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Fantasy and Sci-fi Art History

Fantasy art has historical roots in mythology, folklore and religion, from all over the world. The earliest fantasy art evolved from Greek mythology, African magic, Chinese folklore, and other sacred traditions, with our museums full of ancient fantasy art depicting angels, gods, dragons, spirits, and demons, even the first tribal wall paintings would sometimes depict magical beasts and supreme hunters. Fantasy art comes from the imagination as much or more than, from direct observation of the real world. Observation is much needed especially in more modern art where the easiest way of making a fantasy being is by adapting or twining different animals.

It seems to be an international language of images about the mystery of life and the forces unseen as the word ‘fantasy’ implies. The subject matter and outcomes can vary incredibly, from straight mythical creatures to more violent dark demons, to fairies, to spirits, to sci-fi, space creatures and advanced technology. Having evolved from ancient times, fantasy art has been practised by dreamers and imaginative artists. Unfortunately the genre has disappeared or gone out of fashion through history in many areas. For many reasons including the trends of religions and conquerors to outlaw such things because they promote free thought.

For example the re-emergence of western fantasy art probably began with the Dutch artist Hieronomous Bosch. Strangely though, all his pictures are classic Christian ideas remade in a haunting way. Looking at some of his work and some of the ideas around that time, I am surprised that he wasn’t killed for being a heretic. The picture shown here is a part of the triptych of the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ it is the panel on the right titled ‘hell’. As you can see the ideas and drawings are not of the time, there is an imagination and surrealism and even darkness. The way he depicts his creatures is similar to the way all modern fantasy artists work, by taking different bits of different animals and putting them together e.g. the half man half fish.

Unfortunately fantasy art didn’t really take off until the 20th century and the emergence of surrealism and other modern art forms. This was to do with the lack of need for realist painters, because of the invention of photography. Painters then took the skills used for this and used new ideas to form new art styles. The first influence was sciences, especially the physics of light leading to the emergence of the impressionist who used small dots and strokes etc. Next was more emotional use of colour and even texture and brush technique to convey emotion. Then the influence of African and Asian art on cubism etc. But the main influence for the surrealists like Salvador Dali was psychologists like Freud, who basically had proved the existence of the human subconscious and its influence on us. Artist decided to explore this dreamlike part of us, hence coming out with some very fantasy like images. For me surrealism and fantasy/Sci-Fi art are one and the same, but on a technical level fantasy art is more realistic in a way having a structure to creature and being based on myths legends and religions. Surrealism on the other hand, is a freer search into the subconscious and normally has some philosophical or psychological basis.

Nowadays the fantasy and sci-fi industry is huge varying from straight illustration to comic work, to graphic type design. I have decided to take a closer look at two of my favourite illustrators. Both paint very similar subject matter either classic fantasy and/or more new age sci-fi fantasy. Either in the form of trading cards for Marvel, Dark Age and other big companies; or covers for books and games. Although the basic subject matter is similar the styles are very different. Julie Bell specialises more in super heroes and super villains, having a shiny perfectionist type finish. Brom on the other hand has a darker, gothic feel to his paintings, and seems to create more monsters and warriors rather than slick super heroes.

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