The work of Terese Nielsen has captured the imagination of the gaming and comic book industry. Whether you’re immersed in the beauty of “Stream of Life” or “Moonsprite,” or wallowing in the grotesque images of a mutilated superhero in “Ruins,” you’re sure to agree that you haven’t been left untouched. She has made her place in the world of fantasy art, lurking in the upper echelons as one of the foremost female artists in the field, and has been honored in the last five volumes of Spectrum. The horizon brims with delighted expectancy for this talented artist of rare potential.
Of humble beginnings, (not unlike a few others of historical note) she was born along with her twin brother to farmers in the small town of Aurora, Nebraska in 1966. She grew up running through miles of cornfields and learning to work hard, entrusted with important tasks from a young age. As there were no houses in close proximity, she and her two brothers constituted the “neighborhood” and played together for hours. More often than not, the cold winters would find them huddled around a stack of paper that was never depleted, thanks to their encouraging mother. While they all enjoyed the time-honored process of drawing and coloring, Terese always felt that she couldn’t rival the unquestionable creative genius of her older brother, Ron Spencer. She never quite had the passion for it that he did, and didn’t consider pursuing art as a career until her third year in high school.
With early interest in physiology and psychology, she actually always planned to go into the medical field. It’s not often that you hear of a junior high student with a subscription to Psychology Today. (This would almost be scary if you didn’t know that her perennial intrigue in the workings of the mind, in figuring out “what makes people tick,” has served her well and continues to be a thriving theme in the tapestry of her life). Becoming a doctor was out when she couldn’t grasp mathematics, but she didn’t give up on some sort of tech position until· chemistry. So she decided to get a real job and start drawing again, and leave the traditional pursuits to those less fortunate.
Terese was heavily influenced by comic book and fantasy artists Boris Vallejo, Rowena Morrill, Frazetta, Michael Whelan, Barry Windsor Smith and Jim Fitzpatrik (and, of course, Big Brother). During Ron’s two-year absence, she was finally convinced that she could make the grade without his divine tutelage. With remarkable pencil sketches and ink pointillism, she earned profuse recognition and basked in the warmth of being a very big fish.
The pond got bigger as she followed her brother to Rexburg, Idaho to study art at the small, but reputable Rick’s College in the fall of 1984. A little intimidated and afraid of being swallowed up by the competition, she sacrificed her sleep night after night for her desire to be as good, or better, than everyone else. This relentless pursuit of excellence quickly earned her a spot at the top of the class, and she was the only one to wring an A+ out of the most rigorous and challenging course at the school. Contemporary illustrators Leon Parson, Robert Heindel, Mark English, Bernie Fuchs and Bart Forbes embodied much of what she desired to become during this period.
Despite the acclaim and artistic achievement she enjoyed while there, the pinnacle of her experience had nothing to do with art at all. It came one day as she succumbed to the cajoling of a very macho teacher, and finally consented to the arm wrestle he had been begging for. He knew she lifted weights, but being significantly bulkier, he greatly anticipated the opportunity to put her in her place. He was never quite the same after that day. The “baby with biceps” had struck, and all of a sudden taking a sabbatical looked very appealing to that poor man.
While at Rick’s, Terese managed to marry the competition, and after graduation they made their way to California with hearts full of promise. They rolled into L.A. with $200 in their pockets and half a tank of gas in the old ’61 Rambler that had belonged to her grandmother. Being young, they had no idea that the odds were stacked against them. All they had were their dreams to attend the prestigious (and expensive) Art Center College of Design in Pasadena·but that was all they needed.
Terese began her intensities at Art Center in September of 1988. She entered under the fading shadow of the dark and moody Matt Mahurn to take her place among a very special group of people. Every so often when planets line up just so, a convergence of souls takes place, as if everyone involved had suddenly awakened to rush to an appointment all but forgotten. Instructor after instructor confirmed that they hadn’t seen such a talented class in ten years. In fierce, but friendly, competition this handful of students pushed each other and became the grading standard for the rest.
It was here that her ability to get into the minds of her teachers and know what they wanted came in especially handy. (All those issues of Psychology Today, no doubt). Her peers would scratch their heads and wonder why she was one of the few to survive a crit.
When she arrived, Terese was leaps and bounds ahead in figure drawing and painting. She had a preference and gift for portrait work, and would have pursued fashion illustration if the industry hadn’t cycled into a preference for photography early in her Art Center career. Inspired by contemporary illustrators Malcolm Liepke, Thomas Blackshear, Charles Bragg, Robert Rodriguez, Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz, she shifted gears and began to develop a portfolio using the challenging medium of gouache to render pieces aimed at the book cover, comic book and movie poster markets. Also beginning to be of major influence were the early 1900 artists John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla and Gustav Klimt.
It was during her time at Art Center that she couldn’t help but notice the male-dominated nature of the business. All but two teachers in seven years had been male. One of her peers lamented, “You’re so talented, one of the best in the whole school, but you’ll never really make it because you’re a woman.” This poignant reproach might have deflated some, but Terese looked upon it as an opportunity to rise above biased assumptions. Of no small import was the support and opinion of her husband, Cliff. He never bought into the cultural myth and her confidence grew. Everywhere she showed her book she got a job. To date, she maintains that her gender has been fairly irrelevant in the flow of work; that it’s been neither boon nor bane, which, of course, is how it should be.
Terese graduated from the Art Center College of Design with “great distinction,” the highest honor, in April of 1991. Having ridden the tides of good fortune and hard work, and almost full scholarship, she was prepared to launch into the world of professional illustration.
Not surprisingly, Terese had a steady and almost effortless flow of work following graduation. One of her early clients was Landmark Entertainment. With dramatic color and lighting she breathed life into their theme park designs. She painted computer game CD covers for Phillips through Maddocks Design Firm in L.A. Other clients included Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NPQ, Writer’s Guild and Administrative Radiology. It wasn’t long before she landed several superhero trading cards with DC and Marvel, which was the beginning of her work in the comic book and gaming industry. Perhaps the highest profile comic book she produced was Marvel’s “Ruins,” which was actually a project she and her husband co-illustrated. Incidentally, it was the last project they ever worked on together, as their paths diverged. They were formally divorced by the time “Ruins” hit the newsstands.
Wizards of the Coast caught wind of her work in 1996 and she emerged within Magic the Gathering through Alliances that same year. She has been in most of the card sets since then, and continues to be a powerful artistic influence within the role-playing world. She has been flown across the Atlantic and Pacific to be present for signings, representing the international appeal of her work. One of the art directors for WOTC commented, “You’re one of the few artists I don’t pigeon-hole. You do everything well.”
Perhaps Terese’s intuitive powers are just as responsible for her success as the delicate strokes of her brush. She has a gift for getting into the minds and hearts of writers and art directors. It is often uncanny how she is able to capture the visions of creators, and then push it one step further to deliver something even better than they had imagined. When Terese renders a character, she wants to do it on more than an extrinsic level. She wants to get inside the character’s head and represent him or her in a way that produces several reads. You’ll find yourself coming back again and again, drawn almost involuntarily to hold the intense gaze often encountered in her paintings. There is a tantalizing depth and complexity in her work. This is well depicted in her interpretation of Gerrard for a 1998 Duelist cover. She is able to imbue these pawns of imagination with such force and presence that they actually come to life, taking their rightful place among the other sentient beings of the Universe.
Within the last five years, Terese has felt many influences as her preferences have evolved. She continues to be compelled by the work of Gustav Klimpt, Alphonse Mucha (and others in the Art Nouveau period), the Pre-Raphaelite artists, Adolphe Bouguereau, J.W. Waterhouse and Sir Frederick Leighton. Also significant are artists from the golden years of American illustration: N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Howard Pyle, Andrew Loomis and Maxfield Parish. The contemporary comic book artist Bernie Wrightson continues to inspire her with his early work exhibiting dramatic compositions and intriguing patterns of light and dark.
Terese is captivated by the feminine psych and enjoys portraying women in all genres. The images are often intense and provocative (as in “Revelation,” “Elvish Ranger,” and “Keeper of the Flame”), but can also be soothing, ethereal, mystical (as in “The Enchanted,” “Savant,” and “Foresight”). With this in mind, it seems completely natural that she would revel in illustrating the immortal Xena, Warrior Princess. She painted the cover for the premier issue of the Xena comics produced by Topps in 1998. She subsequently illustrated seven other covers, which can be viewed on-line under “Paintings” above.
Long a connoisseur of human form, painting male musculature is also a favorite. There’s no missing the irrefutable male energy oozing out of pieces like “Force of Will,” or her 1997 ad for “Battletech.” The undying popularity of pieces like “Stalking Tiger” and “Natural Order” attest to her ability to capture animals as well. The following are three of Terese’s most cherished works:
“Vampirella” was published in 1995 for Topps as part of their Vampirella Gallery Set. Created with thin layers of oil and delicate applications of gold leaf, the rich textured colors satiate the palate. Within the tall, thin, Klimpt-inspired format, the deep reds against the stark white flesh are tantalizing. Not of little interest to Terese, as you might imagine, is the sanguine paradox she represents. Where Vampirella comes from, drinking blood is as natural for her as drinking water is for us, but placed out of context in our world, the beauty of this simple, almost sacred act is defiled with evil overtones. She becomes a formidable shadow, a temptress, a murderess in her desire for the breath of life, yet notice how serene she is in this rendering. She accepts, without judgement, who she is. What she must do is done in reverence, almost as sacrament. In a world where dichotomy is worshipped, anything that illustrates ambiguity or challenges absolute interpretations of “good” and “evil” are fascinating to this artist.
“Stream of Life,” commissioned by Wizards of the Coast, came out in the Fifth Edition card set for Magic the Gathering in 1996. This mystical, sensual portrayal of dipping into the stream symbolizes the primordial urge we have to seek sustenance from the Source or Stream of all life. The feline beast represents great power, the elf, great wisdom; one is led to muse on the possible relationship that exists between these creatures of the wood, which by nature can never be completely defined. This arresting image was composed with transparent washes of acrylic intermingled with light glazes of airbrush.
“Moonsprite,” another WOTC piece, emerged through the Portal set not long after “Stream.” Produced in a mixed medium of acrylic, gouache, colored pencil and the esteemed gold leaf, this image mirrors the birth, the release of the creative. The pose, mood and underlighting conspire to issue an enticing call to freedom. The exquisite sense of emancipation imparted by the fairy is almost tangible. We are witness to a timeless transcendence into higher levels of awareness and expression, and are invited to participate in the same. This “decorative piece of jewelry” remains a favorite with fans as well.
Although she is certainly capable of making your skin crawl, Terese is currently feeling “maxed out” on the dark images she has often been commissioned to paint. She has felt the stirrings within and is heeding the call to depict images traced with light. Wanting to reach beyond the macabre, she yearns to spend more time reflecting her current interests.
Archangel Michael and Miriam of Magdala are two recent examples of personal work that reflect such interests.
The urge to find and use her own voice has become irrepressible, and she desires to find purpose in her work. In her perfect world, she would be able to encourage balance and harmony through art. She would inspire the viewer to explore the great untapped potential within, and give form to dreams yet in embryo. She would be able to entice people into the workings of their own soul, and with a dash of Piscean intuition, guide them into a grander expression of themselves. Whether this is through the painted medium, or through stained glass windows and tabletop fountains, the goal is the same. (Although, she might just settle for Art Director of Psychology Today).
Regardless of her professional expression, however, she accomplishes this design with her intimate associations. Terese currently resides in Temple City, California with her partner and their four children. Steeped in motherhood, it is not uncommon for Terese to spend hours bringing to life some visionary masterpiece of her hopelessly creative nine-year-old son. More often than not, she can be found quietly listening to the ramblings of little girls who share their lives with her as she paints. With much accomplished and far more to come from the studio of Terese Nielsen, her greatest achievements are undoubtedly mirrored in the eyes of her loved ones.
December 2007 Update:
It’s been a long time since this bio was originally written, and several items need updating, the most important being the age of her “hopelessly creative” son. I’ve heard the obvious disgust in his deep-voice-come-lately, “Mom, that’s pathetic! The least you can do is change my age! I’m 15 now!”
So yes, her hopelessly creative 15-year-old son has developed quite extraordinarily albeit in a somewhat deviant way… I mean, well, he’s like this up and coming icon on Deviant Art. He’s created his own world, his own art style, published his own comic called “Zitboy,” and is gathering fans and artistic associates faster than mold can grow on his bunched up socks in the corner. Feel free to visit him at http://sugarpolyp.deviantart.com. If you comment him, please be sure to mention that you heard about him here, and that he’s really accomplished a lot for a 9-year-old. ; )
As for Ms. Nielsen, her career has taken some fairly significant turns in the last few years. Of course, she still does Magic cards regularly, and has added a lot of Star Wars illustrations of late, but there’s no doubt that the most noteworthy shift has come from the yearnings you read about only a few paragraphs ago. About “Angel Quest”), her most cherished project, in her own words…
“After 15 years of illustrating, I’d come to a place in my career where money or high profile pieces just didn’t motivate me any more. I was starting to feel dead, artistically, so I decided to take a sort of plunge, if you will, that felt like spiritual liberation and financial suicide by turns. I made a conscious decision to let go of some of the illustration jobs that consistently supported violence as entertainment.”
“During this time I realized that my deepest desire was to contribute my talents to projects that uplift humanity… projects that leave people inspired. I really had no idea what I should do, but I made space for whatever “it” was by turning down jobs that had become my bread and butter over the years.”
”In the Fall of 2005, I received a call from Alex Tinsman who shared an incredible journey with me… a journey that she would never have consciously chosen. I listened with tears in my eyes as she described the loss of their sweet little boy, and how that unthinkable pain gave birth to the idea for Angel Quest.”
“She and her husband, Brian, went on to ask if I would be willing to co-create their idea with them and develop the look and feel for the game. It was to be my job to give life in a visual way. How would it look? How would you feel holding the cards in your hand as you contemplated your next act of kindness?”
“As you can imagine, this was the job I’d been waiting for… the job of my dreams. Never before or since has an assignment touched my soul like Angel Quest. It was much more of a calling than a job, and it stretched all of my talents and abilities to their fullest extent.”
“I honestly didn’t know if I was capable of designing and art directing such a big project. I’d never done anything like it before. I designed every aspect of the cards and the packaging, contributed 4 painted illustrations (Sacred Angel of Comfort, Angel of the Future, High Angel of Nature and Angel of Thankfulness) and coordinated the talents of 28 other artists. Needless to say, I felt supported in discharging my responsibilities, almost as if all of the loving Unseen Powers were behind this project and had no intention of letting it fail.”
“Ever since being involved with Angel Quest, I try and do one act of kindness each day. It has added such a soft, loving focus to my life… a fringe benefit I don’t think I fully anticipated. It’s fun and really easy to brighten someone else’s day.”
“Another way I enjoy the cards is to just sit and gently peruse the beautiful angel images. Just looking at them seems to open up a path of love and warmth. At other times I’ll randomly select a card just to meditate upon the inspirational quote at the bottom.”
“Angel Quest is the first project in which my talents, heart and soul completely converged and merged in a profoundly fulfilling way. I am grateful to be a part of such an amazing movement that keeps the goodness rippling on and on.”
January 2011 Update:
Coming soon! 🙂