Galen Dara sits in a dark corner listening to the voices in her head. She has a love affair with the absurd and twisted, and an affinity for monsters, mystics, and dead things. She has illustrated for 47North, Edge Publishing, Lightspeed, Fireside Magazine, Apex publishing, Lackington Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. Recent book covers include War Stories, Glitter & Mayhem, and Oz Reimagined. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Artist, and is nominated for the 2014 Hugo for Best Professional Artist. Her website is galendara.com, and you can follower her on Twitter @galendara.
Before we get started here, let me just confess: my house is full of Galen Dara art, ranging from prints made from the illustrations in Rigor Amortis to a print of two robots making out—which came off the Geek Love cover, if I remember right—to a very small print of an illustration you did for Lightspeed Magazine. I feel like whenever there are people in your work, no matter the medium, they’re portrayed with this wonderful tenderness. As someone who does a lot of work within dark fantasy and horror, how do you make that work? I mean, aren’t a lot of your commissions for really grim, gory, scary pieces of fiction?
Well I’ve been pretty lucky to work with amazing authors who are gifted at creating stories and characters with incredible depth and complexity. The cover art for this issue of Nightmare is a great example; the Crow Witch is inspired by an intriguing character written by one Wendy N. Wagner in her novel Skinwalkers. I bring my own style and sensitivities to the art, but I am just thrilled when I’m able to work with creators who have respect for the people in the stories they are telling. Artist Greg Ruth wrote a wonderful essay published at Tor.com in May about the value horror stories have for us as humans. There are many necessary things that “grim, gory, and scary” teach us, prepare us for. I find enormous worth in good storytelling, especially of the darker variety. I hope my illustrations do justice to the genre.
It seems like your work in the last two years or so has featured a lot of very soft colors and very flowing lines. Was that something new you were exploring?
I’m rather self-taught as a digital artist; I initially got my BFA in painting. Years later I took a Photoshop course to help me edit my photos. Through trial and error I found I could clean up and add a bit of color to my drawings, and over the course of the next couple years I taught myself how to create entire paintings using Photoshop and a Wacom tablet. Each new piece I create is another chance for me to explore the medium and my technique further.
In your work as an illustrator, you produce a lot of digital art. What’s your process like when you’re working digitally—and is it different than when you’re working with other kinds of media?
Working digitally was pivotal for me to illustrate the way I do; the ability to jump right in and start a piece and still have the flexibility to move things around, undo mistakes, create alternate versions of the same piece. Basically I can experiment with impunity! When I work traditionally, I have to deal with the consequences of my impatience while the paint is drying. Something I’m starting to experiment with is using Photoshop to do my preliminary layouts, like how I currently do, but once I’ve nailed the direction I know I want to go (the point where currently I flatten the image and start “painting” digitally), to then print it out large, transfer it to a primed surface, and continue the work with traditional mediums. I watched Donato Giancola do something similar a few years ago and have been itching to try it.
Back in May, you had a blog post that shared this great picture someone had done up, with an artist working on a giant tablet and the sassy caption: “Oh, you don’t use digital because it’s not real painting? Tell me more about how you mix your own egg tempera pigments.” Do you ever get snark for working digitally? Do you think that’s an attitude that will die out?
I do think that attitude is dying out. There will always be purists who proclaim the evils of new technologies that help artists “cheat,” but artists have loved to use technology to assist them in their creations. In the 1600s, Johannes Vermeer may have been using specialized optical devices to aid him in painting his incredibly realistic paintings, a realism he never could have achieved by strictly eyeballing the subject. In the 1800s, John Rand figured out how to mix paint and put it into small tubes with screw-on caps, which completely changed how artists were able to use color (not to mention freeing them up to create art outside of the confines of their studios). While I miss getting my hands messy and miss having the completely original art piece I get when I paint traditionally, I do not consider the art I create with my tablet and laptop any less “real” or valid.
Let’s talk about the Hugos. Last year, you brought home the Hugo for Best Fan Artist. This year, you’ve been nominated for the Hugo again, but this time in the professional category. That seems like a huge jump to make. How do you feel about getting nominated for science fiction’s biggest award two years in a row? And does it feel different this time?
Oh. Yeah, that. When I got the email a few months ago informing me I had been nominated to be on the ballot for the Best Professional Artist, I quite literally fell out of my chair in a wave of nauseous terror and anxiety. Lots of conflicting emotions. Last year when I won the Hugo for Best Fan Artist it was at an odd intersect in my career; by the time the award ceremony came around, I was no longer doing work for fanzines and I had my first professional illustrating gig under my belt. When it was all said and done I went home, got back to work, and figured that would be the last of that. I am still not entirely sure how to express what it feels like to be on the ballot this year with the likes of Julie Dillon, Dan Dos Santos, John Harris, John Picacio, and Fiona Staples. It’s an honor of shocking proportions.
Another thing about the Hugos—in prior years, there have only been, what, two women ever nominated for Best Professional Artist? And then this year, there are three of you up for the big award. What do you think about gender in your field? Is science fiction and horror illustration still a male-dominated field, or is that really starting to change?
Well, the perception definitely skews towards male-dominated. It’s a very complex issue with no easy answers. There are many amazing artists who happen to be women working in this field who don’t give their gender or their career choice a second thought. This is just what they do: make awesome art and make a living doing so. Two years ago, Julie Dillon walked away with the Chesley award for Best Interior Illustration. Last year Julie Bell won the Chesley for best unpublished work. Several female artists won either gold or silver medals at this year’s Spectrum Fantastic Arts award ceremony, including Victo Ngai, Tran Nguyen, Yuko Shimizu, and Yukari Masuike. But taken as a whole, these accolades are few and far between. As you noted, before last year only two women ever had been nominated for Best Professional Artist in the Hugos; it’s been nine years since an artist who happens to be female has been nominated for a Locus Award; Kinuko Y. Craft is the only women to be named Spectrum’s Grand Master, and while the recent documentary Making It (about surviving as an SF illustrator) did include interviews with such artists as Becky Cloonan, the promo photos showed just the male artists. The issue has gotten a lot of discussion. It’s on a lot of people’s radar. Right now we have a historic Hugo ballot split evenly between the genders. Regardless of who gets that shiny rocket come August, that is kind of a big deal.
Tell me about the Illustration Master Class. You did it in 2012, right? And you’re going back this year. What’s it like? How has it helped you as a creator?
Oh, that’s such a wonderful opportunity—I’d highly recommend it for anyone interested in working in the SF illustrating field. It’s a week-long immersion course where you work intensively onsite with a handful of other illustrators, rubbing elbows and getting feedback from such art world rock stars as Rebecca Guay, Dan Dos Santos, Donato Giancola, Irene Gallo, Greg Manchess, Lauren Panepinto, Julie Bell, Boris Vallejo, and Ian McCaig. Brom was the guest artist the first year I went. Mike Mignola will be there this year, as well as Brian and Wendy Froud. It was a pivotal turning point for me two years ago. I’m excited to see what I can glean this year, at this point in my career.
You’re a very busy lady. You just did the art direction for Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! issue. You just took part in the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live annual show—the book for that comes out in November, I think. What else do you have coming along in the near future? And where can we find more of your great art?
Right now I’m busy working on art for Fireside magazine, Lackington’s, Resurrection House, Ragnarok Publications, and Tyche Books, all stuff that should be going live before fall, fingers crossed.
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