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Interview with Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
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Interview with Stephanie Pui-Mun LawArtist Spotlight
by Constanza Ehrenhaus
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is a watercolor artist of Chinese descent. Her watercolors are characterized by a vibrancy that is not usually associated to the medium, plus elegance, flow and a lovely mix of Asian and Celtic motifs. Stephanie was a great inspiration for me; I discovered her through a friend around 1998 and I realized that a fantasy artist with a very feminine style could earn a living and be successful. She has inspired me an many others, and her amiable personality is evident in how accessible she is.
Stephanie, what is your formal education and how did you get started in art? What was your first big gig?
I got a BA in art at UC Berkeley, though at the time it was secondary for me to studying Computer Science. I was just taking so many art classes anyway that I figured I might as well get a degree in it while I was there. However, the art that I did there was entirely different from what I do now, as it was a Fine Art program, and focused more on abstract expressionism and conceptual installations. The few illustration-relevant courses I took were forays into the architecture and theater departments where I managed to squeeze in some classes like computer graphics, and costume design. For the most part I did my paint-throwing-and-splashing in class, and then when home at night to work on fantasy themed pieces for myself, and for various fanzines I started getting involved with at the time. My first big gig was with Wizards of the Coast, illustrating some Magic: the Gathering cards.
You favor watercolors over other media even when watercolors are not the easiest of them at all. Why is that?
I had worked with acrylics in the past. The technique I liked to employ involved laboriously prepping a canvas with many layers of gesso and sanding in between each layer. It took hours just to have the surface ready and smooth enough to my liking. Then when I finally started to paint on it, I was thinning the paints out with acrylic medium, and painting with many thin layers of glazing.
It took a while for me to realize that this technique was much more suited for watercolors! Part of the delay in coming to that realization was that watercolors were frowned on in the college classes I was taking at the time. It was looked down on as "an illustrator's medium" and not something for serious art; and in fact the painting classes specified "any painting medium of your choice, except watercolors." By which it meant, "oils or acrylics".
Once I tried watercolors seriously, it was an easy switch. The technique I was using for acrylics worked so much easier and better with watercolors, and I didn't have to spend time arduously preparing the canvas (or storing huge wooden frames for that matter!) The layering of thing glazes brings out a luminous quality that I loved.
You used to do some digital in the past but now we see none of it, why did you abandon digital art?
My first big gig came a few months after I graduated. I had spent much of the previous four years starting to really enjoy working digitally in Photoshop and Painter. I did some research on various gaming companies, and sent out my portfolio to the art directors, among which was Wizards of the Coast. I was surprised and excited when the art director for Magic: the Gathering responded. He told me that my portfolio looked pretty good, but that they didn't really take digital art. It's ironic and funny to hear that now isn't it, when most art done for games seems to be digital! He told me to send him more work when I had some traditionally painted pieces in my portfolio.
I had just started playing with watercolors, and I had a few older acrylic pieces lying around. So within a few months I whipped up enough to resubmit a portfolio of watercolor and acrylic artwork. Which resulted in getting three Magic card assignments.
By then they were accepting digital art, but I was already really starting to enjoy watercolors. So while it seems everyone else was drifting towards digital, I was swimming the other way!
I discovered your art in 1998 through a friend. Besides the obvious focus on only watercolors, how do you think your art has evolved in the last 10 years? Where do you think it is going?
I like to think it's gotten more sophisticated. I'm more conscious of what I'm doing, and so things happen more by purpose rather than accident. Anatomy has improved vastly. I've become more confident professionally, and so I don't feel the need to take on every project that gets offered. This results in a higher quality of work, because I'm picking and choosing the work that strikes a chord with me. When you feel inspired by the concept, the resulting artwork is much better! I have no idea where it's headed, but I try to make every piece that I work on The Best. If too much time ever elapses and my favorite is still something I did a year ago, it's time to shake things up!
What do you find advantageous about using stylized images instead of realistic? How does the public react to that?
I've always preferred to take a photograph if my goal was for realism. And since I'm an awful photographer, I stick to my stylized painting! Although, it wasn't such a deliberate thing from the start. It's like I always tell new artists who come to me asking how they can make a style. My answer is you don't set out to create a style. A style is what happens to your artwork when you just draw and paint every day the subject and in the way that you like. It's like your fingerprint. It eventually makes itself apparent in the lines and colors and compositions that appeal to you. If you try to consciously force a style, then you're just copying someone else's fingerprint and not finding your own voice. As for how the public reacts, it's nice that people can see a piece of mine and instantly recognize it as mine!
Tell us about your Tarot project.
I started on the tarot art in June 2004 and finished the last painting January 2009, so it was quite a long journey! I started on it because for years before that people had been suggesting it to me, and I felt also that it would be the perfect way to explore archetypes. The Major Arcana especially is really built around these basic archetypal characters found in so many stories. It was a way to create my own mythos through an interface that was familiar to people. Prior to 2004 I had attempted taking part in several multi-artist decks that just didn't find any interest from publishers for being too nebulous in focus, but the prospect of doing 78 cards entirely on my own seemed a daunting task! Eventually I decided to just dive in, and I do not regret having done so. It was a very rewarding path and though I am happy that there is cohesion from the start to the end of the project (four and a half years is quite a stretch of time and much room for the art to evolve!) I found I was still happy with the first cards by the time I finished the last. When I look at them I can see how my work has changed but it still works as a whole.
And after the Tarot, what will be next?
Well, I've been taking things at a bit of a slower pace lately. I've just had my first baby a few months ago and so I want to be sure my life and art are balanced. As my artist friend James Browne pointed out, you can only snuggle with the baby for a short period, but there are decades of art still waiting and ready to be painted when there's time again. And this lull may be a time of inspiration for that future artwork.
This doesn't mean I'm not creating art right now. I don't think in the past 10 years I've ever spent more than a week without drawing of some kind. Even when I go on vacations I look on those as opportunities to fill my travel sketchbook with some on-site drawings.
These days I've been doing a lot of ink drawing. Inks are nice and portable. I can start and stop easily. And flailing baby-hands won't knock over cups of paint water! I'm working on putting together another self-published book as a companion to "The Art of Shadowscapes Tarot: Major Arcana" that I put out last year. This one is for the Minor Arcana. And though it's mostly featuring the color tarot artwork I already created, I supplement it with a whole lot of new ink drawings and sketches as well. It's a fun project, and something that I can work on in my own time since there are no art directors looming over me.
I plan on some other self published projects as well in the future, perhaps pairing some of my short stories with illustrations.
I've also got another technique book due out this year from Impact Books. It's tentatively titled Dreamscapes: Myth & Magic at this time. I have been poring over the manuscript these past weeks, proofreading and making edits before sending it back to the publisher.
This is something that is really hard for many people, how do you price your work?
It's tough, and a combination of many things. Primary is how long the piece took me to create. Work and effort have to be paid off at least to make it worthwhile to sell. If nothing else, you can just decide what your hourly rate is and figure your materials and time spent, and come to a price calculation that way. I'm usually much more casual about deciding, though, and it's an estimation that combines the size and complexity of a piece.
And then there are several more nebulous things I take into consideration. Sometimes I know a piece just won't really sell easily -- usually because it's a game commission and of a subject matter that may have been really fun for me to create, and great for the game, but just not something that people really want to have hanging on their walls.
Pieces that I know will have a high demand (again due to the subject matter) can command a higher price. If I'm posting artwork on my site that 3 people simultaneously try to purchase before I can even check my email in order to update the sale status, I know it's priced too low and can accordingly adjust when I create similar work in the future. If on the other hand it just sits around for years, then I know I need to lower the price. Sometimes I'll lower prices just because I'm tired of seeing a piece, and I want to be able to move on from it completely (which means selling it and removing it from my website as well!) so that I can get on with the newer (and better) work.
Occasionally there are pieces that I really don't want to part with, and they'll have a higher price because then it becomes a matter of my effort gone into it, as well as my personal attachment.
There have been some events in the past that made you take radical turns in your career. Were you keeping a hopeful attitude in those moments or you were freaking out?
Actually I was pretty deliberate about it all. Aside from the familial strife it initially caused, things went mostly according to plan. So I guess let me back up and explain what The Plan was!
As I mentioned, I was studying Computer Science in college. My senior year I went to a career fair, getting ready for that not too distant graduation. After spending hours wandering the stalls and handing my resume to numerous tech companies, I headed back to my apartment. I was glum, but not sure why.
After taking a moment to examine my own frame of mind, I realized it was because though I did enjoy programming, the thought of doing that and not art as my career made me profoundly depressed. So I started thinking about what I could do about it. Three options seemed logical.
I could take a job with a computer game company. I had a few offers, both as either a programmer, or as an artist. But neither was really what I wanted. It would be a compromise to attempt to find some middle ground of art and my technical schooling. I wanted to paint, not write heavily mathematical programs to render, or create textures and models. What I really enjoy is telling my own story in a painted scene.
I could see about going to art school to do the type of artwork I wanted to (instead of a degree in paint splattering that I had). The Academy of Art was conveniently in San Francisco. After a tour of the campus, I was excited, but also aghast to hear that it would cost as much per year for a MA there as I could get by taking one of the software jobs being offered me.
Or I could go ahead and accept one of the programmer jobs, and burn the midnight oil to make my own way. I would have income to spend on attending conventions and exploring different avenues. I would have to seriously submit my portfolio to companies, and make my very amateur looking website into something polished. I gave myself a two year deadline if I were to follow this route, because even then I realized it might be far too easy just to stay in a comfortable software job once I got started.
Three years later, after following the third path, some events in my personal life conspired to take me to Japan for a short stint. A side effect being that I took an extended leave of absence from my software job. I probably could have left Plumtree Software at my original two year deadline. By then my website was doing quite well for selling prints, and I had some regular clients I was doing illustration work for, as well as a steady stream of private commissions. At any rate, I took my leave of absence, and then never went back to software, even though I came back to the US six weeks later.
What drives you to go on during hard times?
I hope I don't jinx it by saying so, but I have been blessed so far not to really experience any hard times! I feel that I have been very lucky because I create the art that I want to create -- I do it for myself. And I am very fortunate that for some reason people actually want to buy these creations that I do for love.
Has motherhood changed things?
It has in that my production level has slowed for the time being, and I've been doing a lot more pen and ink work rather than watercolors. But I have also been greatly inspired by the whole experience, and already it has made its mark in many of the personal pieces I've created in the past year.
Do you realize that you inspire a lot of people (including me) to take art more seriously and to try to make it as fantasy artists?
Thank you! It's an honor to hear that. I have been inspired by many artists as well, and just as so many of them were extremely helpful and friendly and encouraging to me when I was starting out, I hope to be able to do that for others as well.
Stephanie is easily one of my favorite artists out there. She has a very distinct style, that manages to combine a beautiful flow with many interesting details. And of course she mostly draws nature-y stuff, which is major brownie points in my book.
Steph is so utterly charming. She is one of the sweetest ladies out there and when you couple that with her amazing artistic skills... well, she's pretty incredible. I don't know her as well as I would like to, but I do know that she's a delightful person, with incredible depths to her personality.
I admire Stephanie's work immensely. It is very graceful and flowing, with a wonderful use of colour and medium.
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