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An Artist You Should Know: Karla Ortiz

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The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights local artists before they exhibit their work somewhere awesome, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.  Meet artist Karla Ortiz, the concept artist of your nerdy dreams. 

If you’re like me (and I know I am), putting the word “concept” or “conceptual” in front of a profession doesn’t really help to clarify much. Before writing this piece, in fact, a concept artist was a vague, ethereal profession the definition of which escaped me. Don’t all artists work on a conceptual level? To put it simply, what exactly does a concept artist do?

To learn more, I spoke to Karla Ortiz, whose whimsical creations I had heard of and seen float by on social media.

by Karla Ortiz.

Karla Ortiz is a 31 year old concept artist and illustrator who’s been working in the field for over six years, and who has collaborated with names the like of Paragon Studios/NcSoft, Ubisoft, Kabam, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Currently, she does concept artistry for Marvel Film Studios (yes, that Marvel Film Studios). She (obviously) enjoys drawing and spending time with her cat, named Keedy Bady, although she muses that if she could name her again, she would “call her ‘Bailey’s,’ like the delicious alcoholic drink. She’s from Puerto Rico but has been based in San Francisco for about eight years. Here, one must pay attention to the word “based,” because she actually travels around the globe giving art classes, attending her own gallery shows (such as the upcoming expo in Paris, in September 2017, at Art Ludique) or the premier of Doctor Strange in Los Angeles, a movie that she worked on.

Front view, Dr. Strange, by Karla Ortiz.

Not only this, but she’s also been the mastermind behind the illustrations in George R. R. Martin’s trilogy A Song of Ice and Fire (turned into the TV series Game of Thrones), as well as illustrating cards for the card game Magic, the Gathering, and doing concept art for various videogames. In other words, she is the weaver of your (or at least, definitely of my) hopelessly nerdy dreams. But first things first – what does a concept artist actually do?

Rae: You’re a concept artist – many people (including Rae from two weeks in the past) don’t know exactly what it is that you do. Can you explain it in your own words / give us the quick explanation you give people?

Karla: What a concept artist does is create visual representations to be used as a guide for the rest of the team. For example, Chewbacca from Star Wars has a unique look! In order to get that look, someone had to design him, and that began as a lot of drawings and paintings first. Later on, once the director agreed on the best visual representation of Chewbacca, the drawings/paintings were sent to the rest of the teams in order for a costume to be constructed. Now concept artists work on everything that is visual in a movie. Environments, characters, monsters, costumes, robots, pretty much anything that is imagined in either a movie or game was likely to be designed first by a concept artist!

R: When did you start drawing? Have you always been good (=amazing) at it?

K: I started drawing when I was about 3 years old! My mother likes to say I knew how to draw before I learned how to speak. I’m not sure how true that statement is but it sure sounds nice! Also, I wasn’t always technically skilled. It took a lot of years of study and practice to get to where I am today, and many more decades left to get to where I wish to be.

King Daeron I, the Young Dragon, pg 87., from the book A Song of Fire and Ice, by Karla Ortiz

R: Did it ever occur to you to not want to be an artist for work?

K: I always wanted to be an artist, but I did have some very intense moments of doubts when I was a student. I was overwhelmed with how much I actually had to learn and becoming a professional seemed out of my reach. I actually quit for about a month or son and was seriously considering becoming a physicist. During one of the worst moments of it, I called my father (who is a musician) in tears. He chuckled and told me “ Congratulations Karla! You are now a true artist! You’re not an artist unless you feel like quitting at least once!”. It was a very odd yet important moment for me. It established the truth that as creative creatures, we have our ups and downs. We feel our downs quite intensely, and we ALL experience this. It made feel like I was a part of a community and I was able to realize that my art issues weren’t about me but rather that art was just a puzzle that I needed to solve.

“El Ayer” by Karla Ortiz.

R: Do you cosplay? What was the most ambitious costume you’ve ever taken on?

K: I used to cosplay a long time ago. Now I mostly just go crazy on Halloween! But when I was in college I cosplayed as I-no From Guilty Gear. It was awesome as I got into character and walked down the con hallways with all the attitude in the world!

R: Are there any misconceptions about concept artists? And if so, what is the biggest one?

K: I think a lot of students think the work concept artists do will be recognized by a general public. We usually fit in a weird space, between directors and other heads of departments and we don’t usually get a lot of recognition outside from our peers. I think it’s something that took me awhile to get over as there are so many incredible modern day masters that are concept artists that I think everyone should know about! Nowadays I like to think of our jobs like if we were secret agents! Few people know of the work we do, but we help productions immensely. We quietly save the day!

R: What was the scariest / biggest project you worked on?

K: Working on Dr. Strange was immensely unnerving. It was my first time working with the Marvel Cinematic Universe team, and they’re all incredibly talented. I felt a similar fear when I first joined ILM, and was working alongside all my artistic heroes. I get the first day jitters pretty bad, but little by little it always gets better.

“The Death I Bring” by Karla Ortiz.

R: What would be your dream project to work on?

K: Oh man, I would love to spearhead the visuals in a horror/fantasy movie with Guillermo del Toro! I just visited his exhibition in LA and the work he collects is very similar to my personal work. I think that would be amazing!

“Mis Fantasmas” by Karla Ortiz.

R: Apart from being from Puerto Rico, you’ve traveled a lot and it looks like you have the amazing glamorous life every artsy wanderlusting geek dreams of. Why stay in San Francisco?

K: I fell in love with SF from the first moment I saw it. A buddy of mine and I had just traveled cross country to attend a school in San Francisco and my first glimpse of the city was across the bay bridge. It was a really nice sunny day, and I remember loving how the city just hugged the hills around it. I love the architecture of the city, the lifestyle, the ability to walk everywhere and of course the art community. While many of my friends have left because of soaring rent prices, I still adore this city and hope to live in it for many more years.

R: Has being from Puerto Rico influenced your art?

K: Of course! Puerto Rico is a beautiful island, with amazing rain forests, a 500-year-old city, Taino Indian legends, stories of pirates, bohemian fairs, cerulean blue skies. Perhaps I don’t paint with super bright colors like the ones you see in the tropics have, but I am fascinated by nature, history, and legends. Pretty much everything I grew up with! If you could live in any time period, what would it be and why? While I do love living at this current period of time, I think if I were a man, I would’ve loved the Edwardian era! They had some incredible painters back then!

“Entender” by Karla Ortiz.

R: To put it quite simply, how the fuck do you make money?

K: There’s always good money for good work! Now specifically for concept artists, they offer the best visual solution to a company’s visual needs. Companies make a lot of money from movies/games and a lot of what initially attracts people to buy these products are it’s visual. So someone who is competent with creating compelling imagery becomes a valuable asset for many of these companies. For Fine Art , it happens by slowly gathering a collector base, and creating amazing work that speaks to people. There can be a lot of money there, but that particular route can be quite difficult.

R: What would your advice to artists and freelance artists be? It can be career, money, whatever.

K: First, do art because you love to do art, there are no guarantees of success. Secondly, the best way to achieve either financial or artistic success, is by having great technique. Art is very much like a language, you wouldn’t expect a person to properly communicate without knowing words or how sentences are constructed. Art is the same way.

“Niebla” by Karla Ortiz.

R: Your art reminds me a bit (on a superficial level) of fantasy books and websites that I (allegedly) hung out on when I was in middle school. Was this partly the inspiration for it? (As in – validate me in that I wasn’t alone!)

K: I used to play a lot of video games as a kid, and I was obsessed with them! I would draw them all the time, and that’s before I got into Magic The Gathering… then I was obsessed with illustrations. So yes, we’re very similar! 🙂

“Serf and Greyhounds” by Karla Ortiz.

R: If you could be one character from a book/movie/videogame/comic/whatever, man, woman, or not, what would you be and why?

K: Batman. Because Batman.

R: Do you cosplay? What was the most ambitious costume you’ve ever taken on?

K: I used to cosplay a long time ago. Now I mostly just go crazy on Halloween! But when I was in college I cosplayed as I-no From Guilty Gear. It was awesome as I got into character and walked down the con hallways with all the attitude in the world!

R: How in the world do you manage to juggle actually being productive and playing videogames/ reading comics?

K: I have a DS and play about an hour or two a day if I can. I make time for it because it keeps me inspired! It’s an absolute must for my work!

“Consiglieri 2” from the game The Godfather: Five Families, company: Kabam. By Karla Ortiz.

R: What was the first video game you ever played? Mine was Doom! ever since then I have completely lost credibility.

K: Mine was Super Mario 3! It was fun but didn’t blow my mind the way Final Fantasy 7 did! I was a changed woman after that game!

R: I read on your blog that you have over 200 brushes. Do you think you have Gear Acquisition Syndrome? Also, where do you keep your 200 brushes?

K: I have 200 brushes, but I mostly use 7 of them pretty regularly. The other just brushes to experiment with or to play around.

“Ultimum” by Karla Ortiz

R: I feel like I’m almost legally bound to asking this, just as I suspect you might be legally obligated to give me a particular answer. Marvel or DC?

K: Oh man! Well, this one is hard because I have a long deep love for both! I want to say Marvel for live action films, DC for the animation films and series.

“Dos Memorias” by Karla Ortiz.

R: I may be completely wrong here, but I seem to remember hearing that the world of comics and fantasy and video games started out as being primarily male dominated, a ‘boys’ club’. Is that still the case? Do you have any issues breaking into some of the spheres?

K: Unfortunately, It’s not a very diverse industry as of YET. Now very early in my career I did find that some art departments were quite uncomfortable with my presence. They would behave awkwardly when I would enter the room, they would censor themselves, they would say condescending things or comment how they couldn’t believe I could paint the things I would paint, and how there was a lady in the art department now. It was difficult, but there were three things that helped me get through it. 1. Use the crap out of humor. When something was uncomfortable I wouldn’t let it slide, rather I’d turn it on its head with humor and a dash of some friendly and loving sass. For example, I was painting a mech one day and one of the other artists came by and said to me “ I didn’t know women painted mechs!” and I laughed “ It’s true! We don’t! I’m composing this machine out of cooking ware, and kittens!”, and then we laughed at how silly his comment was. Sometimes though, that humor would be met with silence, or awkwardness, but because it was delivered so lovingly few ever complained! 🙂 2. Excellent support from my peers, friends and family. Very lovely humans, who gave me great strength when I needed it! 3. Work hard to ensure good quality. I wanted to make certain the work was undeniably strong, because in my industry the only thing that really matters is if you are able to do the job well, or not. Today I don’t experience these things very often. Perhaps it’s that times are truly changing, but personally I’m happy to be in a position that can advocate for a more inclusive, diverse and continually loving industry! I promise it will get better!

“Entre Segundos” by Karla Ortiz.



“Four Dames” at SPOKE ART
TENTATIVE DATE: 4th of March, 2017
816 Sutter Street @ Sutter and Jones

Thank you Karla for the pictures! For more of Karla Ortiz’s original art, visit her website

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Rae Bathgate - Down and Out and Overseas

Rae Bathgate - Down and Out and Overseas

Rae, known also (depending on the country) as Rachelle/Raquel/ Rachele (and often sadly mistaken as Richard, because biblical names are hard you guys) is an aspiring writer and now sort of a dick for having actually defined herself as such. She was born and lived over the first half of her life in Italy; she then moved to the States and lived a good ten years there (including in SF). Currently back in Europe, she is neither a hapless American tourist nor a snobby European jerkyjerk; luckily for you, she is some weird ungodly combination of both. Also, she’s broke and is probably stealing bread crumbs from pigeons.