Interview with The Duelist Magazine Issue #4

A Conversation with Melissa Benson 

by Kathryn Haines & Amy Weber
Interview: Originally published February 1995

Since she graduated from Paier College of the Arts in Hamden, CT, six years ago, Melissa Benson has been persistent in pursuing a name and a career in fantasy illustration. Her work in the trading card game industry includes numerous pieces for Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The GatheringTM and JyhadTM), MagForce 7 (Star of the GuardiansTM game), Destini Productions (Flights of FantasyTM), and Companion Games (Galactic EmpiresTM); her credits also include work for Pendulum Press in CT, Gamesmiths, Inc. in CA, and RAFM in Ontario. 

Melissa’s work has appeared in several gaming magazines, including Scrye, Cryptych, and The Duelist.When it comes to the business side of her art, Melissa is uncompromising; her relentless defense of artist rights has earned her “something of a reputation,” she admits. But she’s quick to laugh at adversity, and her hard-edged humor is infectious. She’s eager for feedback; when she calls “to see if you got my work,” what she really wants to know is what you think of it. 

Knowing where things stand is important to Melissa. And that, as much as the interview, is why she’s flown out to Seattle from Connecticut — to attend the WotC shareholders meeting, to put faces to the names she knows, to check things out. “I’m only as good as the information I have,” she says — a principle that seems to apply in everything she does.

Sitting in The Duelist office, she’s casual, but prepared; samples of her work — everything from sketches of buff barbarians to a portrait of Gloria Swanson — cover the floor as we talk. And, we discover, these samples are not all she’s brought. Melissa, it seems, makes a habit of being ready for anything.

Work and WotC

K: How did you get your start as an artist?

M: [laughs] Actually, my very first job out of college was drawing futuristic lawn care equipment. There is a placement agency in Connecticut for artists which placed me as often as they could; it was difficult for them because they don’t place illustrators, they place graphic artists. Most of what they ended up giving me were advertising jobs where the client needed sketches.

K: So you’ve actually supported yourself doing art?

M: We’d like to think so. [laughs] Actually, I have an incredibly supportive family, and that has made things a lot easier. And the graphic jobs that came through were just enough. One job I had through this placement agency was in Westport, for a dressmaker. He hired me to draw illustrations of wedding gowns. Rich women would shop for their daughters’ trousseaus; it was my job to take what they liked–this seam, that hem, you know–and put it all together so they could see what it looked like. 

I remember one of them just wanted to change the hemline. The hemline? Pick up your skirt and look in the mirror! It was through them that I realized just how much money was to be made. Because the agency was getting twenty percent, and I’m getting twenty-five bucks an hour; that means they’re getting a whole lot more. And these people are willing to pay that, ask to pay it, even. So you see that kind of money going out, and you say: “I would have done this job for three hundred dollars. The going rate is fifteen hundred. You’ve got to be kidding.” But the money is there.

K: Are you an active marketer of your work?

M: Out of necessity. Most of what I do is for marketing purposes: I try to identify a market and do samples that are specifically tailored to that market.

A: I’ve seen her in action! Remember GenCon®? She had her entire portfolio in her bag. No matter where we went–see, she’s got it now! [Everyone laughs as Melissa pulls out a small album of 4×6 color photos.]

M: I’m constantly sending out samples of my work. And a response card–a well-designed response card is very important. [laughs] The comments you get back can be interesting. “Nice work.” “Happy New Year.” “Good luck in your career.” Thanks – you’re not helping it any!

A: Did you get any helpful comments?

M: A couple of leads that didn’t pan out. But at least they made the effort–that was nice.

A: What about constructive criticism?

M: [laughs] It depends on how you look at it. One wrote back, “No science fiction, no horror. If you don’t do fantasy, don’t send anything.” But all I do is fantasy. So I sent them a cover submission, and it came back.

“Sorry, the cover has to represent the inside of the book.” Well, that’s a neat trick, isn’t it? I can’t fight with that one, can I?

K: So how did you get involved with Wizards of the Coast?

M: I went to a comic book store and copied down the addresses from a catalog of game publishers. [laughs] You go in and write down as many addresses as you can before they kick you out. “What are you doing?” “Nothin’.” You’re stalling, you hope you’re getting the right zip code because you’re being distracted…. So I mailed out query letters, and one company wrote back saying that they were not a manufacturer, but they sent me a list of all the gaming companies, all their addresses, contacts–it was several pages long. I went through everyone. Called the ones that I could, scrapped the ones that answered the phone with “Hello?” And not the company name–yeah, you’re about as big as I am–next! So I sent out all the fliers, with response cards, and, you know, sat back and waited. And Jesper [Myrfors, former art director at Wizards of the Coast] sent me the response card back saying, “Yes, we are interested; there is nothing going on right now–when there is we’ll give you a call.” And I thought, yeah, you and everybody else. This was before Magic came out. But Jesper did. And you know the rest.

K: Since then, you’ve done almost thirty Magic cards, and how many Jyhad?

M: Fourteen.

K: How was working on Jyhad, compared to Magic?

M: Okay. I had thought it was going to be Gothic vampires, which I would have adored. I have this interest in the costumes of that time–the textures, the colors; the architecture–gates, the ironwork. Fireplaces. There’s a mantle in the Metropolitan Museum [of Art in New York City] which the Vanderbilt owned which is just out of this world. These huge figures holding it up…. ahh. The Victorian era stuff–I like that stuff a lot. That’s what I expected. Modern vampires–they’re okay. I was disappointed. But it was okay. Because I do like doing portraits.

K: Did you get a lot of reaction from, oh, say…?

M: Tura Vaughn? Yeah, I got a lot of reaction!

K: What do people say?

M: “A woman drew that?” I go around with a three-ring binder full of color photocopies. Guys go through it, and they stop at that one. Sometimes they say something, sometimes they go on.

Style and Media

K: How would you characterize your style?

M: I don’t have a clue. People can see it; people can pick my stuff out of a crowd. I don’t see the underlying style, to tell you the truth. All my pieces look different to me.

K: Your color scheme is very distinctive.

M: I like supersaturated colors–very jewel-like colors. That’s why I think I gravitated more toward dye, rather than watercolor. It takes too many coats to get the saturation with watercolor when you can do it once with a dye.

K: Do you consider yourself indebted to particular artists for your style?

M: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema for marble, certainly. Alphonse Mucha for grace. Roy Krenkel for action. It depends on what feeling I’m trying to get across. If I’m painting a certain thing, I’ll reflect upon what artist says that best to me, and then see how they approached it, how they see it. If I’m trying to get across some kind of serenity, for example, I’d look at Rob Alexander’s landscapes–they’re just terrific.

K: It is important to you to do a subject differently than other artists?

M: Very. Because otherwise I’m just reading the same speech. You have to change the words a little. Otherwise, it’s plagiarism–there’s no difference. I once did a book cover, a graphic novel version of Treasure Island. and I had the feeling, the definite impression, that the art director wanted me to imitate [comics artist] Nestor Redondo’s style. If you want to know where I draw the line, that’s it. I don’t draw like anybody else–I draw like me. If you don’t want my style, you don’t want me. And I have no problem with that. If you want Boris Vallejo, hire Boris. I can’t do that; I won’t. If somebody likes a piece that I’ve mimicked, they’re going to say “Oh, that’s so-and-so”; they’re not going to say “That’s Melissa; let’s use her for the next piece.” So what’s the point of that?

A: When did you develop your signature?

M: I wanted something that would be… recognizable. You’ll forget the name–it isn’t that unusual a name–but people will remember a symbol faster than they’ll remember a name. They’ll see the symbol and say “I’ve seen that symbol before”–and that’s really all you want, to have that association with everything you do, recognized as something you’ve done.

K: How long does a piece take you?

M: It’s difficult to say how long something takes because I work them all together. I do all of the thumbnails together, then I do all the sketches, then I do all the airbrushing together. I finish it up to a certain point, and then I go back and tighten it up.

K: That’s incredibly disciplined.

M: I was trained that way. In college I had a painting class, and there was only one project: one painting, framed, by the end of the semester. The instructor said, “I don’t care if you do it in the first two weeks and you never show up again; I don’t care if you do it overnight the last day. By the end of the semester, you will give me a trompe l’oeil.” So I had to break the basic steps down and say, okay, I have this much time, I have this much to do. With something as tight as a trompe l’oeil, there is no other way to do it.

And it’s carried over. When I am allowed the time to do it, it works like a charm. I can take other jobs at the same time, and I don’t have to kill myself.

K: When you’re done with a body of work, do you feel that most of the pieces you submit are of similar quality, or do you feel that some are much better than others?

M: Not better; I’m happier with some than with others. Some give me less grief than others.

A: Where do you get your inspiration from?

M: From my clip-file, quite often; if I find something unusual, I’ll cut it out. In the doctor’s office I’ll ask if I can have the magazine; if they say no, I’ll rip the page out, secretly… I bring an X-acto with me–silent but deadly. It’s funny; I think people imagine that, when you create a piece, these little images come full-blown in your head. “Oh, we’ll use this one!” When really it’s like looking through a clip-file. “Something like this”–and you pull that one out. “With a face something like that; I’d think I’d like something like that. I’d like to try something unusual. “I like to read a lot. So I try to keep those images with me. The Brothers Grimm, I love; somebody says fairy tales, it’s the Brothers Grimm I think of. I don’t like all the sanitizing of other fairy tales… There is retribution, there MUST be retribution and something really terrible has to happen so that the retribution is justified. Dracula, I think, is the first book I read all the way through.

 I like horror stories. Of the modern fantasy writers, I like David Eddings. Movies are also very important–old movies. Usually you wouldn’t handle something artistically the same way you see it on screen, but it points you in a direction that you might not have looked in. It’s almost like walking down a hall and seeing doors ajar. Something clicks in your mind and you say, “Last year, or a couple years ago, down the street, or in this book I was just looking at… I can combine that with that… I bet this will go great with that color scheme….”

K: So are you progressively happier with the Deckmaster work you’re doing?

M: Yes. I have to say that because I’m not getting surprised so often by the medium. For the big paintings that I do, I prefer to work in oils. There are additives that I use that dry the day’s work overnight. Each step I let dry overnight. These Magic cards are so small that I can’t do that. So I have to work in mixed media. I don’t like it, because each medium has its own problems, and when you start to mix them, you don’t lose problems–you gain more. But I’m getting surprised less often.

K: Do you think your work is going to change a lot as far as the kind of media you use, or…?

M: I’d like to be more competent in any medium I use, that would be nice! Pencil’s the only one I feel absolutely comfortable in. There’s not a whole lot I can’t do with a pencil. I never did anything in oil until I went to college; now I don’t use anything else. Pastel I find absolutely impossible to work in. I’m a very smudgy person; I get pink to my elbow.

K: How do you think of the progress in your work? Do you think you are “going somewhere” with your style?

M: If I could see it, I could tell you, but I don’t. Really, I don’t mean to be evasive…. I’m not moving “toward” anything. A lot of people strive to achieve; I just strive to get quality art. I’d love to have on paper what I have in my head. It never happens. Not ever. Not once. What I have in my head is so much better than anything that comes out on paper. You can contrive it, it looks good. But it’s not what I saw.

K: Does your original vision stay with you, or does it sort of fade as the piece progresses?

M: “Sort of fade”? It’s annihilated. Nine times out of ten. Once you have something down, an actual image, it’s hard to see the original. I just know that it exists. As far as progress…. With Fallen Empires, especially, I tried to make sure I had backgrounds. I mean a real background. Not one of my airbrush fast jobs–spray-spray, blot-blot, that’s it.

K: Do you do a lot of research for your work?

M: Yes. That’s why I don’t do ships; I don’t have the patience to find out what the rigging is supposed to be. It has to be right; it has to be able to exist in space. So if there is a buckle on something, I want the buckle to be operable. If there’s a latch, I want it to be operable. It has to be possible–that’s part of the enjoyment for me. I want you to have the impression that you can walk around it and see it from every side; I don’t want it to look flat. I wish I could sculpt better, I really do.

K: Do you do much sketching?

M: Oh, yes. Whenever I can. And absolutely from life whenever I can.

K: Have you studied a lot of anatomy?

M: Yes. I find that stuff very fascinating. When you first start college, you can tell the freshmen right away. Because the freshmen drape everything. They never draw the body; they’ll hide it. They’ll put hands behind the back, they’ll draw people standing in water so they don’t have to draw legs, someone holding a bouquet so they don’t have to draw the hands, all kinds of little tricks that you do–always hiding a weak spot. Then you take your life drawing class, and things get better. And then you get into your clothed model class. Now you realize that drapery isn’t so easy to draw anymore. So now you start drawing everybody nude, because you know your drapery isn’t as good. It can be pretty amusing.

Getting in the Door

K: Do you do a lot of work for other adventure game companies?

M: I’ve been contacted by a lot of trading card game companies–though I’m turning most of them down, because of the contract. I’ve done work for Star of the Guardians; I’ve also worked for Galactic Empires. They didn’t even want to see sketches. “Just do it.” But that’s thanks to Magic, because that’s what they saw. Adventure gaming companies, though–no. I’ve tried. They said, “Oh yes, we’re interested; no, there’s no work.” “Yes, keep us updated–send us more work.”

K: That’s surprising, particularly after Magic.

M: But don’t forget–it’s not that big a market. And where my market is, New York, it’s even more difficult to get work.

K: Is there a big fantasy market in New York?

M: There is if you can get into it. I tried every avenue: I tried children’s books, I tried greeting cards… didn’t pan out. Romance novels. The record cover industry–“Oh, I’m sorry, we use our own staff.” What else is new? So that was that. What I thought was going to happen was that I would go to New York City and see the art director. That was my first mistake–I thought I’d SEE the art director, and she would say, “Yes, this is wonderful,” or “This stinks, go back to college,” or “Don’t quit your day job”–I was expecting that. I had a pad of paper with me, and I was going to say, “Tell me specifically what you don’t like.” And I was going to write it all down, no matter what it was, whether I agreed or not, and go home and change it, make another appointment, and come back and say, “Now what’s wrong with it? I’ve corrected everything you wanted; tell me now why you won’t hire me, why this isn’t a saleable piece.” But the trick to all that is… seeing the art director. I made a lot of calls; they didn’t send back my postcards, they didn’t return calls, so I called them again. [laughs] “You won’t get any other calls–I’m going to monopolize your tape!” I’ve always said that if I make it into the big leagues, whatever the contract is, whatever the money is, it’s got to be “and nineteen cents” for all those miserable postcards they didn’t return to me. The New York firms don’t want you to wait; they want you just to leave your portfolio. So you drop it off and say, “Please look at it in about three hours.” Drop it, find your local coffee shop, and sit in there for three hours, hoping they don’t kick you out because you aren’t buying anything but coffee. (One cup. What you do is, you take your cup and keep switching seats.) Then you go back and ask for your portfolio, and they say, “Sure, it’s right over there.” Oh, you mean right over there where I left it? Yeah, sure, thanks.

K: So do you think you’ll break in anytime soon?

M: I’ll break in eventually because I am tenacious. If nothing else, I am tenacious. And the contacts are starting to come. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”–I’ve always known that, but I’ve never wanted to believe it. But you will never utter a truer statement in your life. People let their friends in. You can’t just be good; you can’t just be really good; you’ve got to be phenomenal to do it on your own terms right off the bat.

K: Do you enjoy feedback on your work?

M: Absolutely. You like to have freedom, but you’re never quite sure that you’ve hit the nail on the head–and that’s something I like to do. If there’s a quality that I lack, it’s mind reading–my skills at mind reading are not the best. So tell me what you want. As an illustrator, I’ve always felt that you are representing something that the art director wants. So what you are doing is, you’re… translating something. If that isn’t what you are after as an art director, then it isn’t what you are after–it’s nothing personal. I’ve always felt that was the difference between a fine artist and an illustrator. A fine artist says, “This is it. This is me, this is what I do–there is no negotiation.” An illustrator is willing to change. “This isn’t what you are after–then what is it that you are after?” Once you change one thing about the piece, it isn’t mine any more – then it doesn’t matter, you can change anything. I had a classmate in college who knew what she wanted to do: she wanted to do romance covers. She was good at it, too. She got in to see Harlequin. All the artwork at Harlequin is commissioned in Canada, and the art directors only show up in the New York City office… twice a year, I think. But she knew exactly what she wanted: she got the appointment with them, they reviewed her portfolio, they said, “Change this, change that–this is the way we do things, this is what we prefer to see”–she got exactly what I was trying to get. and she got bent over it. “They don’t like they way I do hair, they don’t like the way I do this…” I told her that isn’t what they said. They said: “Change this and we’ll give you work.” She was seeing the adversity. But they’re telling you what to do! “You do this, we’ll pay for it–we will give you money!” Do it. Just do it!

K: Are there aspects of freelancing that you still find difficult?

M: It’s hard to set your rates. That, I think, was the hardest thing about freelancing; the interview wasn’t even as bad as trying to figure out what to charge. You can’t charge too little, because you’re a hack; you can’t charge too much, because you won’t get work. And in the beginning, you can’t charge by the hour, because you’re not good enough. I shouldn’t say you’re not good enough – you’re not efficient enough. I tried to get around the problem by always asking, “What’s the budget?” Of course, the employer would come up with all kinds of creative evasive answers for that. They don’t know what to charge; they want you to tell them. I got to the point where I charged by square inch; I couldn’t figure out any other way to do it. A big help was The Graphic Artists Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. There are several business books for artists. The Artist’s Friendly Legal Guide is good; it gives you direction, it gives you a place to market. Also, Artist’s Market; I buy a new copy every other year.

K: You seem to be an extremely astute business person, which is interesting; that’s not a characteristic that most artists either have or like to claim that they have.

M: I didn’t go to art school right out of high school, and I think that makes a big difference. I don’t treat it lightly. I went back to art school because I wanted to do art, I wanted to do art as a business. Not to play around, not because I didn’t know what other major to pick. There were twenty-one illustration majors in my class; seven of them made it, and of those seven, there are only two of us that I consider really to have been successful.

K: Do you think that the success of Magic will have a lasting effect for artists in the gaming industry?

M: Yes. For me, it’s put me in contact with a whole community of artists that I would never have met. I’d like to keep in closer touch with the other artists. Just for the matter of networking. Because you don’t want to get snowed by your clients. You don’t want to see people who abuse artists succeed. And the only way that’s going to stop is by the artists communicating with each other. We shouldn’t let that sort of thing go on when it is so easily prevented. We are not a group without power. The thing is, we’re scattered all over the country; word of mouth travels fast. We are attached–we have to be. Which is why I try to stay in touch. Granted, I’m not that conscientious at it; I do it when I think of it. I’m very conscientious when I’m aggravated about something; when I don’t have anything to complain about, I get lax. So I’ll often talk to the other artists about the contracts. Often they call me “The bitch from Connecticut”–I’ve been referred to in those terms. But that’s just fine. Because I don’t want people to perpetuate the stereotype that artists are flakes. Flaky artists, unfortunately, tend to be really visible. And I think because that’s what they see, that’s what people believe.

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