writers, and editors. One of those artists, Walter Simonson, was instrumental in my getting one of my first professional jobs: 30 some full color painting for the Abrams edition of The Hobbit. This edition featured art from the Rankin & Bass production (a two hour TV special) for which there were necessarily large sections of text not translated into animation. Abrams then had to hire a number of artists to fill those holes with art done in the style of the movie and I was one of them.
At the same time I was contributing illustrations to several of Charles de Lintís early fanzines as well as Space & Time, Fantasy Crossroads, Nyctalops, etc. just trying to establish myself. During those years I was doing all my laundry in my bathtub and eating a LOT of peanut butter sandwiches complaining all the while that I didnít have any real jobs, I was just painting for myself. Listening to me, Kaluta laughed, and said, "You remember you said that Charles, because one day you'll be so busy that you'll desperately want to have some time to paint something for yourself." He was right.
SFRevu: You have had a series of collaborations with writers, notably with Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. How have these collaborations come about? And what effect have they had on your career?
Vess: Like I said above, I meet Charles de Lint through a small want ad in the back of a comics magazine: "Canadian magazine looking for illustrator." I wrote and did some work with him and since we shared many of the same interests (folk/celtic music, books, etc) I continued to write. In the mid 1980s our mutual friend Terri Windling introduced us. We've been friends for a long time now. And I've just spent the last two years of my professional life working from his texts with 74 paintings in The Cats of Tanglewood Forest and 56 in Seven Wild Sisters (both from Little Brown).
I first met Neil at the San Diego Comic Con and we talked about a mutual interest in the writer, James Branch Cabell. Then he asked me if I ever wanted to draw an issue of his then, very new comic book, The Sandman to let him know. I did and now many years and many collaboration later weíre still at it.
After 40 some years of professional work I know for certain that the better the writing you work from the better your art will be. These gentlemen give me just that. There is a familiarity between us but also quite often a challenge to that as an artist you have to rise to or it's just not any fun.
And as I apply myself more and more to writing I take all the lessons that I've learned from my fellow collaborators and funnel it into my own words. Theyíve all been very good teachers.
SFRevu: How is the illustration/art market? How much of an artist's time is spent keeping their name out there? Can an artist survive without also being a bit of a marketer?
Vess: Come on in, the waters fine.
SFRevu: How has being a watercolorist rather than someone who works in acrylics, oils, or digitally affected your career in illustration?
Vess: There is, and always will be, a prejudice toward oil and acrylic work as somehow being 'better' or more substantially 'real art' rather than water based mediums that I find both frustrating as well as very limiting. I really enjoyed the cover art done in the 1960s. Just look at the amazing depth and range of art used on the Lin Carter edited Sign of the Unicorn books and you can see what I mean. Yes, there were plenty of Frazetta on the newsstands at the time but also Jack Gaughan, Gervasio Gallardo, Ian Miller, Bob Pepper and John Schoenherr. I vastly prefer their displays of distinct stylizations over a steady diet of finely rendered oil paintings where the differences between one artist and the next begins to diminish into a fuzzy blur.
SFRevu: What do you think of digital art and the software that aids the artist?
Vess: I use the Photoshop program to help me do some minor corrections in my pictures that my old and fading eyesight canít focus on anymore.
SFRevu: Whose art inspires you? Old masters or new -- art, film, books? Where do you find inspiration?
Vess: Everything I've ever read or seen or listened to inspires and influences me. My most prominent art influences are the book illustrators of the Edwardian era such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Neilsen, and Willy Pogany, but the Swedish illustrator John Bauer is a huge influence as well. Of late Iíve discovered the work of a German artist, Hermann Vogel who Iím quite enamored with. In the 1890s, he illustrated an edition of Grimmís Fairy Tales with 300 b/w drawings that are totally amazing.
SFRevu: You have started working in bronze, most notably the Titania fountain for the Barter Theatre. How has working with such a different medium affected your watercolors, if at all?
Vess: After the end of three years of sculpting, pouring the bronze, and finishing the surface of the bronze figures I returned to my studio with no little trepidation. I hadn't really drawn in all that time so what was going to be different. For whatever reason, I now grasped my pencil by its side (rather than drawing point down into the paper)) and began to stroke my lines loosely, easily, rhythmically only going back to my old manner to put in a few needed details. Everything has been better since then.
SFRevu: What has surprised you most about your career?
Vess: That I have one!
SFRevu: What are the last 5 books you read? Movies? How do you spend your down time to re-energize to work again?
Long Man by Amy GreenMovies:
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (a color Russian fairy tale film)I read and watch movies to relax.
SFRevu: What are your hobbies, or pursuits other than your work?
Vess: I listen to live music and collect books.
SFRevu: Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the field?
Vess: Use a big eraser (never be afraid to change you mind) and ALWAYS draw from your heart.
SFRevu: Some people say illustrators are not turning out 'real art'. But the best illustrations also evoke feelings in the viewer and that is what real art is...a medium that causes a reaction in the viewer. Is there a distinction between illustration and art?
Vess: Thatís an old, old question with no real answer. Any art that is drawn from the heart is true art, whether itís published in a book or hanging on a gallery wall.
SFRevu: Is there a question you always wanted someone to ask but it never happens? Here's your chance (and we'd like an answer too).
Vess: No, I think that about covers it.