I first heard of Artemisia Gentileschi in college. I wasn’t planning on being an artist back then, I was going into theater. Artemisia came up during a script study course. A local author had penned a play based on her early life and our school would be producing it. I eventually was drafted to do some sketches for props and a full size replica of one of her paintings as it might have looked in progress. The play was… less than stellar (if I’m going to try to avoid saying that I thought it sucked). Artemisia’s life, however, was intriguing.
Artemisia Gentileschi was not the first female painter to make a name for herself, although she is arguably the most famous of her era. Her life was tumultuous and fascinating: tutored early in life by her father, denied entrance into the all-male art academies of the time, raped by her mentor Agostino Tassi, put on trial and tortured to prove her innocence, Artemisia later traveled all over Europe and was the first female artist to be accepted into the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. Her paintings are often held up as examples of early feminism due to their strong female protagonists and often violent imagery or subtext. She was an intelligent, confident woman living and working in an era when women, and women artists especially, were considered inferior.
It seems appropriate to name this blog in honor of her. Female artists are no longer as rare as they were in her day, and no longer stymied by the constraints of propriety—but we’re still struggling in a male dominated field that caters mainly to male tastes.
Pick up a fantasy art yearbook—Spectrum or Exotique—or walk into your local bookstore or comicbook store and you’ll see what I mean. While women, traditionally, make up the majority of readers (at least here in the US), you’ll find an astounding amount of art that is produced by men, judged by men, and geared toward male tastes. There’s a reason why fantasy art is often stereotyped as pictures of big-breasted babes in chain mail bikinis, clutching the arm of an over-muscled hero with bigger bulges on his elbows than in his leather loincloth. In sci-fi art they’ll switch the chain mail for spandex or latex spacesuits and the hero for a hulking robot, but the thematic imagery is basically the same. Don’t even get me started on comic book art.
Paranormal romance has at least gone far enough to put the big breasted chick popping out of her costume somewhat aside in favor of headless, muscular oiled up male torsos—but is that really all that much of an improvement?
Last year I submitted artwork to Ballistic publishing’s Exotique 4. Of the four paintings I submitted, only one was of a female character. That was the one that was accepted. I didn’t question it much at the time, and was disappointed somewhat that my paintings of male characters, which I felt were stronger, weren’t quite up to par. Much was explained, however, when my copy of the book arrived in the mail. At a glance I’d guess that nearly 90% of the book featured female characters. There were half-naked girls with robots or dragons, big breasted girls in skimpy costumes toting giant guns or swords, pretty anime girls with katanas or looking angsty and vulnerable at the viewer. Scattered throughout, as rare as four-leaved clovers, were the men. Some were the typical hulking barbarians, some were of the androgynous sort that made you wonder if the judges were aware that the character was male, and some were monstrous and alien in appearance. There were a few male characters who were just normal enough to be non-threatening to a male point of view, but they were very, very few and far between.
Talking to several other female artists, the consensus seemed to be the same. Our paintings of female characters made it in, our male characters did not. These were not arm-chair artists who’d submitted on a whim, either—most of them were professionals in the field whose male character art is easily on par with their female characters. It’s hard to ignore that kind of pattern. Perhaps the parade of tits and ass in Exotique isn’t the result of a male chauvinistic (or at least an unquestioningly male) approach to the genre and we’re all merely paranoid.
I doubt it, though.
Since then I’ve felt it almost a personal mission to try to paint more characters that I feel appeal to a female fantasy audience, and to try to promote female artists, who I also feel are underrepresented. Check out Tor.com’s cover art roster, or Massive Black’s instructor list and you’ll see the reverse of the problem with artwork. Female artists are few and far between, often relegated to “fairy artists” whose work is good enough to market to the Hot Topic crowd but not good enough to grace fantasy book covers.
Yet there are dozens of women working in this field, many of them doing incredible work and getting very little time in the spotlight. There are women working in comic book art, as illustrators for gaming companies, as concept artists for films, as cover artists and more. Unless you’re one of us, it’d be difficult to name ten.
What can you expect to see here on Artemisia from me? Hopefully features and interviews with female artists working today, reviews of artwork by both men and women that I feel particularly appeal to women—especially in cover art illustration (which is my main topic of interest). Maybe even some book or film reviews. Louisa, who has generously agreed to be my partner in crime for this project, holds similar views; although, we may not always agree on some particulars. Our views are our own, but we hope that there are enough people out there who might be interested in hearing them.
We might not be able to change the art world—but we can at least paint it from our perspective.