Laura Diehl brings to life giant owls and snakes, flying snowmen, and gatherings of wolves and hares, all with the aid of her trusty Wacom pad. She has illustrated fantasy, science fiction, and children’s books, and she numbers influences ranging from Final Fantasy to Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express. From an early age she wanted to be an illustrator, and today her clients include Routledge, the Science Fiction Book Club, and many more. In this artist spotlight, I asked Laura about what keeps bringing her back to fantasy, about what new illustrators should be doing, and where she’s going these days.
This image came into my head one night as I tossed and turned trying to fall asleep … the waves, the fish, the boat, the lilies, the moon just kept rotating in my mind’s eye. Finally, to appease my muse, I found a sketchbook and put the first sketch down on paper. Only then was I able to sleep. As an aside, I had just watched the “The Luminous Fish Effect” episode of Big Bang Theory that evening, which I have no doubt was the starting seed that my imagination ran with.
You list the Brothers Hildebrandt, Mary GrandPré, and Chris Van Allsburg as major artistic influences. Do you return to any of their works in particular when you want to “refill your well” creatively? And where does Hayao Miyazaki fit in there?
Of these influences, I return to Chris Van Allsburg most frequently, specifically, his children’s book: The Polar Express. It’s been a source of magic and inspiration for me since third grade (when it made me decide to become an illustrator!).
Hayao Miyazaki is a wonderful inspiration and “well-refill.” He has a gleeful, childlike, imagination … that suffuses his movies with wonder, magic, and heart. If I made anime, this is exactly the anime I’d make!
How has gaming, video or otherwise, influenced your art?
My favorite games are interactive stories. As a visual artist, I think there is an immediate power to “literally” walking about in the shoes of the main character’s story. I would also cite a number of Super NES RPGs (Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, etc.) as the fodder and inspiration for many terrible works of amateur fanart that I created in high school. These were my humble starting point in digital art.
The settings in your illustrations seem to have a strong feeling of seasonality, the events portrayed happening at a particular time of year. What drives this? Artistic choice? Appreciation for seasonal color schemes?
Seasons, in my mind, are particularly charged with their own color feelings. In brainstorming things to do as personal pieces, they were a fun way to give myself a theme. I generally find that too much freedom tends to be just as daunting as too little … having “rails” to work with can help me start. Themes are also a fun way to tie personal works together.
You’ve said elsewhere that 95% of your art education happened outside of the classroom. What sort of things do you find yourself learning now, particularly with personal pieces?
Increasingly, it has become less about “getting better” … and more and more about finding the heart of it all. Finding the “why” in the art I’m making. Thinking about the soul and storytelling of a piece. Learning to listen to my inner voice, rather than drowning it out with critiques (from both my inner critic and others) about what I should change.
What’s the most common mistake you see new illustrators making right out of school?
I’ve seen many a new illustrator stock their portfolio with a little bit of everything, trying to be a jack of all trades. Yes, in the beginning an illustrator might not know their exact focus, they may be scared of missing out on “opportunities.” But it is immensely helpful as an illustrator to pay attention to the artwork that resonates most strongly with you and do more of it! It is with this consciousness that an illustrator hones and re-images their portfolio and style into something truly unique, truly of them. Don’t be another interchangeable cog, paint the images only you can paint in a way that only you can paint them!
What’s your process for finding the right approach to a book cover? Do you have tried and true techniques, or do you wait for something in the book to speak to you?
“Visually striking” tends to be the watchword for a cover. Sometimes I am provided with the scene for the cover by the author or editor, which can work nicely in a pinch. That said, a higher level of artistry goes into reading the entire manuscript and pulling that one image that embodies the essence of the book: in a way that intrigues, entertains, raises questions, and doesn’t spoil anything for the reader.
Many of your paintings focus on animals. Do you draw from nature around you in Virginia, especially the Shenandoah, or do these creatures spring from your imagination?
I would say a bit of both. I tend to start things in my imagination and flesh them out with references gathered from all over the place. Many of these are photos, but there is also a healthy component of memories and impressions that I’ve stored away from first-hand experiences. I don’t tend to draw directly from nature in the literal sense, but I very much “draw” from it figuratively.
What keeps you coming back to fantastic art, both looking at it and making it?
There is a certain delight that comes from getting to visit (and re-visit) a childlike world of magic and wonder. It’s the challenge and delight of telling a visual story that, to me, is truer than literal truth. It’s getting to take these brief, fleeting glimpses and imaginings and translate them so that others can see them too.
What are you working on these days?
I am not working on any major paintings at the moment. I am instead revisiting my snowy fantasy world and working on re-envisioning a YA fantasy story that I started writing long ago (doing some concept art for this as well). I have found that I am drawn most to story no matter the medium: picture or written word.