Cortney Skinner has worked with clients such as Penguin Group Publishing, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Harley Davidson, Wizards of the Coast, Lucasfilm, Hallmark and others. His work covers countless subjects and is impossible to classify into any one genre. Inspired by artists and painters from numerous genres, eras and disciplines, Cortney offers up work with a flair uniquely his own.
What was it like growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts? What are your fondest memories from that time?
My family was of very modest means but we happened to live in a very diverse neighborhood, as well as being surrounded by a culturally rich oasis of bookstores, art and natural history museums, as well as fascinating architecture and history from four centuries…. all within easy walking distance. I think that this variety in my environment fueled my imagination, my wide assortment of interests and inspired my art.
My fondest memory of my young days in Cambridge is hanging with my old pal, Geary Gravel (author of The Alchemists, A Key for the Nonesuch, and others). We were about twelve when we first met and we’d get together after school to throw Frisbees or create and draw all sorts of adventures… science fiction, fantasy, super hero comics, and our own monster magazines. Pure fun and limitless creativity!
Do you happen to remember what specifically it was that first started your interest in art?
I don’t think that there was one specific influence. My father supported mom and us five kids through his small, two-man advertising company in Boston but his own artistic experience was only a subtle presence in the home. However, my parents filled our living room shelves with all sorts of illustrated books… encyclopedias, art books, history books, storybooks, all of which I’d pore over constantly. There were framed art prints on the walls as well. Between that and my environs, there was no shortage of artistic visual stimulation.
Did you draw much as a child? What is the first thing you can recall drawing most often?
Some of my earliest memories are of drawing… It began at least as early as age two. I remember that my oldest sister taught me to draw Donald Duck when I was in kindergarten, and my little sketches attracted the attention of my kindergarten teacher who took me around to other classes to show me and my drawings off to the other students. That may have been my first good reviews.
What do you think is the very first step in becoming an artist? What is the first thing you should try to learn on that journey?
That’s a complex question which has no one correct answer. It all depends on the direction(s) a person wishes to take his/her art. A career? A hobby? A business?… Representational? Abstract? Traditional? Digital? There are so many pathways one can pursue.
Perhaps most importantly, a person who wants to engage the arts must look within to find what drives them, what inspires them and to discover what aspects and how much of their “regular” life they are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of their art. It’s a commitment that can be quite deep and transcendent, or merely a business pursuit or just a diversion.
Personally speaking, there was no “first thing” to be learned on my own weird journey as an artist. Drawing is, of course, a very important skill and an ongoing, developing discipline. Aside from acquiring some competence in drawing, painting and sculpture, a person who is serious about working in any of the visual arts should be educating themselves in all aspects of human culture…literature, history, art, music, philosophy… as well as the sciences. One must be a compassionate, sympathetic and keen observer.
Here’s just one small example of that idea… it’s wonderful to be able to observe how light diffuses, reflects and transmits off and through the translucent skin of the model sitting in front of you, but also knowing something of the anatomy, physiology, philosophy and even the culture of that person sitting on the other side of your easel will help to complement your art and keep your tools of observation keen.
One benefit of my father’s job was that he’d bring home printer’s proofs of the advertisements he designed in the form of stacks of paper, printed only on one side, so between that paper supply and my crayons and pencils, I had a fully-stocked art studio. My parents also bought me the “Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw” kit. I watched Gnagy’s TV show as well as the local Boston kid’s show host Captain Bob Cottle, who had a drawing instruction segment on his show. Those shows had some terrific instruction for the beginning artist.
You have worked in comics, books, and film. Is there one area you love to work in more than others?
Each type of work offers something very unique and attractive. My solo work gives me most control over my efforts, but I also enjoy the collaborative aspects of illustrating an author’s manuscript as well as the highly collaborative and cooperative characteristics of film work. It’s exhilarating and inspiring to work with other creative folks. I’ve had such a great time working with my old friend, the director Larry Blamire (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra) in all of his films, including doing nine creepy portrait paintings for his “old dark house” film, Dark and Stormy Night.
Who are some of your favorite living artists?
For this answer, I’m not mentioning illustrators, since there are too many wonderful ones from so many eras to mention without wrongly ignoring others. Also, I work in many different styles so there’d be dozens of artists in each style that would be my favorites. But to limit this answer to only painting… here’s a short list that I’m guessing won’t be too familiar to many folks who read this interview. If you Google any of these artists, you’ll be rewarded by their gorgeous work. Joseph Michael Todorovitch, Paul W. McCormack, Ellen Cooper, Scott Burdick, Takahiro Hara, Jeremy Lipking. There are so many others.
Is there one subject you enjoy painting more than others?
I enjoy painting people the most, both in my illustrations and in my own work. It’s a very personal, highly sensuous process. Since painting people demands the most concentration, energy and skill, I’ll sometimes enjoy the more relaxing subjects of landscapes and still lifes
Are there any little known things about yourself you’d not mind sharing?
Since I’m little known to begin with, I suppose that anything about me is little known. Here’s a little-known tidbit of no consequence…I’m one degree of separation from Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Amelia Earhart.
The concept of “degrees of separation” is the theory that everyone on earth can be connected by six or fewer people to any other person in the world.
It was popularized by the film and play by John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation, but was much earlier proposed in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in “Chains,” or “Chain-Links.” He suggested that, despite great distances between Earth’s individuals, the growing connection of human social networks would link all of us in ever-closely-connected chains with, at the most, five links or acquaintances between any of us. Even as early as 1929, he said:
“A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth – anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.”
My “one degree of separation” from Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Amelia Earhart was all through my meeting Eleanor Roosevelt when I was a little boy. She was acquainted with all three of those folks.
Apart from the purely entertaining aspect of these connections, I think that that the far more important notion is the fact that all of us here on Earth are far more closely connected than we may know or even want to know. So we damn well better get it together and figure out how to get along and help each other.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? Who was it?
Oh, if only I had heeded all the good advice I’ve been given over the decades… One piece of artistic advice that stands out, and that I still employ was given to me by one of Norman Rockwell’s students, of which there were very few. Don Spaulding is an amazing painter of the American West and when visiting his studio in New York, I was bold enough to show him some of my paintings. He advised me to soften the edges of some of the elements in my paintings. A deceivingly simple recommendation, but important for my own work.
You also work with Elizabeth Massie from time to time. Do you enjoy getting to collaborate with her?
Very much! It’s a thrill to capture the mood and spirit of her wonderful prose in a painting. Her writing takes my work in directions that I’d otherwise never travel. Our approaches to life and basic philosophies are similar, so that makes the collaborations that much more harmonious and rewarding.
What do you love most about living in Virginia?
The Virginia landscape is very artistically inspiring. Having been raised in the city, it’s wonderful to now see the night sky as well as a landscape with a horizon and mountains. I don’t miss the New England winters, but we still get all the weather variations of the four seasons here… which is a good thing for my landscape painting.
Are there any of your works that hold more meaning to you than the others?
Each work elicits a recollection of what my life was like at the time the art was done. Every piece can be a memory trigger… of the people I painted, the places I’ve lived, the state of my life at the time. So, in that way, some works may be more redolent of meaning than others. Now and then, something unusual will stand out and have much more weight and meaning for me… like the posthumous portrait I painted of a friend of mine, author Les Daniels.
Is there one subject you’d most like to cover that you have yet to?
I want to do more paintings of people. These would not be “portraits” per se, since they aren’t necessarily meant to please the subject or be commissioned by a client. Hopefully, I can balance my commercial workload with some time to paint these pieces which will be informal paintings of friends.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have 15 book covers to do for a reprinting of the Oz books, a couple privately commissioned paintings, an alternate-history zeppelin painting, some bookplates and books to design… an illustration for a Steven King book, and some other interesting projects.
Anything you’d like to say before you go?
I’ve babbled on enough, I think… From here, I’d like my artwork to speak for me… so if folks would like to take a look at some of my stuff, they can check out my website at:
Thanks much Tina! I always enjoy reading your interviews!
All art is © the various publishers and Cortney Skinner