If you've been following my writing on Side Quest, you've probably seen a name crop up nearly as often as my own: Carolyn Smith.
A self-taught artist, Carolyn has been the illustrator for all of my poetry and has collaborated with me on several other projects over the years. This dates back to some of my earliest self-published tabletop RPG work. I wanted to chat with her a bit about her origins as an artist, her interests when she's not illustrating, and the process that goes into her work.
Have a read and do be sure to check out her work and products on Redbubble.
Stew Shearer: Tell everyone about yourself a little bit! The art skills are obvious, at this point, but what other hobbies and things are you into?
Carolyn Smith: Drawing and painting are kind of my main jam, but I also really enjoy other crafty things! I do a lot of crochet and knitting in the winter months, and I took up felting during the pandemic! (which was surprisingly dangerous, yet still enjoyable haha).
I do a lot of reading - mostly fantasy and science fiction, with the occasional murder mystery thrown in for variety, and have lately become obsessed with watching British mystery and detective programs. I'm an avid gardener and plant enthusiast, descended from a long line of garden-lovers to be fair, and use a considerable amount of my free time taking care of what seems like my small army of indoor plants (mostly pothos of varying types).
Lastly, my husband and I do a lot of gaming together (co-operative video games, less co-operative board games...), and he shares my passion for tabletop RPGs! We're in the midst of a multi-year Dungeons & Dragons campaign with some friends, and we've just taken up Necromunda together!
SS: You have described yourself as a self-taught illustrator? How did you learn to draw exactly?
CS: It probably started with my love of picture books as a kid! I was always fascinated by the illustrations in books, especially the art of author/illustrators like Phoebe Gilman and Jan Brett, I also LOVED my mom's copy of The Hobbit that was illustrated by the Hildebrandt brothers. Their work was so detailed and full of colour and movement, and I adored it and wanted to make my own. I just took to sitting down and looking at things I wanted to draw - either from books, pictures, or the real world- and would do it over and over again until I was more or less satisfied with what I'd created. My very supportive and patient parents must have hung up thousands of pictures of the same flower, or stuffed cat, or our dog for many years.
I've been lucky enough that I had a good enough eye to kind of look at something and, while not replicating it exactly, could essentially reproduce the parts that I wanted to use and then Frankenstein them into what I wanted to draw. I still do the same thing now when working on illustrations! I use a variety of figure models and make a lot of weird faces in the mirror or my camera to figure out how a character's face or body should look under a specific circumstance.
I guess it's really just boiled down to a LOT of practice! The only thing that I've never been able to figure out, despite literal years of trying, is horses of all things. They just look like windsocks with manes, and I can never do their hooves properly... so they either just dissolve at the knee or are standing in very, very tall grass. Please don't ever write a poem about a horse.
SS: You do a lot of illustrations for me, but I've also seen a lot of your other work and "fantasy" definitely seems to be your wheelhouse. Why is that?
CS: I think it mostly comes from the fact that fantasy art was some of the first that I was really exposed to as a kid, and that so many of my general interests are within the realm of fantasy as well.
We had framed prints by Sulamith Wulfing in our home growing up, books of medieval art featuring dragons and knights, and as previously mentioned the Hidlerbrandts' Hobbit. I love the fun and freedom that comes with being able to illustrate a character where you can pull and push at the proportions because they're an elf, or a halfling, or a giant troll; where you can get lost in the tiny details of drawing chainmail rings, or designing a fantastic set of robes or armour that -while still needing to have functionality- aren't necessarily needing to be bound by our definitions of reality.
"Fantasy" in general is also just such a comfort genre for me! I grew up watching movies like Willow, reading books about wizards, rogues, and knights, and playing Dungeons & Dragons with my dad as the DM and my mom as our (incredibly patient) party leader. My parents helped instill such a love of the fantastical in me, that creating art in that same realm feels like coming home.
SS: I know what my process (if you can even call it that!) looks like when I'm sending you a request for an art piece. I send you a poem/fiction piece, a few notes, and then wait to see what you come up with. What does it look like on your end?
CS: Typically I try to read the poem before I've even read the body of your email. I'll go through the whole thing once, and then go back over it stanza by stanza and make notes of any particular images that come to mind, or feelings that are evoked.
Sometimes I get an immediate and very clear image for what I want to do, other times it's a little more vague- more like a general aesthetic. Then I'll go back and read your notes, and see if our ideas line up. If they don't (which is very rare, conveniently), I try to figure out how best to blend the two together. After that, it's a matter of gathering reference pieces or posing some models if needed, making a quick mock-up sketch (literally just lines, and stick figures) for working out balance and flow, and then getting stuck in!
SS: Are there any particular things you find challenging when it comes to your art? Poses, angles, creatures, etc?
CS: Oh gosh, SO much, but I like a challenge! I struggle with hands a lot - usually I try to hide them in pockets, or behind figures or objects- but I've been really making an effort to force myself into actually using poses that incorporate visible hands or fists.
I almost always resort to looking up references, since trying to use my own hands results in all of my characters having tiny, Hobbit-y hands with short fingers. Poses from behind are tricky, but fun; you have to absolutely NAIL posture and body language since you can't rely on facial expressions to project emotions.
In terms of creatures, anything snake-like is a hard pass. I'm a wuss and they are absolute nightmare fuel for me, and the only reference I can look up without wanting to cry is Sir Hiss from Disney's Robin Hood. I was able to do your Medusa since I could hide the snakes in her hair wrap lol. As for challenging creatures, Horses are hard... and I do everything in my power to dissuade people from commissioning them in artwork. "Oh, your fighter has a horse, huh? Have you ever thought about trading up for a dragon? Everybody loves a nice, happy dragon."
SS: Do you have a dream project you'd like to illustrate for? What is it?
CS: I would give my left foot for a chance to have an illustration in one of the Dungeons & Dragons expansion books. And that's the nice foot- it has the toe rings. But seriously, just to have something, even a potion bottle, in one of those books would be absolutely incredible.