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Evocative Imagery in Fantasy Art

by Stuart Thaman

From an early age, I always wanted to be a painter. I loved getting lost in the details of masterful art, and the sense of wonder I felt when I saw something truly incredible that wasn’t a photograph, that was something made by hand, has always stuck with me. Well, I’m terrible at making art myself, but I do like to think I have keen eye for it—at least in fantasy.

What is it with art, especially fantasy art, which captures the imagination so quickly and so thoroughly? How do we get lost within the battle scenes, cityscapes, and sweeping wings of dragons painted on the page or coming to life on the screen? What sets fantasy art apart from other genres is actually rather simple, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Firstly, due diligence must be paid to the masters. The classic painters of yore deserve all the fame they have earned, yet for most, for the average person who only offers a passing glance to the art they see every day, the wonders of the renaissance and baroque periods go largely unnoticed. There are scores of people who get easily lost in the grand scale of a Game of Thrones episode yet will not give an original Rembrandt painting more than a moment’s notice. Why?

What sets fantasy art on a different level, not necessarily a better or worse level than the classics, is the exact thing that has drawn hordes of hungry viewers to Game of Thrones. The idea of a “grand scale” is something most of the old masters never captured. They found their artistry in each and every stroke of the brush, every minute detail regarded at a critical level, and what fantasy does in almost every medium is shatter that expectation. Instead of giving the consumer something to ponder and perplex, fantasy gives us worlds to devour and endless amazement.

If you’re a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, try to think of your favorite thing in that genre—your favorite video game, book, movie, poster, whatever it is. For me, that’s the very opening scene from David Dalglish’s masterpiece The Weight of Blood. The book, which begins the acclaimed “Half-Orc” series, opens with one of the most dramatic and grandiose scenes I have ever read. Two half-orcs run near a city wall as hundreds of flaming skulls, objects of pure magic, sail overhead to fill the citizens with terror. Qurrah, one of the half-orcs, is also a necromancer, though he is untrained. He gets his first real test in the opening scene, which he passes, that also brings him to a startling revelation. Desperately out of energy in his brother’s arms, he realizes that the well of magic he is connected to is unending: “The well is limitless.”

The well is limitless.

That line packs such a poignant punch it can hardly be adequately described. The opening scene of the book is only a page or two long, yet it vividly captures the imagination just like a dramatic movie trailer or an action packed cinematic release for a video game—just like incredible art. But that’s what books are, at least at some level, and at least to some people. Books are art. Most people pass by the majority of them without notice. Those with a keen eye find the absolute gems, and anyone with an imagination gets something more. The imaginative reader gets to watch the books they read. They get to turn each page and find a fresh painting done by the most masterful hand waiting to suck them in with every word, each letter at once becoming a highly detailed brush stroke.

Fantasy in all its glorious forms strives to capture the most powerful sense of wonder humans are capable of feeling, and then it tries to distill that emotion into something tangible. When we experience the best fantasy has to offer, we get lost in it. The grand scale, the epic nature of absolutely everything in the scene, and the sweeping beauty of each part coming together in just the right way coalesce to form exact idea Dalglish captured in his opening. No matter what the media is, the artistry of epic fantasy is what gets people to save a piece as their desktop wallpaper, or to read a thousand page book six times a year, or to spend thousands of hours playing only one game. When it comes to fantasy, that well is limitless.