CROSSING BOUNDARIES WITH JULIE BELL
WALT MORTON: Genres you paint include fantasy, western, wildlife, nudes, horses, cats and dogs, and portraits. This is very unusual today, when most artists seem to choose one kind of content to specialize in: a singular brand identity making things easy for consumers. How do you decide what subjects to produce?
JULIE BELL: Deciding is very difficult for me because I'm in love with so many beautiful and exciting ideas about what to paint. I'm happy that I spent two decades developing a career in fantasy and now I can indulge in some of my other interests, while still keeping my place within the world of fantasy art. Everywhere I look, there is something I want to paint. If I'm talking to you face to face, I'm listening to your words and ideas, but I'm also studying why your nose and eyes look the way they do, how the shadows and highlights work. At any given time, I have 10-15 paintings in development, all of different subjects. I keep them all out in view so that I can look at them while I'm not working on them (maybe while I'm doing yoga or talking on the phone.) This gives me time to process my thoughts about what I like and don't like about them while they're still incomplete. I think this also allows my subconscious to play a bigger part in the finished piece.
WALT MORTON: Frank Frazetta, the world’s best-known fantasy artist commented that doing cowboy & western imagery was not a good idea for him because the genre was well covered by other artists. So there’s an idea if somebody else is already doing something well, it will be difficult to compete. What about that?
JULIE BELL: I find competition to be inspiring and helpful. I used to be a competitive bodybuilder and I learned a lot about what a useful and motivating force my own natural competitive feelings could be, as long as they're properly channeled and not abused. I'd never before heard that particular quote from Frazetta, but, assuming he did say that, I'm guessing that competition presented a different kind of personal challenge for him and he chose to avoid that feeling. The risk of finding out that you're not number one at something is painful for sure, but I've been there. Many times in different arenas and I refuse to be limited by allowing that fear to be a determining factor in my choices.
WALT MORTON: I could look at your work and think: “She has just decided the Hell with the rest of the world and she is just going to paint subjects she loves and what she finds beautiful.” Is that an accurate assessment?
JULIE BELL: Yep! I still need to make a living, so I do take commissions and sometimes create paintings that I'm hoping will sell. But, as much as I can, I like to pretend that time and money are unlimited resources and I just paint what I choose. The problem is that it's so very difficult to pick any one thing from the infinite parade of gorgeous stuff going through my eyes and my mind! I get indescribably deep pleasure from the things I see out in the world. The emotions I experience are so intense and I really want to share that with other people. When I feel this particular feeling of obsession about an idea or an image, that's when I know I want to paint it.
WALT MORTON: Your first notoriety came as a fantasy illustrator in the 1990s, but it seems even then you were combining elements from different painting genres. Was this a conscious choice? At what point in your career did you feel like moving away from fantasy illustration into other content and genres?
JULIE BELL: Your question makes me remember a conversation I had with my two sons (now both professional artists, Anthony and David Palumbo) when they were kids. I had just started my career as an illustrator and I told them that "I want to be a Heavy Metal-ballerina-cowgirl". I think the spirit of these different parts of myself has always been at the core of my work. I just love that combination of gracefulness and badass, completely in tune with nature. So I don't see myself moving away from fantasy because the fantasy world is so open and allows for experiment. I would say, though, that I'm discovering new places in fantasy that I'm really enjoying and I do hope my fantasy audience likes where I'm taking them.
WALT MORTON: There is an explosive popularity now in events like Comicon, but not much appreciation of “museum” fine art culture. Artists who take fine art to Comicon, it gets lost in the noise. Can you leverage your fan base to support fine art?
JULIE BELL: I'm working on it. I attend Illuxcon every year because I think that it is the best gathering of high quality fantasy artists in the world. The people who started Illuxcon had the specific purpose in mind to encourage fantasy illustrators to use their exceptional talents to create pieces of art that will show the world that illustration can be fine art, and of the highest caliber. It takes time for people's minds to open, of course, and buying art poses some questions to potential collectors: Is this piece going to maintain or increase its value? Do I like it? Will my friends and neighbors respect me when they see this in my house?
WALT MORTON: Are your collectors segregated by genre? Wildlife art fans would like one of your wolf paintings like A FRIENDLY TUSSLE, while horse lovers would like WHITE VELVET. Are people buying content? — or painting quality? — or just collecting Julie Bell?
JULIE BELL: Yes, collectors do seem to be segregated by genre to some degree. It's been an interesting path learning about this since entering the Wildlife and Western Art markets through the galleries I work with that show my Western/Wildlife art, Legacy Gallery and Saks Gallery. It's a rookie mistake to think that you can just pop into a new genre with all your great credentials from somewhere else and automatically be accepted right away. There are so many nuances to what any group of people who follow a particular subject look for and think about. They've spent years collecting and thinking about their subject and, while they may like your work, you've got to respect the fact that you don't really know their language and spend some time learning it. Still, there are factors that cross all lines of division, and my favorite of these factors is emotion. I've been fortunate to get feedback from the people who have bought my Western and Wildlife paintings and they have all felt a strong emotional connection to the paintings they bought, like it was something they personally connected with. I think that this happens because I do feel such a direct emotional connection with the animals I paint and I think it becomes embedded (like a code in the work,) then transmitted to future viewers of the work. The technique and stylistic choices are all important, but there is nothing like genuine emotion.
WALT MORTON: Currently, your fine art is represented by Rehs Gallery in New York. Many illustrators never make the jump from commercial art to fine art. What do you think is essential to do this kind of professional transition?
JULIE BELL: That's such a good question and it definitely takes some time for an artist to figure this out. When you've spent your career working commercially, it's hard for most people to really and truly let go of thinking commercially. The difference can be so subtle. I remember when I was a kid and people would talk about "finding yourself" and I thought, what the hell are you talking about? I know who and where I am! But when I really did start to understand more about who and where I am, I understood that I hadn't known before. The same thing happens in the transition from commercial to fine art and it's just as inexplicable. So, to all you artists out there that feel like you're constantly barking up the wrong tree and knocking yourselves in the head, you're on the right path, just keep going. Bark up lots of wrong trees until you start to find some right trees. Change trees as necessary. Repeat.
WALT MORTON: How would you describe your current oil painting style (realist? pop-surrealist?) and how did it evolve? What are the tools or techniques most valuable to you in making a painting?
JULIE BELL: I'm describing it mostly as realism, but with a surrealistic turn. I started my art studies doing only life drawing from a model and only learned about composition and painting techniques after I met my husband, Boris Vallejo, when I was 30 years old. In the beginning of my professional career, I followed his style, but still brought my own ideas to the concepts I was painting. The thing that really set off a departure from following his style was dragons. I always loved his dragons and thought that they were the absolute best dragons that could exist. They were so powerful and realistic and macho. Every time I tried to paint this kind of dragon, I would end up in tears of frustration because I could only see where my dragons fell short of his dragons. He kept saying to me, "Just do your own damn dragons!", so I finally got the courage to bust out a dragon that was MY dragon (Victory Flight) and I never went back. It made me realize that I had my own things to say, even within painting technique, and that I should respect that. Letting that dragon out of the closet was a big step for me and, since that time, my work has become more and more a reflection of my inner world. As to tools and techniques, that's a subject that I could go on about forever because I loooooove art materials and experimenting with them. I'm on a first-name basis with representatives at several art supply companies because I enjoy just hearing information about the endless possibilities of all their products. And it's great because they seem to love telling someone about it! I'm a full-on art supply geek. I paint with oil, so it's also important to learn about materials safety. Some paints are highly toxic and it's important to know what you're working with if you want to keep all of your brain cells intact for as long as possible. As for surfaces, I prefer painting on wood most of all. The smoothness of the surface and the resonance of the wood lets me paint my first layers as if I'm doing ballet, just moving that brush with complete freedom and flourish. Sometimes I don't even look at it while I'm working, I just let it go. Then I let it dry and go back and apply a more disciplined approach to the realistic elements.
WALT MORTON: There’s a revived interest in figurative oil painting at many atelier programs in oil painting. What do you think is the best way to learn to be an oil painter? Are there any mis-steps you’d warn people to avoid?
JULIE BELL: I'm all for ateliers because they have such a great focus on the discipline of learning realism. In my own studies after high school, I started out attending a community college in the Atlanta area where I had some fantastic teachers. During my college years, I moved quite a few times to different parts of the country, so I actually ended up attending six different colleges and universities, none of them famous, always majoring in art, always focusing on drawing from the model. The only mis-step I can think of in learning to be an oil painter would be to limit your learning. Thinking that you can only learn properly at a renowned school is simply untrue. There are good teachers and not-so-good teachers everywhere, and you can learn from all of them.
WALT MORTON: One thing you do in some paintings is cross boundaries and slam together realist wildlife, fantasy, nudes — all in one wild composition. This breaks it out of one genre into a postmodern mashup, while also refuting the lazy idea that “all content has been done before.” Any thoughts about that? What do people make of these strange and un-categorizable works? Do they understand what you are doing?
JULIE BELL: I'm glad you mentioned that! These paintings are my best efforts so far to show you and the rest of the world what it's like inside my mind. The combination of a little nearsightedness and the part of my brain that does face recognition allows me to see all kinds of beautiful stories everywhere I look. I have two dogs that I walk with often and, while I'm walking, I'm just seeing the most amazing things in tree stumps, bird poop on the street, piles of leaves, reflections in water, things like that. I sketch down my ideas in my sketchbook with the intention of painting them, but by the time I get to that painting, my mind is already different and it becomes a new thing altogether. So I allow this change to be part of my process, working with it like a partner. I do think that it's taking time for people to get used to seeing my kind of painting. I enjoy eavesdropping on people looking at my paintings in a show and like to get a sense of what they're attracted to -- or not. I think one of my paintings that causes the greatest puzzlement for people is Behind The Veil. The idea of the painting comes from a recurring dream I had as a kid where I was climbing trees in my backyard and accidentally knocked down a power line. When it fell into the yard, it turned into a bucking, snorting zebra and was chasing me all over the place. It chased me into my school and the army came after me with helicopters, all kinds of bad stuff. I think that the chaotic energy of that dream is in that painting and maybe people feel it when they look at it. But because the technique I painted with has love for the textures and beauty of the zebras and the lady, it creates a discord that's even more chaotic and uncomfortable to look at.
WALT MORTON: Thanks Julie, great stuff. People can see more artwork at your website: http://www.juliebell.com.
JULIE BELL BIO:
Julie Bell was born in Beaumont, Texas. A former competitive bodybuilder, Julie applies the same discipline and intensity to her art. Her knowledge of anatomy has allowed her to imbue her figures of humans and animals with grace and strength. At the heart of her work is an element of empowerment and independence.
She began her career as an illustrator in the field of fantasy and science fiction. She quickly gained recognition and her work has appeared on hundreds of book covers, trading cards, and various collectibles. She has created art for worldwide advertising campaigns for Nike, Coca Cola, Toyota, Ford, Turner Broadcasting System, and many others. In 1999, she decided to produce a body of work, just for herself, of wolves. Since that day, she has turned her attention more and more to her own personal work. Her original paintings have been shown in exhibitions across the US and in Europe, and can currently be seen at Legacy Gallery and Saks Gallery in the Western US and Rehs Contemporary Gallery in New York City.
There are four volumes of her work available, Soft as Steel, Hard Curves, The Julie Bell Portfolio, and many books with her husband, Boris Vallejo, such as Fantasy Workshop, Twin Visions, Superheroes, Sketchbook, The Ultimate Collection, Fabulous Women, Imaginistix, and, most recently, Dreamland. Each year, Julie and Boris create a unique fantasy calendar together, published by Workman Publishing.