Shelly Wan

Age: 25
Favourite artists:
Klimt, Mucha, Brangwyn
Software used: Photoshop and Painter
Average time per image: One and a half weeks


Looking back now, at crucial points there seemed to be a hand of destiny pushing me, leading me on this road of art,” Shelly Wan believes. “I was never that determined to be an artist, but I am very blessed for where I am now.”
Indeed, where she is now seems like a very comfortable place. By day Shelly works as a concept designer at Rockstar Games in San Diego, the video game developer responsible for the dizzyingly successful Grand Theft Auto series, among many others. In her spare time, she creates images of startling beauty, and while she seems capable of almost any style, much of her best work exhibits the intricate, classical lines of the Pre-Raphaelite or Renaissance period.
This, however, is not a conscious decision. “I have a lot of different influences from different periods of art history and across the globe,” she explains. “It’s really impossible for me to consciously decide how to approach my art. I never really thought of myself as a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites…  but it’s very possible you are seeing similarities in their works and mine while I can’t, since it’s all so subjective.” Her penchant for fantasy and ‘fairytale’ pieces is fuelled by a love of the Brandywine School artists, Orientalists and Surrealists.

Family support
Shelly grew up in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, and although neither of her parents were artistic, she remembers drawing from an early age. Fortunately, her family were supportive. “I remember one of the best presents I got from my mum was a beautiful Japanese colour marker set, with at least 80 different colours,” she says. “It was a big gift at that time in China – it was not only expensive but almost impossible to obtain.”
Reading was her other passion, particularly books of classical literature illustrated in the intricate style for which Chinese artists are famed. “In fact, I still have one of them on my office desk right now…”

School days
With such rich inspiration and a natural talent for art, it’s all the more surprising that Shelly didn’t have any formal training until the age of 15. Encouraged by an experienced Chinese artist, she enrolled at the high school at the Art Academy of Guangzhou, with a mixture of academic and art classes. It was an idyllic period. “Once a year we would go on long trips to sketch in the Chinese countryside as a class. Those
times were some of the best in my life,”
she recalls fondly.
After high school, her plan was to attend the Pasadena Art Center College of Design in California as an industrial designer. When her portfolio was rejected with a simple note saying, “Maybe you should really consider illustration?” the die was cast. Three months later she was installed
in the illustration department on a $3,000 scholarship. It was here that she not only discovered the work of the ‘Golden Age’ American illustrators, but also started to paint digitally.
If time permits, Shelly prefers to begin a drawing with traditional materials, for the hand-drawn look she finds so appealing. Regardless of the medium, each picture tends to go through four stages. “There’s the thumbnail stage, where I work out fast, small compositions that I choose from; the drawing stage, where I pick a comp to detail and clean up; the value stage, where I work out the value relationships of the piece; and then the final painting stage, bringing the drawing and colours together.”
On the face of it, there’s little continuity between the aggressive style of Rockstar’s games and Shelly’s delicate pieces. How does she reconcile the two? “Basically, it’s
the difference between the responsibilities of a concept artist and an illustrator,” she says. “At a game company, the main word is teamwork. I’m supposed to help the game move along as a part of a team, and what I do needs to follow the art direction of creative directors.”
So the freedom of creating her own work acts a balance. “As an illustrator in my own time, it’s all ‘me’: what I’d like to experiment with in my piece, what kind of subject matter would I do, how I would handle it.”

Fighting talk
Shelly is nothing if not prolific, often contributing personal pieces to ConceptArt. She recently won both a place on its Chicks Who Draw Chicks calendar and Last Man Standing 2 (LMS2), an epic competition involving 271 contestants. Yet her blog ( is peppered with her comments about how lazy she is. Does she believe that? “Ha! Yes… I guess it was out of character for me to take on a competition on such a scale and actually stick with it ’til the end,” she says. “I entered LMS2 because I wanted to represent the female artists on the forum. I guess I was also yearning to experiment and bring my personal work to another level, and the LMS competition provided a great background for growth.”
Shelly won’t be entering LMS3, preferring to concentrate on her graphic novel, The Young Empress, which she hopes to complete by next year. “It’s always on my mind. The story is based on Oscar Wilde’s The Young King, but I’m taking it out of Europe and into a make-believe world with Asian and Persian influences.” With other work creating book covers and card art for Magic: The Gathering, it looks like Shelly will be very busy in the year to come.