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Artist: Holly Bird by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
SFRevu.com Intervew  ISBN/ITEM#: ARTHOLLYBIRD
Date: 19 August 2007

Links: Website / Show Official Info /

If you've checked out the art shows at science fiction or fantasy conventions, you've probably noticed the work of Holly Bird. Many of her illustrations have a feeling of magic about them, the colors range from bright to pastel blended to give an impression of looking into a faraway time, place, or into the imagination. When I look at her work, I can't help but think that over that hill or behind that tree there be dragons, elves, castles, and adventure. Take a look at the image from her website to see what I mean. You might even want to visit her site to check out her work before reading the rest of this interview.

On her webpage it says:
Holly is an award-winning artist and graphic designer residing on the west coast of Florida. Currently freelancing, she has extensive experience as an illustrator, feature film industry storyboard artist; broadcast designer; magazine & advertising art director; and fine art and adjunct graphic design instructor.

Holly Bird's website

SFRevu: I've taken a look at your resume and you've certainly done a variety of illustration and design work. So, how did you get started? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What got you into the SF/Fantasy field?

Holly Bird: Yes, my resume either shows a broad range of experience or a complete lack of focus; take your pick! Actually, it also reflects the local economic reality and the need for job flexibility as I've spent most of my professional life as a graphic designer in the Tampa Bay area of Florida — never known as a thriving metropolis of art and design.

My illustration "origin story" is the usual: I can remember drawing impulsively from the time I was about four. (My parents say earlier.) From as far back as I can remember, I illustrated my favorite fairy tales and my early SF/Fantasy reading. I was also a typical horse fanatic at a young age — my absolute favorite drawing subject — so if I could sneak a unicorn or a horse or two in there with spaceships for some reason, all the better. Ponies and zeppelins? No problem!

I started with every H.G. Wells and Jules Verne book I could find and discovered A.C. Clarke's Dolphin Island in the library when I was in 4th or 5th grade. From there I pretty much read the early SF canon and everything else I could get my hands on. On discovering Tolkien in 7th grade I promptly set out to illustrate the whole trilogy and The Hobbit in watercolor. (Hey, who didn't?) Got as far as about a dozen paintings, still hiding in the bottom of my studio closet. (Thank you, Alan Lee and John Howe!) My Mom gave me a gift subscription to Analog magazine when I was 12 and I studied every cover and interior B&W by Kelly Freas, John Schoenherr, Rick Sternbach and others. I wouldn't discover my post-Classics Illustrated second wave of comic books until someone shoved a copy of X-Men's Dark Phoenix saga in my hands later in college, but when The Studio came out in 1979 it was an absolute inspiration and vindication: the neo-Romantic illustration of Kaluta, Windsor-Smith, Wrightson and Jeff Jones proved to me that despite what my professors were thinking, this sort of illustration was still very much alive and kicking. My copy is pretty dog-eared now.

As for getting started in my profession, I assumed I'd always be some kind of an artist, but given my family's constant cliff's-edge financial situation, I didn't want to be the poor kind. Lacking college funds and an inspiring adult/patron to help me figure out how to work that angle, I had to choose a practical way to earn a living and pay off student loans. In those early years, I never allowed myself to dream about being a full-time professional artist — out of fear, mainly. A huge mistake, frankly, in retrospect. I should have had more faith in myself.

My formal art instruction was pretty horrible at the college level. The UF art department was in the throes of late 70's installation art (still is...) and deemed realism and painting to be dead and buried. They thought I drew pretty well back in my freshman year, but any tendency toward illustration and narrative I showed got hammered by my professors. When I tried to explain my interest in becoming a professional illustrator to my thirty-something drawing professor, he told me, "all I'd ever be was a K-Mart artist" and that I was "wasting his time". Nice. (Another design professor later sneeringly dismissed me as wanting to become a comic book artist. Like that was a bad thing or something...)

After Star Wars came out, I desperately wanted to work in film storyboarding or conceptual art. I couldn't do anything about it just then other than pore over Cinefantastique Magazine, but I could do something more practical: I'd already had a summer job stint doing layout for a metro magazine art director in Ft. Lauderdale and had decided to look into graphic design when, BING! I spent most of my first summer break storyboarding Caddyshack near Ft. Lauderdale and doing production sketches for director Harold Ramis at the age of 18. (Long-story-how-short: it involved babysitting in the past for a family friend and neighbor who happened to be the film's production manager.) I was happy to quit working retail at the downtown Burdine's and follow Ramis and the late, great Doug Kenney around with a clipboard and a rapidograph all summer. The money was purely incidental; it was a fantasy summer job for any student.

But I had no business heading to L.A. just yet. That fall, I applied for the graphic design program at UF and graduated in '82 — right in the middle of the worst recession in decades. I had to put off my illustration dream again just to get a scarce design job that put food on the table while my once and future husband finished his construction management degree. That eventually lead to a fairly successful design and (more mundane) illustration career — and even some film work. After Caddyshack and graduation, I was called on by the Miami local film crews to storyboard other films such as Cocoon - The Return and some HBO films no one remembers, along some conceptual design & storyboarding for the 80s TV show Superboy and a ton of local commercial boards for agencies. Over the next ten years or so I was also an art director for several metro, home and industry magazines and I did ad agency advertising and illustration. Then on to TV broadcast design and art direction in later years for a local affiliate before I turned to teaching. The steady paychecks were pretty good, but while my husband and I had definite financial goals that eventually paid off well for us, I never felt at the time that I could slow down and retread for a whole new set of SF publishing clients in the pre-Internet days while juggling a mortgage and student loans.

Science fiction and fantasy reading, movies and comic books and mythology continued to be my favorite form of recreational media and inspiration for art. I've been a fan since classic Trek in the late 60s and started going to a convention or two in high school. When I finally entered my first convention art show at the '86 WorldCon, I was thrilled. I saw Michael Whelan's and Don Maitz's and Stephen Hickman's and Tom Kidd's art for the first time and I wanted to do what they did. Meeting other illustration pros and fan artists was pure heaven. From that point on, even when I was airbrushing a candy bar wrapper or designing a Proctor & Gamble recycling poster, I always made time for convention show deadlines which allowed me to draw and paint what I REALLY liked, and hang out with more interesting people than I was spending most of my work week with. I was also active with the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists (ASFA) off and on for over fifteen years and I produced and art-directed their quarterly magazine from 2000-2002. I'd have to say that my fandom and sometime-professional life in SF&F art was running parallel with my more mundane career from the get-go.

SFRevu: Most of the work on your website seems to be in the fantasy area -- have you done SF illustration -- you know the iconic space ships and aliens?

Holly: I never lost my taste for reading SF, but I became less interested in drawing hardware - maybe because I didn't discover perspective until very late in the game - and I was more interested in people, wildlife, dragons, horses and things-with-wings. There are certainly pure-SF illustrations that I did for 'zines in the early 80s but they always involved people and aliens and the hardware was just window dressing.

I've always preferred drawing over painting and graphite is what I always return to, but my favorite medium at the time was pen and ink (crowquill & rapidograph). I found early inspiration in the line art of turn-of-the-20th-century illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Edmund Dulac and Franklin Booth and I used to copy Prince Valiant out of the Sunday paper when I was a little kid. I guess for me it was a more organic, flowing medium and I just prefer a curve over a straight line and drawing living, breathing things. (Or living, breathing things of the made-up kind.) Actually, I have an enormous interest in real natural history and use my knowledge of drawing real plants and animals and life drawing for designing and drawing aliens. I used to fill sketchbooks with my interpretations of Poul Anderson's avian Ythri and C.J. Cherryh's Hani and so on along with my original alien designs.

SFRevu: Do you think the SF/Fantasy market is a "man's world"? I checked the lists of artists in art shows for several convention (ones with participant lists I could google easily) and found that men outnumber women by quite a margin. Are women artists shy about displaying their art at shows or are they just back in the studio working on their assignments?

Holly: Hoo boy. That's been a much-danced-around panel topic and a popular discussion with my artist friends. (Full disclosure here: my husband and I are childless and I've been able to devote myself full-time to my various career & volunteering incarnations.)

Yes, I do think it's still very much a man's world in terms of sheer statistics as you've noted, but changes in media choices, technology, markets and trends have opened up far more opportunity for women than say, thirty years ago when I first started going to conventions in the mid-seventies. Alas, however, it's just in time for fees and salaries to stagnate and fade for everyone... But I just don't really know the reason for the disparity. It's not like we're not interested in the subject matter.

I have no personal experience with encountering real sexism that affected my work in professional design and illustration in any market I've worked in, so I can't accurately address that here as a reason. (On the other hand, dinosaurs still roam the earth on film sets and the local television world, and I have plenty of ammo there...)

As for being too shy to display or self-promote, well, that's an equal-opportunity, self-imposed impediment to success for any artist. Get over it, boys and girls.

I don't think it's the subject matter, but it may be about the medium when you're talking about book covers. It takes a long time to produce a painting in oils, acrylics or even digital. Personally, I never had the training and never worked in oil or acrylics, but I found magazine editorial illustration to be more lucrative in the 80s because I could produce several line and wash illustrations for more money and much less time than it would take for me to do one opaque media painting.

So, it's possible that one reason could be time vs. money. For any kind of intense freelance productivity in a demanding medium, it's all about hours in the day when talking to artist friends. Yes, we are usually back in our studios, working on our assignments. When we can squeeze in four or five hours of uninterrupted time, that is. And we're also doing so much more than that. We're taking care of our kids, our elderly parents, the house, the yard, the dog(s), our full-time day job, our part-time day job, volunteer work; you name it. We're the ones who sweat the errands and details of life, and yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions here: male artists who are full partners, vitally involved with their families and who squeeze in their painting or computer time when the kids are asleep, just like professional creative moms do. But it does crack me up to read some guy's blog, where they describe kissing their wife and kids and then locking themselves into their writing cabin or up to the studio at the top of the stairs or at the bottom of the garden to Do Art. I know of plenty of male painters in the field and in the local art mainstream who have full or part-time helpers or managers in their spouses or girlfriends. I know of exactly one where the opposite was true.

Your individual mileage may vary here, of course. I don't mean to sweep up every creative person in a relationship out there. In addition, many duo-creative couples find ways to manage their time and juggle their creative space successfully.

But it does offer one possible explanation for the absence of women in the traditional SF illustration markets. I can think of at least two really excellent women book cover illustrators in the field that had a good amount of success in cover assignments but had to cut way back when their kids arrived. I also know very successful single women freelancers (a comic book script writer and an artist) who are dedicated full-time to their profession, but both have said to me, "I wish I had a wife!" to take care of the everyday distractions.

A quick story here about a related and clearly male-dominated art market: superhero comics. CrossGen Comics in Oldsmar, FL used to be based just a few miles from my house. A friend used to be one of the very few female creatives who worked for the company. I had my share of "wouldn't it be cool to work here as an artist or a designer?" thoughts but never made any attempt to apply. For one, I have no experience in the comics field whatsoever. CrossGen attracted some of the best in the field and turned out very fine work in the short time it existed. But my husband Bob, a general contractor executive, clinched it on touring the place one night after a game of foosball in the corporate kitchen. He made the comment, "Damn. It's just like an oil-rig!" As he described it: "It's practically all-male. There are no windows. You work stupid-hours. But you never have to leave the place because there's movies, food, beer, showers and cots and there's pictures of naked women all over the walls!"

One more thing - as much as I despair trying to teach young artists to really learn to draw when they all show up locked into one, single, rigid anime style, I'm really encouraged with the flood of young women artists inspired by this genre. I've never seen so many middle and high school girls wanting to enter illustration and animation. They're demanding that publishers start catering to their tastes and they're planning to go to school to work as writers, animators and illustrators. I think that lopsided demographic is starting to tilt back already.

SFRevu: Do you think artists in this field get enough recognition? Do you think the rule change in the Hugo art category will help to get more artists the recognition for their work in the field?

Holly: I certainly think there are more award venues than there were for recognition. I also think there's more potential for it due to technology: you no longer have to wait for a book cover or magazine to be published or for your favorite convention art show to come along now that artists have individual and general portfolio websites. But there are fewer and fewer print opportunities to sell your work and the background noise of the sheer volume of artists' work out there on the web - the vast and excellent global competition — makes it harder to get noticed.

I used to be involved with helping Ingrid Neilson produce the printed ballots of the Chesley Awards for ASFA; for years the Chesley was extremely important for artists as an adjunct to the pro and fan artist Hugo because it recognized individual pieces of art for the eligible year — covers, interiors, game media, etc. The continuing series of Spectrum annuals edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner are even better. They showcase SF & Fantasy art with excellent print production values; connect it to the artist with medium and contact info and put the information in the hands potential clients, just as juried mainstream illustration, photography and design annuals have been doing for decades.

Still more opportunities we never had until recently for self-promotion: general illustration portfolio hosting sites like iSpot.com, Portfolios and PictureBook; fantasy art community websites like deviantArt; Ballistic digital art annuals like Expose and Painter. There are just too many to name here. Then again, there have never been so many really talented artists out there in the world. They all want a piece of the pie, and some will work for very little money so there are some diminishing returns.

I agree with the change to the Artist Hugos that Donato Giancola and Tor art director Irene Gallo proposed and I think it brings back some needed credibility to the award by requiring recent work in the eligible period to be listed. I also think it's going to put a lot more responsibility on the artist (and the voters). It's a good kind of responsibility though. It does require more artists to self-promote in order to get nominated. But better that instead of falling back on the same small slate of artists that are usually nominated on the basis of their long-standing reputation, instead of whether or not they're currently active. I hope this helps to open the door to the recognition of new names (and pushing some old ones) in the field.

SFRevu: Do you only work on assignment or do also do work just for your own enjoyment? If so, does it differ from your paid assignments.

Holly: My big push right now is to work in children's book illustration. In the past I've either had an agent for advertising illustration or was assigned something for magazine editorial; home and garden watercolor illustrations; business cartoons and stuff. I send samples of my newer children's book-style illustration to art directors, but I hear crickets chirping. I had a site on Portfolios.com but never got a bite there either. I'm contemplating buying an ad page + a web portfolio in PictureBook or the Directory of Illustration. But at this late stage in the game, I'm not planning on just sitting around waiting for an assignment. I'm using my design background to create full picture and chapter book dummies with the typography, illustrations, the story - the whole package - for submission. I may not ever sell one to a publisher, but it'll be a whole lot more satisfying to me to at least try.

Doing work for my own enjoyment is actually a lot harder to get started on. I dread the empty page and I fret over making the project really "count", which slows me down even more. Frankly, working on a assignment with a deadline and a purpose is easy when you know exactly what's required of you.

SFRevu: I noticed you teach. I've found that teaching really causes one to thinking clearly about their craft in order to explain and assist others. Has teaching had an impact on your own work other than taking up a lot of your time?

Holly: Teaching has taught me that I have a LOT of catching up to do and forced me to constantly upgrade and stay frosty on software and technique. You always have to stay one step (and at least two advanced Photoshop tutorials) ahead of your students and hope they never ask you the one thing you don't know that day. (And never, ever show fear the first day of class!)

You can imagine, however, what an enormous amount of time it takes to prep and evaluate a class. (Six contact hours in a computer lab can easily equal thirty or more hours a week if you really care about what you're doing.) So, I've taken a step back from teaching lately. I'll go back to teaching drawing at the local art center (no grading; no syllabi), but I've given up on being a design adjunct and have decided against going for my MFA. Besides, does the world really need any more graphic designers at this point? Instead I actually take some classes regularly, especially life drawing open-studio to keep up on my figure drawing skills.

Teaching really does push you to get better at what you do and forces you to analyze why you do it. And I got a great deal of satisfaction out of it. I stay in touch with a lot of my former students; in fact I just viewed a documentary on Netflix last week about the homeless, shot and edited by one of the university design students I taught in storyboarding. It's a huge thrill to see him become a success.

SFRevu: What's your take on digital art and design? Is much of your own work digital or a mix of digital and traditional methods?

Holly: I definitely use a computer in my work and self-promotion all the time. It's usually a mix of hand-drawn + digital, scanned in and manipulated. The digital painting tools of the illustration trade (Photoshop and Painter) are finally equal to the ability of a good, trained artist, so there's some really incredible work being done — especially in the last few years. A number of traditionally trained painters have made the transition beautifully and younger ones are bringing a completely new mixed-media sensibility and look without ever having picked up an actual paintbrush.

That being said, I prefer to work traditionally because I enjoy it more. It's nice to be able to scan and correct digitally as needed, or to enhance a background or something, but I still like to get my hands dirty. (Or this could simply be my "You damn kids get off the lawn!!" fogey-ism showing...) I also trained for two years as a Softimage animator at the TV station where I worked as a senior designer, but much prefer 2D in any media. I've done very little 3D since then (unless you count slab-building clay or sewing a book binding...) but I don't miss it.

Regardless of the prevalence of digital illustration these days, I strongly feel that there's great value in having an actual artifact to touch, see and sell after the illustration is assigned and the rights are sold. I can only imagine (and hope) that as art-as-artifact becomes more rare, it will become more valuable as time goes on and I'm not getting rid of my "analog" tools. Ever.

SFRevu: Do you have a preferred approach to assignments? What steps are in an average design/illustration assignment? I guess what I'm really asking is what's your average work day like?

Holly: Any illustration or design assignment is about solving a problem, so the more communication and rapport you have with the client, the better. I take extensive notes and do thumbnails while talking to them and I try to get as clear an idea as possible about the desired end-result so there's no mystery as what's required of me. While building thumbnails into roughs, I start to collect whatever reference I need, or get client-provided material. I try to make my initial "roughs" tight enough so that the client has a clear idea as to where I'm going. I really hate playing "where's Waldo" with a client, and it's pretty much justifiable homicide when I get the "I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I'll know when I see it" attitude from a client. Unless they pay me by the hour for revisions...

Once I get the all-clear to work on the final concept or illustration, it's time to put on some music and go to town. I guess you can say my average work day is a constant battle to get uninterrupted time and minimize distractions to work or just to conceptualize and sketch. There are plenty of days when I have to yank the ethernet cable out of the back of the cable modem or turn the phone ringer off. Then again, sometimes it just pays to hit "Save" and go throw the ball for my dog for a while to recharge.

SFRevu: How do you think the illustration market has changed from when you first entered the field to now?

Holly: In general illustration, the changes are huge: greatly expanded markets coupled with fewer opportunities in traditional ones; far greater competition; cheaper self-promotion; shrinking fees and salaries; faster deadline requirements and it's not as much fun as it used to be. (For me, anyways.) I blame the Mac. ;-)

In the SF & F field, budgets are tighter and you see more art directors doing Photoshopped and typography-centric covers as opposed to assigning an illustrator. Gaming design and promotion has opened up some more opportunity, along with its own category in annuals and awards. Some of the bigger names in cover art in the past have moved on into their own personal and fine art and they and some younger artists right out of school have found some really lucrative opportunities in movie and video game conceptual design and animation.

SFRevu: Writer's get writer's block. How do artists keep the creative spirit alive? What artists inspire you and why? How do you keep your creativity flowing?

Holly: I'm an Artist's Way poster-child and the blank page scares the hell out of me. I'm professional enough to understand that you don't get to wait until you "feel" like creating and have to dive in to meet your deadlines. (I'm one of those that does my best work on deadline. I hate that...) I'm also lazy enough to sharpen all my pencils and check email one or two more times before I actually get down to business. Music helps. I listen to everything, but prefer classical "wallpaper" or soundtracks to put me in the mood when I'm in the conceptualizing stage. Once I get rolling, I listen to anything and everything.

I make a point to get out to the local museums and will travel to see a good show. My long-time friend and convention roommate, Ingrid and I have always padded WorldCon or World Fantasy with an extra day or two to see whatever museums or exhibits are in town. Once we bailed out of the Baltimore WorldCon on a Saturday to take the train to see the once-in-a-lifetime Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones exhibit at the Metropolitan in NYC. I'm a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and of the book illustrators of the turn of the 20th century. I listed a few of my favorite artists in a question above, but there are just so many... and so little time. If you ever get to see Charles Vess's slide show (don't miss it!), he covers "my favorite artist" territory in greater depth than I can here. I can tell you that any World Fantasy or WorldCon or any other good art show is a source of enormous inspiration from all the other artists in the field. I get so energized when I see a good show and can't wait to get home to try something new that I saw.

Lately, I'm trying something completely new. Seeing as how I'm the world's least prolific fine artist, I'm taking up intaglio etching for outdoor show inventory (I'm shopping for a press now). I'm also doing things in book arts. I've spent the last two years taking book binding and construction courses and it's dovetailing nicely with my interest in children's book concept dummies.

Another way to keep it flowing: I highly recommend creative circles. Years ago, I started a SF&F quarterly writer's & artist's salon with some friends, where we meet for tea and kept each other on track, creatively. I read and critique submissions even though I'm the only artist in the group but they keep me honest by asking, "what new things have you been doing lately?". I feel really guilty if I don't have a good answer...

SFRevu: I've heard people say illustration and fine art are two different fields of art. Would agree with that? Why?

Holly: Given the quality, I've always thought that some illustration certainly can be fine art as well. I have also noticed that as the illustration field in all subject matter has matured and become more sophisticated over time, the line has really blurred. For some serious collectors of illustration, I don't think there's much of a distinction. (The opposing side would probably beg to differ.) I do make a case for subject matter making the distinction, however. Narrative and promotion can put a piece squarely into the illustration camp.

SFRevu: What do you do to relax? Read any good books lately? How about movies?

Holly: I'll do just about anything but art to relax. Cooking; reading, of course, but my husband and I also stay pretty active. I'm an avid sailor and have a little 14' reproduction 19th century Melonseed skiff which I adore. I've been a Sea Scout leader with teens for almost ten years and did a lot of offshore-overnight sailing with them, to the Bahamas and Dry Tortugas. As Scout leaders, my husband and I have done a lot of backpacking and long canoe trips from Florida to Canada but a highlight was a spectacular six-day trek high in the NM Rockies two years ago near Taos, with just us and a guide, a dog and five llamas. I've also taken up bicycling for daily exercise and I use my bike for short errands and shopping.

Strange; for someone who used to work in the film business, I find I care less and less about movies. I used to not miss a one. (Lately, I enjoyed Stardust and sadly, missed Ratatouille in the theaters.) Battlestar Galactica is a must-see when it comes back and AMC's Mad Men has been appointment viewing this summer during the hiatus. I'm also catching up on the rest of Deadwood when I can and I'll check out Heroes on disk.

Some of the books I've enjoyed in the past several months have been going through George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and I thought Robert Charles Wilson's Spin was the best SF book I'd read in years. I loved Naomi Novik's Dragon books; and I used Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series as a light, refreshing palate cleanser between Diamond's Collapse and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

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).

Holly: Would you go back and change anything about the choices you made in your career?

Definitely. I wouldn't have become a graphic designer. I should've had the courage to not listen to the nay-sayers and become a full-time professional artist and illustrator from the start, cutting out all the other career dead-ends and detours. Jack of all trades, master of none. Now that I finally have the time, everything else at this point is just catch-up.

SFRevu: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

Holly: Thanks! These have been great questions and I really enjoyed it. — Holly Bird

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