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Artist: Brian W. Dow by Gayle Surrette Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: ARTBrianDo
Date: February 2007 /

We met Brian Dow at World Fantasy. When preparing for this interview, we visited his website and read his blog. If you haven't visited his blog and website, please do -- either before or after you read his interview.

Brian in his own words:
I was born in Bristol, Conn. in 1961. I always enjoyed science fiction, adventure and fantasy. I suppose many of us remember tying a towel around our necks and racing around the yard. While this practice has, for the most part, not carried over into adulthood, I have always clung to the imagination that those days gave birth to. Daydreaming was a constant occupation, much to my second and third grade teachers' agitation. The dullness of everyday life just made it too difficult to concentrate on math and history. Where I truly found myself was in art class. Oh yeah, now this was something I could work with. Art became my passion. Then I discovered acting in high school. Directing, costume design, costume construction and acting (sometimes like a complete idiot) really comes in handy when modeling for my own illustrations. Eventually, I attended Salem State College in Massachusetts and then The Art Institute of Boston, my metaphorical towel still firmly in tow.

Upon graduating I spent a number of years in advertising, editorial and random design firms doing layout and design to pay the bills, but I always dreamed of pursuing my passion. As you can see from my site I also have an interest in illustrating for children. I was so influenced by stories like The Secret Garden, Charlottes' Web, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and illustrators like Rockwell, Parrish, Mucha, Wyeth, Maitz and Whelan. Occasionally the line seems to blur between science fiction/fantasy and children's books though.

My instructors at the Art Institute always used Chris Van Allsburg as an example of what to strive for with our art. They would tell us to use a vantage point that was unusual. We should endeavor to create interesting characters and illustrate the subtext as well as the main text. The magic lives in the details. I learned to love the details.

SFRevu: In your bio and on your blog you say, you to read between the lines and present visually not only what is said but what is unsaid. The pauses between the words, where, he says "the music in art lives.” How do you manage to get in touch with the work so that you can illustrate it with a depth beyond the words? For example, I enjoyed Genetopia and I like your cover art but after reading the book, I realized that there was a feeling to the cover that had influenced me before I began the novel. Is there a method or is it magic?

Image of cover for Genetopia Brian Dow: Well, the part about the music living in the pauses between the words, I don't have a CLUE where I got that from. Probably watching too many Kung Fu episodes in my studio. Seriously, I remember hearing that music without the pauses wouldn't be music. I really seemed to relate that to art. For me, there is always a subtext that I have in my head when I'm working on a piece. It might not be visible to the viewer, or perhaps it is something that is just felt by the viewer. Kind of like how you mentioned that Genetopia gave you a feeling that influenced how you felt about the book before you read it. While I think that all artists strive to do this, I at least, don't always succeed at it, but its always an objective. I always admired how Michael Whelan would put little symbolic touches into his paintings that meant something to him. They might not be immediately accessible to everyone, but they were there anyway. In Genetopia for instance, during my research I found a site that diagrammatically showed DNA code on a bar. I thought it would be kind of cool to have that pattern on Flint's staff. Again, not visible to anyone else but me. The novel, for me, had a very mystical quality to it. There was a calmness about it although there is much strife and turmoil. Ultimately, the mystical calmness won out.

When the characters have a life of their own and can truly speak to you, even after putting the book down, it can only help the image. I suppose my acting comes into play here. You get to know the characters so well that when I try to force them to say or do something that they know is false, they really let me know. I actually can hear them saying, "Hey, no, I would NOT do that. Take that out. Now!" Or something to that effect.

Method or magic? I suppose I depend on the prior and hope for the latter. It is truly amazing to me how many times I'll make a supposed mistake or something will go amiss, only to have that magic happen as a result. Happy accidents I used to call them. The only thing I can equate it to is when I'm meditating and I'm going very deep into it. There is that awareness that comes over me. Takes me to another level of consciousness where everything just flows out of my fingertips. When I get into that zone, well, it's hard to go wrong.

SFRevu: What media do you prefer to work in? Do you do much with digital art? Is it a mix of digital and traditional methods?

Brian: When I graduated from art school I was very influenced by an artist named Richard Amsel. He used to do a lot of TV Guide covers and album art. His style was to use a watercolor underpainting and then colored pencil and drybrush over that. That was pretty much my style for about 6 or 7 years. I never really mastered the watercolor because I was rather tentative with it. I studied oil technique with Ruth Sanderson who is a wonderful children's book illustrator and while I thoroughly enjoyed the pushing around of the paint, I never really achieved any mastery over it. It wasn't until I started playing around on a Macintosh that I found Photoshop. I think I heard angels singing. I could be as creative as I wanted with the color and design and wasn't limited or tentative anymore. For me it was truly a breakthrough in my creative process.

Now, the main thrust of my technique is to do pencil sketches, sometimes hand colored comps, and then when I've got those bits worked out, I start my underpainting in Photoshop and then proceed on the print with colored pencil or drybrush or whatever else I can think of. I started this technique back in 99, and there weren't any artists I knew of doing it. At that time it was something unusual. Now of course, many artists are doing the combination of digital and traditional techniques.

SFRevu: How did you originally get started in the SF/Fantasy art field?

Cover image for Prodigal Troll Brian: I've always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy both since I was just a kid. I had wanted to try to get into doing SF/Fantasy art but never seemed to make a dent into that market. I'd been doing children's book work for a number of years and my agent happened to see a blurb in Publisher's Weekly about a new SF imprint called Pyr. She knew I was interested in branching out into that area, so sent me their email and I gave it a shot. That email literally changed the entire course of my career. I think we all have these nexus points in our lives where we can just continue to go on the path we are on, or take a sharp left or right and see what's over the next hill. Sometimes a very scary hill, but no guts...well you know. Anyway, I began an email conversation with Lou Anders at Pyr and the rest is history. Suffice it to say that there must have been something Lou saw in my work that caused him to want to take a chance on me. (Thanks Lou!) I'd been published before, but not in this particular arena. I do think that some of the best work I've created has been done for Pyr. At least my satisfaction with the final product doesn't cause me to run for cover from embarrassment when someone looks at my work. Cover image for Tides

SFRevu: What do you find helps sell your work? Is it a particular style, subject, humor, approach?

Brian: I've always been drawn to the characters in art. Characters and dramatic lighting. For me a strong light source and the emotional subtext is something I always try to bring to a piece. Chiaroscuro, my grandfather used to call it. Light and dark. Sometimes it's just a subtle thing. The viewer doesn't have to be hit over the head with the effect. Think Cate Blanchett . She can sell a scene with just a tiny raise of the eyebrow. Yeah, that's my objective.

SFRevu: What's a good illustration to you? What do you want people to see/feel when looking at your work?

Brian: I hope they see the things in my work that I see in other artist's work that I admire. I'd like for them to stop and really have to look at the piece for a long time to find every nuance and detail in there. Sometimes, I actually find things in them that I didn't anticipate. In one of my early paintings I looked at again after many years, I found just one little area where there was a gold ring. Something about the way that ring looked made me keep on staring. It wasn't that it was marvelously rendered but something there made me linger. Maybe it was the lighting or the texture. I don't know. That's what I'd like for someone to do. Linger.

SFRevu: What are the things that inspire you? How do you stay feed your creativity? Who are your favorite artists or inspirations?

Brian: At the risk of sounding corny or cliched, my daughter inspires me. She has a way of looking at the world where everything is brand new. She inspires me to look at the world from her perspective.

Feeding my creativity? Hmmm. Well, even though I don't get to spend as much time as I'd like to anymore, I just love to hang around in the science fiction section of my bookstore. If I had an entire day...OH, that would be great. I think I learned more about great cover art from those times. Books like Spectrum have occupied my bookshelves for years. I've constantly over the years, gone to them to recharge my batteries.

As to artistic inspirations, I could name the natural choices, Whelan, Maitz, Brom and Rockwell. They were all a huge influence on me. I met Don Maitz at World Fantasy in Tempe 2 years ago. I spoke to him for about 45 minutes but for the life of me I can't tell you anything that we talked about. Sorry to say that the fanboy mentality sometimes rears it's very geeky head. I was truly just in awe. Then there are other artists like Picacio, Giancola, Martiniere and Caniglia. I could just stare at their work for days.

SFRevu: Do you only paint for assignments, or do you also paint for yourself or to try new techniques?

Cover image of Hurricane Moon Brian: Unfortunately, in the last 2 years I haven't had much time for any personal projects. I've got a file in my computer of ideas though that someday I'll get to. Actually, there is a new technique I started on my last project. I did the cover art for Alexis Glynn Latner's Hurricane Moon coming out from Pyr later this year. Around this time I had gone to see a Star Wars prop and costume exhibit at Boston's Museum of Science. Truly amazing. To see the Millenium Falcon up close was an education in itself. The craftsmanship of these artisans was astounding. Strangely enough, Lou had sent me a web address for The Lizard's Stomp.

It's a site for the amateur and professional scratch-built model builder. I just ate this site up. Every bite. I learned more from this site than all the years I spent building model cars and spaceships growing up. I mention these because they came in handy when I began to put some ideas together for Alexis' cover. I'd wanted to try my hand at building a ship model for reference. Actually, I ended up building two pieces for the cover. (Base model is on the left and ship model is on the right.) Image of base model for Hurricane Moon cover Image of ship model for Hurricane Moon cover






So that has actually become a bit of a new technique in my toolbox. Now I've just got to find space for the large garbage bags full of found items that I use for the spaceship parts. Lot's of fun though.

SFRevu: How would you describe your working style?

Brian: Lately my working style is how many hours can I do without keeling over from exhaustion. If I had a cloning machine like in the movie, Multiplicity, I'd be all set. Actually, my working style is a lot like other artists. I'll read the manuscript and do the sketch thing and start playing with color. When time permits, (although much less these days) I really like to let the ideas simmer on the back burner of my subconscious for a while. I'll meditate and actually create the cover in my head sometimes. Then it's just a matter of going through the motions to bring it into a physical form that I can send off to my editor. I've got a library of music and videos that I play while I'm working. Rather eclectic, although some of my friends might call it quite scary. Everything in movies from Young Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings and music...anywhere from Queen to Sammy Davis. See, I told you, scary.

SFRevu: What do you do to relax? Books? Movies? Whatever?

Brian: Actually, I try to meditate now and then. I should do more of it though. And while it's probably horrifying to some, I still rely on TV for my primary source of relaxation. Not that it's mindless, but it's just easier to fall into a story for an hour or so and just go along for the ride. Unfortunately, I don't get the time to follow many shows now, although I do love to catch Galactica and Dr. Who when I can. Boston Legal is a mainstay though. Everything stops when that comes on.

I'd love to say that I'm very literary minded and will go through reams of novels, but truthfully, it seems that the only books I get time to read now are the manuscripts for the cover projects I do. I've got a wish list of books though. Many of them published by Pyr (sorry, shameless plug). But I've grown quite fond of the works of Chris Roberson, Mike Resnick, among others, and I'm very much looking forward to reading Perdido St. Station, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Infoquake and Crossover, whenever I find the time. Not to mention trying to keep up with Locus and Interzone. I'm an immensely slow reader. A great frustration to me I can tell you. I think it's so important to stay up to date on what is being written in this field, but until they invent a little pill for absorbing books, I guess I'll just have to go the old fashioned route.

On a final note, working as an illustrator can be quite relaxing in it's own right. Like I mentioned, when I reach that creative plateau, there's nothing better.

SFRevu: Thank you Brian for taking the time to talk with us.

Two Harry Potter Paintings from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. These paintings were created only for the artist's portfolio and are unpublished personal pieces
Image from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Image from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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