Painting for a historical fantasy cover
Updated January 2018 - I originally wrote this in 2016 and have made some minor updates
I have an interest in history, which makes me interested in painting historical fantasy art. Although not an active member currently, I was involved in medieval recreation for several years, so have made my own costumes and practical items. I know enough about history to know that I wouldn’t really want to live back in the past. But I love learning about the clothes, the crafts, the stories and mythologies. So when it comes to painting historical fantasy, and even illustrating RPG characters, I tend to look at things as more than just ‘pretty’, delving into books, documentaries and even more pop cultural references.
When you get an illustration brief, you have to try and figure out what the client is actually asking for. Some clients say they want ‘historically accurate’, but what they may mean is ‘Hollywood history’ :). Others are more direct and point to pop cultural references, or say they want fantasy elements. Some people will be very specific on the type of sword/ costume/ building type. There’s of course nothing wrong with any type of historical fantasy, however what’s shown in a drama series or a movie may not be 100% accurate. Sometimes what is true to history (or what we currently think we know), may not have the right visual impact. Our ideals of beauty, sexiness, manliness, innocence and other cultural stereotypes are often completely different to the past, not to mention different based on where in the world you are from. For example, Vikings had beards and braids. Some people want clean shaven Vikings which in a fantasy world is fine!
If it’s a magazine that specialises in realistic and historically accuracy information, many of the historical fantasy tropes may not be acceptable. If however the client is an RPG games player, they may actually want armour that is impractical or not historically accurate.
How to get an understanding of what the client wants?
Make references to more commonly known representations when talking to your client, even if they are movie or film references. Having a common starting point is always a good thing, even if it’s absolutly NOT what the client wants. That helps us learn what they DO want
Pay attention to where the artwork is going to be used. Is it trying to sell something (book, game), is it purely for a character representation, is it for a historically knowledgeable crowd? History may matter, however it may not draw in the right kinds of people.
If it’s for a cover illustration, research the author, read any sample chapters or scenes they may send though, look at any references they may send through (being aware of copyright!)
Starting your research
I dabble in history. I pick and choose things I’m interested in, and I am by no means an expert on anything. But when you are hired to illustrate something, for that brief, you must become enough of a master that you can make decisions about costumes, weapons, armour, architecture and everyday objects in the paintings. Beginning research for an illustration is like beginning research for an essay, but you’re focusing more on visual elements than words.
Start broad, then refine.
I’ll use Spirit of the Sword as an example (this was heavily directed so was designed within a fairy tight brief). The brief was for a historical fantasy novel set in a Classical Greco-Roman world. This is your starting point – Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. If you know nothing about the topic, look up an encyclopedia or wikipedia, maybe watch a documentary on the general subject. This should give you some key terms that you can further reference, and the beginnings of an understanding for the design aesthetic.
My client made specific references to items he wanted on the cover that are directly linked to his are of historical fantasy
peplos (Miranda’s clothing)
Spatha (type of sword)
Manica (armour covering the arms)
I loved Greek and Roman mythology as a kid so have a number of different books on the subject. But most of these have other artist’s visions. Although these days I tend to start with the Internet, I still love looking through paper books for ideas. Here are a couple of the ‘general’ books I sometimes use for ideas gathering
Another great reference is SketchUp. This is a 3D modelling tool, but there is a warehouse of pre-built models that include historical sites, buildings, and other objects. While most of the models are simple, this can be the basis for more detailed drawings.
Try historical re-enactor forums and sites as well. Be aware that there are degrees of ‘accuracy’, but people that are recreating items from the past, often have some great resources and detailed research, as well as photos of their costumes, weapons, armour and other bits and bobs. Museum sites, flickr collections of photos taken in museums are also great places to research. Always be aware of copyright, but photos of items help bring reality to paintings, drawings or sculptures from history.
Details can matter.
When you are painting fantasy, there are some things you can get away with. But history is a little bit different. A sword is not just a sword. It can almost be a character in the book itself. There are many types of swords, from many different eras and cultures, and used for different reasons. The sword Excalibur from Arthurian myth varies depending on the setting of the tale
Generic medieval English sword
Purely fantasy representations that would look good at court, but might not be that deadly in an actual battle
Clothes are the same. Those pretty ‘medieval’ gowns with angel winged long sleeves were only in western European court for a relatively short period of time (called a bliaut and worn primarily in France around the 1200s – from known evidence). It was not worn by peasants, and the lesser nobility may have tried to copy it, but it would have been in lesser fabric. Vikings without beards? Only in fantasy. Medieval women with uncovered heads? Only during certain periods or by younger women. Ancient Greece and Rome women often had their head elaborately braided, even adding hair pieces – however it depends on the time period, the specific culture, and the status of the woman. People with slaves could afford time to spend on their appearance.
It drives me nuts seeing a ‘medieval’ historical book set in the 1200’s where the girl on the front is wearing an Elizabethan dress (1600s). Maybe the average Jane Smith won’t notice or care, but it’s easy to look things up on the Internet. If it’s a fantasy world with historical elements, it matters what the author has written.
Also colours and dyes were based on what they could get at the time. They had beautiful dyes available, but colours such as black in medieval Europe (unless it was black wool from a black sheep) were expensive to make, so was generally reserved for richer people. This of course changed later in time (i.e. Victorian era) due to technological changes, and broader trade routes. This goes for richer purples and some blues as well.
Just because it’s historically accurate, does not make it a good artistic decision
Finally, when making an illustration for a book cover, you want an image that tells you a bit about its genre, maybe something about its characters, the mood of the story – basically a teaser on what the reader can expect from the book. Sometimes there will be minor historical inaccuracies, sometimes there are artistic and design decisions. Your job, if it’s for a cover, is to create an image that grabs the reader and makes them want to turn over the book to read the blurb. Work with your client, explain to them why you want to include something that may not be historically accurate, show them how something does not work from an artistic perspective, let them understand your thinking.
And if the client decides they want something a particular way and you disagree, then accept it and move on. If your client is happy, and you’ve worked to the best of your ability, then you’ve done your job.