Another week, another installment of Creator Corner, the interview series where I sit down and talk with independent content creators. Since I’ve been spending a lot of time in the A Song of Ice and Fire community recently, I’ve been getting to know some of the wonderful fanartists who brings so much beauty to the fandom. Last time I talked with Calliope, and I have another interview in the works after this one. This time, I talked with Vanessa Cole, an extremely talented artist whose photo-realistic pencil drawings took my breath away when I first saw them. So if you like Dany, armor, and dragons, it’s time you get to know Vanessa. Trust me, you’ll like her—she draws and knows things.
Gretchen: So let’s start at the beginning, when did you start making art and what inspired you?
Vanessa Cole: I’ve been drawing and painting ever since I was a little kid. I don’t remember how I got really interested in doing it. I do remember when I was young my parents offered to get me art lessons and they told me my response was, “Why do I need lessons, I know how to draw.” I was very humble.
So yeah, I’ve always been interested in it. I did take art classes throughout school and into college, and then I got away from it when I went into the workforce, got married, had a family. I didn’t really have the time and it wasn’t a priority. Then, once I got more involved in the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones community (ASOIAF/GOT), I started getting more interested because I saw all the other great fanart that was out there. I thought, “You know, I wonder if I could do that, it’s been a long time.” So I started trying my hand at doing portraits and it’s evolved into other things from there. I’m trying to branch out and do more full figures and scenery, all that stuff. It’s been fun! It’s been about three years since I got back into doing it pretty heavily and I’ve been trying to work in it a little each day.
G: So you mentioned the ASOIAF community, what have been your other artistic inspirations? It can be anything from a specific style or artist or culture, just whatever gets your creative juices flowing or sparks your imagination.
VC: I really am inspired by all different style and genres. I grew up loving Impressionism, I was a fan of the big names in Impressionist community—Monet, Van Gogh. I always loved that style and that’s how I used to draw when I was younger, especially when I did landscapes it would be much more of an Impressionistic style. I didn’t do a much figure drawing or faces until within the past three years.
There are too many different fandom artists that I love to name, but I tend to be drawn to styles that are different from mine. I love Sanrixian, she’s always popular in the ASOIAF community. We have very different styles, and I love her use of color and the emotion and feeling that you get from looking at her pieces. I always try to, even though it’s a very different style, to capture those same kinds of emotions when I’m drawing a scene or faces.
G: Like I said, I know you from the ASOIAF)/ GOT fandom. Did you get your start in fanart in this fandom or elsewhere? What other fandoms do you draw for?
VC: I don’t really draw for other fandoms because I don’t have time. I wish I could! I did do one piece of Tony Stark—I love how it turned out—and I did one Wonder Woman that I really enjoyed as well. I wish I had time to do that more and maybe one day I will.
As I mentioned, the reason I got back into drawing was because of being involved in the fandom community and saw all the other great fanart out there. It’s funny, I read the ASOIAF books first—I started them in around 2011 because a friend recommended them—and then I binged the first season of the show because it was already out. I didn’t really get involved in the community for several more years. I would look at theories online, maybe read message boards on occasion, but that was about it.
What really got me involved was an app called QuizUp; it has different categories of trivia and one of them was ASOIAF. They have a GOT category as well, so I would play games with questions about books and the show. They also have message boards where you can make posts, ask questions, post links, etc and the ASOIAF one was pretty active at the time (it’s not so much anymore). So, they would organize tourneys where you would compete against each other and have names from characters in the books. It was a lot of fun. I started drawing things and posting them there to get feedback and everyone was super supportive. Some of them were involved in an ASOIAF Facebook group and they encouraged me to join and post stuff there. Then I got involved in Twitter and eventually started writing for Watchers on the Wall…So yeah, it all snowballed from playing a silly trivia game on my phone. Which is a strange way to get into the fandom I think.
G: That’s not strange at all! I got started on Tumblr and mostly did what you did—hung out on the fringes reading theories and analysis. Then I got into podcasts and Lucifer Means Lightbringer from Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire pulled me into the fandom discussions on Twitter. We all have our own paths.
VC: Writing for Watchers on the Wall is probably what got me heavily involved because I was one of those lurkers and would maybe contribute occasionally. Obviously writing for them and then going to Con of Thrones and being on panels meant I had to start using Twitter a lot more to promote my art and the site and it blew up from there.
G: So what do you write for Watchers on the Wall and what panels were you involved in at Con of Thrones?
VC: We mostly cover news that comes up. During the season we’ll do recaps or cover any post-episode interviews, all that stuff. I haven’t had time to write for them very often as of late, I’m sure that’ll change once the season gets started. I’ve written a couple of features for them. I’m trying to work on one now that I’m struggling to find the time to do.
As far as panels, I did several different ones over the past two years and the next Con of Thrones is coming up in July. I’ve done ones on Melisandre, Daenerys, Stannis, direwolves, creativity in the fandom—it’s run the gamut and it’s all really fun. It’s been a great way to be involved
G: Do you have any favorite subject matter or specific characters you like to draw?
VC: Daenerys is my favorite character, her and Jon, and I really enjoy drawing them. I would say I like drawing Cersei, especially because Lena Headey is so expressive, but she’s also very difficult I think. The nuances of her facial expressions can totally change her look and if you don’t get it just right, something looks off. She’s incredibly difficult for me to capture, but I love to try. I love drawing armor, trying to render metal with pencil; it’s very challenging, but I think it turns out really, really well and I love to see the final product. That’s probably one of my more favorite things to draw.
G: Do you think that making fanart has changed or evolved your artistic style in any way? If so, how?
VC: I think it’s made it more realistic. When I started off, my drawings weren’t very photo-realistic at all. I tried, but I wasn’t quite there. Drawing from a photo especially—if it’s a good, high quality one—I find that more and more I try to capture every little nuance, every little shadow, every little line as accurately as I can in my drawings. So I think that’s really helped me mature and evolve as an artist. I’ve gotten better and better at doing that and my drawings have gotten much more detailed over the past three years.
It’s a lot of fun, and I’m always going to push myself to make it more realistic. I’ve actually been accused a couple of times of just taking a photo and using an app to make it look like a drawing. I’ve even had a couple of people tell me to take a photo of the paper with the background behind it so they could see that it was actually a drawing. It’s a bit frustrating, but I do take it as a compliment that they think it isn’t possible someone actually drew it.
G: From your website, it looks like you use multiple mediums; what compels you about each of them? Do they allow you to do different things with your art and if so, what?
VC: I really enjoy trying different things. I would love to get into digital art, but I don’t have the time and I don’t have a good enough tablet to do it on. That’s going to be a purchase at some point in the future. They’re all challenging in their own ways. I love pencil because I started out doing more with that and it’s easier and faster for me. And when I say faster, it’s still incredibly grueling and takes forever. I am not a quick worker at all, which I hate. I’ll see Sanrixian posting her live drawings like, as she’s doing a live stream she’s drawing the whole time. I would never do that because it would have to be a days long livestream!
So yeah, pencil is easiest and the fastest. I like colored pencil and have gotten better at that. I wish I had time to do more of it because I like that you can almost make it look like a painting but it’s less messy. I have much better control with pencil. It’s funny, when I tell people this they think it’s really strange but my hands aren’t the steadiest. If I’m doing a line drawing, I have to go over lines repeatedly to make it look like a smooth or straight line. I use eraser a lot. It makes painting quite difficult.
Acrylic is nice because it dries so quickly you can paint over mistakes. Though that’s also challenging because it’s hard to blend colors and get a realistic look. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on. I’d also love to get into oil painting but it’s terribly messy. If you happen to spill it it’s very difficult to clean up, and I don’t have a good space for it in my house unfortunately. I’m also always on the go, I travel a lot for work. It’s easier to pick up a drawing pad and pencils than carting paint around everywhere.
So that’s why my focus has been where it is. I feel like I’d really like to master colored pencil and maybe get into digital painting. Then at some point I might try physical painting. It’s just difficult for now—maybe one day!
G: Sounds like you do a lot and have a lot going on in your life.
VC: Yeah, if I could make this my full-time job I would. I keep telling myself ‘one day’ for that, too. But it’s a fun hobby for now. Well, it’s more than a hobby, it’s more like a second job.
G: Do you have your own original art that you’re working on, or want to work on if you don’t have time right now?
VC: I’ve done some landscape paintings, not very many and they’re not great. I could definitely improve. I was also commissioned to do a series of dog portraits for a cider company in Canada, so my paintings are on his cider bottles, which is kind of interesting. I’ve done commissions for friends and family like family portraits or pets. But I don’t really have time for anything outside of Game of Thrones stuff because I’m also involved in a podcast for Watchers on the Wall, the Night’s Cast, and we’ve been doing weekly giveaways of different season art. As we do our rewatches we give away one of my drawings for each season or episode, depending on what we’re doing. So, that really has taken up the majority of my time.
I’m also going to try and get a table at Con of Thrones to sell my work, so I’m trying to build that portfolio so I’ll have plenty of product there. Hopefully after the show’s over and the con is over later in the summer I’ll move into some different things, either taking more commissions or even working on the book side of the fandom, doing more ASOIAF work. I’ve been wanting to do that but I’ve had to put it off for a long time.
G: Are there any particular aspects of ASOIAF that you really want to draw?
VC: I love doing stuff with the dragons even though it’s really difficult and time consuming, so I’d like to do some full color scenes with dragons and Daenerys. I think that would be a lot of fun. I’ve had people ask me about doing battle scenes, but I’m…I don’t know. Armor is so difficult with just one person! Having to render a bunch of people in armor sounds very, very frustrating. So I don’t know, maybe. Something like that I think would be a little bit easier if I got into digital art. We’ll see. Leaving my options open.
G: Any advice for people out there who want to get into making fanart or original art?
VC: Just do it. Like I said, I quit for over a decade and I kick myself every day thinking how much better I could be now if I never stopped and had just continued and pushed myself to get better. I hear things from people all the time like, “I just can’t draw.” or “I’m not good at it.” or “I have no talent.” Just try it. You never know!
When I first started back into it, I thought my art was really good, and I guess it was okay, but looking back at it from where I am now, I can’t believe I actually shared that with people! I’m embarrassed that I even drew it. So, you never know how much progress you can make when you put in the work. Even if you don’t think you have the talent, you never know. I spent a lot of time looking at other people’s art. I would study photographs and faces and just really learn how light hits different angles, what kinds of shadows are created, knowing what those contours look like, and studying figures. I did a lot of that and that makes a big difference when you’re actually drawing people. Animals too.
Just looking at photographs is just a big help—different lights, different scenery. The more you study, the more you really understand the way light works against a subject, and that’s key to making an accurate looking drawing.
G: Thanks for talking with me, Vanessa!
VC: You’re welcome!