Perpetual Training: An Interview with Tommy Arnold
Tommy Arnold’s memorable illustrations grace Fran Wilde’s Updraft books, the Subterranean Press edition of Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries, C. L. Clark’s The Unbroken, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, and many more. Among other accolades, he was a Jack Gaughan Award winner in 2016, has been a Chesley Award nominee every year since 2017, has been a Spectrum Award finalist twice, received Hugo nominations for Best Professional Artist for 2020 and 2021, and was a World Fantasy Award finalist in 2020 for Best Artist.
Arnold was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in a small town nearby. He interned at a software company to make money before figuring out what he wanted to do. He took an art class at LaGrange College and realized that art was absolutely for him. He then signed up for a two-year illustration program at Portfolio Center in Atlanta. In 2012 he dropped the program to take a job illustrating for Bento Box Entertainment, which lasted roughly a year, then worked for Floyd County Productions’ Archer series for nine months. After this, he went full-time as a freelancer.
In 2014 Arnold went to the Illustration Masterclass workshop, then did a two-and-a-half-month online study with SmArt School, working with Gregory Manchess. Later that year, Irene Gallo hired Arnold for his first piece with Tor. “I actually made a game of trying to adopt her taste early on—she had folders on Facebook with curated images, and I’d try to understand if I didn’t like one, why; and if we did agree, that was good feedback. I tried to use her as a touchstone for elevating my own taste and understanding more about how buyers of images selected them.”
Arnold lived in North Carolina for a little while, outside of Charlotte, then West Lafayette, Indiana, returning to Atlanta for college before moving out to Seattle, Bellingham, only to return again to Atlanta in 2018. “I had infrastructure here in Atlanta. Good art friends and community. We had a figure-drawing group that was really strong. I injured my wrists, and we just didn’t have a lot of support out where we had been; I needed camaraderie and friendship and sunshine. You know, things that help you heal, basically. I think I’ve finally learned the lesson—it seems like I’m going to be here awhile.”
Do you feel like you got anything out of your experiences at LaGrange and Portfolio Center, in terms of your art?
Definitely. Although it’s taken time to understand what I got out of each place. Expertise is an interest of mine. On my own time I read nonfiction. I read a lot about the growing field of expertise. Research says that it’s helpful, if you’re going to try to create someone who’s an expert at something, to start them off in a small pond, because confidence is so important to progression. The confidence game is a big part of it, and LaGrange wasn’t an art school. This had two major advantages: there was no one who was really, really good, so I could blossom and feel like I was good, which I think is especially helpful, since I was dreadful; and second, they didn’t discourage you at all. The head of the program, Marcia Brown, basically let me do independent study after independent study, making up my own curriculum. I was the only person working digitally. They were like, yeah, if you wanna paint Magic cards, just keep doing quality work. I’ve heard from people who went to fine art institutions that they learned good fundamentals, but they were discouraged from going into fantasy and science fiction. Not having that, always having the feeling that it could happen, those were important things. At Portfolio Center I had something equally great, which was finding a teacher who was a world-class comic book artist, who just happened to be teaching there for a little while, Brian Stelfreeze. He took me under his wing and taught me the basis of everything that I know now. So, they both contributed in different and important ways.
Have you met many illustrators in the science fiction and fantasy field? Are people helpful, is there a sense of community?
I’ve met a lot of the people in the field, most of them go to Spectrum Fantastic Art Live to go to the award show, show their work, and meet each other. Or they show up at other events, like IlluXcon in Pennsylvania, or there’s a new show that Bobby Chiu and crew started in California called Lightbox Expo. You can meet people pretty easily if you just go up and say hi. Your work is always a better introduction than anything you might say. But you bump into people and they’re all really nice. Art’s just naturally a humbling discipline, because you’re never as good as it, and the further you go, the more you realize that. You don’t start catching up to how good you can be, you start realizing how awful you were, and you can’t believe anyone ever hired you.
There’s a fine line to hit. You want to be part of some community, and you want to look at art, especially art that’s better than yours, and interesting, newer, if you can find it. But there’s a lot of random junk on the Internet. I have slowly cut off channels of communication and gotten more isolated over time. I still put information out there, like me and my buddy, fellow illustrator Micah Epstein, do a podcast where we talk about issues we face as illustrators, and we interview other artists. We use that as a vehicle to talk to the people that we’re really interested in. The politics of art in the field are that if you want to talk about cool ideas and art with other artists that you respect, that you’re kind of peers with, they mostly are down for that, and I think most of them are more interested to talk about art than anything else. I find the community really engaging in that vein.
You’re up for a Hugo Award this year and last year you were a World Fantasy finalist. Have you attended genre conventions?
Last year I would have gone, since I was nominated, but it was all virtual. So, I was at the virtual ceremony. I went to Boskone, people said I should be there. It was cool, Wesley Chu was there, and I worked on one of his books the month after that, so we got to meet. And Richard Anderson was there—he’s an amazing cover artist and lives in London, so it’s rare that I get to bump into him. It was very concentrated, but interesting.
How did you initially become interested in science fiction and fantasy? What were some of your earliest memories of being drawn into genre?
Genre doesn’t feel like a separate thing. It goes as far back as I can remember. If you really think about it, most Disney movies are fantasy: it’s some kind of secondary world, or there’s some other element to it. I was the first child, so my parents were a little overprotective. I had all Disney movies until I was like eleven, and then my dad was like “we’re gonna watch The Matrix,” so that was my introduction to the medium—it was The Little Mermaid, which is like, transforming fish women and such, that’s basically fantasy, and then hard sci-fi with a bunch of violence and cursing; and it went on from there. The Lord of the Rings came to theaters and that seemed very normal, because it was so popular. My favorite movies before that had been Star Wars—they just blew my mind. I was also a big Magic the Gathering player, or Pokémon, all that stuff. Fantasy and sci-fi comprises so much of pop culture: TMNT, X-Men. I loved all of it.
Are there specific artists or illustrators who have influenced or inspired you?
So many, it changes as you as an artist change. I didn’t really know the names of artists when I was getting started, so then you’re interested in anyone who’s giving away education for free. There’s an artist by the name of Mike Lim, he goes by the handle Daarken, and he had educational tutorials that were easy to find on the Internet, so of course I just loved him and loved his stuff. I learned a lot from watching his videos. Brian knew a bunch of people and introduced me to all kinds of different art. He really expanded my scope. He was the first person to show me Craig Mullins, probably the most influential and famous concept artist of all time, widely accredited, basically invented digital painting. I saw his work through Brian. There’s an illustrator named David Grove whose work I was just obsessed with when I first started to work with Irene. She knew Dave Grove and her and Greg were buddies with him, he did some work for her.
Separately from my hobby and study of expertise, I am kind of an art history buff. It’s fun to try and track back family trees of illustrators. There’s usually an obscure teacher who had a couple of really strong progeny but was never as famous themselves. There’s the Brandywine School in Pennsylvania where Howard Pyle taught N. C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn and all these other famous illustrators. As you explore, you are influenced by everyone. In some ways, you can’t progress as a creative individual in total isolation, because then what you make doesn’t have bridges back to where other people are mentally, so they can’t quite understand what you’re doing. It’s a shame to be polluted, in some ways, by seeing so much art. But if you don’t study other peoples’ pictures in the history of illustration and learn what can be done and what has been done, you kind of lack the grounding to take the next step.
These days I would say there are only a few digital painters that I really look at. Piotr Jabłoński, Jamie Jones, Craig Mullins, Theo Prins, Wesley Burt, Jeff Simpson, Ruan Jia. People who all work digitally way better than me, so I look up to their stuff.
When you think of your work, and the pieces that you really like, what are the things that you are looking at?
I can’t abide any piece of art if it’s not well drawn. If I’ve done something and it has a nice design but the drawing is bad, I’m not happy with it. After that, I’d say design; and they’re both important: if something doesn’t have a good design or it’s not well drawn, I basically feel like, “I’ll do better next time.” Honestly, there are maybe ten pieces in my whole career that I still see as okay drawing and okay design. The rest, you’re working toward something, and you didn’t quite get there, yet you’re learning.
Recently I’ve been learning a lot about color, and for a while my value designs would suffer, so that pieces were better in terms of color, but I still didn’t really like them—they didn’t have everything, not everything you want. There are artists who have a very specific idea of what they want to say. Some people seem to have found a combination of things that work so well for saying what they want to say that they can throw out most of the rest. They’re like, “I don’t need perspective,” and they really don’t, and the work is better without it. I’m a sucker for learning. There’s no fundamental I want to throw away. Each new thing that I try to learn, after I learn it, if any of my art doesn’t have it, I hate it.
I’ve been doing covers for about six years. A cover has to just slam you in the head, it has to grab the person to make them buy the book before they blink, before they even realize what they’re looking at. They have to already love it before they know what it is. Covers are kind of the loudest form of art you can do. This year I got to do some illustrated books and interiors, which don’t pay as much as covers, but you have chances to do things in images you might really want to do, there’s usually more freedom; there’s not as much pressure on each image to sell the book. When an image can have a striking design, good drawing, good color, and multiple layers of read, that is what I really value. For example, you look at a piece for a few seconds, you’re not sure what it is, you think it’s one thing, and then you realize it’s something else, and maybe there’s one more detail to appreciate in there.
Illustration is a very immediate art form, so when you can make it ever so slightly temporal it really adds dimension to the work that I like. But sometimes, it’s cool to just punch them in the face (laughs)! I can be cool with both!
Are there things that that you struggle with, things you feel you’re not really good at? Are there things that you avoid, or just haven’t figured out how to do yet?
I’m a big believer in progress. There’s always been lots of things I can’t do, and those instantly become to-do items. Up until recently colors had been a weakness of mine. When I got started, I couldn’t draw a horse worth anything. I was going to all kinds of lengths to take really tight photographic references that I could trace because I still loved well drawn work, but I didn’t know how to make it. I knew how to design and get people’s attention, but I didn’t really know how to draw.
There’s a sort of skill-slash-psychological evaluation that you can take online—a lot of businesses use this for evaluating employees when they onboard them—called the Clifton StrengthsFinder. It has about thirty-four different core human strengths you can have, and it ranks you, it determines your strengths, what you are terrible at, and what’s in the middle. They encourage you to use your strengths, avoid weaknesses, and work on mitigating middle stuff. But I have this thing in my top five, which is that I thrive by working on my weaknesses. For some people, they thrive by working on what they’re already really good at—they called that maximizing—but I’m apparently better suited to working on whatever I’m terrible at.
Early on, I couldn’t draw faces, and I spent about a year where every night, when I went to figure drawing, I would only draw the face. Then, I couldn’t draw legs, so same thing. I couldn’t do perspective, so same thing. I tried to put in a lot of training to make sure that I can do whatever I’m afraid of, and to not be afraid of it. Within the last two years I felt like I started to get a grip on how to do some things, finally, so right now I’m feeling pretty good. There’s not a lot that I’m scared of, and I’m relishing it. Just yesterday they released a cover I did for Tordotcom, a Kate Elliott book called Servant Mage. If you had asked me to paint a dragon three years ago, I’d probably want to shit my pants. I can’t take a photograph of that, so no, I can’t do it. But I did the whole cover with no real reference, just with what I have in my head. That’s where my obsession with expertise and training comes in. When I don’t have to finish a project, I train and work on my weaknesses, because nothing feels worse as an artist than being afraid to do what you really want to do.
Do you draw from life or from photo reference or both? Do you start with sketches on paper, do you work digitally—what is your workflow like from concept to realization?
I do all of that. I draw from life as much as I can. It’s been tough during COVID because of safety concerns, but we’ve got a small group of artists here in Atlanta that are vaccinated, and models that are vaccinated. I moved into a bigger house so we’re going to be starting some life drawing again here within the next couple of months, I’m really looking forward to that. I think life drawing is a really important pillar that many people abandon once they go more professional. It’s hard to make time for things that don’t pay, or that you are paying for instead of getting paid. Brian instilled in me a love of the process, and of getting better, as the most interesting thing about illustration, and then doing finished pieces as the byproduct of that.
The process is always changing, I’m constantly trying to remove scaffolding and make more with less. When I started my career, I would do a pencil thumbnail, and once I liked that I would take it to the computer and refine it, and then once it got approved or if they had changes I’d change it, and then once it was approved, I would hire models that looked like the characters I wanted to draw, rent costumes or armor or whatever, dress everybody up, put lights on, just like a film set, and take the stills I wanted. And then you work from that. At first, I was tied to the reference; over time, as I learned to draw, I was collaborating with the reference.
These days I’ve been training in a way that lets me draw without reference, so I don’t do thumbnails outside the computer anymore. Usually the ideas are there; as you practice it just gets more automatic, so a lot of times, by the time I sit down to draw, there are two or three scenes that are clear in my head. Not only clear in terms of what you want them to feel like, but how you will achieve that feeling. Then you sit down and see if you were right. When it doesn’t work, you learn a lot.
I did an illustrated edition of Network Effect by Martha Wells that was recently released, and I did the entire book with no reference, just to see if I could after a few years of training on drawing human anatomy. It was challenging, but it was pretty darn fun. When you start as an artist it’s all fear, so I’ve just been on a quest to try and get rid of that. If I’m afraid to not use reference, alright, I won’t use reference. I’m afraid to use color? I’ll use more color.
It’s hard to say what the process will be like on any given image—whatever the image demands is what you do sometimes. Whatever I need is what I do.
There are strong contrasts between dark and light in your overall portfolio. Talk a little bit about color choices, and the use of dark and light in your work.
You always think about the next thing, so I periodically look at the old stuff, but it’s not where my mind is. You never know what someone else thinks about your work. The strong contrast, yeah, that’s there, I think. As an artist you evolve by going too far one way, then too far the other, and then you find a way to combine those things. When I started out, I only knew how to make pieces successful if I had a clear silhouette, so I would have a clear silhouette, and that would give an impression of strong foreground against background, of figure against background. The Red Rising cover is just that dark red blob of him against the white, porcelain background. That’s one way to create strong contrast, but you can also do it through lighting, like the Servant Mage cover: anywhere that there’s light you get contrast, but it’s not a silhouette exactly, and parts of the dragon, they merge with the background.
You’re always trying to do more with less in art because you only have so much time. Your pieces are an ode to how much time you sat there. After I got injured from overworking, I thought, I just can’t keep doing this, so it was a nice kick in the ass to actually learn new stuff. If you want to get somewhere new, you can’t do what you did, what got you to where you are. It’s not going to get you to the next place. You have to keep changing what you do.
The Gifting Fire cover was during the early part of my exploration of using color more in finished images. As I introduced more color, I realized I need more color to achieve certain effects of depth that value can’t offer me, but I can’t just put it wherever, there still has to be a system. Over time, value and color became more like one idea. You only introduce a new element in art when the elements you’re using can’t do it, so if I’m doing the piece in value, if it’s mostly a value piece, and I get a little bit of separation where I need one element to be separate from another, but there are no more values left to use, well then, I’ll do it with color. Sometimes you start with color and then you only introduce value changes when you have to. The dragon piece is more like that—it started more in color, and then I was able to flatten a lot of the values because the red wings separate themselves from the background, even though they are the exact same value. You don’t need a value change there, and that frees up a value change that you can use to put lighting on top of the dragon, so that it has depth, and there’s also a distance between it and the background.
As you pack in new fundamentals, they merge intuitively over time. It does take pieces that maybe aren’t what you would normally make, or they don’t feel like you to other people. At first, that’s a big source of anxiety for a lot of artists, they want to always be recognized, they want to feel like, “this art is me.” Eventually you realize, this art’s not “me,” this is just, like, whatever I burped up after eating. “Me” is this group of skills that you’re cultivating, the work is the byproduct of that. One of the reasons we do the podcast is so I can interview artists who are better than me, and find out how they got this way, what their secrets are. The people that I think are really amazing have that mindset. They’re not concerned about posterity, they just like playing and learning and trying to make cool stuff. You can’t fret over every piece. You’re gonna make some good ones and you’re gonna make some bad ones.
Which pieces are you most proud of, or which do you feel were most successful?
Mostly, they’re not out yet. It’s always the newest work. If it’s on my website, I like it. I’m not a big believer in sharing anything that you don’t want to do more of. If you show that you paint dragons, people might hire you to paint dragons. You have to know that you’d do it again before you share it.
There’s some stuff that’s not on my site yet, but which has been released. On Timandra Whitecastle’s site you can see the cover for Queens of the Wyrd, and that came out really well. It has more color, but what I think of as my colors, colors that I like: warmer, darker palettes.
I really like some of the pictures I did for the Grim Oak edition of Wizard of the Pigeons, by Robin Hobb (writing as Megan Lindholm). I’m pretty happy with the covers for the Locked Tomb series, especially Harrow. If it’s on the front page of my site, I like it the most; if it’s on the “more work” page, some of it I like, but it’s not very good portfolio fodder.
One of the other impressions I had is that many of your pieces center or almost center people.
I do some images where the people aren’t in the middle, but to be honest, they don’t get chosen by clients. I always provide alternate types of sketches, but the cover industry has things that it likes, things that sell better. Sometimes you work with someone that lets you get away with different kinds of stuff, but again, it’s one of the reasons I like doing illustrated books. The cover for Network Effect was a robot in the middle but all the interiors are other kinds of images, like the dude at the very top of the composition just rock climbing.
In fact, when my career started, it was mostly those kinds of images. They weren’t book covers, they were interiors, or they were for stories. So, they could be all kinds of things.
Where are you hoping to take your art? Do you have goals for your career, are there types of projects that you haven’t done that you want to do?
Where my goals really lie are what I could do with my skills. I always want to be able to produce a better image today than I’ve ever produced before, I always want to be getting better and less afraid of making imagery. It sounds kind of bad, probably, if you don’t have that little bit of precursor, but wherever I can get paid the most for the least amount of time is always a good place, because you’re buying yourself more time to train and get better.
Covers are going to be hard to step away from because I keep upping my cover rate, and people keep paying. As long as that can happen, I can spend more time working on getting better. It should be a cycle that fuels itself. There’s going to be a limit. Publishing is (compared to something like video games or movies) not a terribly rich industry, but it’s got a lot of amazing people in it, and I love working in it. I love reading books. I’m not someone that’s really looking to move on from what I’m doing: I really like what I’m doing.
I am starting to work on a few projects as a concept artist and that’s pretty fun because, when you’re doing a cover, you have to worry about the design of the image at large. Each individual element is really important. But when you’re designing a character standing there, you have to worry about a different kind of design. How big does it look? How cool does it look? What if some part is bigger; if the helmet is smaller; if the suit is red—but what if it has a strike through it? You have to match that with all this functional stuff. When I do a cover, I’ll concept out some elements and then paint it, but it’s just pure sandbox play. When you’re doing character and creature designs and pieces like that, they’re going to be used in other ways later, so that’s pretty fun too. And it’s another thing that a few years ago I don’t think I would have been qualified for, but now, when I get those jobs, I think it sounds really fun and interesting. So maybe more stuff like that.
I don’t know, wherever lets me exercise my skills, that’s where I’ll go. But I expect to be doing covers as long as they’ll have me.