|Nene Thomas and Ruth Thompson: Partners in Paint|
Nene (Tina) Thomas and Ruth Thompson, two fantasy artists with thriving careers in contract and freelance work, liked talking to each other while painting so much that they couldn't help wondering what it would be like to paint together. The resulting painting, "Shieldmates," proved to be such fun that they plan to do it again. But before they started their next shared work they shared with Crescent Blues what it takes to both paint your own way and as part of a team.
Crescent Blues: How long have you known that you wanted to be an artist?
Nene Thomas: Since I was four and drawing people all the time. I drew and drew and drew. I wouldn't go out at recess and play with the other kids, because I'd rather draw. I wouldn't do my homework, because I'd rather draw. I wouldn't do the housework, because I'd rather draw. Eventually it got to the point where I could make a living off it, which is the best thing.
Crescent Blues: Did you take art in college?
Nene Thomas: I took a couple of courses in college, but mostly what I do is I try to find artists of a higher [proficiency] level than myself and ask them for help. A Disney animator was helping me out. A comic book artist was helping me out. I've approached fantasy artists and asked for critique. How do you do this? How do you do that? So I guess it's self-taught, but I would try to find people to give me pointers.
Crescent Blues: What would you consider your first major break or your first major sale?
Nene Thomas: The first major one would probably be the work for Wizards of the Coast. (Image 8) Those were the Magic® cards. With Wizards' success, twenty million other card companies came out, and for a while there was so much contract work for really anyone who could hold a pen.
Crescent Blues: How do you prepare work for card games? Do they tell you the story? Do they give you descriptions of the figures and scenes?
Nene Thomas: It varies from company to company. In the beginning, Wizards of the Coast was very free with what they wanted. For one card description, all they gave me was: "It's a blue-black card -- blue for water, black for evil. We'd like something that has to deal with evil and water." And that was it. Now the requirements for the cards are: "We want this character in this costume with this weapon in this background, etc., etc., etc." And there's no freedom anymore.
Crescent Blues: Are you still doing cards?
Nene Thomas: No, I'm not. [Laughs.]
Crescent Blues: How about you, Ruth? When did you first know you were going to become an artist?
Ruth Thompson: I never knew I was going to do this when I grew up. I was in biology, but I loved mythology. I don't think I was really exposed to comics and things like that. I didn't read Tolkien until I was in college. I actually fell into role-playing games first.
I met the man who was later to become my husband [through role-playing games] in high school, and I started doing sketches of our characters. When we went to college, I continued doing sketches for the game, and I had a major in biology for three years. My younger sister Victoria Williams and Todd (my future husband) made me mat the sketches and put them in the art show at a small convention called Continuity.
They were just pencil sketches that hung up on the wall, and I sold them. It was my first $48. It was the best $48 I ever made in my whole life. It was probably the biggest rush you could ever get -- knowing that your ideas meant something to somebody else. And of course, it turns into money, and I have never been offended by money.
Money is a measure of how much work someone else has done. If they choose to give it to me, based on how much work they've done, there's something I'm doing correct. There's something that's connecting.
I've been a professional for ten years, since 1990 when I graduated from the University of Alabama. I did get my degree in graphic design despite the courses in biology. I had tons of hours in biology. Then I was briefly in Classics, for about a year. That was too hard. It was cool until I hit Ancient Greek, and that was just way too tough.
When I got out of college, I had to decide whether I was going to work for somebody or be a freelancer. So I was a freelancer for a year and really enjoying it. I was making more money then -- it's a little different now with computer-aided design -- making more money in six months than I would in a whole year working at a graphics design agency.
Then I went to work for Steve Jackson Games, which was an interesting experience. Not that it was bad! But it taught me that I'm going to work for myself for the rest of my life. If I'm going to screw up my destiny, I'm going to be the one that's going to do it.
Since then, I still do contract work. I did a lot of Magic® cards when they were really hot, then I pulled away from it and started concentrating on my own work. I've done work for TSR and Dungeons & Dragons®, Mayfair Games, ICE…bunches of people. Not White Wolf, because my stuff is too soft for them.
Crescent Blues: What do you mean by soft?
Ruth Thompson: White Wolf's stuff was rather moody -- not that it was just horror-based, but it was looser than the kind of stuff I would do. I like their work. I admire the other artists, because I like to buy work like that. But it doesn't look like the kind of work that I do.
Ruth Thompson: Isn't that stuff great? There's that one piece over there, "Visitor from the Forgotten Past" -- oh, I love that one. His stuff is just out there.
In 1994 -- and Nene does this too -- I added Renaissance festivals, which are beginning to cross over more [into the fantasy arena]. I have two full-time assistants now, and we do four big Renaissance festivals: Minnesota, Kansas City, Colorado and Arizona. I have a part-time couple in Florida who do the local shows. They do about four local Renaissance festivals in Florida.
Crescent Blues: They sell your work at the Renaissance festivals?
Ruth Thompson: Oh yeah, thank God! Because my butt's home painting. That's the only way you can do it. You can't do all the shows you have a chance to do, because if you do, you burn yourself out and you won't have time to paint.
Since then, it's been an interesting journey, it really has. I love some things about it, and there are some things that make me go: "Why am I doing this?"
Crescent Blues: How do you build a painting? You mentioned computer-aided design. Does that play a role in your work?
Ruth Thompson: I'm not as familiar with that. Some people can do it backwards and forwards. Some friends of ours who use it for Christmas stuff and do some amazing stuff. What I do is a pencil thumbnail, which is a quickie sketch. Then I'll rough it out on a grid -- nothing that takes a long time -- to know the placement.
I'm getting into doing more studies, because I've learned that the more studies I do, the less I screw up later on. After I have a finished little sketch, I'll start pulling for reference. That's where a lot of [computer-related] things come in. You can go on the Web and find wonderful photographs of people and critters.
I use the computer for manipulation. Say I found a set of wings from a bird that were a great reference, but they were kind of scrunched. I would stick it into Photoshop(r) and stretch it here and stretch it there and shift some colors until they're perfect. That's exactly the reference I need when I go to paint the wings on a Pegasus or on an angel.
I use the computer as a tool, because I'm not really familiar with it. I can get by. I'm still in love with the painting process.
Crescent Blues: What's your favorite medium?
Ruth Thompson: I used oils and watercolors on every piece you see in my booth. People go: "Oh, it's acrylic!" And I go: "No, it's both."
I know it's freaky. But I had no money in college, and you get more bang for your buck in a watercolor palette. One tube of oils was like $7. In college? Are you kidding? For $7 I could get 25 colors. So that's where I learned how to use watercolors.
Then I realized that oils allow blending all over the place. I'm shifting more and more into oils, especially when I want to get highly detailed areas like the face. Of course, the face is the most important thing of any piece for me. The face, hair, little tiny bits of armor -- I'll spray them with workable fixative, and I can do oil, watercolor, and do it in layers.
You can work with any medium. So many people say, "Why do you do that?" You just do. You add more medium to whatever you want to do. I'll add more white to my watercolors so the paint will be heavier and sit on the surface.
Crescent Blues: What do you use as your base?
Ruth Thompson: I use illustration board and pencil. With the big ones, I'll do an underpainting in black and white ink -- an ink wash. Then I'll rough in the big areas of color that need to be knocked out, then I'll start painting.
Actually, I start with the faces, because I'm impatient. If I do it the traditional way, which is the background then the foreground, by the time I get to the face I'm just exhausted. I just want to get done. So I start with the face, then the background and the foreground, so I can keep my focus and get that one thing correct in the beginning.
Crescent Blues: What about you, Nene? How do you build a painting?
Nene Thomas: Like Ruth I start with a thumbnail, a really quick little sketch. For me the thumbnails are the most enjoyable part of the piece. There's the most freedom. No one will ever see them but my husband and me. Nobody needs to know the code to: "Oh, that's a person, that's a dragon, that's a cow."
Once I have the thumbnail, then I'll start looking for references. "OK, I need a reference of a knight standing this way with this rock." And sometimes, if I can't find a reference, I'll get lazy and make it up.
After I've done the big sketch -- usually it's one-to-one, as big as I'm going to paint it -- I make a photocopy of the big sketch and reduce it to 8-by-10. I put the sketch on my Artograph(r), which is a projector, project it on illustration board and trace it all out. Then I work with watercolors in layers. I don't put anything on the board except the color. Sometimes I'll use inks to outline. On my last four pieces, at the end I used a little bit of colored pencil, because it makes the color a little heavier. It gives the color more body and richness.
Crescent Blues: How do you generate your prints off the watercolor? Do you use your computer?
Nene Thomas: I take my original to my lithographers, and they shoot an 8-by-10 photo-transparency. They take the photo-transparency and make plates from it.
Computers don't play any part in my work, not because I have anything against computers at all, but I'm afraid of them. I don't know how to use them. I don't want to take the time to learn how to use them. The only thing I use computers for is email, getting on the Web and collecting references.
Crescent Blues: But you do have a lovely Web site.
Nene Thomas: I have a friend who does that for me, and I'm encouraging my sister to train herself to update the Web site.
Crescent Blues: Just to clarify something: when you're building up the layers of watercolor, do you spray fixative between the layers? Or do you let the paint dry and simply paint over it?
Nene Thomas: I'll put down a wash that's mostly water with a little bit of paint, and it will dry almost immediately. Then I'll put down another wash and another. And there are places that may have twenty or thirty washes, again and again with different colors. For things that need to be really white or really black, sometimes I'll even work a little bit of acrylic into it…
I have read that some traditional watercolorists will not use white watercolor or black watercolor. I have no such compunctions. I think black watercolor and white watercolor are lovely colors -- if indeed they are colors.
Crescent Blues: What are your next goals for yourself as an artist?
Nene Thomas: I would like my people to get more realistic, to start introducing lighting into my paintings. A recent innovation for me has been full backgrounds from the designed panel. So, more realistic people, more realistic lighting and, definitely, backgrounds that show more storytelling.
Crescent Blues: How did you and Ruth get together?
Ruth Thompson: I was aware of Tina's stuff --
Nene Thomas: I'd heard of your work. Actually, people were comparing my stuff to yours before I'd ever seen a single piece. In fact, the first time I saw one of your pictures I thought it was by one of my friends, April Lee, because it was a male angel with a dragon behind it. I thought that was by April Lee, believe it or not.
Ruth Thompson: Going to conventions, I'd seen Tina's stuff. It must have been when she was getting started. I started in '90, and you started in?
Nene Thomas: Ninety-three was my first convention, and that was where Wizards of the Coast approached me. I found your stuff and Lawrence Allen William's stuff the first time you were sharing a booth. I was blown away, just absolutely blown away by Ruth's work. She had a piece called "Task of Heaven" that looked like a classical painting but of a modern fantasy woman. She had the original art, and it was beautiful, and if I had the money, I would own that painting now.
Ruth Thompson: I think we met in '94 or '95 at a convention, but we really got to know each other in '99 at GhengisCon. Since then Tina and I have evenings where I'll call her and spend hours on the phone, where I'll say, "I'm working on rocks." "Oh? I'm working on water…" And we're just chatting away about whatever until my cordless phone uncharges five hours later. It's a good thing I'm getting like seven cents a minute or the bill would be terrible.
I notice some artists have that kind of competitive edge, and they can be kind of difficult with each other. But with Tina and I, it's never really been that way. Mostly because there's a ton of work out there. If you want to do contract work, there's a ton of work out there, you've just got to go get it.
But there's nothing personal about somebody choosing one person's artwork over something else. I can do a piece I thought was pretty good, and it will be all right. Then another, and I'll say, "Well, this is pretty good too." And the second one is the one that everyone will love. Taste is as varied as Snickers® bars and Almond Joy®.
Ruth Thompson: Yeah! I'm finally painting men! It's not that I didn't want to paint men before, but I think that where I was in my head was that I really couldn't understand them. I couldn't understand them. My men were either too swishy -- which is OK. But they were just too soft, or they were just big, bulked-up guys that you'd see -- big, huge Conan-looking dudes.
But there wasn't anything that really appealed. There wasn't anything that captured a nerve. They didn't look alive. The first one I did was "Azrael" [a.k.a. "Ascension"], and he came alive. Maybe it's because I'm beginning to understand people better as I get older. I'm 33, and I've been doing it for ten years.
The one thing about being an artist and doing what we do is that it gives you a lot of time to think.
Nene Thomas: Yes, when you're painting, you have hours upon hours to think, and that's it.
Crescent Blues: Do you have a preference -- painting men, painting women?
Nene Thomas: I really prefer to paint women. They're easier to pose. It's easier for me to think up a background to go with them. In fact, I have one sketch of a man planned, and I just want to paint him, because then I will feel: "All right, I have painted a man. Now they'll be happy -- the people who come up and want men. There he is. There he is." And I won't have to paint another one for at least a year.
Crescent Blues: Do you use live models?
Nene Thomas: No. I do the thumbnail, then I find a reference -- a photo, whatever, that looks close to what I have in mind. Sometimes I piece them together like a Frankenstein monster, using a head here, arm here, leg here. OK, he's finished.
Ruth Thompson: I didn't used to use live models. First of all…