Let’s see a show of hands: who likes doing research?
We've got one hand…there’s two, three…looks like all the illustrators in the crowd are on board. And with good reason—-thoughtful, thorough research will take a drawing from ordinary to eye-popping. Not only that, but correct research is essential to adding "believability" to any illustration.
However, the challenge faced by many illustrators is how to research something that’s totally made up. Can it even be done?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. To demonstrate how research can be used to help create and enhance detailed fantasy characters and places, let’s start by examining the main types of research and how they apply to illustration.
The first and most helpful type of research is called primary research. This means getting information directly from the original source. For example, if you are illustrating a picture of the Grand Canyon, you would travel there to sketch or draw from photographs of it. If you were drawing a character from the 1940’s, you would seek out vintage shops to study the clothing of the day, and/or you’d put together a library of photographs of people in the ’40’s and sketch from that.
Secondary research means getting information from a source that is at least one step removed from the original source. With this method, for our Grand Canyon example you might look at paintings or drawings that someone else has done of it. For the 1940’s character, you might watch modern movies that are set in the ’40’s or look at someone else’s drawings of people in that era. In each of these scenarios, you would be studying another person’s interpretation of a particular person, place, or thing.
A third kind of research is not necessarily the gathering of facts but the establishing of mood. Called, appropriately, a ‘mood board,’ this is a collection of color swatches, photos, sketches, or anything else that helps you establish the particular mood of a piece and keeps you inspired. Mood boards are most helpful when they are displayed prominently in your work space where they can be accessed easily and often. You could also think of them as an ‘inspiration board’—they could contain images that are not necessarily part of your fact research but serve as motivation to keep the piece going in that particular vein.
Which kind of research is preferable? Primary research, when it can be done, is always going to be more informative and helpful than secondary. Secondary research, while useful in a pinch, forces you to look at something through the lens of someone else’s artistic vision and mood. This can often result in the loss of crucial details and facts (and gathering facts, after all, is the point of research!) Mood boards are the most flexible of these strategies and are helpful in a different way: they keep you inspired.
Now the big question: how do these research methods help when creating imaginary worlds and characters? Start by creating a mood board. Are you creating a character? Find images that inspire you and help you nail down the details about that character. Are you creating a location? Find images of locations and time periods that you can base your world off of. As you work, you may find yourself straying from the images you've collected. That’s okay. A mood board is there to set the initial tone and keep you excited about your work. It’s NOT there to hold you back and keep you going in a direction that doesn't feel organic once you've started creating. Take away and add to your mood board as you go, if that feels right!
Once you've gathered some inspirational material, break down your idea into elements that you can fact-check using primary research. Even extremely fantasy-driven scenes are more believable if they have elements that are based on reality. Drawing a dragon? Write down all the characteristics you want your dragon to have and then research them. You’ll be surprised to find that when broken down into smaller, more recognizable elements the drawing becomes less intimidating. Let’s take a very common character in fantasy, a dragon. I’ll give you an example of how I’d break it down.
Physical characteristics: Large, probably the size of a house. Scaly skin. Wings. Tail. Small eyes. Teeth like a crocodile. Shades of blue and green. Eagle-like talons. Maybe breathing fire/smoke.
Emotional characteristics: Mean! Squinty eyes. Bared teeth.
Setting: Outside a cave.
See? This is a pretty basic breakdown, but you can see that once you distill the image into smaller portions, each and every one of these characteristics can be researched using primary research (photos of eagles? got it. photos or real-life observation of fire? got it. the list goes on!). It’s only when you put all these real elements together that you get something completely unreal-a dragon!
Here are a couple examples of my own sketches that featured imaginary creatures but used primary research.
The Minotaur is said to have the body of a man and the head of a bull. For this drawing I gathered research on men, bulls, teacups, and fancy tea cakes. I think he turned out fabulously!
Take some time to try this exercise on your own. Pick a fantasy character, location, or scenario. Set a mood, then break it down into smaller parts. Build it back up again and see what you come up with!
There’s a great book on this very subject that goes into even more detail. I highly recommend owning a copy if you do a lot of fantasy drawing, or even if you’re just starting to dabble in it. ‘Imaginative Realism—-How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist’ by James Gurney (2009, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC) is a fantastic primer on creating fantasy worlds. James Gurney is the well-known author and illustrator of ‘Dinotopia’ and many other fantasy books. Add this one to your library!
I hope you find time to practice these techniques and make them a part of your next creation. There’s so many imaginary worlds out there just waiting to be created…by you!
Please check out my website, www.emmelinehall.com, to see more of my work. You can also look me up on Facebook under ‘Emmeline Hall Illustration.’ I post a new drawing every day…and a lot of it is fantasy inspired!
Emmeline Hall is a member of the Children's Book Illustrators Guild and the illustrator of the books, "Voices Across the Lakes: Great Lakes Stories and Songs", by Anita Pinson and "Ida May's Borrowed Trouble", by Pat Hall.