25. Stephanie Shimerdla Interview

TideBreakers Exchange Stephanie Shimerdla InterviewTideBreakers Exchange Stephanie Shimerdla's websiteTideBreakers Exchange Stephanie Shimerdla on DeviantartTideBreakers Exchange Obsidian Dawn

Today’s interview is with Stephanie Shimerdla, freelance illustrator and curator of Obsidian Dawn, a website offering a massive collection of custom brush packs for Photoshop and GIMP. Read on below for more about what has inspired and influenced Stephanie, as well as some examples of her amazing artwork – examples like this!:

'Furiosa' by Stephanie Shimerdla

Would you like to explain a little about what you are doing?
Sure! I’m an artist and graphic designer. I’ve run a website that specializes in Photoshop (and GIMP) resources for other artists for the last 10 years. I’ve only recently begun to start in on a career on illustration/digital painting, as well.

A simple question I know, but something that I always think is worth asking: what’s the dream?
I don’t really have a dream when it comes to the Photoshop resources website. It’s my gift to the people of the internet, to help them save time and perhaps be able to create some stuff they wouldn’t have been able to create otherwise. My resources are free to use (with credit), or for bigger companies that like to use them or those that simply can’t credit me, I have licenses available.

As for my artwork, I have lots of dreams there! Especially since I’m just getting started on it again recently. I’m looking to work as a concept artist or freelance illustrator. Anything from designing characters and scenes for movies, games, etc. to making book covers, fantasy/sci-fi/etc card game artwork, and various other commissions.

One dream would be to work with a movie or gaming studio and see some of my concept artwork come to life. That would be amazing. I’d also absolutely love to be commissioned by one of the bigger card game companies out there one day to create an illustration for one of their cards. Beyond that, I hope that my artwork can really speak to people in one way or another. I think that’s probably something that any artist hopes for!

How can we help you achieve that dream?
Well, just by doing this interview is a start! I really appreciate that you were interested enough in my work to want to interview me and get my work out there for others to see. That’s a great start, and a thoughtful gesture! Thank you for doing this for me and for other creative souls out there. It’s appreciated. :)


You’ve mentioned that for making resource packs you often get inspiration from daily life; have there been any specific motifs or ideas which have caught your attention in such a way that you couldn’t ignore? What do you think it was about these designs that attracted your attention so much?
There’s been too many to count! I have a hard time denying inspiration once it strikes. I’ve seen school folders and notebooks with a pretty design on them and made a brush set influenced by that design. I’ve been wandering through a craft store and seen stuff that has influenced a brush set. Other people’s artwork – I may see a texture that they used that I really love, and decide to create something similar to that in a textured brush. Inspiration comes from all over, so it’s hard for me to narrow down any specifics!

You’ve discussed your family as being very influential in your development as an artistic, but starting a website offering brush-packs to artists is also a very entrepreneurial – and benevolent – undertaking. Have there been anyone or anything in your that you think has contributed to this enterprising spirit?
Wow, that’s an interesting question! The root of why I started Obsidian Dawn really had to do with my roots as an artist. I wouldn’t know how to paint something, and I’d look up tutorials, and inevitably at some point I stumbled across other peoples’ Photoshop brushes, and tried them. I had a hard time finding something that fit what I was looking for, however, so I taught myself how to make my own. Then I just kind of figured, hey… if I can find some use for these, perhaps others can, too! And so I started offering them. And they were pretty wildly popular, so I KEPT making them. Eventually, Obsidian Dawn overshadowed my artwork for a good number of years. It helped me to build the base and some of the talent that would come in handy later on with my Illustrations.

So I’d have to say other artists were my biggest inspiration. The ones that were offering their Photoshop Brushes to others. The ones I downloaded and tried. They were the most influential, simply because they’re the ones that really got me started. I thought that was pretty awesome of them to do that for people. And I’ve always had a very giving spirit. That has mostly to do with the way I was raised, I’m sure (thanks to my parents!) For the first 5 or so years, my brushes were completely free to use as long as people credited me. Eventually, I started learning that people wanted to use them WITHOUT crediting me, and that’s how the licenses were born.

So, my family has been really influential in my artwork, but not so much with the Obsidian Dawn side of things. I have had a very hard time explaining to them exactly what Photoshop brushes are, in fact. :)

Staying with your family for another question, I’m interested to know your thoughts on how your family’s influence has altered your creative direction. It sounds like you had a very supportive background for creative artwork, including your father’s skills as a story-teller. Can you think of any specific ways that your family’s support continues to inform your creative decisions?
My family definitely has a lot of creativity, there’s no question about that. It comes from my Aunt on my Father’s side, my Father himself (the teller of amazing bedtime stories, as you mentioned!), and even my Mother has a lot of creativity to her, even though she won’t admit it. It was from all sides, really. My Aunt does landscapes, however, and while I LOVE her paintings, that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I also learned really early on that I’m not a fan of oil painting, which is what she does. SO MESSY!

So when it came to my painting, I branched out into my own, which mostly happened to go the way of my father’s fantastical stories. I did a lot of fantasy work early on. So a lot of my brushes were made for that kind of stuff, too. Glitter, pixies and fairies, wings, etc. But I also realized I really enjoyed painting women’s portraits, which I had never been very good at with traditional sketching. So I started making brush sets for that, too. Lips, eyebrows, eyelashes (which remain one of my most popular sets), makeup, skin textures brushes, etc.

Stephanie Shimerdla 'Can't Reach'

Fantasy and Sci-fi certainly seem to play a very important part of what inspires you as an illustrator. What do you think draws you to paint characters from these sorts of worlds? Are there any illustrators you draw inspiration from specifically? If so, what is it about their art style that you find so influential?
You know, I had a couple of huge favorites before I even started my own illustrations as an adult. Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with one of my early boyfriends, I found my love for artists like Larry Elmore, Brom, Keith Parkinson, and such. Their ability to really just pull you straight into their own world was amazing to me. Once I started doing my own fantasy illustrations, I joined websites of like-minded artists and that just pulled me in even deeper. I remember seeing work by Linda Bergkvist (Enayla), Marta Dahlig, Cyril Rolando (AquaSixio), Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Daniel Conway (Arcipello), and many others and finding the same kinds of feelings – being drawn into their hand-painted worlds.

They are all amazing with color and lighting, which have always been two of my big draw points. But also with making you FEEL something, which is really what art is all about, isn’t it? I started focusing on the emotions behind the paintings and did a lot of what I term “Emotive” paintings along that line.

I’m still trying to find myself and my style, however, as I’ve only back at the illustration for the last 6 months or so. This time around, I’m trying all kinds of styles and content, to see what I enjoy the most.

Following on from the previous question, in what way do you think that the subjects you paint as an illustrator inform the brushes you decide to create for Obsidian Dawn?
All the time! I’ve made lots of brushes specifically for a usage in a painting, although I don’t always share those brushes with others. Mostly simply because they’re random brushes here and there and don’t really make a good “set” – although I’ve no doubt I’ll eventually make all of them available to the public in one form or another. Most of the texture-based brushes are made specifically for creating simple, textured backgrounds for artists. Others, like the light beams and glitter were made for some of my fantasy-based paintings, and I made brush sets out of them for everyone.

A vast majority of your paintings seem to revolve around the creation and portrayal of characters; are there any personal characteristics you find you often attribute to characters, or try and focus on while you’re painting them?
The main thing that I’ve focused on in the past isn’t so much the character as what’s happening to or around that character. I’m doing more now that are simple portraits, but most of the “emotive” paintings that I mentioned earlier were focusing on a certain event or feeling rather than the character who’s feeling it. I paint women as my characters much more often than men, probably simply for the beauty and grace that is more easily illustrated with women.

I really do like character development, though, when it comes to books and games. I always want to hear more about a person to really figure them out. I really enjoy doing that with my artwork, as well. Trying to figure out the story behind someone and to portray it as visually as possible – that’s tons of fun for me. :)


Stephanie Shimerdla 'Maybe Some Day'

How long was the transference process to digital art? Did you find you had any snags along the way, and in what way did you find you could overcome them?
I’ve had a ton of snags, and mostly it was just my own lack of confidence. Occasionally it was life itself getting in the way, but most of the times that I’ve stopped drawing and painting over the years was simply because I thought I wasn’t good enough. Or I was stuck because I didn’t know how to continue, how to better myself. Perhaps I wasn’t seeing enough of a progression forward from one work to the next, that kind of thing. But this time around, I’m making it a point to buy books and look at tutorials from other great artists out there. There’s SO many tutorials and resources for artists to use, and I’m not having any trouble along those lines this time. I still have bouts of confidence problems, but I think most artists do now and again. The most important thing is to not allow yourself to doubt yourself, I think, and to keep moving forward. You WILL get better with practice, period. So that’s what I keep telling myself. I also have quotes that I put up on my wall along those lines, on a cork board in front of my workspace.

“Every artist was first an amateur. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” — Joseph Chilton Pearce

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” — Edgar Degas

Those are three of my favorites.

Typically, how long does it take you to compose and complete a piece of illustration work? Do you find that you have subjects or characters that are easier to engage with?
They really vary based on the content. A simple portrait may only take me a few hours. I’ve done some speed painting practice this year where I would complete a painting in 1 hour or less. They were less polished, but a few of them are among my favorites. A full illustration, however, such as might be for a book cover, can take me a week or so to finish. The detail of the clothing, the background, etc. can play a huge part in exactly how much time it takes to fully render everything.

I don’t really have any preference for subjects or characters. I’ve painted a few men here and there, and find them about the same degree of difficulty as a woman. The real thing that makes it or breaks it for me, when it comes to a character, is good references for the pose and/or lighting that I’m looking for. With good references, I can paint just about anything, I think!

With brushes and resources, how do you know when a brush you’re making is ‘complete’? Have you a prescribed method to test each brush, or can you detect when one is ready for release?
When I go to make a brush set, I make all the brushes together. It’ll usually take me a few days to complete, if it’s a more complex brush set, and I specifically design all the brushes to go together. As for knowing when it’s complete, I pretty much know exactly what I’m looking for when I go into it. Especially if it’s just a shape-based brush. If it’s a texture or something made to paint with, that can require a bit more “playing around”, but I usually know when I like what I’m seeing and just kind of know that I’m done. Or sometimes I’ll save it how it is and then go on to continue playing with it more, and make that a second brush. With those types of brushes, you just kind of get a feel for when it’s done.

With both illustration work and creating brushes, I was wondering to what extent do you find your digital art equipment informs what you create? Are there any things you find it can do which allows you more freedom that hand-painting? Are there any limitations you have found you can work around?
I truthfully haven’t done a lot of painting with acrylics or oils, so I don’t have much of a basis for comparison, truthfully. I feel like I was made to be a digital artist, though. I used to have trouble drawing people (and still do, when it’s just by hand on a piece of paper). But sit me down in front of a computer and a drawing tablet, and for some reason I’m perfectly adept at it. Perhaps it’s because of the digital tools like lasso/select & drag. When perspective is off, you can just drag it around until it’s right. You just can’t do that with paper or canvas! Sure, I could erase and re-draw, but goodness that’s a waste of time! I think I’ve just gotten used to drawing and painting digitally, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The ability to erase when you mess up is… well, unparalleled. Although usually you can correct that stuff with traditional artwork, too (perhaps not watercolor). And sometimes those mistakes can help add to the painting in some way, so you can keep them. With digital, you have the option to go either way. I’m just not sure I could go back to traditional at this point.

The only real limitations to digital are some of the textures and things like drip-marks that are created when it comes to real paint. And sure, you can recreate them, but it takes more time and is less…. raw. That’s the only thing I really regret not having when it comes to digital, and I don’t really know a workaround. You can reproduce those drip-marks, for example, but you have to do it purposefully. They can’t just be something that happened when you were painting and then you decide to leave it and incorporate it into the painting somehow, using it to your advantage.

But there’s enough advantages to digital to far exceed that “raw” quality that you tend to lose when it comes to some parts of the painting process, so I don’t mind.


Stephanie Shimerdla 'Ocypete'

You’ve said that you chose to study Computer Science and Mathematics instead of art; I’m interested in what factors led to that decision, and whether your perception of art has changed through the prism of studying something many might see as very dissimilar. Do you think you engage with art in a different way now than you did when you decided against studying it before?
Truthfully, I made that decision about my major at a time in my life when I simply wasn’t creating any artwork at all. I was very involved in art in my early life, all the way up through high school (I was in National Art Honor Society). But I’d always wanted to be a veterinarian, and so that was what I was going to do. Then I developed allergies to some animals, and realized I couldn’t, and I was kind of lost. I wish with all of my heart that I’d re-found art at that stage in my life, but I didn’t. I’ve always been good with computers and had a very logical mind, so I went to school for Computer Science.

Ironically, computer science has a lot to do with the art of creation, as well. You’re writing programs, and that’s a very creative process. It’s a left-brained creative process, but still one, none-the-less! And truthfully, my painting has always been pretty left-brain influenced, as well. I tend to zoom right in and get down to the details, even though that’s a horrible thing to do when it comes to composition. I’ve had to actually train myself to work on the big picture first, THEN do the details. It’s a constant battle for me, actually. I have to force myself to zoom out and do big picture stuff first. That’s my “left brain” wanting to kick back into action.

I’m not sure if that’s my major playing a part in my process, or if it’s just my age that’s shifted the balance of my creative process more to a logical, detail-oriented side. But I’m getting better again at letting my creativity run a bit more wild and letting that right brain free.

So as a military wife, Obsidian Dawn originally started when you were in Korea and I’m interested to know how else an unfamiliar place inspired you to create. You’ve said that the earlier brushes you made were more image-based; do you think that you became more perceptive of the world around you when you had more of an outsider’s perspective? If so, do you think that’s carried on in the way you observe the world nowadays?
My artwork started in South Korea because I was feeling out of touch with everything I knew about the world. Some of my earliest paintings reflect those feelings, in fact. The brushes I created were more based on what I needed for my paintings those days, and also what others were requesting. So, I don’t feel like the brush sets really reflected my feelings of being out of touch as much as my artwork did.

My earlier brushes were definitely more image-based. That was mostly based on people’s requests, truthfully. I never really understood how people used those, and I’ve since stopped making them. By image based, I mean things like shoes, hats, soccer balls. You can’t really make brushes out of those things very well, since brushes were made to be “painted” in just one color. Whereas objects are obviously made up of various colors. I offer those kinds of things as transparent PNGs now-a-days. That makes for a much better choice when it comes to adding that kind of stuff to your images. Some scrapbookers and such still use some of my image-based brushes, however, so I leave them up.

I’m not sure that I really became any more perceptive to the world by being in Korea. I’ve always loved to look at things and really enjoyed the beauty of this world. That’s not something that’s ever changed for me. I think the artwork was mostly just an outlet — a way to express some of those feelings I had when most of the things that I loved were halfway around the world from me.

I still use my artwork and my brushes/resource creation as an release for my feelings. I think it’s actually been great for stress relief for me over the years. And now, lo and behold, there’s a new trend that’s seemingly everywhere — coloring books! They’re now saying that coloring can be as good a stress relief as meditation (and truthfully, IS kind of a form of meditation, I think). Not really surprising to me. :)

Stephanie Shimerdla 'Tree Of Life'

What else have you got going on outside of Obsidian Dawn and freelance illustration work? Have you any other pursuits that you find inform your art?
I do a lot of reading, and my husband and I love to go hiking. Nature is a huge influence and always will be. As is my reading. And movies. We watch a lot of those. I would love to work as a concept artist for a movie that I then go watch in the theatre some day. How amazing would that be?!? We’re getting ready to be stationed in Italy for 3 years, and we’re going to be doing a lot of traveling over there. I have no doubt my artwork will take a few twists and turns as far as content based on some very different influences. I’m looking forward to it!

I also make all of my own websites, and I taught myself HTML and PHP. Granted, I had a base on that kind of stuff from my computer science degree.

Finally, What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an online creator?
Don’t give up. Practice. Read up on and watch tutorials on the really important things like lighting, anatomy, and composition (if you want to be an artist, that is – but every field has some “core basics” that you should focus your training around). Don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild! Mostly, don’t give in to doubt. I can’t say “don’t doubt yourself,” because everyone’s going to do that at some point or another. But don’t give in to it. If artwork is what you really want to do, keep at it until you’re at the level you want to be at.

Use resources provided by other artists, photographers, etc. There’s tons of helpful stuff out there!

Understand that there’s going to be a learning process for anything new that you’re trying, and don’t just jump into something expecting to be great at it. Learn it in steps. If you find that you’re not very strong in a certain area, look up tutorials on that subject, or buy a book about it. That’s how I taught myself Photoshop, too, which can be a daunting program to learn. If I didn’t know how to do something, I just looked it up. Eventually, by doing that, you learn enough about the program to be considered a master! So build on your foundation in steps or layers, and you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.

“Do something today that your future self will thank you for.” (Another awesome quote!)

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