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Imitating Life: Posing questions to local artist Cara Nilsen

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“Tree of Life,

“Tree of Life,” graphite and digital painting

Cory Bilicko
-Managing Editor-

With a poet father, an artist mother and a big sister who was constantly sketching, Cara Nilsen was primed for a career in art herself.

“I’ve been making art basically my whole life, though I didn’t study art formally until I entered college due to the lack of art at my very small high school in upstate New York,” Nilsen said. “My mother, Lynda Naske, is a life-long artist, however, and I received excellent art training from her from a very early age.”

Though she was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, her father moved the family back to rurual upstate New York after he’d earned his master’s of fine art in poetry at the University of Arkansas.
Nilsen herself, now 38 and living in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood of Long Beach, completed a master’s of fine arts in illustration from Cal State Fullerton (CSUF ) in 2002 and now works as a visual-arts instructor at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, teaching life drawing and animal drawing in the Visual Arts Conservatory.

Cara Nilsen

Cara Nilsen

“At CSUF, I worked under the mentorship of a graduate committee that included Long Beach artist Dorte Christjansen,” Nilsen said. “I have recently reconnected with Ms. Christjansen, and, under her mentorship, I am currently completing a series of 13 digital paintings for a grant project I was awarded.
Working from home, she incorporates a mix of mediums, primarily creating traditional drawings that she scans then paints digitally in Photoshop using her Intuos4 Wacom tablet.

When did you start making art? What kind of art was it? I started drawing as far back as I can remember. My mom is an artist, so I learned everything at the start from her. I also have an older sister who was always drawing, and I was always trying to keep up! It was mostly just drawing. I’ve always been primarily fascinated by using line. As far as subject matter, drawing people has always interested me most. I also have always loved fantasy subject matter.

Why do you make art?
I never get tired of the satisfaction of creating a new image of beauty and emotion that didn’t exist before. It feels like some kind of magic to me. And there are a lot of things that we can spend our time doing in life that really are a waste of the time we’ve been given. I love that, with making art, I never feel like I’ve wasted time. I feel like I’ve done something meaningful and added something to the world.


“Thor,” digital painting

If, for some reason, you could no longer create art, what would you do? That’s tough. I would probably have to say that I would be a writer because I really love words, and my dad is a writer.

Is there anything that blocks you as an artist? Well, besides just letting myself get distracted by a million things, which is just too easy these days— as well as wanting to hang out with my wife Leah— I get blocked when I over-analyze what I’m doing or when I feel rushed. I have to really find ways of both allowing myself adequate time and also of relaxing myself in order to maximize my creative flow. I try to set myself up for success by surrounding myself with helpful stimuli: good music or a not-too-distracting movie in the background, some yummy coffee or tea, my Pinterest pages of inspiration in the background on my computer.

Do you have a favorite piece of art you’ve created? Well, it tends to be whatever the latest thing is that I’m working on— and therefore excited about! I love my Thor picture I just completed.

“The Brothers' Journey,

“The Brothers’ Journey,” oil painting

Do you have a favorite piece of art that someone else has made? Wow, it’s hard to choose. My favorites would have to be just about anything from the “Golden Age of Illustration” artists like N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham. I love a lot of contemporary fantasy artists too though, for example Jaime Jones, Vance Kovacs, Kinuko Y. Craft.

What is your favorite subject matter to include in your art? Well, anything fantasy- or mythology-related, especially Norse or Celtic mythology. I also love anything to do with Lord of the Rings!

To view more of Nilsen’s work, visit or .

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Imitating Life: Posing questions to local artist Cara Nilsen