You have to fail many
times for each
success, so become
Winona Nelson grew up in Duluth, Minnesota—a place where she’d spend the better part of her early life drawing and painting before moving away to study classical realism and art for the entertainment industry at the Safehouse Atelier in San Francisco. After that, Winona found herself working at both Flagship studios and Planet Moon Studios, giving her the experience she needed to become a successful freelancer.
This is where she grew to be the artist we know today, having worked on AAA games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016), creating a handful of beautiful cards for MTG, and using her art to tell the stories and history of her tribe, the Ojibwe of Minnesota, as well as pushing to broaden representation. In the interview, she shares one of the Ojibwe tribe’s stories from her artwork, telling us that, “The piece at the top of my website, Nanaboozhoo, depicts the main figure in Ojibwe legends. He is a shapeshifter and is half spirit and half-mortal. […] In that piece, I hid the shapes of many animals, to signify some of the many shapes he could take. They are also mostly hereditary clan animals.” We checked and there are fourteen animals hidden in the environment, see if you can spot them all!
Vox Groovy and its readers love seeing artists who are doing something new, so chancing upon Winona’s work was a delightful surprise for everyone involved. If you want to learn more about her inspiring journey, the unique messages she wants to convey in her pieces, or want to find inspiration for your next painting, this is the place to be.
Just tell us about your journey so far.
Okay! I started as a poor Native American (Ojibwe) kid in Duluth, MN. My parents were both artists, but never made a living at it, and we were on welfare and food stamps. My older brother got his first job right around when the PlayStation came out, and we played a lot of video games together. Final Fantasy 7 was a major event in my life. Not only was it a great game with amazing graphics and world-building, it came with a booklet with the character design art, and it looked like the art was done in coloured pencil, which was my medium of choice at the time. When I saw that, I realized that you could be an artist at a “real” job with a salary. At the same time, my brother also started collecting Magic cards, and I was captivated by that artwork as well. Those two things became my professional goals: Magic illustration and video game character design.
Being very poor, I knew that going to art school was unlikely, but the Internet was starting to emerge as an important educational tool for a kid with motivation and a free copy of Photoshop Elements 3.0. I couldn’t find any information on video game art as a career yet back then, but I found comic book art tutorials and advice and stepped into that world, which by the age of 18 got me my first very-low-paying freelance work.
Eventually, I found the website conceptart.org, which no longer exists, but that was a jackpot for all things video game and illustration art related. They founded a school as well, and I attended the very first class. Those things helped me build a portfolio which got me a job as a video game concept artist, with a real salary.
I kept honing my illustration skills by attending The Illustration Master Class each year, and met Jeremy Jarvis and showed him my portfolio multiple times asking for advice on how to become worthy of Magic, which he gave in straightforward and useful terms. Then in 2010, I got my first card assignment: Rakish Heir.
We are currently experimenting with Radio Vox Groovy—our very own Internet radio. The RVG programmes include: Art Relax, VoxStream and VoxBox as of August 2020, but we will be introducing new ones in the foreseeable future.
Our new programme—Art Relax— (EN) will be launching soon. You’ll know that this is the go-to place for every art enthusiast as soon as you tune in!
What was it like to study at the Safehouse Atelier in San Francisco?
It was intense. The program consisted of cast drawing for 4 hours each morning, life drawing for 3 hours 3 days a week, and lastly, concept art and illustration classes 3 days a week. You advanced through the stages of the program as you improved at skills rather than by a set time table, which was a key factor in my decision to attend. That, and it was a more targeted program at a fraction of the cost of traditional art school. It was not accredited, and your graduation was simply managing to land a job in the industry.
The stakes were high. I only had a couple thousand dollars in savings from working at a doughnut place, then as a hotel maid and then a barista. Between that, a graphic novel freelance job I’d landed, and getting a credit card, I figured I could eke out about a year in San Francisco.
The program was supposed to take about two years – so I planned to be twice as good and as fast as that while also doing full art for the graphic novel. I knew part of progressing more quickly at school would require that I get even more practice than I could get during school hours, so I also went to two different evening life drawing sessions a week outside of school and participated in a weekly sketch club that often hired models. I met a professional concept artist who became a bit of a mentor, Marc Taro Holmes, and he advised me early on that the way to get the most out of my time at the atelier would be to do every assignment a second time with my own goals in mind because art directors can always tell a school assignment – so I shouldn’t use my school work in my portfolio. So that meant – double the amount of life drawing time, doing every assignment twice, and drawing a graphic novel outside of school. In one year.
Safe to say I did not get very much sleep that year.
Still, The friendships I formed with the other students there were deep and in some cases have remained some of my closest friends to this day. It was a fantastic time.
Could you walk us through the creative process for your most recent Magic: The Gathering piece?
My process involves very tiny scribble sketches to get a feel for the types of shapes and movement that the assignment calls for and a direction for the pose for the character. Then I do a slightly larger thumbnail sketch, around 1 x 2 inches. In the case of my most recent card, I did a few of these, and then a step I don’t always do: larger sketches, at closer to 4 x 6 inches. I photographed those, made digital adjustments, and sent them in for the art director to see.
Once I get feedback, I do digital colour studies and then start on the final. This is often digital, and I use Photoshop, but sometimes I want more texture, or it’s a prompt that would make a lovely painting, so I use oil or acrylic. At this stage, I shoot or collect a lot of references as I go, and usually complete the final within about 12-20 hours of work depending on the complexity of the piece. If it’s traditionally painted, I then photograph it and work digitally on top of it to make sure it matches my digital work in style and finish.
Then it goes off to the art director for feedback and approval or sometimes requires revision.
Tell us about your favourite artists, classical or contemporary, and describe how they influence the work that you do.
John Singer Sargent is a big one, whose brushwork and subtlety I find inspiring. John William Waterhouse, I love that Pre-Raphaelite romanticism and drama. Brom for his posing, costuming, rendering, and sensuality in his figures. Joaquin Sorolla for vibrant, dripping colour. Boris Vallejo for a sheer feeling of power. Julie Bell for psychedelic texture and colour, animal power, and constant experimentation. Rebecca Guay for fierce and brave emotion and deep inspection of all the sides of beauty. Michael Whelan for colour, drama, and a sense of the epic. J. C. Leyendecker for male grace and stylization. Donato Giancola for composition, motion, and colour. Scott Fischer for adventure and use of graphic elements. Wayne Barlowe and Allen Williams for the beautiful monstrosity. So many many more – I’m voracious.
Oh, I have to list Thomas Blackshear too, for epically dramatic posing and lighting, Therese Nielsen for powerful figures and bold texture and mixed media, Ivan Bilibin for shape language and line, Kay Nielsen for wonder, Dmitri Belyukin for colour and landscape, William Trost Richards for landscape and rocks and water… oh man, I could just keep going.
Jeffrey Catherine Jones! For everything!
Describe some of the challenges you’ve had to face when working on AAA games like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
A lot of the time in games, the pipeline is very specialized. I’ve found that I’m happiest with more time with a piece, and in the games industry, you don’t always get that, depending on which stage of the production you’re in. I’ve done very very quick work for games that had systems for mixing and matching costume elements like Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: Lost Legacy. But I’ve gotten to do work earlier in the process as well, like illustrated storyboards and some more fully rendered character designs for major characters from The Last Of Us 2. Being a freelancer, one of the difficulties was also that I wasn’t able to be present for meetings or in-person feedback, but working at home also means I have more control over my hours than when I was working in-house.
We’d love to know a thing or two about your personal art, so please tell us about the messages you want people to find in your pieces.
Well, being a person of colour, genderfluid, and pansexual, representation means a great deal to me. When I was starting out, I felt that I was never included in pop culture’s idea of their audience. I seldom saw characters who looked like me, rarely saw ones who expressed gender or sexuality in anything beyond heteronormative, and when they did it, it was often as a joke, or the character was a villain. The imagery associated with femininity, such as flowers and bright colour and pink has been set aside as decorative, kitsch, niche, or for children.
In my personal works, I celebrate all these things instead. I treat the legends and regalia of my tribe with respect, and depict them in powerful ways, and spread knowledge of our stories and issues. In both my personal and professional work, I push to broaden representation, drawing all kinds of bodies and ethnicities and gender expressions and sexualities. And I love to paint imagery that has been dismissed as “girlish” with the full respect and power of epic fantasy.
I’d like to make another note on the diversity angle too. The graphic novel that paid my tuition at the Atelier was “Artifice” – a gay sci-fi action romance. That gay comics client also had me paint covers, one of which was the work that Jeremy Jarvis saw and made him think of me for Rakish Heir. These are things I was told would pigeonhole me, that I shouldn’t share, that were shameful or too niche to be relevant. But it’s always been my diverse personal works that led to the next step in my career. It’s so important to remember what makes your own perspective unique because that’s the thing that you want to be hired for.
Please tell us about the Ojibwe tribe’s stories that appear in your work.
On the legends: The piece at the top of my website, Nanaboozhoo, depicts the main figure in Ojibwe legends. He is a shapeshifter and is half spirit and half-mortal. My name, Winona, is his mother’s name and is traditionally given to the firstborn daughter. In that piece, I hid the shapes of many animals, to signify some of the many forms he could take. They are also mostly hereditary clan animals. My clan is Turtle. Each clan has a traditional role, and Turtle clan is considered to be teachers and storytellers, keepers of the traditional knowledge. Painting is my way of teaching our stories and fulfilling my clan tradition.
Please give us your No. 1 piece of advice for aspiring artists.
My No. 1 piece of advice for aspiring artists is that you learn by doing. Mileage and practice are the things that get you to the next level, and the next, and that help you choose your direction. Finishing many works and choosing only a handful of the best for your portfolio will take you far. You have to fail many times for each success, so become comfortable with failure. So get that mileage, paint those bad paintings, so you can get to the good ones sooner.
We’re going to want to play a handful of your favorite songs on RVG (our Internet radio) once this goes live, so please tell us, what kind of music are you into?
Oh boy, music is another thing I could talk all day about. I’ve been on a punk and post-punk kick lately. I adore The Damned, particularly their later goth rock phase, but you gotta start with “New Rose” and “Smash It Up” – then “Eloise” and “Life Goes On” and if you’re ready for a 17-minute journey, “Curtain Call.”
Also been digging the sweeter Ramones songs lately, like “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” and “Do You Wanna Dance” – and for some weirder jams “El Diablo en el Cuerpo” by Size, “Go!” by Tones On Tail, “I Am The Fly” by Wire, “Homosapien” by Pete Shelley, and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by The Slits.
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist
© Winona Nelson or respective copyright holders
Article in Slovak language;