INTERVIEW Legendary Fantasy Artists Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell

Famous for their muscled barbarians and heaving-busted femmes, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell are the first couple of fantasy art

Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell are fantasy art’s first couple. Vallejo has been painting professionally for around 40 years, and his work is arguably the most recognisable in the field. Album covers, books covers, film posters, t-shirts… all have hosted his muscle bound-barbarians and powerful women, his heroic and erotic themes depicted in glowing oil.
Vallejo started drawing as a child, scribbling on the walls of his mother’s kitchen at home in Peru. Work prospects were slim, so he trained initially in medical school until, aged 16, he started freelance art work, moving to the USA seven years later to pursue his career. His early experience of medicine, and his love of bodybuilding, has given Vallejo a masterly grasp of human anatomy. His depictions of the human form are on a par with the old masters, with whom his work shares many parallels. It’s hard to look at the religious paintings of Boris’ favourite artists, Michaelangelo, Rubens and Velazquez and not see the similarities, even if the subject matter is somewhat different.

Body building gave Vallejo the love of his life too, Julie, whom he encountered 30 years ago when she posed for him. For Julie’s part, meeting with Boris revived her almost dormant love of art, and under his tutelage she has become a world-renowned artist in her own right.

SFX: What’s the draw for you with the human body?

Julie Bell: Both of us studied drawing as the basis of our education, neither one of us ever took painting classes while we were at college, or in art school, we focussed on life drawing. I think everybody has a natural fascination for the body, because we all have one! And we both at reasonably early ages got involved in body building; it’s a fascination for the body from the inside out. We studied Michaelangelo and lots of similar people while we were in school. One of my first assignments was where the teachers made us copy, line for line, drawings of Michaelangelo. That taught us a lot about how he approached the body and the expression of how they could show it. He really gave us a lot.

Boris Vallejo: We all are attracted to bodies, otherwise we wouldn’t exist! But the involvement with body building is a very strong influence on how I approach my art. I started taking freelance art jobs when I was about 16, and at the same time I started body building, which is an interesting coincidence.

SFX: Why do you have them in fantasy settings? Why not follow a more conventional path?

Boris: I have always been interested in science fiction and fantasy. One of my first idols was Tarzan. I read all the Tarzan books. I used to do these drawings of Tarzan going around with the apes and fighting savage animals and so on. Subsequently I discovered the work of Chesley Bonestell, as well as J Allen St John, who was the classic illustrator for Tarzan.

Julie: I’ve always loved mythology. Of course I was really influenced by Boris, but before that I was really interested in the work of Edmund Dulac, and other fairytale artists. These are watercolours so it was a very different kind of thing, but it still had that fantasy use of colour and design. I figure fantasy allows us to use the bodies in a way that we want to in the paintings, it’s so fun to be free when you are creating. Fantasy settings give you freedom.

SFX: You use a lot of often surprising colours in your paintings, such as blues and greens in the skin tones. Why is this?

Boris: Students ask us what colours we use for skin tones, and really there is no such thing. When we paint skin tones we practically use the whole palette we have available. Normally I have on my palette anywhere between 18 to 24 colours.

SFX: There was a period between the ’70s and ’80s where there was a huge spill over of fantasy art into the mainstream. Do you think that the great days of fantasy art are done?

Julie: I think it’s still there, wouldn’t you say Boris? At this point there’s so much, especially with the movies and the games that are coming out, fantasy art is on a roll.

Boris: I think there is, I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly the same, but then nothing is, things move around, things flow like the sea, and go in different directions, but fantasy and science fiction is still a field there, there’s just different avenues, as I say it happens with anything. But it’s still there, really big time, really big scale.

SFX: You often use friends and acquaintances in your pictures. Do you try and capture something of the essence of that person in the painting also?

Julie: Yeah, it’s really a nice thing to do, because it brings a special outside influence into the painting, whatever the model has inside of their soul is going to come through. It actually works better sometimes for us not to go through a professional modelling agency. For the most part I think that professional models are not going to be as excited, they’re just doing their regular job, and while they may be very professional, we’re not going to see the same level of their own self and their own excitement about it. I’m not saying they’re not good, that’s not really the point, it’s just that when you take people who just come to us because they want to do it or because it is something that they feel something for, it really comes through.

Boris: Sometimes we do need the ability of a professional model for a very specific job, so it depends on what the job calls for.

Julie: I’d like to say we’re happy with all our models!

SFX: Do you think your styles have grown together? Are they indistinguishable now?

Julie: Well, they’re not indistinguishable… When we do a painting together it’s almost like a third artist has created it, it’s a little bit different to when we work individually, but we can make make a seamless style that no-one can see where there’s a different artist.

Boris: We purposely blend it together, if I was going to do a painting all by myself, it would be a lot darker, it wouldn’t have that light feeling, that’s Julie’s touch.

Julie: When I first met Boris, he taught me how to bring my skill level up to the professional level. He worked with me on my painting. To begin with our minds were very similar, what comes out naturally is very similar, and I did learn from him how to use paint, that’s just going to be very similar because of that.

Boris: You have to understand, Julie and I are married to each other, we have been together for 20 years now, and for the most part are together 24 hours a day, seven days a week…

Julie: And we have fun every day.

Boris: Absolutely, side by side. And so our minds really work so similarly, so it’s almost like, how could I say this, easy to do it.

Julie: Most people couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be a good idea for most people either.

Boris: It works for us, we have it, you know…