Jesper Ejsing is a freelance fantasy artist and author from Denmark. He has done illustrations for Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, Runebound, Pathfinder and others. If you’ve seen the Monster Manual 2 for D&D 4th Edition, then you’re familiar with his art. We called Jesper up to talk about his work and what inspires him.
OP: How long have you been working in the field and how did you get started?
JE: The field to me can mean 2 things because I’ve been doing illustrations for role playing games in Denmark since I was 16, but it was very hard to break into the international market. It took me about 7 years to get into that market.
In Denmark I used to get featured in this underground magazine. Internationally, my first assignment was for Fantasy Flight Games, and I think that was about 12 years ago. My first illustration was for Traps and Treasures and it was an interior. After I did 2 interiors, I asked for cover work and it was for Runebound. That was very popular. I got to do all the art for that.
It’s very hard to break into high level illustration–especially being from Denmark–because I don’t go to conventions, but all of that changed with the internet. I had a website. I started writing back and forth with Tod Lockwood. He’s the one that asked me to put together a portfolio and showed it to his art director. It took them about a year to get back to me.
The funny thing is, when I finally got the interview, the art director was named Jeremy Jarvis. I had just published a book called Jarvis: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice so I thought the guys at my office were playing a prank on me. I didn’t answer for a day or two because I thought it was a joke, but eventually I realized that there were too many details for them to make up and it was the real thing.
Then, a few years ago, I went workshop in Seattle with Massive Black. I got invited to see Wizards of the Coast and got introduced to the art director there. That’s how I started doing covers for Dungeons and Dragons.
OP: What is the project you worked on most recently?
JE: I’m still doing Magic: The Gathering, but not as much as I used to. I’m mostly working on D&D lately. (On the Monster Manual 2 cover) Monsters like [the Demogorgon] are difficult to do when they have two heads and tentacles and things like that because it’s hard to make them look realistic. I asked why she wanted to pick me and she said her art director said “give it to Jesper. He can do it.” I usually do big bestial monsters for wizards.
The reason why this work is so enjoyable for me is because I’m a roleplayer myself. I’ve been playing since 1986 with the same group. We’ve been playing for about 20 years. We play Rolemaster from Iron Crow. I’ve been playing in Copenhagen and one of my friends moved to London and we play over Skype. The great thing about Rolemaster is that when I contacted them a few years ago and asked if I could do some illustrations for their new edition, it was like rewriting a chapter in the bible.
OP: What type of work is most enjoyable for you to do?
JE: I love all of it! All of the illustrations I’ve been doing in the past couple of years I would have done if i didn’t have a job. The kind of assignments I like the best are covers because they’re the most seen and I can play around a little more with what I put there. Because you’re representing the whole game, it’s a little more free. I like to tell a story with the cover.
OP: What medium do you work in and what is it you like about it?
JE: Acrylic. Only acrylic. On watercolor board or sometimes watercolor paper. If I was a digital artist I could paint the double amount that I do now, but I really like the traditional stuff. As it is now, I’m happily able to sell originals. I have the side effect of being able to sell originals and they can hang in someone’s house. I’m very proud of that. On a personal level, I like to feel the paper and the brushes. Digital is less personal to me. If you use a tool in a digital program, it looks the same no matter who is using it, but each artist that uses a paintbrush has an individual style. Going from traditional to digital would depersonalize the artwork for me. I feel like I would lose something from my art that makes it stand out.
OP: Where do you look for inspiration?
JE:I look at all of the other artists in the field. I try not to look too much on the internet because everyone is so damn good there. I get discouraged when I find some guy 15 years younger than me that’s doing this amazing art. I like to look at Alphonso Mucha, Tom Lovel or French comic artists like Clair Wentling. I shared the studio for a couple of years with a guy named Paul Bonner and he was a big inspiration to me. I also have a collection of art books and when I need a new idea or inspiration I flip through them. When something pops out at me with a great color pallet or a good layout, I use that as a reference.
I almost never use photos for reference. I feel like my image dies a little bit. Your artwork can never be better than a photo, but if you go from imagination there’s no limit. That said, I still need photos for some things, like a cake or a clock. I usually pose in the photos myself. I have a lot of props like swords and shields that I use. I did a female elf paladin once and I looked pretty silly but it helped me with her pose.
I don’t do realistic things, but I still need to make them look believable, so sometimes I need references from reality to make the fantasy look real. My job as a fantasy illustrator is to make the unbelievable believable. I need to drag the viewer into my world. Keith Parkinson was the first one to use old American illustrators for reference. He used to do very believable landscapes and then put the dragon in the landscape. The believability of the landscape lends realism to the dragon. So it needs to have some realistic elements to make the fantasy believable.
OP: What is something you find frustrating about the field?
JE: I’m really happy doing fantasy painting so there isn’t anything I’m really frustrated with.
I guess I would have to say the most frustrating thing about being an artist is all the paperwork and stuff that has nothing to do with painting. Selling prints, arranging invoices, as long as I get to keep painting I don’t mind. It’s not really frustrating, but one thing that bothers me is that there’s been a kind of a shift in the industry within the last 10 years. People have been doing digital work and it’s so easy to change. So lately I’ve been getting requests like can you change the color of the sky, or move the figure. I get more corrections at a later stage in the painting than I would normally, so now when I have to do changes in the painting and they’re radical, I do it digitally. That’s a little frustrating because I like the painting to be finished. Overall, though, I’m so happy with what I do.
OP: How has the industry changed since you first got involved?
JE: Digital art is one of the ways but I don’t think it’s changed that much. That’s one of the great things about fantasy. There’s always going to be versions of classical fantasy monsters. I remember when I got to do my first red dragons. The internet has made it possible for me to work for American clients while living in Copenhagen. The guys at Wizards don’t care if I live in New York or Copenhagen. It used to be that you had to make sketches photocopy them and mail them in.
OP: Do you attend conventions and if so, which ones?
JE: When trying to become an international artist I went to ComicCon a couple of times. That didn’t work, but I got a lot of inspiration and I met a lot of artists that I communicate with now. I think the community in this field is really important. Even though we’re competitors, we support each other. A few artists I know, we send things to each other and ask for advice. I really respect the other guys and their criticism is really helpful, so I usually send it to them before I send it to my client and make some final changes based on their advice. Also, being a Magic artist has a benefit because they ask you to go all around the world to sign cards. You meet all the fans and get to travel a lot.
I’m doing a signing in Santiago, Chile and then I’m going to Altoona, Pennsylvania for IlluXcon. It’s a convention for traditional media. I’m going to get to meet guys I’ve been emailing for two years but haven’t met yet. It’s funny because I feel like I know them, but I’ve never met them in person.
OP: What is your goal for your blog and what kind of interactions do you have with fans and young artists?
JE: My blog hasn’t been updated in about a year and that’s because I’ve been contributing to a blog called Muddy Colors. We’re a group of 10 artists and we do an article every weekday. I’ve been fans of the other guys for years and now I get to be part of them. I do an update every 2 weeks and it has been a huge success for me to be part of that blog. The blog has a huge following so what I write there gets a big response.
When I was starting out, I wrote to the artists I really liked and I said, “Here’s some stuff I did. What could I do to make it better?” So I try to pay that forward. There are so many talented guys out there and 15 years ago I didn’t know about them because there was no internet. The field is so wide now that you can get spray bombed with talented people from all over the world. So now I can see some guy from Poland doing these great watercolors.