ARTIST SPOTLIGHT welcomes the luminous and brilliant Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Her fantasy illustrations create magical, serene daydream worlds filled with lustrous light, rich details and enchanting color.
Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, an artist based in Oakland, CA., works with watercolors, but does not limit herself solely to that, often mixing ink, metallic pigments, and textural relief elements into her fantasy work.
Hello Stephanie, please tell us about your work
I worked as a freelance fantasy illustrator for many years (and occasionally still do) for games and publishing. I’m the artist and author of the Shadowscapes Tarot, and the Dreamscapes fantasy watercolor technique series of books. I’ve also recently started delving into the world of botanical art. Between the personal projects, lately I’ve been working with a number of galleries to show my work.
When I’m not painting, I’m busy chasing down my 5 year old daughter, dancing flamenco, playing piano and handspan.
Tell us how you have developed your style and where you hope to see this style evolve as you continue to work and grow as an artist.
I’ve never really liked the idea of specifically chasing a style, because when you consciously try to direct it, it becomes something contrived, rather than a natural extension of what you are as an artist. So for me, what has developed has been a natural organic growth resulting from my experiences and the parts of art and expression that I enjoy.
My college art experience consisted of a program that was very Abstract-Expressionism focused. While I did experiment with that type of work for a while, I knew right away that I wanted to to tell stories with my pictures. That for better or worse, I wanted to chase a more realistic or illustrative direction. So while in classes I was hurling bowlfuls of paint at large canvases and painting with messy drips and splotches, in my own time I was painting digitally, and with watercolors. The meticulous detailed work was the complete opposite of the large scale non-representational work.
Afterwards, I started pursuing work in the publication and gaming industries, and so my work continued into a more illustrative realm. More recently however, I started noticing that the aspect of painting that I really enjoyed were the textures and the random chaos that I can explore with watercolors and how the pigments and liquid interact; and so my style has changed again to reflect those elements. Oddly enough it feels like a bit of a circular path I’ve come, as I work on a smaller scale with drips and paint splashing, and yet tied in as well to very finely detailed imagery.
Did you have a point in your art career or personal life that had a significant defining and affecting moment on your work and style?
I’ve had a few moments. I think the first was when I consciously decided that I was going to somehow make art the eventual center of my life and focus of my career. I was deterred from that path for a long time, believing that it wasn’t a viable career. But I remember attending a software and engineering career faire, and talking with recruiters about my future as a software developer, and returning home to my apartment excited about my prospects. Suddenly I got very depressed, and it took a moment to realize it was because for the first time I was seriously considering a life without art as my career, and I made the decision that evening that within 2 years I would find a way to make art my focus. It took 3 years. But coming to that conscious decision really forced me to take a pragmatic and very direct approach to guiding my art career.
The second really significant event was having my daughter. She has been a huge inspiration, but has also made me reassess my view of my art and what creating art means to me. Becoming a parent really ignited me, and made me more determined, even in the midst of the chaos and reduced painting time. In a way, chaos and time limitations are what really led me to find the important aspects of art, and let me focus in on what I really wanted to say with my work, making it more personal.
What would your ideal studio look like?
I’d have about 3 times more space than I do! I live in California, so everything is miniature. I’ve got a 10×10 foot studio which is crammed with what I need. In some ways though it does have many of the ideal aspects. I’m right near a trailhead that leads down to a beautiful ravine, where I can feel like I’m alone. I think that whatever space I had, I’d need to have this close connection to nature nearby.
How do you divide your time between your creative art and social media for marketing and PR / or what lessons have you learned to make this process make sense and run day to day more smoothly?
It’s difficult, and I can’t say that I’ve done very good at it sometimes. When I have to juggle parenthood, painting-time, order-fulfillment, and PR, that last item sometimes falls behind a little bit behind the urgency of the other three. My software background though has let me make a website that is fairly easy to update whenever I create new art, and I try to send out monthly newsletters to my followers, and a presence on facebook, twitter, and instagram.
But it’s a lot to manage. I have sympathy for people starting out and trying to navigate these waters. In a way it was simpler when I got started, since there was no social media. On the other hand, social media opens up a whole array of options and opportunities that weren’t around when I got started either. I find that the easiest way to deal with all these elements though is to completely segment my time off for one aspect at a time. When I try to do everything at once, then nothing productive happens. So I have my solid blocks of painting time, which I don’t try to do when I’m in full parenting mode. And I have specific days set aside for the business and correspondence aspects of being an artist.
Do you like to stay fairly true to an initial idea / story board sketch / art vision ? Or do you like for your art to change as you go along the process, sometimes resulting in a finished piece that is dramatically different from what you first envisioned ?
I’d say it is a combination. When starting a piece, I sketch a number of very quick thumbnails to get an idea for when I want the final compostion to be. I then start to break down the components of the thumbnails and develope the various parts of the piece into much more detailed sketches. By the time I have a final sketch ready to paint, I have a very definitive concept in mind of composition, and sometimes color.
My sketches are fairly tight. However, I leave a lot of the textures unsketched, and this is where I like to let the random behavior of watercolor as a medium to shine through and dictate what happens to the piece. A lot of times, large areas that I originally thought would be mostly a plain background area become filled with creatures and patterns that emerge from the textures of the drying paint. In recent years, I put more of my process into this realm of chance and the unpredictable nature of my mediums, and so there’s always some element of surprise to me with the finished piece. It keeps the process interesting! But also very nerve-wracking as I try to work my way through stages of a painting where I have less control.
What draws you in and inspires you in other artists work?
Strangely, what inspires me from other artists are the elements that are the most drastically different from my own. So where I am very tight and detail oriented, a lot of times I get really drawn into work that has broader, more impressionistic strokes. I love color, but a funny thing I realized was that most of the original artwork that I have acquired from other artists is monochrome, because there’s something about black and white, and greyscale work that really has an emotive power to me.
When are art images better than words?
I don’t know if I would say images are better that words. They’re a different art form, and they speak to a different part of our psyche. As does dance, and music too. I think visual art tends to impact on a more gut level. And dance and music push that visceral level even further, the more you travel away from the logic and order that words instill in your brain. Each art form has its own way of creating an inner dialogue with the viewer, mixed with emotion.
When have you been the most satisfied with your work and what art piece in your gallery feels connected the most to “you?”
It changes constantly, and I think that’s a good thing. Usually it’s with my most recent work. So for right now, it’s my Insecta series that is in progress. The way that I create, I feel like I can’t do good work unless I feel deeply connected to the piece that’s on the drawing board. If I don’t feel that resonance, then it’s not worth doing. That changes as I change. My frame of mind, what’s happening in my life at the time, my artistic skill levels. I guess the only time that doesn’t synch up is if the finished piece doesn’t match up with my expectations for its execution. There’s always that chance, especially when I leave so much of my process up to the random movement of pigment and textures.
Do you think working as an artist is a natural born “gift” vs artistry skills learned through desire, education and simply putting in the work?
“Gift” is such a loaded word for it all. I don’t think that there’s some magical artistic essence that anyone is born with, at least not in that sense of it. If anything, it might be a very intense desire, a need to create art that can’t be ignored, discipline to practice and follow through and work through setbacks, and ability to change and learn. I think that not everyone has all these elements, but they are really key to being able to succeed as an artist. And, even if you have all these traits, then begins the hard work of actually putting it into action. Constant practice, taking advantage of learning opportunities, and not being discouraged by criticism. A lot of work.
Do you ever find yourself going back to older art pieces and reworking them either in a different direction and / or with new skills you have developed since you first finished the piece?
I used to do that, and it was very satisfying to see how my work had changed. But I guess in recent years I feel like my focus has changed so much that there’s not much point to turning the wheel back to look at concepts that are no longer resonating with me in the same way. So I prefer to just move onward with creating completely new work.
What is “success” to you?
It has meant different things throughout my career, and I do think it’s important to set constant milestone goals for yourself as motivation. At an early point in my career, it was a very simple meter for success – I wanted to do work for Wizards of the Coast. After I did that, success became being able to quit my software job and work full time as an artist. Then completing and getting published my personal projects (the Shadowscapes Tarot and the Dreamscapes series of books). Working with galleries. The line keeps moving, and my concept of success is always changing.
Where do you show your work and where can fans view your portfolio?
Mainly I show my work on my website: http://www.shadowscapes.com