Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 26, 2018

Illustrator Saturday – Jim Nelson

Jim is a professional artist based in Chicago, Illinois with decades of experience in the publishing business as an illustrator, graphic designer and art director. He has worked extensively in games and children’s illustration and have designed everything from characters to toys, t-shirts, logos and layouts.  Jim paints digitally and he also works in traditional mediums like pencil, ink, watercolor and acrylic paint. He is equally comfortable illustrating whimsical, serious or even scary subject matter and am always looking for a new challenge. He’s worked for an extensive list of clients over the years, including Random House, Simon & Schuster, Inhabit Media, Wizards of the Coast, Hasbro, Blizzard Entertainment, Activision, Topps, Weekly Reader and Upper Deck.

Here is Jim sharing his process:

Here’s another new Hearthstone illustration, painted for the Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion. I’ve included step-by-step process images below, beginning with my preliminary drawing.

Steps 1:
Sometimes the process for creating an image is pretty straightforward but there are times when a painting goes through a considerable transformation from start to finish. That was the case with this one. As usual, I began with a drawing, pictured below.

Step 2: I knew I would be dealing with complex lighting on this piece so my next step was to focus on value and I began building the picture in gray tones. Since I was painting a necromancer casting a corpse-raising spell, I wanted the piece to be dark and moody.

Step 3: After establishing some of the value structure, I began applying color on layers (I should mention that all of this work was painted digitally, in Photoshop).

Step 4: The drawing was superimposed over the painting and I started working out some more details, separating forms, etc.

Step 5: More details were added. Forms were refined and I continued pushing value and contrast.

Step 6: The figure was more or less completed and the values established. However, my initial plan of creating a dark, moody piece with a focus on the necromantic spell had gone a bit awry. The picture was too dark for it’s intended purpose (card images are small and usually need more contrast) and I was gently reminded by art director Jeremy Cranford that this image wasn’t for a spell card so there should be more focus on the character than the spell. That sound advice led to…

Step 7: In which, working on layers (including some Screen and Lighten layers), I seriously re-worked the values and adjusted the lighting to make it a brighter scene. The hands bursting up in the background had become a compositional distraction so landscape elements were painted over them. I was asked to add some spell energy coming from the necromancer’s hands so that changed the lighting too. I tried to subtly work more color into the piece and push the focus upward, to the character’s face and hands. This stage led to the final art, which you can see at the top of this post.

It was quite a journey, more involved than usual, but I was happy with the final results and, as always, when painting, I learned a few things along the way.


This is my painting for Vryghoul, a card in the new Hearthstone expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne. I’ve included my preliminary sketch with the painting. I had a blast painting this zombie-like character and I’m grateful for art director Jeremy Cranford’s very helpful suggestions.
Meaningless aside that might interest someone: I often listen to audiobooks as I work and I was listening to Stephen King’s Different Seasons while painting this picture. The book and subject matter went together well.

Interview Questions for Jim Nelson

How long have you been illustrating?

32 years. I did my first professional work all the way back in 1986.

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I sold some drawings to a local shop owner when I was about 10 years old. He was a very encouraging fellow who knew I loved to draw so he offered to buy some of my work.

I don’t recall the first illustration I was paid for professionally. I did my first first published work while on staff at a small company.

Did you go to college to study art?

Yes, I attended Northern Illinois University.

Did you study animation in college?

No, I studied illustration and graduated with a degree in drawing.

Did the school help you find illustration work?

No, but when I was a student they did provide a valuable information on how to go about finding work.

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

Yes, definitely. Art school greatly expanded my artistic horizons, opening me up to new artists, new techniques and the entire history of art, all of which influenced me in one way or another. Prior to that, my knowledge of art was confined largely to comic books, album artwork and paperback covers.

Have you always been a freelance illustrator?

No, but I’ve spent my entire professional career as an illustrator, designer or art director. I began freelancing full-time in 2000.

How did you start getting job illustrating online games?

I worked for a now-defunct game company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s called FASA Corporation. I was there for 12 years and it led to numerous of contacts with fellow illustrators and people who work in the game industry. Those contacts, in turn, led to freelance work. It’s an area of illustration I really enjoy.

Do you still do illustrations for Dungeons and Dragons?

No, it’s been a few years since I’ve worked on D&D. I’ve been wrapped up in other projects in recent years but perhaps I’ll work on it again at some point.

What other games have you worked on?

I’ve worked on quite a few role-playing and miniatures games, including Pathfinder, Shadowrun, BattleTech, Earthdawn, Vampire and many others.

I see you have done some game cards. Which ones have you done?

Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering are the two most prominent but I’ve worked on a lot of these too, including Hex: Shards of Fate, Anachronism and Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. At this point, I can’t even remember them all.

Have you ever gotten involved in the animation side of the online games?

No, but that would probably be a lot of fun!

Was ON THE SHOULDER OF A GIANT your first picture book?

Yes, and it was a dream come true.

How did book come your way?

Neil Christopher, the author/editor of the book reached out to me to see if I was interested. He had seen my game work and thought I would be right for the subject matter.

Do you want to illustrate more picture books?

Definitely. In fact, I illustrated a hybrid picture book/graphic novel for the same publisher (Inhabit Media) that was published last year. It’s titled The Gnawer of Rocks. It’s a much darker story. I’ve also illustrated two more picture books in a simpler, line and color style (more like cartoons or comics) that haven’t been published yet. I think the first of those will be released this year but I don’t know the release date yet.

Do you have an artist rep.? If so, who, and if not would you like to have one?

I don’t have a rep. I’ve considered getting one though.

Have you ever illustrated a graphic novel?

Yes and no. It depends on how people want to define that term. The aforementioned book, The Gnawer of Rocks, is illustrated sequentially in panels and “splash” pages  so it’s basically a short graphic novel. I’ve inked and colored comics too. I have plans to do a graphic novel but it’s still at a VERY early stage of development.

Have you done any book covers?

Yes, I’ve done a few over the years but it’s been a while. I’d like to do more of that kind of work but it’s somewhat specialized and my portfolio isn’t really geared toward cover art.

Do you have any desire to write and illustrate a children’s book?

Absolutely! That’s something I’m actually working toward as well.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

Sure, it would just depend on the specific nature of the project.

Have you done any illustrating for magazines? Which ones?

Back in the ‘90s, I did quite a few illustrations for READ magazine and I did a few illustrations for Amazing at one point too but I haven’t done a lot of magazine illustration.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Sure… or a wordless comic. I really like it when a story is just told visually. I’ve always been fascinated by that sort of storytelling.

What do you think is your biggest success?

Artistically? Probably On the Shoulder of a Giant. I’m particularly proud of that book. Beyond that, it’s simply been having a long career as a professional artist. That was my goal from a very young age so I’m pleased to still be drawing every day.

What is your favorite medium to use?

Pen and ink. It was my first artistic love and it’s still my favorite.

Has that changed over time?

As you can tell from my previous response, it hasn’t changed. However, I do really enjoy working with watercolors and I like working digitally as well. The latter has opened up a world of new techniques and creative possibilities. For example, you can do things with vector art that are exceedingly difficult with traditional materials.

Do you have a studio set up in your home?

Yes, I work from a small home studio.

Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I wouldn’t say I spend a specific amount of time on it. To be honest, I spend most of my time on it! I’ve felt compelled to create since I was in grade school so more often than not, I’m drawing or painting.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

Yes, I always assemble reference before beginning a project.

Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Definitely. It’s lead to new clients, new assignments and helped me get my work in front of people who might otherwise never have seen it. It’s created great opportunities for artists.

Do you use Photoshop or Painter with your illustrations?

I work primarily in Photoshop and I use Adobe Illustrator for more graphic work.

Do you own and use a Graphic Tablet when illustrating?

Yes, I use a Wacom Intuos tablet.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Definitely. I want to write and draw some projects of my own. I’m currently nearing completion on a series of 100 robot designs I’ve been creating for fun over the last several years. I’m hoping to collect them into a book and after that, I want to work on some of the projects I referenced earlier.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I’m finishing up a children’s book and doing some artwork for Hearthstone. After that, I have a game logo to design and some illustrations to create for that game. It looks like yet another picture book may be on the horizon too. It should be a busy summer!

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

In terms of materials, my favorite inking tools are Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes. They’re great for watercolor or ink and they hold a fine tip. I also love inking with Hunt #102 crowquill pen tips on Strathmore 500 series bristol. The 500 series is a higher quality paper that’s less fibrous and consequently, less likely to tear or bleed. It’s a pleasure to draw on that paper.

Two quick tips: don’t be a one brush painter and never underestimate the value of underpainting!

Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

The simple answer: work hard and be willing to fail. It’s really the only way to build a portfolio of quality work. Good writers write and good artists draw. You have to put in the time. I mention failure because it’s a key to learning. Making mistakes is part of the creative process and learning from those mistakes is what leads to growth and improvement.

I also encourage creators to be themselves. It’s good to learn from others  but your best work tends to emerge when you’re doing what excites you. Even if you’re asked to work on a subject that doesn’t particularly interest you, you can find that excitement in color, lighting, composition, etc. and make the work sing.

I don’t know if any of that is wise but I hope someone will find it useful.

Thank you Jim for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Jim’s work, you can visit him at his website: and

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Jim. I am sure he’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.


Talk tomorrow,



  1. what a talented artist –


  2. Jim, your work is absolutely phenomenal. Thanks SO much for sharing this, and it’s always such a joy seeing the progression during process. Just fantastic. You “game” guys are amazing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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