Recently I enjoyed chatting with Emily Fiegenschuh about her new book The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures which provides step-by-step instructions and diagrams for drawing and coloring 25 fantastical beasts. Emily is an experienced fantasy illustrator — you may have seen some of her art in D&D rulebooks and you can read about her other projects at her website. We’ve got a copy of The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures for one lucky US winner. Just leave a comment for a chance to win.
Justin: First of I would like to point out that The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures is not just an instructional book, it’s an incredible piece of art in itself — so much beautiful stuff in there! To see the artwork and then the processes behind the pieces was a real treat for me. I’m not much of an artist. I consider using more than three colors on a miniature to be an accomplishment. I really enjoyed The Explorer’s Guide for reasons beyond its instructional material. How much was the art “fan” and not just the aspiring artist on your mind when putting together The Explorer’s Guide?
Emily: Thank you for your complements on my book and for the chance to talk with you! I appreciate your comments on the book’s value as an art book in addition to being an instructional book. My focus was on making a nice-looking book that would be helpful to aspiring artists. When working on The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures, art fans were on my mind as much as they would be with my other projects. It has always been my hope that my work touches at least one person in some way, so I pour everything I can into each painting.
I always try to do the best work I can on every project I take on. I do this for my art director and audience, but I also do it for myself. As the saying goes, I am often my toughest critic! This book was probably the most personal project I have done in my professional career up to this point because the decisions about what to include were almost entirely up to me. While there is always room for creativity in the illustration field, there are requirements that need to be fulfilled for each job. Character and creature descriptions need to be followed or the action of a scene needs to match the story. There is always room for artistic license, but considering the client’s needs is essential. In this case, once my proposal was accepted and I knew I was going to be working on a how-to book on creatures, the rest was up to me. I thank IMPACT and my editors for allowing me to approach the art in the way I saw fit.
Justin: Some artists have a hard time communicating their processes, and even fewer are able to teach them. You do both very well, so I wonder: has a book like this been something you’ve always wanted to do?
Emily: Thank you for your compliments on what has been a new endeavor for me. I honestly never imagined I would write a how-to-draw book. I was lucky to have met an editor from IMPACT Books at one of my appearances at Gen Con Indy, which I have been attending for the past several years to display and promote my other fantasy work for clients like Wizards of the Coast and Cricket Magazine. Soon after returning home, I found myself discussing a contract for a book deal!
I like sharing and critiquing art with friends who are fellow artists and thought that someday in the future it might be fulfilling to teach art in some capacity, though I did not imagine doing it in book form. I found I really enjoyed the process of making the book, especially as I worked on the “Exploring the Basics” and “Creating Your Creature” chapters, because I wanted to impart as much of the information that I had learned at art school and over the past ten years as a professional illustrator as I could to young artists. I tried to tap into the things I would have loved to learn when I was a beginner; concepts that I still find helpful and use to create my own work every day.
A source of inspiration to me when working on The Explorer’s Guide was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. I had this book in middle school and the techniques suggested for sketching interesting poses and powerful gestures changed the way I thought about drawing characters. Preston Blair’s animation books were also important. These books gave me a jump start in learning about drawing dynamic figures before I even sat down at my first figure drawing session. When writing my book, I also wanted to encourage readers to take what they’ve learned from the demonstrations in my book and explore their own ideas; to not feel boxed in by what I have done. It was important to me (even if a bit messy in some spots) to attempt to express in the demos a “natural” way of constructing drawings to match more closely to the way I frequently build up a drawing. There are so many ways to approach art, I wanted to not only show what I would do or how I did it, but also let the reader find their own way of working.
Justin: I’ve read that you use traditional methods to create your artwork. Using pencils and paints rather than a Wacom tablet and healthy selection of Photoshop filters. It’s seems the digital/traditional hybrid art is sweeping through the fantasy genre, lead by artists like Chris McGrath and John Picacio. Has it been tempting to go digital? I personally believe there is room for both, but I think there is a sort of intangible purity in knowing a piece was completely created with no help from a computer.
Emily: I notice a lot of fantasy novel covers are going in that direction but I agree that there will always be room for both traditional and digital illustrations. Artists like Dan Dos Santos, Donato Giancola and Gregory Manchess work with oils and are among the most highly sought after fantasy and science fiction book cover artists.
Many artists do make the switch to working digitally because it allows more freedom to alter the work at any stage as well as the ability to work more quickly towards a deadline. While I do occasionally work digitally at some of the preliminary stages of my illustration process, the final art is exclusively traditional aside from value and color adjustments made to a scanned piece of art in order to match it to the original. I prefer to do most of my drawings with a pencil in sketchbooks, and my painted work is created with gouache on cold-press watercolor paper. I do have a Wacom tablet that I share with my husband (who is also an artist) and I will use that occasionally to make adjustments to drawings that I’ve scanned in. I’ll use Photoshop to do things like shrink a head that’s too big or alter costume details.
Making revisions to a sketch at the request of an art director is also more convenient digitally, as long as they aren’t too extensive. In that case I usually re-work the drawing on paper. I will also use Photoshop to create color and value studies before moving on to a final illustration. Adopting digital media can increase efficiency, and I admire artists who have been able to adopt digital working methods while retaining the same style they previously worked with traditionally. The main reason I have chosen not to switch to digital is that I haven’t developed a feel for it. Even with the Wacom stylus, using the computer seems counterintuitive to me. I like the feeling of a brush or graphite on paper, and the more intuitive process of mixing paint on a palette. I’ve always had a tough time using the color picker in Photoshop and getting the color I want. Everything looks so saturated! Ending up with an original piece of art that is unique in all the world is a special feeling. It’s also nice because it can be sold to collectors who might prefer to buy original art!
Justin: Your creatures’ facial expressions always give me pause because they hint at something going on in their minds. The minotaur is a good example. He looks rather annoyed at having been painted. Is he just grumpy, or is there a story there? How do you go about deciding on the emotions your creatures display?
Emily: I’m really glad to hear you liked the minotaur! That turned out to be one of my favorite images from the book. While I’d say I didn’t have any particular history in mind for the minotaur aside from the mythological tale, instead of making him look like a brutally cruel beast, I chose to humanize him a bit and make him look angry, but also sad. He’s been imprisoned in the labyrinth because of his frightening appearance, not through any fault of his own.
It’s a great compliment to hear that my characters and creatures have a soul; something going on underneath the surface that can be discerned by the viewer. This might sound a little weird, but ever since I have been drawing characters I’ve felt as though maybe what I’m really doing is unearthing a person or creature that exists in some other place and just bringing them to life here. I imagine some writers might feel the same way. I’ve been drawing since a young age and often invented characters. I try hard to convey a personality or emotion through a drawing. I’m drawn to and influenced by the same quality in other artists’ work. I’m always most affected if I can empathize with a character, even if that character is just a two dimensional drawing or painting and I might not know anything about them beyond what’s presented in the image. That thing beyond the image, that magic being made between the viewer and the image is something special.
When I want to convey the personality of a creature or character I ask myself questions like: what are they doing, why are they doing it, what would they be thinking or how would they be feeling in the situation I’ve imagined? As far as how I draw such an image, when it comes to something like a facial expression on a human or humanoid character I make funny faces in the mirror. For a creature, if I use animal reference for inspiration I might try to inject some of the quality of that animal’s essence into the creature.
Justin: What’s next for you? Any special projects you can share?
Emily: Trying to keep up with my blog! I’m working on a painting demo that complements a bonus online creature-drawing demo for The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures. I’m also continuing my illustration work for publisher Inhabit Media and their Inuit Mythology Initiative.
Sometime in the future I hope to break into more illustration work for the young adult fantasy market.
Justin: Thanks for answering my questions, Emily!
I truly enjoyed The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures, it was a delight to read and learn from. I hope it sells a billion copies. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from you in the future! Readers, leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of The Explorer’s Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures.