Perhaps it’s a Roman gladiator in the clutches of a tiger, or a steampunk cop on break from fighting crime. Or maybe it’s sunlight pouring through vine-covered trees during a quiet moment between a ranger and a woodland fox.
The scenes run the gamut of imagination and share little beyond their award-winning creator, Alexander Gustafson, and his hope to bring a few minutes of wonder back into the world.
“A lot of adults forget that it’s totally OK to bring the inner kid along for the ride,” said Gustafson, an Essex Jct. native and fantasy illustrator who was recently named a quarterly winner of the L. Ron Hubbard Achievement Award, a 35-year-old contest that recognizes some of the world’s best illustrators and writers.
Coined an Illustrator of the Future, Gustafson is among two-dozen writers and illustrators in the running for a grand prize of $5,000. He will travel this spring to Hollywood for a weeklong professional convention and will appear in the annual L. Ron Hubbard anthology.
The award also solidifies Gustafson’s place in the illustrating world: The 340-plus past winners of the illustrating contest have produced over 6,000 illustrations and 360 comic books and contributed art to more than 100 movies and television shows.
“A bunch of artists that I look up to got their start doing it,” Gustafson said of the contest. “It’s just humbling anytime your work is recognized because there’s just so many talented people out there.”
Gustafson jokes that his own origin story is like that of most great heroes: “I fell into a big vat of nuclear goo.” In reality, his journey began filling pages of a sketchbook as a kid – a habit he continues to this day – and continuing to dedicate himself to learning the ins-and-outs of the craft.
By his telling, life as a fantasy illustrator requires more than just being artistically talented. “You have to study culture and fashion,” he said. “Anatomy, for both animals and people. Armor, and how to render things in correct lighting.”
Often it requires drawing inspiration from life: The best way to ensure a make-believe creature appears believable is to base it off reality. Does your dragon have feathers? Study birds. Is it covered in scales? Look to lizards. And even after all that attention to detail, it’s vital to get the lighting just right, he said.
All Gustafson’s work is created on a computer using a large, pressure-sensitive screen and a stylus – like digital painting. “You just don’t have to wait for the paint to dry,” he said.
Gustafson said most of his commissions come with a two- to three-week deadline. He usually spends the first day thinking of the project and then does some quick sketches to send to the client. If they have the budget, he hires a model and takes photographs so he can see how the light falls on the subject, or he builds his own clay maquettes.
“No matter how much you paint, making it up from scratch is never going to be as informed as having that good reference,” he said. “It’s all information gathering so you can produce the best piece possible.”
After exhausting art class offerings at Essex High School, Gustafson earned his bachelor’s from the University of Mass., Dartmouth and his master’s in fine arts from the Savannah College of Art.
Graduating from there in 2008, a notably poor year for fresh grads to find a new job, he bounced around part-time jobs, and now shares time between commissioned works and his own personal projects, including a new book, while looking for a full-time job that will allow him to put his skills to use.
“Full-time jobs are kind of like the unicorns,” he said. “It’s really difficult to find them, and it’s all based on experience, which is the name of the game. That’s what all this is about: Me trying to get more experience, fill the résumé with clients and see where I can take the career.”
The award comes during a transitional period in Gustafson’s life after moving back home from Seattle to plot out his next move.
He suspects he will need to move out of state to find a full-time job in his field, perhaps back to the west coast or somewhere in New York City. He still dreams of working for a company like DreamWorks Animation or “something Star Wars-y” but says his ideal job is one at which he can push his skills, learn from others and obtain some financial security.
For now, he’ll continue taking commissions and furthering his personal works, with a goal of one day headlining a show at some art gallery in Vermont.
“I’m just trying to figure out my path,” he said.