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Thoughts From The Land Of Frost:
A Conversation With Fred Fields By Alexander Ness
Anyone having played role playing or collectible card games has almost certainly enjoyed the art of the most excellent Fred Fields. In 1989, Fields was hired by Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR. While at the company, Fred worked on such game worlds as Lankhmar, Al Qadim, Forgotten Realms, Hollow Worlds, Greyhawk, Gamma World, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, The Dragonlance Calendars, as well as the highly popular but short-lived Women of Fantasy Calendar. In the mid-90s Fred left TSR to embark on his own, painting cover art for FASA's Shadowrun, Palladium's Rifts, S.Q. Productions' Gallery Girls Collections, Archangel Entertainment, Myrmadon Press' Armageddon, Inquest Magazine, trading cards for Legend of the Five Rings' DUNE, and Wizards of the Coasts' Magic The Gathering. Fred returned to TSR/WotC in 1997 for another year and a half. He is now is a celebrated painter of Western-themed art.
Fields was kind enough to sit down with Slush and talk artistic shop.
Alex Ness: Please tell my readers about yourself. How old are you? Are you married, where are from, where do you live, cats, dogs, etc.?
Fred Fields: I'm 38 years young. I was born in Hawaii (Dad stationed there in the Marines) but I was raised in the beautiful Commonwealth of Kentucky. I'm married to a fantastic woman. Sandy and I met in our early teens. We always had this connection...ya know? In our late teens she moved away and that was the end of it. We did keep in touch...for a while...and then there was a fifteen year period where we lost touch. During that time I was married and so was she.
After a split from my ex-wife and a move to Seattle I decided to see if I could find her. I did and she was also going through a divorce. After several Phone bills of $400+ on both of our ends we finally met in Myrtle Beach NC for a weekend. A month later I flew her out to Seattle for a visit and on her second visit she never went home. She still has the return plane ticket. Sandy and I have settled in suburban Phoenix with our two man-cubs (ages 2 and 4 in Sept.). We have a 50 lb. cat (Sadie), a fish (fishy) and a Lab/Golden puppy (Cole) who is sporting this season's hottest new style in shock collars.
AN: How might you say that you were trained in art? Did you attend university or trade school, or are you self-taught?
FF: At nine I started private oil painting lessons that lasted for ten years. After high school I attended Central Academy of Commercial Art in Cincinnati (now the Cincinnati Academy of Design).
AN: When did your artistic talent become evident?
FF: I don't exactly know how old I was. I drew from the age of two. Most kids do. But there was one drawing I did....My Dad must hate this story.....I was sitting across from my Dad in the living room while he was asleep with a 2 day growth of beard (him, not me). It was the first time I drew something that actually looked the way I meant for it to.
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AN: What artists would you say have had the most influence on your work?
FF: Walter Foster's "how to Draw" books, Norman Rockwell, my teacher Ms. Anneliese Wharenburg, in the beginning of my interest in Fantasy Art....'theman'..Frank Frazetta, Definitely Boris Valliejo, Michael Whelan, N.C. Weyeth, Maxfield Parrish, James Bama, Robert Bateman, Howard Terpning... I go through a lot of influential 'periods'....
AN: What life experiences would you count as being the most influential to you artistically?
FF: I don't know if I could pinpoint one particular experience. My biggest jump in my capabilities as a painter was the first, say, three years at TSR. My ability was surpassing my expectations. It was freaky.
AN: Describe what was going on at TSR when you came on staff.
FF: It was just Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell and myself. Brom came on about a year later, I believe.
AN: Had you ever played any role playing games prior to joining the staff of that Gaming company?
FF: I've never played a role playing game in my life. Except for maybe "Escaped Convict and the Warden's Wife." I'm not really supposed to talk about it, though.
AN: Must ... resist ... urge ... to ... ask ... follow up question.
Do you have a favorite work from that era, or phase if you will, of your work?
FF: Sure. I have a few. I was assigned the cover to the "Women of Fantasy" calendar cover one year. I was really intimidated. My work was always on the cover of something representing a story by an author who I usually didn't know. This was representing the other artists I worked with. My peers. Suddenly I felt a huge responsibility to "represent." The painting I came up with titled (for a complete lack of anything better) "Butterfly Chick" was one of my personal favorites. "December's Rose" I recently sold. It was a fave. "Eve" is another but I still have that one. It hung in my studio for a while but it doesn't fit the more Western theme I've got going now. One of the last paintings that Sandy posed for before getting pregnant with our oldest was called "Birth of Night." It's been old and I really miss it. Damn, I loved that painting.
AN: Tell us about your collaborations with other artists, particularly Tim Bradstreet.
FF: I've known Tim for a lot of years. I think we had a mutual respect and admiration for each other's work. Over the years Tim and I became friends and it's a friendship that I hold in the highest regard. He's a hugely talented artist and a genuinely fucking great guy. I loved working on Nailed to the Gun with Tim. We weren't sure how the "process" would play itself out, but, for me, that was part of allure of the project. We've talked recently (within the last few months) about doing it again (ten years later): a painting of his Vampire hunter character, Manfred Gallows, from his story and labor of love, Red Sky Diaries. I feel as though I know this bad S.O.B, Gallows. I left Fantasy Art years ago but I've always maintained that I'd always do another job with Tim. Whenever he sends me the pencils, I'm on it.
Another artist, close friend and fishing buddy that I've collaborated with is Dennis Kauth who is with WotC [Wizards of the Coast]. Dennis is a superior 3D artist as well as a inventor and engineer. I've helped him with a project or two. When I've helped him in the past my role was that of the assistant. He's the boss of his project and I try to be a set of capable hands. Dennis used to build props for me back at TSR. If I couldn't find it or rent it, he'd build it. Once he built this cool-ass laser gun for me the night before he went in for surgery. Said he couldn't sleep.
Aside from those two cases I've not collaborated with anyone. I started simply "discussing" a collaborative effort with another artist/friend once on a project of mine. He began to get way out over his skis as far as the role he'd play in the whole thing. Then he began to demand legal documents to be signed.... I didn't mind paying the guy. After all he'd be taking time out from his life to do this. But this was a friend and the whole demanding of a contract was almost accusatory. Maybe it shouldn’t have hurt my feelings the way it did. Anyway I thought to myself "this project is only in the concept stage and it's already a pain in the ass. This particular idea will not make or break my career and as far as working with this person....I've done OK so far without doing so and I'm pretty sure I'll do OK if I don’t." So I canceled it. Sadly, it caused a "rift" between this person and myself and we've not spoken since. It's a shame.
AN: What other artist's work do you pick up?
FF: This sounds disgustingly avant-garde, but for Father's Day my wife and kids bought for me a book of artist William Shih-Chieh Hung. He does these great portraits and nudes.
AN: If you weren't a talented artist illustrating the west and heroes and beings of fantasy you would be doing ____________ ?
FF: Maybe a chef. I love to cook. I've also been dabbling in home brewing. All I need to do now is roll my own cigars and I'd be a complete Bohemian.
AN: Describe if you could the process you go through in completing a single work.
FF: Wow, there's a question. Hmmm.. I work from photos. People have differing opinions on the use of photos. I use them extensively. Western art is different than Fantasy in a lot of ways. When I was illustrating Fantasy art, the idea came first. It had to represent the book or game which it covered. I'd do a series of sketches that might represent the mood of the story or portray a pivotal scene. After chose a sketch I'd rent costumes, gather models and photograph them all separately. If there were any monsters I'd sculpt them and photograph them as well. I'd then 'Frankenstein' it all together into a tight sketch.
Now in Western art a lot of the time the photo opp comes first. Say, at a rodeo or on a ranch. For instance, I drove past the most miserable looking cattle the other day. Whatever vegetation there had been in the field was long since gone. There was a single Saguaro cactus and a water trough. It was 112º in the shade and this Longhorn was trying to squeeze into the shade of the cactus. I thought it looked like a good idea for a painting.
So now it's more like I see the situation, photograph it and if the photos are decent I'll paint it. I still set up shots but it's a little different. After I decide on my photo or photos to work from I do a small sketch. I make a few copies and mount the sketches onto illo board and do loose color studies. Then I do a detailed drawing. I take the drawing to Kinko's and use their blueprint copier to bring it up to a size I'd like to paint. I transfer the drawing onto a canvas stretched over masonite. I establish my darks with burnt umber, throw salt over my left shoulder, rub a rabbit’s foot, undercoat, spin around three times and then the laborious task of doing the finished painting.
AN: How long does it take for you to complete a single oil painting?
FF: About two weeks longer than I intend.
AN: Let’s talk about your website.
FF: There are two. Fredfields.net showcases my Fantasy art from my years at TSR and WotC as well as freelance and private works. I sell originals through the site and some prints that I’ve recently uncovered will also be for sale. In 1999 I decided I wanted a change. I decided that I'd like to do Western Art which is why we moved to Arizona. The Western site is fieldsartwest.com and showcases my gallery work.
I've also produced several limited edition giclée prints through my print Co., Dusty River Graphics. They are also available for purchase. I have a page on the site titled "What's on the Easel?" People always ask what I’m currently working on and I've always found it difficult to explain a painting to someone. You can go there and seethe sketch that I'm currently working from with notations of what it is you're looking at and notes on how I plan to execute the painting. Early next year we have plans to put out step-by-step videos of paintings. It will cover the shoot in South Dakota where re-enactors, Mountain Men, Cowboys and a group of Lakota Indians pose for and set up shots for artists. After that we'll cover everything up to and including hanging the painting in the Gallery. I'm extremely excited about the project.
AN: You have done enough erotic works as to need a disclaimer on your website’s frontpage to ward off those easily offended.
FF: From a purely legal standpoint, one is enough for a disclaimer. I don’t have a lot of nudity in my nudes. I think it's rather tame by most standards but who needs the headache...KnowhatImean? As far as people being easily offended..... There are many, many more important things going on in the world than getting offended by a painting of mine. Some people just seem to go through life actually trying to be offended by something. I can't do anything about it and don't have time to worry about it either.
AN: Do you still work in that subject matter?
FF: Fantasy art? The answer is no. I've moved on. I've toyed with the idea of doing a nude here and there but not a steady stream of them. If I do they won't have the edge that the others did. Not that I've ever been extremely edgy but there will be no dog collars or tattoos. I'll be going for a more classic look.
AN: Now tell about your transformation Western art. There would not seem to be much shared constituencies between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Louis Lamour.
FF: I don't know. Aren't Fantasy paintings and movies just Westerns with armor and swords? I'd been bored with what I was doing for a few years but that was the path I'd chosen so that’s what I did. When Wizards of the Coast laid me off at a time when I had a child on the way it left a bad taste in my mouth. I sat back and honestly asked myself, "Do I really want to continue doing this?" I'd always been a fan of Western art and the thought of doing art for the sake of art without having to placate Art directors, editors, product group heads and just about anyone else who could formulate a rudimentary opinion was something of a breath of fresh air. (I digress) I love living out here. I love the desert and the mountains. I'll probably never move back East.
AN: Is there a collection of your work in book form?
FF: There was a badly produced and ill-fated art book called (what else?) "The Art of Fred Fields." It was a bad experience. I can just now talk about it. Give me a couple of years of painting and I'll give it another more upscale shot at an art book. I've actually already started on text.
AN: Do you attend sci-fi or pop culture conventions now, or does Western art totally dominate your focus?
FF: My thought on the subject was, and still is, to do one thing completely instead of two things halfway. I just think trying to paint in two completely different genré and mindsets would be like one person trying to drive two cars at the same time. I do, however get invited to Sci-fi / Fantasy Cons from time to time. I just don't feel I'm all that relevant in that industry. I'm flattered and respectfully decline the invitations. I was asked to be a speaker at a conference in Lexington dedicated to promoting and encouraging young Kentucky talent. (In the old TSR art dept. there were actually 3 of us from KY: Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore and myself). That one I may attend.
AN: What are your upcoming projects?
FF: I have boxes of photos since moving to Arizona. I could paint for years on the photos I have currently. I have a huge shoot to go to in August that should bear ample fruit. The Western Art and Wears industry has their trade shows that are comparable to the SF Cons. One of which is the "Festival of the West" in Scottsdale, AZ and there is another in Vegas (the name escapes me right now). We are planning on attending shows and hawking our prints and video tapes. I've recently been accepted into the Oil Painters of America (OPA) and will be showing in some of the groups shows.
That's about the long and the short of it, m'friend.