An Interview with Charles

Conducted by Tony Elam, Master of Ceremonies, at ConSortium, Houston TX, June 30, 2001

Part 2 - His Art and Process

Tony: Would you please describe your process for creating art?

Charles: I avoid approaching every painting the same; sometimes I start with an underpainting, other times I jump right into it with direct paint. Though in general, I’ll try to describe how I approach most of my paintings.

First, I start sketching, and sketching, and when I get something I like, I continue sketching until I’m pretty sure what I want. Then I photograph a model or models and continue to refine the idea. Though I NEVER change the design to fit the model. During the sketching phase I’ve worked hard to create shapes that work together abstractly, and to change the shape to fit the limitations of a particular model, well, this I won’t do. Yes, my poor models are often asked to do the nearly, if not absolutely impossible. I model for myself as well and I ask more of me than any other model.

After this I then go over all the photos to decide if I have anything that will work. I rarely work from any one photo, rather the photo reference is treated as though the model is there and I use many separate images to create the figure in the painting.

Then I produce a color study, sometimes detailed, sometimes, most times not. Mr. Frazetta advised me to refrain from putting too much detail in the studies, suggesting rather that I allow the happy accidents that happen in discovery to happen on the finished work, instead of on the study.

Once I’m happy with the color study, I’m ready to start on the painting. And unlike many in the business, I never, ever trace photos, or trace or transfer a sketch onto the final canvas, but rather go through the process of discovery for the painting in an honest search. With a brush in one hand and a rag in the other (again, Mr. Frazetta’s suggestion [ John Sergeant among others did this as well ] ), I knock it around until everything is where it needs to be. Sometimes I’ve gone to bed thinking it’s done, walk in the next morning and realize I’ve gotta move one thing or the other. So, with a brush in one hand, a rag in the other and tears in my eyes I wipe off the last night’s work and go at it again.

When the blocking in is complete, then it’s time to paint. I don’t like art that is evenly detailed throughout the painting, where everything is given equal treatment. Our eyes don’t work that way, and anyway, the artist, particularly the illustrator, is a storyteller as well. If a painting, well, if one of my paintings is working, it’ll move the viewer’s eye around the canvas the way I want it to. This can give a painting impact and a particular feeling… and I try not to over finish my paintings.


Tony: How does your process differ based upon the tools, subject and goals?  (ink verses pencil verses oils, fantasy verses science fiction, book cover verses game cards, etc.)

Charles: I’m working on a black and white private commission as we speak and I gotta tell ya, I did as much if not more preliminary work than I would on a painting. Working with ink, there is less room for experimenting. Doing a painting, if you don’t like something you can wipe it off or paint over it. Not so with ink and brush, it’s pretty unforgiving.

With card art, there is no consideration of copy, and it doesn’t have to be a billboard. A cover is the billboard for the book. So you can play more with card art, there’s less risk because if one particular card isn’t so great, not much of the product is lost; but a book cover now, that’s it! It’s gotta work, and do it’s job.

Though I gotta say, the work I did for Doomtown was above and beyond what anybody with a brain would do for what they pay and how game companies treat artists in general. I would do more card art, but the companies want copyright of the work for next to no money, and that I just won’t do. I retain copyright for all the art I did for Doomtown, but when ownership changed and they then wanted copyright for all art for them in the future, I wouldn’t do it.

I still do work for two game companies particularly because they let me retain copyright.


Tony: What kind of research preparation is involved? Why is this important to you?

Charles: It differs piece to piece but I think if I err, it’s on the side of too much research. If I’m doing a fantasy painting with an Eastern location, then all the armor, and architecture, if not the terrain needs to feel eastern. Not to keep things completely historical, but the feeling must be there. So, rather than finding a single piece of armor and copying it, I like to find many examples of armor of the area and look for consistencies, what makes it have the look of “eastern”? Then I don’t have to copy anything, and it still works.

Once I painted a Civil War trilogy and bought $300. worth of books on the subject and it paid off. Now, if anyone needs a Civil War painting, I’m better prepared. I also got the help of Civil War reenactors, which was invaluable. They helped me through the quagmire of history.


Tony: How do you feel you differ from other artists in regards to research and process?

Charles: I’ve seen some really great illustrators make silly mistakes, such as a really detailed painting that included a flintlock musket in which the flint was missing. Of course without the piece of flint, a flintlock won’t fire. I’m sure the prop he used looked just like what he painted; it didn’t have a piece of flint in it either, a minor detail, but an important one.

Also, most artists have no clue as to how swords and other weapons are used, or held. Each type of sword is different, the form does fit the function. For most illustrators, a sword is something handed to a model as nothing more than a prop. Lots of otherwise nice pieces of illustration are wrecked by swords held as though they were some sort of stick. The swords I put in paintings are never props but rather a part of the warrior. I heard an illustrator recently say something to the effect that soldiers don’t need weapons in their hands, giving some sort of banal allusion to the idea of weapons in the art being merely phallic. What a load of crap! Soldiers in war, warriors, adventurers who expect trouble or are in hostile territory go to the john, even sleep with their weapons, and if they can help it are never without them. The only reason anyone with a brain would go into a fight barehanded out of choice is if it’s all in good fun. The history of mankind is the history of war, and of who developed the best weapons systems in a timely manner. Oh, and the other side of the coin is when any given warrior society gets soft and lazy, the next warrior society is waiting to push it aside; and history is clear, they always do.

The best fantasy art can be believed, and just like in an otherwise okay movie, a glaring mistake of something wrong can jar the viewer out of the fantasy.

As I’ve said earlier, the main difference between other illustrators and myself is that I’m not really sure how the finished painting will look ‘til I’m done. I do not make a drawing that I then stay within the lines of throughout the process. Whether it be projectors or painting on transferred Xeroxes and the like, I use none of these “ tools” that many, if not most illustrators use today, everything I do is done freehand, every choice on canvas is from my eye and my hand.


Tony: You have published works in many different genres (fantasy, science fiction, western fantasy, etc.)? Which do you personally find the most interesting and rewarding and why?

Charles: I guess the genre I find most rewarding artistically is fantasy. By its very nature, it lends itself to playing with shapes that are more organic than in sci-fi, generally. When I sketch for fun, more times than not it is of fantasy themes or characters. And talking about research, sci-fi requires more research than fantasy by a mile. Don’t get me wrong, I like doing research; but when a deadline is looming and you’re still figuring out tech problems, it’s tense.

With any painting involving history, you’d better do your homework or you will hear about it.


Tony: You produce art in ink, pencil, and oil; which do you prefer and why?

Charles: Y’know, each medium has its own pleasures and pitfalls. Ink of course is the most risky, the least forgiving; but it requires strong shapes to succeed and this further develops this thinking for other work. I love drawing in pencil, but it’s very underrated and it takes a developed eye and art sense to appreciate it. So which do I prefer? I suppose it’s got to be oils, it’s freer, more forgiving and controllable; and as a finished product gets the biggest response.


Tony: How much of your artwork is commissioned verses speculative?

Charles: That would depend on any given year. I do art for a living and so when the commissions are coming, either professional or private, any art I may want to do has to wait.


Tony: From a business perspective which of these areas has been the most productive for you?

Charles: Without a doubt, getting commissions is better for business than doing paintings and then hoping to find a market or buyer for them. But I’m an artist first and when I do paint my own stuff it’s for me, and if it can sell it, good. Sadly, I’m not much of a businessman, and usually don’t paint with selling in mind.


Tony: What are a few of your favorite pieces or most memorable works and why?

Charles: This is the toughest question so far. Let’s see… well, I’ll give ya two, okay, the first has to be “Vengeance in Ice”. It’s a painting inspired by an incredible unpublished Conan story by Ferrell Snow. What makes it so special to me is that it was done for a friend and the nature of how it came about. I had been working on the sketches for it for quite a while and was unsatisfied with them. One morning as I was waking I saw, for about one and a half seconds, the horse and rider- just them- no background. I jumped out of bed and drew the sketch and knew that was it! That kind of help or inspiration or whatever you call that is rare. And special.

I guess another one has to be “Held by Honor”, as it really was a recent breakthrough for me. It is one of my most effectively balanced paintings as regards to a fine art approach for an illustration. It’s painterly while having enough detail for most folks’ taste. And while the mood of the piece is somber, there is enough light and color to keep it from being gloomy.


Tony: What do you think has been your most humorous work and why?

Charles: Geez, the most, huh? Just one? Well okay, it has to be “Shotgun Wedding”, it still makes me laugh and when someone sees it for the first time, they seem to get a pretty good chuckle. I really did enjoy doing that painting. I don’t usually get a chance to do that sort of thing.


Continue to Part 3...Advice & His Future Plans