High Fantasy Illustration- Its history, evolution, and place in society

Introduction

“The fantasy illustrator takes the pictorial conventions of realistic portrayal and then manipulates and inverts them to create marvellous worlds for which there can be no earthly analogy.”[1]

Fantasy art has been a part of all human societies throughout history. It is found in abundant forms, fairytales, folklore, mythology, science fiction and religion. High fantasy though is a genre that has evolved and come into its own in the past century, different from general fantasy, and yet intertwined as will be explored.

As fantasy has existed throughout time, so has fantasy art and illustration. All the ideas and stories of fantasy have found their place in art, illustrated into reality. Indeed fantasy art and fantasy literature have always been, and still are, inextricably linked. With the recent rise of “new age” themes, and a vast range of new mediums and areas to explore, fantasy illustration is now one of the most profitable areas in art, and yet still estranged from other artistic genres. Great modern fantasy artists enjoy huge fame in their field, yet are often unknown outside it.

Yet fantasy art may well be one of the most challenging genres to depict successfully. To create fantasy, untrue elements, and yet convince the viewer of their reality, to mix fantasy and reality in a way to give plausibility to one, and enchantment to the other, is no easy task. And often fantasy illustrators are restricted more by their commerciality, to achieve all this within the confines of a paperback cover.

The way in which fantasy illustrators accomplish these feats will be investigated, as well as the artists who have surpassed simply reaching these goals to creating truly spectacular work.

What high fantasy is defined as, and how the genre came into existence are the first issues in need of exploration.

The High Fantasy Genre Defined

“I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be- in a light better than any light that ever shone- in a land no one can define or remember, only desire.”[2]

The Importance of Secondary Worlds to Fantasy Art,

and Defining High Fantasy

Defining what is fantasy is a difficult and broad task, indeed, “Fantasy may be almost all things to all men.”[3] But for high fantasy, the definition becomes more refined. Generally high fantasy, in terms of illustration and literature, is one of other worlds and other worldly creatures.

Tolkien, both a great fantasy writer and expert, defined the difference in terms of primary and secondary worlds, primary being our own world, secondary being any other imagined world. “High fantasy is, in fact, distinguished from low fantasy largely on the basis of setting. Low fantasy (low is a descriptive, not evaluative, term here) is set…in our primary world.”[4]

Hence low fantasy includes all mythology, fairytales, and fiction that includes fanciful and non-rational phenomena, but exists within our world, offering no explanation to their existence in our otherwise rational world. High fantasy on the other hand includes all these fantastic elements, but they occur in a world different to ours, secondary worlds. They gain more credibility in that these other worlds don’t need to adhere to the science and rules of the primary world. Fantastic events and creatures may be every day occurrence.

Realism and Fantasy

This use of secondary worlds is just one element of high fantasy for it to achieve the effect of creating something which is both completely fantastic in theme, but credible enough to not only not be dismissed, but to be embraced by it’s audience.

“Realism and naturalism, for example, are defined by those elements of the real world they retain; fantasy, on the other hand, is defined by those aspects of reality it denies, by representations that are not merely improbable or untrue… but patently false.”[5]

For fantasy illustration, depicting subjects that are completely unreal is only half of the effect, the full effect is achieved by depicting these unreal subjects in a way in which they appear to be in fact real. There must be some elements of reality in fantasy, so that the viewer can relate to the image on common grounds, that they may, without denial, be completely immersed in a reality that is obviously false.

“The base line of reality, therefore, is always implicit in even the most errant fantasy, and in the tension between these solid, familiar unalterable givens of experience and the particular denials of the that constitute the fiction is generates the special delight that fantasy affords us.”[6]

Illustrators take on this task in a variety of ways, but the most common tie in to reality is the depiction of humans. It is rare to find a fantasy artwork which does not contain at least one recognisably human form. While this human form is often altered to create creatures of high fantasy realms, fairies, mermaids, centaurs, anamorphic beings, there is always enough human within these creatures to relate to from our experience.

The relatively new occurance of the “secondary worlds” has given artists vast freedom to create within the theme of fantasy. Elements from their imagination, from myth, from stereotypical fantasy merge and grow to create vivid new worlds on canvas, on paper, and now digitally. If all artists had to create within but one world, whether it be the primary, or but one secondary world, then they would, in part, have to conform always to the rules of that world. For example, if all fantasy existed only within Tolkiens secondary world, and probably most famous secondary world, Middle Earth, then an artist could never create a being that did not conform to it’s vivid and strict descriptions. All hobbits painted must have hairy feet, all elves are tall with slightly pointed ears. Because of the limitless supply of secondary worlds, and imagination, an artist may create freely. In their worlds, hobbits may still be small, but their feet may be hairless. Elves might still have pointed ears, but might be smaller than even the hobbits. Secondary worlds, thus, are enormously important to fantasy art. It enables an artist to justify their creations, and while they still must adhere enough to reality to be credible, all false elements can be explained simple by the statement “In that world, that is the way they are.”

The Evolution and Origins of High Fantasy Art

“The concepts and turns of mind inherent in “religion”, “myth”, “romance”, “chronicle”, “epic”, and “mysticism”, among so many other systems, have frequently been rationalisations for the impossible, facades behind which fantasy has brooded unnoticed and unexplored.”[7]

Mythology as the Origin of Fantasy

In the past, the ability to create within secondary worlds was not always permitted. Fantasy art did not evolve through the creation of secondary worlds, but through the depiction of low fantasy, those fantasies that exist in our primary world. Fairy tales, mythology, folklore and legend have always been, and still are, popular themes of fantasy art, and have now been adopted in the new worlds of high fantasy.

In past European art, the only themes deemed worthy of art were portraiture, Christian mythology or classical mythology. Artistic imagination was not as free. When depicting these myths and tales, they had to hold true to the story. Myth, while now defined as fiction, was at one time fact to some people. Art had to be created in context with the beliefs that were looked up to. If not believed in by society at large, the myths were at least respected and revered.

The history of mythology in fantasy art goes right back to cave drawings of imagined beasts, gods and mythical creatures. Mythology arose from a need to explain the unexplainable in the world around us, and the use of art gave the myths a permanence and credence that often only a visual aid can.

The need to explain, explore and somehow capture the unknown is seen well in medieval art and tapestry, and the apparent popularity of dragon and unicorn images of the time.

A lack of knowledge may have meant that stories of large lizards are taken to be dragons. Tales of horses with horns (a popular headdress for horses of the ancient nomadic warrior tribes of the Altai region, among others) become unicorns. Thus linking the unknown with knowledge from mythology to explain the phenomena, to tie it in to their reality and give it firmness through the use of art.

The fearful unknown is captured and subdued through the use of art.

“Such was the pride and ferocity of unicorns that they could not be taken alive. Yet mortals- more prideful still- liked to think they might hold the beautiful beast captive, and so they wove tapestry prisons to contain the unicorns image.”[8]

Mythological characters, creatures and themes have been depicted in art throughout history, and even now, the creatures of myth, the harpies, Cyclops, sirens and nymphs, the gods of the pantheon, the Asgard, the Tuatha de Dannan, of all mythology, have been taken from their original contexts and cultural homes, and given a new home under the broad umbrella of the fantasy genre. Because of this adoption of myth into fantasy, it is almost impossible to define where myth ends and fantasy begins.

It is not the link to only mythology that is important to recognise, but the link to all stories. Fantasy art has evolved all over the world through the depiction of stories, whether they were at the time believed to be real, or simply were fairy tales. Even now, fantasy art and fantasy literature are inextricably tied together. The fact though that so much of mythology still exists in high fantasy is only testament to the fact that this is where what is now high fantasy has evolved from.

Hieronymous Bosch- (c 1450-1516).

For some, though, the depiction of myth and stories governed strictly by their given descriptions was not enough. The turning point in which elements from myth and stories were taken, but rethought and changed to suit an artists own imagination is often characterized by the work of Hieronymous Bosch.

Bosch is often seen as the earliest of modern fantasy artists. His artwork juxtaposed strange scenes and hellish images. Often, as with his “Garden of Earthly delights” the themes were linked with religion and myth, while his interpretation was both unique at the time and the precision and detail of the hallucinatory images noteworthy. While his work does not contain the stereotypical images and creatures of modern fantasy, it is his imagination and will to adopt, yet convert stories to his own design that marks his work as a turning point in fantasy art.

Victorian Fairyland Phenomenon

While fairytales and folklore were popular throughout Europe throughout the middle ages, they experienced a huge vogue in the 19th century. Previously, in Britain particularly, the strict Puritan society made depiction of folk or fairy tale themes unacceptable.

“Folk tales were deemed to be crude, perverse, frivolous, and uncomfortably pagan.”[9]

Fantasy, but most of all fairy art, had become the focus of a new trend. Its popularity is often seen as a rebellion against the social values of the time.

“The acceptance and rapid growth of fairyland as a fit subject matter for literature, painting, and the stage from the 1820s to the 1840s and its survival until at least the First World War is one of the most remarkable phenomena of 19th-century culture.”[10]

Where fantasy beings had once only been a part of already existing stories, fairies, and fairyland had broken out and become a genre unto it’s own. The illustrations still often were linked to literature, with the work of Shakespeare and other authors being a major influence of the time, but artists also created new worlds for fairies entirely of their own imagination.

Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Frances Danby, Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, and Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale were just a few of the numerous artists who created an entire genre of “Victorian Fairy Art”, a genre which was not marginalized, as fantasy art tends to be today, but found in prestigious galleries and at the Royal Academy exhibitions.

While fairies were enjoying a boom in popularity, the boom in technology was countering the magical era with its blight of factories and buildings on the English countryside. Artist of fantasy themes painted works rich in nostalgia, in particular, the art of the pre-raphaelites. Their work was based in romance, legend and myth, with a beautiful and dreamy aesthetic and fine craftsmanship to counter the ugly side of the industrial age.

“For every locomotive they build,” vowed Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”[11]

The more functional side of the Art Nouveau style embraced folklore to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century, fairies and popular fairy tales scenes were commonly found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Lavish new fairy tale volumes were produced that turned illustration into a fine art by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Jessie M. King, Warwick Goble, Eleanor Vera Boyle, and the Robinson brothers.

One of the most notable occurrences of the Victorian fairy phenomena was the most publicised event of the Cottingley fairy photographs.  In 1917, Elsie Wright, and Frances Griffith, contrived to take photographs of fairies in their garden at Cottingley. These photos, crude and unconvincing by todays standards, caused an absolute sensation at the time when promoted and championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even before being proven to be no more than the talented artwork of the two girls, cut out fairies held in place with hatpins, the photos are actually pin pointed as the factors that marked the end of the fairy art era. Despite briefly reviving interest in fairies, the photos, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived them of the grandeur and magic.

Tolkien’s World

The fairy vogue soon died down, but the mark it left on the fantasy world is considerable.

Fantasy in literature and art continued to make it’s own niche as a new genre in it’s own right, breaking it’s ties from mythology and folklore. The rise in new technologies saw the advent of science fiction, technically another form of high fantasy, depiction other worlds and times. At the same time that science fiction was gaining ground, there was a movement back to medieval legends.

The work of Tolkien is one of the most notable events in fantasy evolution. His stories inspired a whole generation of fantasy artists who illustrated for literature. He created a whole fantasy world including fantasy races, mythologies, religions, languages and landscapes, that now are often taken as the standard descriptions for fantasy elements.

Tolkien did a great deal more for fantasy than just provide inspiration for artists. In the literary field, his work was consided worthy of the title of literature, and being so closely linked, the new found regard of fantasy literature was also enjoyed by fantasy art.

“A great many, indeed, appear to owe little or nothing directly to Tolkien, and some writers may be said to surpass him in imaginative power or philosophical conception. The point is, rather, that Tolkien made fantasy “respectable”.[12]

Tolkien had an enormous impact on fantasy art by inspiring others, not only by his own secondary world, but to also create their own realms of fantasy.

Fantasy Art Now

“Because it skirts between high art and pulp fiction, because it emerged and flourishes without the significant benefits of academic commentary, and because its efflorescence has been so wild and gorgeous”[13]

Fantasy Illustration in a Commercial Age

Throughout history Fantasy art emerged from depictions of myth and stories, and now, modern fantasy art takes its place on the book covers of modern fantasy authors. It seems that fantasy in words and fantasy in image are impossible to separate.

Fantasy art is a popular force in modern commercial society. It is still not seen hanging in fine art galleries, but instead it permeates all aspects of modern commercial culture. Found all over the internet, with huge fantasy galleries such as Elfwood (now with more than 10 000 artists)[14], it fills travelling fantasy and science fiction conventions, it is found in commercial art as calendars, pin ups and greeting cards. Fine art prints of fantasy images are sold, not in galleries, but on websites. With the advent of “New Age” products, a boom in the Wiccan Faith, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter motion pictures, comics, computer games, role playing games, collectable trading card games and more, fantasy art is found in more mediums, under more themes and in more places of society than ever before.

The same themes of Fantasy that made it popular throughout history are still evident today, with artists still “Combining romantic adventure, innocent eroticism, and a sense of wonder.”[15]

Because of its links to literature, because it is often commercial, because it is often created with no more intention than to please the eye, fantasy art is still seen as a form of illustration rather than art. Fantasy artists, like fine artists, create what they enjoy and what they are interested in. It is the popularity of the genre among the general public, which fine art often detaches itself from, that makes the art so commercial. Indeed, great modern fantasy artists work, even when not of a fantasy theme, are often classified fantasy as it is seen as being more saleable to the general public.

“The artist must walk a fine line between commercial necessities and aesthetic responsibilities.”[16]

Almost all modern fantasy artists, even those whose majority of work is from their own imagination, still work commercially illustrating the ideas and stories of fantasy authors. It is not so much their desire to create another persons ideas, but the other persons desire for their ideas to be created by the artist.

This desire could well be seen to mirror the need in the past to define myth through image, as modern authors create their own myths, they wish to see them defined by modern artists.

“If fantasy is powerfully presented or realised, it can produce an imprint on our imaginations deep enough to give it a measure of truth or reality.”[17]

With new mediums being explored and new styles and trends in art emerging, the Fantasy genre is one which an artists imagination has never been more free to create.

Unlike fine art, modern fantasy artists benefit from huge success and fame, with infatuated fans and rich earnings.

Modern Artists and their influences

When the term fantasy art is used now, often a clear image appears in the mind. A handful of modern artists have been so fundamentally important to the genre, so remarkable in their style, vision and success in the depiction of fantasy, that fantasy art and illustration is now defined in terms of their work. Below, a number of these artists will be examined in terms of their style, their influences and their effect on the world of fantasy art and illustration.

Boris and Julie

Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, the husband and wife team with a style so similar, and so amazing that the pair have become synonymous both with each other and with the fantasy genre.

In style, their work is dramatic in its imagination and stark in its photorealism. They can depict a woman in all blue metallic flesh, in an alien landscape with bizarre creatures, and have it appear to be reality. Where most fantasy art often incorporates human figures, for them it is the main focus. The perfect, sensual human form displays in all their work.

One of the main criticisms of modern fantasy is its tendency towards the depiction of scantily clad women, often in compromising positions. Fantasy art has been branded as exploitative, sexist and cheap. The rise in fame of artist Julie Bell has been a great blow for these stereotypes, as now these sumptuous female forms are being depicted not by men, but by a woman. This somewhat trivial fact of the sex of the artist has allowed the art to be seen for it’s worth in celebrating the beauty and strength of the female form.

The realism of their images is stark and shocking. Strong colours, strong women, sharp details and sharp weapons, their subjects aren’t those of fanciful myth or folklore, but the gritty, yet gorgeous heroines and heroes of a new and radiant era in fantasy illustration.

Their style and technical skill can be compared to that of the great masters, who were inspirations for them both. “Vermeer, Rembrandt, Leonardo — during my early years I used to study the works of such masters again and again.”[18] Their art has the same realism, the same rich, smooth quality, the same attention to detail, but unlike those styles, the work of Boris and Julie has an austere strength unlike any throughout history.

Brian Froud

In terms of creating secondary worlds that have left a mark in the fantasy genre, few have been as successful as Tolkien. The modern master for creating mystical realms though has to be Froud. His style and vision has set him apart amongst artists and designers, and set a new standard of imagination and creativity. His work is so distinctive, so in depth, that his worlds have been as influential to modern fantasy as Tolkien was to its evolution. His work on designing worlds for the feature films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth is celebrated throughout the fantasy art and design areas.

Frouds work, like that of Boris and Julie, has become synonymous with fantasy as we now know it.

While he also deals in high fantasy, his other worlds are differ starkly to those of Boris and Julies. His style is not one of photorealism. His art contains a sense of vagueness and mystery. It has a style decorative and whimsical like that of Arthur Rackham’s work, who indeed was the artist who triggered Frouds interest in folklore and fantasy.

Fantasy Arts Place in Society

“Some critics and academics condemn the whole genre with a passion which seems to have its roots in emotion rather than objective critical standards.”[20]

Fantasy Arts Importance and Its Perceived Value

The fantasy genre, including all forms of its expression, has often been undervalued for its role in society. The worlds of fantasy are one of the oldest genres in human society, yet even now are dismissed by almost all of their thematic and stylistic counterparts who to often “relegate contrary modes to escapism and rebellion.”[21]

However, fantasy is essential to human life, its imagination and creativity. It gives the human mind a place to explore and grow. Using elements of our real world, combined with pure fantasy gives humans a place where they can create and examine aspects of life in general.

“The human mind, that is, in its ability to imagine an existence other than the one which it experiences, is permitted to perceive, as if from the outside, the existence in which it is actually immersed.”[22]

So fantasy as a theme isn’t simply pure escapism, although it is a definite factor, but also a tool for analysing our real world. In depictions of other worlds and other worldly beings, whether utopian or dystopian, it gives humans an opportunity to compare our existence to another, to see both its flaws and value.

“Fantasy… always exists in a symbiotic relationship with reality and its conventionalised representation, depending on it for its existence and at the same time commenting upon it, criticizing it, and illumination it.”[23]

There have been many great reviewers on the importance of myth and fantasy, among which Joseph Campbell stands out. He also notes the importance of artists calling them the “shamans and myth-makers”[24] of our modern world. The modern artists of fantasy now have a great task to bear, they must keep alive the themes and magic inherent in the old myths that helped form society as we know it.

Conclusion

Fantasy art is only now starting to be seen as an area worth analysis, debate and academic value. Courses in fantasy literature are now found in many colleges and universities, and while fantasy art is still often seen as purely commercial, in this way it enjoys great success. It is more widespread and has a larger fan base than other forms of art. The very fact that modern fine art purposefully detaches itself from the general public, whereas the general public embrace, and are embraced by fantasy art, is evident of its history and close ties to civilisation, and hopefully, it’s continued importance and growth as an artistic genre to society.

Bibliography

(Images once included in this essay no longer available)

The Faeryland Companion, Beatrice Phillpotts, 1999 Random House, Australia PTY LTD

Yesterday’s Lily, Jeffrey Jones, Dragons Dream LTD, Netherlands, 1980

The Enchanted World, Magical Beasts, The editors of Time Life Books, Amsterdam

The Enchanted World, Wizards and Witches, The editors of Time Life Books, Amsterdam

The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

Beyond Time and Place, Non-Realist Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Philippe Roberts-Jones, Oxford University Press, 1978

Wonderworks- science fiction and fantasy art, Michael Whelan, Starblaze editions, USA, 1979

Where Mythological Art ends and Fantasy Art begins… http://members.tripod.com/~nettski/info.html

“Victorian Fantasies” by Terri Windling http://www.endicott-studio.com/forvctf.html

The Elfwood Project http://elfwood.lysator.liu.se/elfwood.html

In Defence of Fantasy, Ann Swinfen, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984

Boris Vallejo www.suicide.couk.com/gallery/boris/borisbio.htm

Brom www.bromart.com


[1] The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[2] Beyond Time and Place, Non-Realist Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Philippe Roberts-Jones, Oxford University Press, 1978 Page 85

[3] On the Nature of Fantasy, C.N. Manlove, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[4] The Secondary Worlds of High Fantasy, Kenneth J. Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[5] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[6] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[7] The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[8] The Enchanted World, Magical Beasts, The editors of Time Life Books, Amsterdam

[9] “Victorian Fantasies” by Terri Windling http://www.endicott-studio.com/forvctf.html

[10] “Victorian Fantasies” by Terri Windling http://www.endicott-studio.com/forvctf.html

[11] Beyond Time and Place, Non-Realist Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Philippe Roberts-Jones, Oxford University Press, 1978

[12] In Defence of Fantasy, Ann Swinfen, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984

[13] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[14] Elfwood Amatuer Fantasy Art Gallery elfwood.lysator.liu.se

[15] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[16] Wonderworks- science fiction and fantasy art, Michael Whelan, Starblaze editions, USA, 1979

[17] On the Nature of Fantasy, C.N. Manlove, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[18] www.suicide.couk.com/gallery/boris/borisbio.htm

[19] www.bromart.com

[20] The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[21] The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[22] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[23] Heroic Fantasy and Social Reality, Jules Zanger, The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin, University of Notre Dame Press and The Harvester Press, Indiana, 1982

[24] www.endicott-studio.com/intbftw.html