In an age of crisp, digital media, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law crafts ethereal creatures and luminescent backgrounds with a strong sense of motion using watercolors and media that hearken back to a handcrafted age. You’ll find knights and ladies, dragons and faeries, and exotic botanic creations in her artwork.
Please welcome Stephanie!
Thank you so much for joining us here! Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in New York, and lived on the east coast for the first 7 years of my life. My grandparents had a piano school & store in the city, and we would drive over there from New Jersey on the weekends. I remember spending a lot of time sitting at the desk in the shop and scribbling drawings. Those are really my first memories of drawing. I wasn’t ever really bored if you could just give me a pencil and paper.
We moved to California after that, and I kept my love of art, through high school and college; although I didn’t think of it as a viable career path. As a result, I studied computer science at UC Berkeley. It wasn’t until I was about to graduate that I did some soul searching one day after a career faire, and realized that if art wasn’t going to play a central aspect in my life, I would be miserable. It was at that point that I set out with a plan for the following three years that eventually had me leaving the professional world of software and becoming a full time freelance artist.
Since them, I’ve done illustrations for many game, book and magazine companies. I’ve written and illustrated Dreamscapes (2008, North Light Books), Dreamscapes: Myth & Magic (2010, North Light Books), and Dreamscapes: Magical Menagerie (2012, North Light Books), a series on watercolor technique for fantasy. The Shadowscapes Tarot (2009, Llewellyn Worldwide) is a tarot deck that I wrote and illustrated, as well.
These days I primarily work in watercolors, but I sometimes mix things up a bit with ink, pens, metallic pigments, and gold and silver leafing.
What inspires your art?
A lot of my inspiration comes from nature. I love the fractal patterns and textures created by the growth of living things. The “magic” that I try to depict is that of being able to see past the surface preconceptions we have for the world around us and to try to really see the often unnoticed beauties that abound. Not just in that natural world, though as I said that is a major focus of my art, but in the man-made as well.
I find your artwork unabashedly ‘handcrafted’ for lack of a better word, something I find strongly appealing after decades of too crisp, acrylic fantasy covers. Can you share something about what has influenced your style? What opportunities or challenges does it raise?
I started off as a digital artist. In 1996 I discovered Adobe Photoshop 1.0, and Fractal Design Painter 1.0 (now known by the name of just Painter). I loved working digitally, but I think in large part it was reactionary to what I was doing in college. I went to school for the computer science program, but decided to feed my art hobby by incidentally doing a secondary major of art. Since I hadn’t sought out the school for its art program, I was at the mercy of what was offered, which was a very modern abstract expressionist program. The professors were enamored with buckets of acrylic and/or oil splashed and dripped on huge canvases, and sandbags dropped on metal plates out of second story windows. Gluing/hammering/cobbling together pieces found from junkyards. Physicality of art and art-making was primary.
I wanted to be more illustrative. Telling a story with my art was what I loved, and I wasn’t allowed to pursue that in the classes I was taking. So outside of classes I did my own work. And when I discovered digital as a medium it was just the contrast that I needed to so much excessive physicality.
When I left college and sent out my portfolio to various game companies, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from Wizards of the Coast. The art director of Magic the Gathering expressed interest in my art, although he said that they were not really looking for digital work. If I could send a portfolio of a traditional medium….
This, of course, was in a time when digital was not yet accepted as a valid medium for art. People had the impression that there was a “paint wizard fighting dragon” button that an artist could push. Ironically enough, by the time I gathered together enough work for a traditional medium portfolio, the art director was pleased and gave me some art assignments, and then mentioned that they were also accepting digital art now.
However, I’ve got that initial letter from him to thank for setting me on the path to watercolors, which I quickly discovered that I loved. Having some distance from the college art program gave me a chance to appreciate that I did love a certain amount of physicality to my art. And having an original painting at the end was much more satisfying than pixels on a screen and bits on a hard drive.
Over the course of those next five years, I slowly phased digital art out and moved towards painting exclusively with watercolors. I can’t say I’ve had any negative challenges since doing so. In face, I think it’s mostly been positive. I’ve had an opportunity to write a whole series of technique books for watercolor through IMPACT books, and the fact that I am a traditional artist among more and more digital ones has made my art stand out.
There are many things I like about your artwork but several things stand out. One is the sense of motion, even in a seemingly static scene, such as a knight in repose . How do you infuse your scenes with such motion? Is a sense of motion something you consciously strive to for?
I mentioned nature as one of my inspirations. Dance is another major element of influence. I have been a dancer for over two decades, studying flamenco for a large portion of that time. In a way, dance and visual art feel like diametrically opposing types of art to me. One is very much grounded in the present, in each moment, changing as the human body moves to rhythms and music. The other is static, a captured and distilled instant. I try to capture the flow of movement and rhythm in my art, not necessarily only in the human figures I depict, but in the whole orchestrated composition and the interaction of all the various elements.
Your color palettes are another enchanting aspect of your work for me. Can your share more about how you pick a palette? Do you tend to do several pieces in a row with the same palette? Is that because you want to explore a particular color scheme or is a common palette more to serve the needs of the theme?
I actually try to vary my color palette from piece to piece. It’s only when I have a series of images of the same theme that I try to recreate the same colors.
Even when intentionally trying to do so though, it can be difficult to recreate. I often forget what exact colors I used, and when using watercolors, layering them in a different order can result in varying shades.
Sometimes when I’m unsure of what colors I want for a piece, I scan the pencil sketch and the play around with various options digitally. It’s a good way to push different combinations that I would otherwise not think to try if I were just working directly onto the paper from the start. A digital test-run gives me a space to experiment and see how things might look.
Doing a color rough digitally is also something that I need to do when working with art directors sometimes. Art directors will ask for a a color rough so that they can get a better idea of where an artist is going with a piece, before the actual painting work begins.
How about lighting? Some of your pieces seem to glow. With others, you set a somber mood with secrets hidden in the shadow. Do you sometimes do a piece just to experiment with light? How do you decide how to light a scene?
Lighting is key to conveying mood in a painting. Colors can be done on the fly. Details and textures can happen as I paint. But lighting is something that really has to be thought out and planned, because it’s so important an aspect of composition and atmosphere. I always try to have a very firm concept in mind of the lighting before I begin a piece, and how it defines the negative space of the subjects.
How do you pick your subjects? Do you have favorites?
I like to have some kind of narrative thread that runs through my images. Sometimes this is from myth or folklore. Ballads, songs, poems. Sometimes it is from an internal mythos that I have created. A sort of over-arching world that my paintings have slowly circumscribed. These can go in cycles, especially when I have large projects that I am working on.
When I was working on the Shadowscapes Tarot, it was a world of connected archetypes that my paintings circled around. Currently I seem to find myself in a cycle of very dream-like images featuring many animals, and golden woods. I move from one subject to the next in a very fluid way. Sometimes certain characters or creatures make their way into a piece, and then I am inspired to do a sequence of paintings in these kind of snapshots of their existence.
I feel like I’m slowly uncovering pieces of this world as I explore and push its boundaries with each painting.
The three Nocturne images on this page illustrate such a progression.
What inspired your Tarot deck? How well has it been received?
I started the Tarot in 2004, and completed it in mid 2007, so it was a three and half year journey. Even before I began that project, I had many people telling me I should make a deck, because they saw what I eventually realized — that my love of mythology and folklore was ideal for a tarot deck.
It is especially clear in the 21 cards of the Major Arcana, where the archetypes that are represented are the basis of so many figures of various mythologies. It was a natural fit for me. I was anxious to embark on the project at first though because the prospect of doing 78 pieces of art was incredibly daunting! I had never worked on such an ambitious project before. But once I got going, it quickly became very rewarding, and I was actually a little bit sad when I finished the final card and suddenly had this empty space of free time ahead of me!
It’s been very well received, and well worth the effort of the creation. The entire project from inception to publication has been such a wonderfully positive experience.
(Lovers and World are from the Tarot deck.)
You mention on your website that you do some digital artwork but I don’t recall coming across anything that looks digital in your galleries. How do you make use of digital techniques? Is it just at a composition stage, for finish work or throughout for some pieces?
I started off as a digital artist, but around 2004, I had pretty much phased out any digital commissions entirely. For the past ten years I’ve been working entirely in physical mediums. Mostly watercolor, and most recently in the past year I have started incorporating ink and metallic powders and leaf as well. So at this point the only part a computer plays in my art is for conceptualization of my compositions, occasionally for doing color roughs, and for final scanning and digitizing for print.
For the compositional phase, I scan sketches that I do of various main elements for a painting. Then I can shift things around in relation to other parts, resize foreground/background elements, flip things if I decide I want them to face a different direction, and other such manipulations. Once I’m happy with the composition, I print it, out and then redraw and refine it all, and transfer that to my final painting surface.
There are a number of gamers that visit here. What did you do for Wizards of the Coast? What work for other game companies might we recognize?
I did some cards for Magic the Gathering, as well as illustrations for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I did a lot of Legend of Five Rings art as well, both while it was owned by WotC, and later when it was sold to Alderac Games.
Your website FAQ mentions that some of the quotes are from your own writing. What do you write? Are you published or trying to be published?
I don’t have any current fiction plans. I did all the writing for my tarot deck cards, and other art books I have published. I write poems to go with my artwork.
Any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?
I’m working with a writer friend of mine, Satyros Phil Brucato, in collaboration for a new deck. This time an Oracle deck called the Dreamdance Oracle. It’s based around our shared love of dance and explores the varied range of the human experience and emotion that can be expressed in dance forms from around the world.
It’s a work in progress, and we’re so far about 1/3 of the way through the project. You can keep abreast of that project here:
I also recently finished up the manuscript for my most recent installment into the Dreamscapes series of technique books that is published by IMPACT books. This forth volume focuses on how to paint fantasy landscapes. From the specifics of rocks and trees and clouds, to how to create an engaging world out of basic elements for viewers.
Do you do commissions?
Very limited. I mostly focus on my own projects, and I only take commissions if I have a connection with the subject. It has to be something that resonates with me because I want to create a good piece of art, and that’s only possible when I feel passionate for what I am painting.
Have you had a chance to do a book cover yet?
Yes, I’ve done a lot of role playing game covers from earlier in my career when I was doing a lot of work for the gaming industry.
I’ve also done some covers for Harlequin, HarperCollins, Tachyon Publishing, and of course my own series of technique books, Dreamscapes through Impact Books.
Many of my readers are aspiring writers and there may be a few artists among us as well. Any suggestions for those seeking a career in the creative arts?
If you’ve got a passion for it, then do it. Don’t try to second guess yourself and pander to what you think will sell or will be marketable — when you’re doing what you’re passionate about and what you absolutely love, it will show in the work. That’s when you will be creating your best work, and the right audience will come for that eventually.
I came across your artwork through DeviantArt. Is that the best place to find your new works or do you recommend your Shadowscape site or another place?
http://www.shadowscapes.com Shadowscapes is my official site, and where I sell originals, prints, books, and other products.
http://shadowscapes-stephanielaw.blogspot.com Midnight Ramblings is my blog. I have occasional essays on creative processes, technique tips, insights into my inspiration, and lots of detailed in-progress views of my paintings.
http://www.facebook.com/Shadowscapes Facebook is where I announce a lot of my appearances, and where people can get notified of a lot of my new pieces, and catch glimpses of my process as I post in progress shots.
You can also find a list of my books at http://www.shadowscapes.com/listing_products.php?listing=7
Is your artwork available for purchase?
Yes it is. Look to shadowscapes.com for that!