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Digital pioneer Nancy Stahl began her love of exploration when she was in high school, where she drew posters for plays and events, and spent long hours in her room creating and experimenting with everything from encaustic painting to oils to pen and ink.

After attending a large university for two years, Stahl transferred to Art Center College of Design. There she discovered that a strong sense of competition was a great motivator for her.

When Stahl left school and moved to New York, she got regular freelance assignments from the Russel & Hinrichs Studio, while holding down a day job in the garment district painting swatches of textile prints. She worked in diverse styles and media to satisfy the wide range of the studio’s assignments. She expanded her client list, and after a couple of years she was able to go completely freelance.

She had become known—and popular—for her colored pencil work when she was inspired by the work of Ludwig Hohlwein. She developed a Hohlwein-inspired retro poster style on a gouache portrait of Clark Gable and promoted it to art directors. This was a turning point for her. With this new boldly graphic poster style, Stahl hit her stride and expanded her clientele beyond editorial work for magazines and newspapers.

While she was struggling to find something new to make the assignments personally more interesting, she heard about an offer being made by a post-production company called Charlex. They invited illustrators to come after hours to learn how to create digital art on their big mainframe computers. This was in the late ’80s, when digital art was in its infancy, and Nancy decided to give it a go.

After her very first try at it, she was hooked. Nancy states “I had felt so boxed in by the way I was working, and this was like magic: I could paint, I could draw, I could do line work, I could do anything I wanted it to do!”

Stahl was still painting in gouache to fulfill assignments for her freelance work. Once she was able to purchase a Mac, she taught herself a new process by creating the job digitally on her computer at the same time as she worked on the traditional painting, so she could see how to make her digital work look like her traditionally painted work. And that’s where she broke ground: her digital work looked the same as her traditional work; it had all the stark power and sophistication of the gouache paintings that had already made her a top-rung illustrator. Only now she was using a brand new tool with which to create and experiment.

This was in the early ’90s, at the very beginning of the digital revolution, and Stahl was in the forefront. She had been invited out to Mountain View, California, by Adobe to test-drive the unreleased new program Photoshop; the inventors of the program Painter called and asked to visit her in her studio; she was featured in CA, Step-by-Step, Print, and Peachpit Press Illustrator Wow and Painter Wow books.

It took a little convincing for some of Stahl’s clients to make the switch with her to digital, but once they did, there was no turning back. Once again her renown grew along with her new passion. Her work was being used in corporate identity, on packaging, in international publications such as Der Spiegel, and in the late ’90s, she got her first assignment to do a U.S. postage stamp. It was the beginning of a long and successful relationship during which she created more than 16 stamps, with eight billion copies of her egret stamp in circulation.

In Nancy’s words: “How do you explore, if you don’t do things that people don’t like? If I listened to people, I’d never try anything, and I’d never grow. Getting paid for this stuff is good, but it’s the growing that’s important.”

Zina Saunders

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