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David Palumbo: A Day in the Life of an Award-Winning Illustrator

Award-Winning Genre Illustrator David Palumbo talks Horror, Witchcraft, Marvel Masterpieces, and more!

Art by David Paulmbo

David Palumbo is a freelance illustrator known for dark, atmospheric genre illustration. He has illustrated for Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Blizzard Entertainment, Lucasfilm, and many more. One of his more recent projects is the Marvel Masterpieces 2020 Collection for Upper Deck Entertainment, in which he created 135 Marvel paintings. He has received numerous honors for his work including three Spectrum medals and a Chesley award, and has shown his paintings in galleries from New York to Paris.

1. First off, the question I ask everyone: How did you become a professional artist? What inspired you to become one?

I always enjoyed making art and was most interested in pursuing either comics or movie special effects when I was young. Those were the things that I just got the most absorbed in. As it turned out, my mom became a professional illustrator during that time and being able to see how the job works, helped steer me onto this path. I studied academic painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and, after graduation, began building and shopping my portfolio at conventions and through online resources. From there, it was just steady repetition: making new work, showing and getting feedback, and making more new work. Gradually that grew into a career.

2. Your paintings are all so hauntingly beautiful, what inspired such a dark and atmospheric style?

I'm not sure why, but darker subjects have always been interesting to me. There's a mix of nostalgia and quiet and drama and emotion to a lot of what I enjoy. Often there isn't even anything menacing, but that combination is confusing and we interpret it as unsettling and call it horror. Ghost vibes are my favorite, and that type of imagery fits this description perfectly.

3. Your work is all done as traditional oil paintings, right? How long does a piece take to finish?

I've developed a process aiming for efficiency which is derived from the Alla Prima

approach, which is traditionally single session wet-on-wet. Normally I'll plan heavily and spend quite a lot of time getting my concept and composition together, which also includes shooting reference and doing preliminary work to solve all the problems that I expect to encounter. With my prep work done, most finals are done in two steps: block in and final painting. The actual execution happens very rapidly.

4. Looking at your work, is it safe to say you’re a big fan of the horror genre? What about it draws you in?

I am, and I've always had a difficult time understanding why. My personal taste can be picky, as there are certain types of horror that I don't enjoy at all. But for that stuff I like, it tends to be the more mood building and able to surprise me. Sometimes I feel like I can analyze endlessly, but it's ultimately an emotional reaction that defines what attracts us and I just accept that spooky stuff really grabs me.

5. How do you define “horror”? What for you evokes that kind of feeling?

Art by David Paulmbo

I think dread is a common element. I recently rewatched the original Blair Witch Project, wondering if it would hold up after 20 years. I didn't remember it being all that special. Watching it again, it's probably one of the best horror movies I've ever seen, in part because of the very realistic and natural escalation of dread. It's like a trap closing around you and by the time you can see it it's too late. That describes the situation for most horror protagonists, but I really respect when it's done in a way that I relate to. Where I actually would have probably done the same things. There's plenty of cheap tricks that work really well, like seeing creepy things in mirrors and such, but really conveying a sense of doom is something much more powerful.

Art by David Paulmbo

6. Do you have a favourite “type” of horror? I notice a lot of witchcraft in your work!

Yes, I really like witchy and ghostly horror! Supernatural horror can be either really creepy or really fun. True crime also fascinates me but it feels very complicated to be entertained by it.

7. On a similar note, do you have any favourite horror writers/artists? One piece that really stands out to me is “The Breaking of Father Callahan”, are you a big Stephen King fan?

I'm mostly a horror movie fan and not nearly as well read in the genre. I do enjoy Stephen King and The Shining is probably my favorite of any horror I've read.

8. Do you ever find your mood affected by these dark pieces you do? If so, do you have any techniques to lighten up?

I'm not sure that the tone of my work reflects my mood or personality. Maybe it feels a bit separate.

I'm much more likely to be affected by frustration of not finding the solution I'm reaching for in a piece to give it that extra bit of impact.

9. Do you have a piece you consider to be your scariest?

Art by David Paulmbo

Probably that goes to Taken (left) and another that comes to my mind is Swallowed Whole (right) hmm... is there something similar between the two?

10. I see you’ve worked on a wide array of different projects, from Marvel Masterpieces, to Magic: the Gathering, can you tell us a little bit about some of them?

Sure, as a freelancers of 15 years now, I'm regularly bouncing around different projects. In some cases, that might mean one cover for one client and we never work together again, and in others like Magic the Gathering, it's over a hundred pieces spanning more than a decade. I really enjoy those kinds of long term partnerships and it's wonderful being part of the larger story on a brand like Magic. I've done a number of cover runs with Dark Horse Comics that fit that category as well. The most recent big project however, and by far the biggest, was Marvel Masterpieces for Upper Deck. This was kind of a dream job. I was asked to make 135 new paintings in just under 2 years for a very limited run card set. Besides the list of characters that we agreed on, I wasn't really given any other brief. This meant I had a tremendously free hand to depict these characters, some of which were key inspirations that brought me into making art to begin with. Of all the projects that I've worked on so far, that set is probably what I'm most proud of.

11. Your “Ritual” painting series is also very striking! What’s it about? Is there a story being told there?

These are more about mood and evoking emotional connection than explicit narrative. There is a common thread woven through them, but the series has unfolded very organically as I find each new piece. I'm just coming back to this series now after a lengthy break and finding that I'm questioning everything fresh. My perspective and ideas have changed since the series started, and so it's interesting to pick it back up and look for where it should go from here.

Art by David Paulmbo

12. Do you use the same creative process and technique for all your different types of projects (Ex: Marvel Masterpieces vs. Illustrated Novels)? Or is there some variance in how you approach each one?

I think the basics are the same, but Masterpieces allowed me to plan and work in much larger groups, which allowed me to produce much more efficiently with fewer distractions. I'd never realized how much mental energy is wasted just jumping from one client to another, so having that many pieces all for the same project really let me focus

13. How much creative freedom do you typically get for your projects?

This depends on the client. I was happily surprised that Upper Deck and Marvel gave me a ton, which is not always the case with large properties like that. My experience has mostly been that games and entertainment are more uptight and books and comics more relaxed when it comes to rigid direction. Illustrated novels are usually the ones with the most freedom.

14. You’ve actually received some awards for your art, right? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Art by David Paulmbo

I have, it's really gratifying to get that kind of recognition. Having also been on award juries, I know that the whole process is fairly chaotic and full of subjective opinions, which often means that great work is overlooked. I'm delighted whenever my work gets singled out, but you can't let it mean too much.

15. Some of your paintings have also been shown in galleries too, right? Which ones? And what was that experience like?

Yes, that's actually where my career started, at the Artist's House gallery in Philadelphia back in 2003. While there's plenty to love about being a gallery artist, I felt illustration might be the better fit for me and so I shifted away from galleries for some years to give all my attention to developing my portfolio. Once I'd established myself, I was able to make time for showing fine art here and there again. Right now I work with Reh's Gallery in NYC, which has been a fantastic relationship. I've been involved with a handful of others in the years between, but not long term. I think the trick is finding a gallery which your work connects well with that's ALSO run by people you trust. It's difficult to be making time for both commercial and gallery work though.

16. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but your non-commissioned piece “The Graveyard” feels very Legend of Zelda-esque (specifically Zelda II: The Adventure of Link). Is this a coincidence? Are you a Zelda fan yourself?

Yes, that was one of three Adventures of Link pieces done for a show of video game inspired art. Zelda II was the first video game I ever owned and still holds a really special place for me. I'm actually not a gamer at all, so I never followed the Zelda franchise past the original two, but I sure spent many many hours playing them way back.

17. What would you say are the greatest challenges in your line of dark, atmospheric illustration?

I feel like the challenge is always pushing for some new angle or unexpected take in any piece. I know when an idea is probably good enough, but still not quite making me excited about it. Sometimes it's tempting to go with good enough, but I really do try to move myself past that. That's not always easy to do, and especially when clients have really specific direction from the outset. Finding a concept or presentation that feels fresh and exciting is definitely the hard part every single time.

18. I see you have a shop on your website, what kind of things can we buy there?

Right now I have mostly books from some of my gallery series and links to places that offer select prints. Sometimes I will have originals available as well and info for getting on my originals mailing list.

19. Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

I'd say pay attention to what excites you and go after that. Don't forecast the audience, make the work that you love and your audience will come to you.

Art by David Paulmbo


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