Michael Wm. Kaluta
What I Learned This Week:
What It Takes To Become A Successful Artist
by Betsy Mitchell

October 26, 2009
Betsy Mitchell:  What kind of art training have you had?

Michael Kaluta:  When I was quite young, there was a learn-to-draw TV program presented by the
artist Jon Gnagy. I watched it every chance I got, and, when about 10 years old, was given one of his
Learn To Draw art sets (paper, pencils, sharpener [a piece of wood with sandpaper on it], kneaded
eraser and instruction book). I drew along with him every Saturday. I know for certain he taught me
how to indicate perspective, making it no longer such a frightening concept.
Then there were the “regular” art classes in grammar school/jr. high school (say, grade 3 to grade 9
in the U.S.A.), better described as arts and crafts classes, since there was very little drawing. Still, they
taught me how to use my hands to develop what my mind was seeing (shop class, what was called
industrial arts back in the day: wood and metal shop, also refined my hand-eye coordination with
intent to create).
In high school (grades 10 to 12), I took art as an elective: getting to choose what I wanted to do
allowed me to slant my education toward the things I enjoyed. We were taught many different
media / materials and techniques, all of which helped on the long road to making art. Add into that the
other classmates, some to become life-long friends, each of whose talents opened a new door, making
me aware of areas of artistic pursuit I’d never have investigated without their input.
All the above was very necessary, but it wasn’t until I saw the covers and interior drawings done
for ACE paperbacks’ Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (Princess of Mars, Chessmen of Mars, Carson
of Venus, etc) that I all of a sudden HAD to draw pictures. The inspiration from Roy G. Krenkel’s
and Frank Frazetta’s line work interiors and color covers put a fire under me that is still burning. At the
same time the Edgar Rice Burroughs books were being reprinted there was a resurgence of interest in
the Art Nouveau style, popular in the 1890s into the 1920s. Work by two top artists from that time
(Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha) became readily available in art books and magazines,
opening up WORLDS of other terrific, inspiring art that added depth to what I wanted to draw.
Then, lastly (though I could wax on forever about all the other facets of learning/training), there was
getting my first work in the fields of illustration and comic book storytelling. Nothing tops working at
the real job of drawing to teach one what it means to draw, and nothing tops actually illustrating to
teach one what that is all about . The deadline pressure is a definite goad: one can’t wile away the time
waiting for The Muse to visit when there’s a deadline: one MUST get on with it: and, once drawing,
drawing “happens”… it is sort of a miracle. But more than the deadline, the likelihood of being paid for
the work and the commendation or ridicule of editors and readers, it is seeing your work in print that is
the ultimate teacher at this point. Seeing what took you hours of solitary concentration set up next to
work by others, with no dim lighting or squinted eyes to “help” the piece: THAT is the Teaching
Crucible Of Fire!!!! I highly recommend it.

BM:  What were some of your early projects?

MK:  The first art I did “on command,” as it were, was in school, on the blackboard, to illustrate
moments from American History. That teacher understood: if she wanted me to attend to the lesson,
she’d better have me draw it…
But, professionally, my first work was illustrating science fiction short stories for Amazing and Fantastic
magazines. Low pay, indeed, but work every month… and, when the material was printed, my drawings
shared the magazines with many of the best s-f illustrators of the day (especially if the magazine reprinted
some classic sci-fi story with the original illustrations, say, from the 1940s or ’50s). True: most of the
stories I was given had not one single image in them: nothing to grab and draw (this is true of a lot of
sci-fi, even in The Olde Days. That’s why we see so many 1930 to 1960 sci-fi renderings of beautiful
people with beautiful halos staring up to the left or right, planets and meteors swirling amidst star fields
with, if we are lucky, a tubular pointed spaceship ripping through the background: when there’s nothing
to draw, but there HAS to be a drawing, bring on the Special Effects!)
That said: having to force imagery from non-visual prose honed the mental tools I needed most in my
future career.

BM:  Did you have a mentor or somebody who helped you make a first step into becoming a

MK:  Yes, indeed. My first mentor was Al Williamson, well known for his classic portrayal of Flash
Gordon and his elegant comic book work for EC Comics in the 1950s. He’d seen some of my
“fanzine” work, thanks to convention promoter and all-around Good Guy, Phil Seuling. Al had Phil
ask me if I’d be interested in helping him with an 8-page comic book story for DC Comics. I said yes.
While working with Al for the short weeks I got to spend up at his place, he taught me several “studio
tricks” that I use nearly every time I draw, as well as reinforcing all my reasons to draw “fantasy and
sci-fi”. His knowledge and delight in other artists’ work broadened my world view, introducing me to
a host of artists working the world over, all of whom excelled at what I wanted to do.

BM:  What skill took you the longest to master?

MK:  I’m still struggling with Technique… I can draw “Rings Around The World,” as the expression
goes, but I’ve not got a lot of rendering chops… Drawing and making stuff up is a talent, and no lie…
getting it to look really sweet, is a skill.
Going from drawing in pencil to drawing in ink is a huge transition that calls for a ton of dedication: but
it can be done! Going from drawing in ink to putting color onto the art, well: it calls for a completely
different approach. Color: can it truly be learned to exhaustion? I’ve MILES to go on that road… still,
I’ve developed my own way to get the color where and how I want it, and I’m satisfied, for the
moment. I’ll not speak to Oil Paint: I can do it, but it’s been so long since I have I dare not say anything
about it (except: if you want to work in sci-fi/fantasy Illustration, put a lot of energy toward learning how
to oil or acrylic paint, or their digital counterparts. There’s always a high demand for full-tonal art in the
Illustration World).

BM:  About the two Moorcock volumes, Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn and Elric: In the Dream Realms:
Were you an Elric or Moorcock fan before you were offered these projects?

MK:  Oh yes. I had more of an affinity to Mr. Moorcock’s Count Brass stories, reading and
re-reading them, but I certainly had (and still have) my treasured stash of Elric novels and short stories.

BM:  What piece from either of the volumes was your favorite to draw?

MK:  Now, this is difficult… there’re three elements each drawing needs to have. One: does it “fit” the
story”? If it does, does it look “surprisingly cool”? If it does both, did I handle the actual art to my
satisfaction? There’s one piece that fits two of the three: I so wish I’d gone back and redrawn the entire
thing (but hey: we won’t mention that drawing).
In The Fortress of the Pearl, there’s a full page piece where Elric, on horseback, is surrounded by huge
rampaging beetles: I really do like that one! It feels as if it is moving when I look at it.

There’s a vignette from just about the same part of that story, of a bat-winged cat playing with a little
beetle. I smile every time I see it.
I have to say, looking through the art for these two volumes: I’m extremely satisfied with what I was
able to do… picking favorites becomes that exercise where one’s favorite is always the next one
looked at, the previous picture forgotten.
In the To Rescue Tanelorn collection, the title full-page illo for The Greater Conqueror has all the
elements I’d ever want in a “signature” drawing. This one could easily go at the beginning of my

BM:  Was there any particular visual challenge in working on this project?

MK:  The only challenge was when I had to switch eras: not all the short stories happen in Elric Time
of Long Ago or Way In The Future. Some take place in current, or near-current day. Switching from
drawing triremes or people riding insect-shaped flying machines to drawing a Duesenberg touring car
or electric guitar case, well: it’d throw me… I’d have to get up from the drawing board, spin around
until dizzy, then get back to it, mind reset.

BM:  What’s the most important piece of advice you can offer a young artist?

MK:  Bluntly: If you have a favorite thing to draw, try your best to get work drawing that thing.
There are two ways to have an Art Career (leaving out what we’ll call Gallery Artist). One can be a
professional illustrator, drawing everything and anything, often in one’s own style, but not often at
one’s choice, or one can draw what one wants and force the world to need that. The artist /
illustrator/comic book folks who’ve taken that second approach live happily in harmony with their
inner being, while entertaining us all with their refined self-approved imagery. It is a tough road, true,
but the payoff is: never having to have to draw something that makes you crazy.
If you show an aptitude to, say, draw in another, well-known artist’s style, a popular style, the work
and money will flow into your arms as, time after time, you are asked to draw and paint in that other
artist’s style. Good for raising a family, paying the bills and all that. It is valid, time-tested, honest
(to a point) work. But it doesn’t match doing your own work; work that is identified with your name.
And, of course: Draw All The Time… most artists don’t have to be told that… but it is the best advice.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Michael Wm. Kaluta, one of the masters of the comic and
fantasy art field, about his lifelong path to becoming a better artist. Michael is perhaps best known for
his lush, detailed line work. He has handled numerous comic and book illustration projects, including
the creation of The Shadow comic book, and he formed the artists’ commune The Studio in
Manhattan along with Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones, and Bernie Wrightson.

I interviewed him because his latest book-length project–illustrating Elric: In the Dream Realms–
publishes this week. We recalled meeting author Michael Moorcock in a hotel tea room the last time
Moorcock visited New York. I asked Kaluta whether any memories stood out from that occasion.
“Of course,” he said, “The man is a Giant… even when sitting down. He is ‘wreathed in Power’ as
Tolkien might have put it… Having tea with Michael Moorcock, for me, was like stepping into a story
(the venue certainly helped: the dining room near Washington Square had a feeling of being designed
for an episode of “Upstairs/Downstairs”). I found myself ‘poised,’ as opposed to ’sitting,’ like an
interested cat, while Michael told his stories: day-to-day experiences, mixed with tales from afar…
It was sort of magical.”
For lots more from Michael Wm. Kaluta, including more art samples from Elric: In the Dream
Realms, read on after the jump!
All art copyright Michael Wm. Kaluta and the respective owners.