Mark Ferrari is a fantasy illustrator whose work conjures as much (or more) magic as the stories it illustrates. His book cover illustration work has graced projects at Tor, Ace-Berkeley, Doubleday, Eclipse Comics, Chaosium, to name a few. He's also done gaming software illustration for Lucasfilm, Lucasarts Software, and MacGraw Hill Interactive, among many others. You can see his work on the cover of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine #49, enhancing Susan Dexter's story, "Rowan, Oak and Iron."
I met Mr. Ferrari at Wayne State College's second annual WillyCon, in Wayne, Nebraska, in March 2000. I bought a print of "Trying to Fit In," having fallen in love with it at first sight. At WillyCon, he impressed me with his focus on the students. An example: upon discovering that there was nothing to give students whose art had placed in the WillyCon Art Show, he took several students downtown and bought materials, then made hand-calligraphied certificates for the award winners.
His medium of choice is colored pencil, which is unusual in his field.
Terry Hickman: Why pencil?
Mark Ferrari: I use Prismacolor pencils. Originally when I started I picked that medium because I considered it visually more attractive; it was more affordable than most other media; and it was very portable. And non-messy -- that was important because I had roommates!
TH: How did you get into fantasy illustration?
MF: Fantasy literature was a huge interest of mine since about the 4th grade. I "did art" throughout grade school, junior high and high school, up to about halfway through college. Then I lost interest and quit, gave away all my equipment and supplies. For seven years I did no drawing or painting at all. By then I was working in a field totally unrelated to art, and finding that I needed to do something else. I was miserable. I started looking for another profession by sitting down and listing things I thought I could do, enjoy, and be good at. I ended up with a list of four professions: writing, psychotherapy, film, and art. I included art only because I knew I could do it.
I decided to give each of them a chance, starting with art because I figured I'd hate it, as I did when I'd dropped it years before, so I could eliminate it quickly. I started with Peter Max-like landscapes in a small, 8"x10" format. As I got better at it, I kept working in larger and larger formats, and started selling them -- people wanted to buy them!
And I was getting absorbed in art again. I forgot about the other three careers on my list. I decided to go to art school, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I ran out of money, so I could only attend for two semesters, but I got exposed to many ideas and concepts I wouldn't have otherwise thought about, Art History especially. While in school, I settled on the colored pencils as my medium of choice, but I still hadn't decided what area of subject matter to focus on. It hadn't occurred to me that there might be a living in the fantasy genre that I'd loved ever since I was very young.
To get into the school you had to write a statement of purpose. Part of what mine said was "I don't want to be an illustrator." I had this prejudiced view of what "illustrators" were. I thought they drew assembly diagrams for blenders and bicycles. So naturally, due to scheduling constraints, I ended up having to take survey of illustration! And that's where I learned what illustration was. The artists were doing all the things I wanted to do!
"Hobbitesque" was the first piece I created for my portfolio. "The Dream" was the first post-art school drawing I did for it, and in some ways I feel like it's still one of my best works. I did it just for myself.
TH: That might suggest something. . . .
MF: Definitely! With those seven years' hindsight, I realized why I'd dropped art in the first place. It had become entirely about meeting the expectations of others. It was one of the few things which consistently earned applause. There are a couple of ways to destroy a young artist: one, put down their talent and efforts. Two -- and this is really almost worse -- praise them profusely, build up the pressure to keep topping the last masterpiece. This takes all the joy and play out of doing art. I ended up drawing only those things I was sure would come out well -- therefore I kept drawing the same things over and over again. Boring! Also, those trite images then get burned into your retina so that when you do try something new, all that comes out is the same old-same old.
TH: So you came out of art school with a portfolio started and a refreshed love of art and a new focus: fantasy.
MF: There were some really wonderful people who helped me out. Some of them provided housing while I sort of hid out and honed my craft. I was prepared to go the route: struggle and anonymity. Then I had showed my work to a staff member of the Dark Carnival Bookstore in Berkeley, and someone there suggested I take it to BayCon. That was about 1987. I'd never heard of science fiction-fantasy conventions. I had no idea what to expect.
So I went, got a booth for my work way back in a corner out of everyone's way . . . and discovered that ten or twelve of the biggest names in fantasy art were there. I thought, "Oh my God am I out of my league!" I was working on the contract for the H. P. Lovecraft Creatures book at the time, so I had to enter the Art show as a Pro instead of an Amateur, meaning I was competing with Those Big Names, so I really was feeling overwhelmed.
And people were stopping by my booth and examining my work and asking all these questions: "What medium is that?" "That can't be pencil!" "But how do you get that effect with pencils!?" and all kinds of technical stuff, so there was quite a bit of activity I hadn't expected.
Then Tom Kidd stopped by, and sort of took me under his wing. He introduced me to all Those Big Names I'd admired from afar for so long. There I was eating lunch with all these Big Names! And then "The Dream" won "Best of Show" and won "Best Fantasy" in the Professional category.
TH: Wow! Overnight success!
MF: (laughing) Yeah. So much for my years of struggle.
At BayCon I was contacted by a representative from Lucasfilms. They were looking for artists to work on their computer games. So the next weekend I found myself at Skywalker Ranch in Marin, CA, talking with the Art Division art director and some of their other artists. They liked my work and they didn't care that I didn't know much about computers; they said it was easier to train an artist to use a computer than to train a computer technician to be an artist. So I started working for them doing game illustration using 2D software. I turned out to be very good at the software illustrations, largely because I didn't know anything about computers. I didn't have the foreknowledge of what couldn't and shouldn't be done with the software. I even came up with some innovations that changed aspects of the industry.
I kept doing cover art while working on gaming software. Looking back, I can see where I was drifting towards the very situation that had made me leave art the first time: I had gone from being nobody to being very, very busy and in demand but I was really not prepared. I felt very un-equipped and very insecure. Meeting the deadlines and expectations of these important employers caused me to do what was safest and fastest, and my work became stale. And then, four or five years ago, the 3D CAD systems came out (Doom, etc.), and the hardware and software for those was very expensive, and the 3D work just wasn't as interesting . . . and it didn't matter who did the art work, because the software did most of the rendering.
TH: Is there a parachute leap coming up?
MF: I took a year off, went to the mountains, and wrote a book. It was an invaluable learning experience but a very poor book.
When I got back, what I had been doing was no longer in demand. The business had changed. So there I was, starting over yet again! But I'm doing all right, actually. I'm still making a living with my art work. I'm finding more time to do art for myself, and those pieces are doing well in the market.
TH: How do you choose your subject matter?
MF: When it's a commissioned work, like a magazine, or a private collector, the client tells me what it is they want a picture of. In other cases, it's something I've heard, a piece of music. I've also had mental images generated by a single, visually interesting object; a landscape; or a person's face, expression, or costume. On rare occasions the inspiration has been a dream. I would say two or three times over the years, I've awoken with a vivid image from a dream. I've never drawn those, but they're still up there; I may do them yet someday.
TH: How do you turn an idea into a finished piece of artwork, both conceptually and mechanically?
MF: Conceptually, I always begin with a pretty vivid image in my head of what this is supposed to be. If I don't have one, I can't draw it.
The thing to remember is that the initial mental image is the place to start, not a place to end. The finished product rarely looks much like the image in my head, although it will bear a resemblance. It's much like writing a book: the outline is just the skeletal framework that changes as I work on it, and fill in as I pursue directions that come up.
As far as the mechanics, it depends whether I'm drawing it manually or it's a digital product.
For a colored pencil drawing, first I'll make references. I'll take photos, or find photos, of all the focal objects in the picture. I can draw the general composition, you know, a face, a tree. But I make references to get the tiny details: dimples, folds, shadows, planes. It's the tiny details that you may not even notice that make a drawing come alive.
Then I do a whole bunch of drawings. Using tracing paper, I trace over my sketches, drawing onto the paper, using the photos and what-have-you as references. This is just the line drawing, the basic sketching. There will be things in the first sketch that are wrong, or misplaced -- and others that are just right. So I lay another sheet of tracing paper over the first, and then I can see the earlier sketch, and keep the right parts and change, delete, or re-locate the others. This layering allows me to move the earlier sheets around underneath to get elements (like props, limbs) positioned correctly. I repeat the process, sometimes up to 7 or 8 layers or more, until the composition is just right. Then I start sketching details, like the environment, props, etc.
Then I can project the final line drawing onto a piece of 2-ply vellum-finish Bristol board. I do a light tracing there, and then use the colored pencil to complete the shading and color work, the details.
That's for a colored pencil product. I've been doing more digital work recently. Creating a digital product is a very different process. For one thing, no tissue layers; all of that is much easier using the computer. I use a mouse for drawing. I use very few if any scanned art or objects in my digital work. Most of my 2D work is done in Photoshop 6.0. I don't do any 3D work, no 3D CAD modeling systems; no automatic rendering tools.
TH: A struggling artist would probably be very interested in your statement "I'm still making a living in art." Isn't that really, really rare?
MF: It's easier to do in art than it is in writing, especially in the genre fields. You don't even have to be a great artist -- just proficient, and reliable. People don't realize that everything they see in the world was probably drawn by an artist before it was made. Cars, product labels, furniture, magazine and TV ads, clothing, kitchen supplies, office accessories -- you name it! Everybody uses art work.
TH: So your advice for aspiring artists would be. . . .
MF: Don't figure out what people want, or what will sell. Figure out what you love to do. Learn to do it very, very well before you try to catch anyone's attention. When you've learned to do what you really love to do as well as you possibly can, find out who's paying for what you love to do.
There's a real thirst for beautiful, imaginative, and original things in the world. That thirst is not always honored by the usual commercial venues. But if you're doing beautiful, imaginative, and original work, it's possible to get it to the public. We in the fantasy art world are fortunate to have the Cons as alternative venues.
TH: Is there anything you'd like to say to artists trying to get a foothold in the business?
MF: Yes! Hang on to what's trying to get out from inside you, don't lose it to what's trying to direct you from outside.
TH: That sounds like a lifelong process.
MF: Indeed. I expected struggle and difficulties; they just came in different forms than I'd ever imagined. And I still don't know what's going to happen next. How life is going to turn out.
So I would add: embrace the ups and downs of what's liable to be a long journey.
TH: What's been happening in your career since we met up at WillyCon in March, 2000?
MF: That December I started getting gobs and gobs of work again. I got calls to do concept art for computer game companies. Some clients wanted me to do the concept art for the whole look of the game, which they'd then turn over to their in-house artists to base the games on. I got calls from product designers, for example doing coffee mugs for a major coffee company; calls from Target; drawing products for catalogues, for example upscale picture frames; and I designed sculptural fantasy beer bottles for a major national beer company. So I got really busy with a lot of projects, some were creatively satisfying and some paid the rent.
TH: Any idea why this sudden burst of business?
MF: Part of it was, I think, because the economy was collapsing. Everyone was downsizing, so they had fewer in-house people to do these projects. Also, when the economy is sinking, people can't afford junk like they can during a boom. When everyone's got money, they buy -- not necessarily the best products. So maybe in a downturn, the companies are going toward better art, product, and writing, so people will still buy it. For the rest of it: serendipity, I think.
TH: You've hinted that you've got something major up your sleeve. Can you tell us about it?
MF: Only hints. It's a digital product that everyone will want and be able to afford. It's not a game, but it is an entertainment product. Personally I can say that without a doubt, it's the single most creative job I've been offered in decades as an illustrator. If everything goes right, it will be unveiled at WorldCon at San Jose in August.
TH: It's not a game? . . .
MF: No, but it's oriented toward fantasy-interested people.
TH: You know the fantasy that's on everyone's mind right now. . .
MF: This is original, it has nothing to do with that or any other work or franchise. It's my own, original concept.
TH: I guess we'll just have to wait, then. Thanks, Mark, for the interview!
Terry Hickman, cleverly disguised as a middle-aged woman of Danish-American heritage, writes science fiction and occasionally haunts local indie-rock shows. Her aberrations extend to startling unsuspecting moshers in the front rows of Nine Inch Nails concerts with her presence. Other oddments: one husband, two cats.
Visit Mark Ferrari's Web site.
WillyCon IV is at Wayne State College, April 2002. Guests of Honor will be James P. Hogan and Terese Nielsen.