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Carousel 009: The Context of Fantasy

Today's bookstore shelves are packed with volumes about how to draw fantasy subjects—superheroes, dragons, fairies, aliens, robots, elves. The focus in each is on how to draw the hallmarks of the named subject: Books on superheroes will have a section on capes, books on elves will have a section on pointy ears, etc. But although each subject's hallmarks may have great appeal, what I find most convincing in the best fantasy art is not the portrayal of those hallmarks. The capes, pointy ears, and fairy wings may be well drawn, but the portrayal of common details is what really sells the magic. Since familiar, mundane details are what we readers are best able to judge, the credibility of the more fantastic elements will depend on how well those everyday elements are portrayed.

With that in mind, here is a list of mundane details that aspiring fantasy artists often get wrong. In their rush to draw the coolest dragon or the shiniest robot, many artists overlook the everyday stuff that gives life to their scenes. Work on getting these details right, and you'll be well on your way to drawing convincingly fantastic worlds. 

1. Hands grasping objects; feet on the ground.

One area where fantasy drawings often go wrong is where the characters' limbs touch the props and the groundplane. You may spend hours fussing over the muscles, shiny chainmail, and furry loincloths, but it will all fall apart if the figures' fingers don't grasp their weapons convincingly, or their feet are constantly and conspicuously covered by weeds or mist. The reader's attention is drawn to those points of physical contact. Find photos of people holding common props (guns, knives, wands), and of people's feet planted on the ground, and practice drawing those hands and feet.

2. Light sources.

We think little about light sources in our daily lives, because light in modern structures is often housed in the ceiling, and is distributed fairly evenly. But fluorescent overheads don't exist in the castles, huts, and temples of most fantasy/adventure settings. Fantasy interiors that lack an obvious light source therefore feel too modern and ordinary. Avoid this by asking yourself in each scene how your characters get their light. Torches? Oil lamps? Bonfires? Wizardly magic? Pick something suitable to your setting and place it conspicuously therein.

3. Suits and high-heels.

No superhero story is complete without people in business suits and high heels. There's always some smartly-dressed executive, newscaster, mobster, or politician dropping in to hassle your hero, and if you can't draw their clothes well, your story's credibility will sag.

Practice drawing photos of catalogue models. Pay special attention to the suit coats: How they are shaped, and how they wrinkle when the arms bend. Also, practice drawing the women's feet before adding the high-heeled shoe. High-heeled shoes tend to trick the eye; drawing the shoe without first drawing the foot often results in feet that are oddly-shaped and badly-proportioned.

4. Period-specific props.

Readers are always on the lookout for clues as to the era and locale in which the story occurs. If all we're seeing is horses, grass, and boots, for example, we won't be able to "place" the story, and it won't feel as vivid as it should.

You don't need to offer an entire history report; a few key items will do. Before laying out the scene, brainstorm a couple of items to include that show where the scene occurs (furniture, indigenous plants or animals, architectural details), and a couple of items that show the period and time of year (weather, a piece of period-specific equipment or clothing). You'd be surprised at how much a musket, a tricorne hat, and some falling oak leaves can do to set your scene.

5. Common animals.

There are a few animals that you'll be called upon to draw often; horses and dogs probably top the list. Dogs, because they're more naturally emotive than other common housepets (and therefore more readily provide emotional grace notes in fiction). Horses, because they provide most transportation in pre-20th Century settings. Compile photos of each and draw them often. Other animals you'll often find useful for setting scenes: random fish (undersea scenes), pigeons (city scenes), and seagulls (beach/naval scenes).

6. Belt buckles/fasteners.

If you draw any kind of adventure fiction—superheroes, sci-fi, sword & sorcery—you're going to draw a lot of straps and belts. Straps for holsters and pouches, belts to hold up pants and scabbards, etc.—all of which will need to fasten in some way. And let's face it: the "just draw a metal square" method of drawing belt buckles is unconvincing. Get photos of several belts and purse straps, and practice drawing those buckles.

7. Building beards.

Most buildings have what I call "building beards:" an assortment of random stuff that accumulates along the walls, both inside and out. Along a building's outer wall, you may find trash cans, signage, rain barrels, benches, horse troughs, hedges, vines, etc. Along the inner walls: desks, mirrors, laundry hampers, brooms, mice, spittoons. A mark of the inexperienced artist is a total lack of such beards: buildings and homes whose walls meet the ground or floor cleanly, with no random junk lying around. Don't be so sterile! Brainstorm some period-appropriate items to spruce up your settings, and cram them in there.

8. Pig-Pen effects.

Pig-Pen was a character in the Peanuts comics who was accompanied by clouds of dust wherever he went. Most characters aren't that filthy, but it can be useful to "pig-pen" your characters, in order to bring a scene to life. Is the character in a forest? Some mud caked conspicuously on his boots will help sell that environment. Has your character been out in the rain? Make her hair cling to her head, and shine, and drip water. Spray blood on your killers, food on your diners. Look for opportunities to get some of the environment onto the characters, or onto the props they handle—and, once you get something on them, have them fling bits around and messy the place up. Help readers feel your world.

9. Consistent wind/lighting effects.

A character's hair blown to the left while her cloak billows to the right ... heavy shadows on her west side in panel 1 and on her east side in panel 2 ... snow falling in one panel and none in the next ... a little fudging is permissible, but blatant inconsistencies of lighting and weather undermine our sense that the scene is happening in a real environment. Think ahead about the weather and direction of the light to give your scenes a firmer, more consistent sense of place.

On a related note, if a character produces light (either through special powers, or by firing a gun or some other weapon), be sure to show the effects of that lighting. Too often, I see superheroes shooting laser beams or power blasts that create no shadows on their bodies or surroundings. This undermines the reality of the action.

10. Props need places.

If a character is holding a prop, ask yourself where they got it from. I often see a character smoking indoors with no ashtray handy, or holding a gun but wearing no holster, or applying lipstick without purse or pockets, as if they plucked those props from thin air and plan to return them there. Give objects a home!

In a perfect world, we would have time to practice drawing everything under the sun, and become experts at drawing EVERYTHING. Since this is impossible: choose your battles. If you master the key elements your eyes drift to most readily in a scene, or the props that appear most often, then your readers' imagination will fill in the weaker bits.

Good luck, and see you here in January!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan! Carousel returns in January.