Driving down quiet, maple-tree-lined streets, I pass cul-de-sacs and kids playing in driveways and pull up in front of artist Tyler Jacobson’s newly built home. Who would guess that inside, a two-headed he-man monster with tusks and a belt of skulls stomps in a rage?
The dark-haired, bearded Jacobson, 32, greets me at the door wearing blue jeans and a NASA Apollo T-shirt, along with the barking Arya and Sansa, friendly Heeler mixes that he and his wife, Devon, named after the Stark sisters in Game of Thrones. Here on the edge of Olympia, Washington, just an hour south of Seattle, I step into a world that clearly worships the fantastic. Upstairs in Jacobson’s one-room work studio, the swords on the wall look real, but he tells me they’re replicas from Lord of the Rings. His paintings—action scenes from Star Wars and Moby-Dick—nearly leap from their frames, a classical guitar leans beside a bookcase of history and science titles, and on a shelf near the window stands a model of human anatomy.
And that two-headed monster? On Jacobson’s computer, it joins giant-tentacled sea creatures, armored warriors charging through flames, and other characters from fantasy tabletop and trading-card games. Formerly painted with oils and now produced digitally, his illustrations are almost believable in their rendering. Other of his images—commissioned portraits and art for advertising, magazine articles and pulp-fiction-like book covers—include people and places that could really exist. And many do.
Working at this professionally only since 2009, Jacobson is best known as an illustrator, primarily of fantasy, but also of sci-fi and realism. He is offered many more assignments than he takes, mostly from the fantasy game company Wizards of the Coast, his first big—and still major—client. His character designs and artwork for Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and Magic: The Gathering appear frequently on trading cards, packaging and promotional materials aimed at D&D enthusiasts. His illustrations also appear in print and online for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Scientific American, Tor Books and Simon & Schuster, among others. In 2010, he received the Jack Gaughan Award for Best Emerging Artist, and two years later he was named gold winner of the Spectrum 19 Advertising Award, for Talon of Umberlee (D&D).
Scary, grim monsters fascinate this mild-mannered man, who says, “I’m not sure what draws me to them, but it’s exciting,” as is fantasy and sci-fi in general for Jacobson. “Whole universes are created; anything can happen. As an artist, it gives me lots of freedom to make up anything.”
Jacobson did that a lot as a child, reading Tolkien and picturing “the rich tapestry of details in those worlds,” he says, and drawing on the backs of paper placemats in restaurants and in his notebook during class. When his older brother got into Magic and D&D, he did also, as well as Warhammer 40,000. “But I was really looking at the cool art in the books and on the cards, and that got me excited about doing art, too.” So did Jim Henson movies, like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. “At the time, I was just doodling, of course,” he says.
But not for long. His parents sent him to weekend community art classes wherever the family lived. His father was a Coast Guard medical officer, and the family had to move every few years—from Oakland, California, where Jacobson was born, to Nevada, Connecticut, Illinois, Washington and back to the Bay Area, where he went to high school and took every art course he could. “But I didn’t think I could do art as a profession.”
Instead he considered biology his only option for “a real job” that might hold his interest. In his younger years, he had played “scientist” at his aunt and uncle’s marine-life labs, peering through a microscope at parasites in the digestive tracts of mice and fish. “I remember being fascinated about what could be found in their systems and how it could give clues about their environments in the ocean.” So he started with biology at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Washington. “It was fun, but chemistry was too difficult, so I dropped the major and went to art. I was always good at it, so, I thought, I might as well focus on it.” He took everything, from drawing and painting to printmaking and ceramics, and found that more than anything else, his art kept telling stories, especially with oils. “I was thinking that I had to figure out a way to become a fine artist, and if I couldn’t make it, I could always teach.”
After applying to several art schools around the country, Jacobson took his 2005 BA in fine art and minor in ancient history to the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco for an MFA. “They had illustration, but I was ignorant about what that really was.” That is, until he met Bill Maughan, then director of AAU’s master’s programs in fine art and traditional illustration. Maughan became a huge influence in Jacobson’s career. “He understood that artists need a well-rounded skill set in landscape, portrait and figure painting and in atmospheric perspective, anatomy and narrative storytelling,” he says.
Jacobson’s absorption and growing mastery of these skills became evident in his thesis work—oil-painted illustrations of tragic literary figures like Captain Ahab, Beowulf and Macbeth exhibited at the annual AAU Spring Show in 2009. He earned two awards that night, including Best of Show, and received his first introductions to industry VIPs, who seek out the best and brightest student talent at the show each year. Two of the VIPs he met were Irene Gallo of Tor Books and artist’s representative Richard Solomon. Solomon, seeing great promise in the young illustrator, invited Jacobson to sign on with his agency. Solomon says, “Tyler was already fully formed, ready to go straight to the major leagues. He had his own point of view, understood lighting and drama, and instinctively knew what to do.”
Upon graduation a few months later, Jacobson accepted Solomon’s offer and received an enviable first assignment from Wizards of the Coast creative director Jon Schindehette, who had learned of his work from Gallo. Schindehette recalls, “I just loved the visual narrative and old-masters feel he was bringing to his images.” That first project—a few illustrations for D&D’s e-publication Dragon magazine—sparked Jacobson’s favorable five-year relationship with Wizards of the Coast, manifesting a profession that began as a childhood passion for D&D art. Kate Irwin, art director at Wizards, says, “Aside from his artistic talents, Tyler always meets his deadlines. He’s a great person to work with, a great collaborator.”
Over time, Jacobson’s technique evolved from painting with oils to working with digital tools. With the former, he says, “I couldn’t work quickly enough for all the jobs I was getting at Wizards of the Coast. Game art production is pretty fast-paced.” One of his last oil paintings, The Last Days of the Comanches, appeared in Texas Monthly in 2010. He says that back then, he’d “photograph or scan the paintings and digitally add details or make corrections. Now it’s all done in Photoshop.”
After receiving client direction, Jacobson dashes out thumb-nail sketches with his Wacom digital drawing tablet and then spends a couple of weeks drawing tight versions in his home studio while film soundtracks, like Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy, blast. Another computer screen and open books might show pictures of a bat or an ancient weapon, his references for a dragon or a futuristic warrior. Realistic details matter to Jacobson, whose scientific side wants to get them just right. “Creatures—especially those that don’t really exist—should still function on somewhat of an Earth-like place. For example, the anatomy of its wings must really let it fly,” he says. “And I consider, very strongly, how armor is fitted to people and how it allows them to move in combat. I want it to at least appear feasible.” That’s where Jacobson’s many books on armor from all different historical periods, back to ancient times, come in handy.
With the client’s approval, he starts the final image using customized Photoshop brushes, which mimic the effects of his oil paintings. “In any illustration, the challenge is suggesting the movement of the scene,” he says. “Contrasts of light and dark and hot and cool colors right next to each other focus the viewer’s attention. With lighting, I can dictate the composition and guide the eye through the image, then color comes in last. All of this tells the story.”
So do details. “Embellishments play heavily into Magic and D&D,” he continues. “They become the identifying features for all the tools, weapons, armor and clothing crafted by the different races.” Jacobson’s inclusion of other cultural elements, such as Maori-like tattoos and an Arctic people’s furs, provide familiarity for viewers. As Schindehette puts it, “He always tries to have touchstones that are recognizable so his worlds don’t feel so alien.”
Jacobson takes the time to personalize his characters to further engage viewers in the stories. Says Irwin, “Some big, monstrous guy is slouched over or has a haunted look in his eyes, so you think there’s more to him than this meathead muscleman. And the women in his fantasy art, you feel like you could talk to them. You can’t art-direct that.” Schindehette also appreciates Jacobson’s versatility: “Tyler understands that different clients reach different consumers. Over the years, he’s gotten a better sense of the fans he’s trying to target. He makes his art directors and clients happy, but also his fans."
How does Jacobson keep his illustrations fresh so he retains his fans? “I’m always looking at what other illustrators are doing and who they’re working with. A great resource for that is Spectrum.” Jacobson himself has been featured in Spectrum (since Annual 17), and his work can also be seen on Behance and his rep’s site, richardsolomon.com. “I don’t have to pound the pavement, currently.” But he does keep his own website updated, showcasing two galleries of his work, fantasy and nonfantasy. And postings to his blog discuss his latest jobs and creative process. He urges newbie illustrators to develop a strong look to their work so they can stand out among the sea of other artists, and yet admits he himself is not banking on clients always wanting his work. “Looks change. So does technology, demanding new things. So I’ll need to be flexible,” he says.
Looking ahead, Jacobson also sees a more confident self. “I’d like to get to the point where I know so much about the industry that I can teach others or do a whole project of my own. I would love to create my own fantasy universe and weave its tapestry of culture into a series of illustrations for a book. It would be fun to work on just that for a year,” says Jacobson quietly, his hushed tone suggesting that his constant companions—the stomping monsters and warriors who haunt his suburban home—are listening. ca