The Importance of Artwork When Building a Fantasy World

This is the first post on the Dark Tidings Press blog. I can't guarantee how frequently I will be posting, as I am working on multiple projects, and some other business related activities that I can't announce yet. Just know that I will try and post once a week or so!

Recently, I decided to put out a call for some artists in my college network to see about getting some concept art done for the Gods and Men Cycle. This got me thinking about the importance of artwork for me as a writer, and as a reader. I have always thought artwork for my world was important, which is why my covers are scenes from the book, rather than stock photos or graphics, and why there is an art tab on the website showcasing all of the wonderful artwork that I have commissioned over the years.

Historically, fantasy artwork has been a staple of the genre, from the often lurid covers of old pulps and paperbacks, to the illustrations accompanying Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals. Growing up I always fell in love these pieces of art. They took me into the world in a different way than the written word did. Not that one was better or worse, just different. Often times I would refer back to the cover of a fantasy book as I was reading, to try and add context to the image on the cover, or to help the image I had formed in my own mind. When reading a book that doesn't have illustrations I usually go to the web and search for art, official or fan made to add to the image in my head. When I get get really lucky I find an official art book or world book that I can purchase a hardcover of and put it on the shelf alongside the novels in the series. I mean, what fan of Conan doesn't like to flip through nice prints of Frazetta's take on the character?

There are of issues with this, of course. Unless the author and the illustrator are the same person, the artwork is just an interpretation of the world. This is how we end up with covers where the protagonist has the wrong hair color, or a scene from the book plays out the complete opposite of how it does inside the pages of the work.


By Sanjin Halimic

By Sanjin Halimic

Wrath of the Fallen has this issue to a degree. Arra looks perfectly like I had intended. The carnage of the battle is just like what I had hoped for. Ren looks great. The Herald is perfectly menacing and awestruck by the presence of the goddess. However, the Herald doesn't have any wings. In the world of the Gods and Men Cycle, Heralds and Seraphs are two sides of the same coin, angelic-winged figures that have some measure of Divine Blood which allows them to speak for the gods on the Mortal Plane. In the cover, the Herald wasn't given wings because the artist couldn't make them look good, so I relented and let him go on the cover as-is. And I don't really mind. 

Writing a novel isn't a collaborative art form like film is, for example. But sometimes collaboration and different interpretations can come into your work, and I usually let it happen. While the artist should do their best to reflect the world and words created by the writer, they are creating something original as well, with their own agency. That's why I usually give artists freedom when they are creating a representation of my world.

One of the other ways that artwork and artist agency influences my creative process comes into the way that I draft a story. When I write (another blog post, for sure) I start with an outline, then a first draft, followed by a second (written from the ground up), and finally I edit and release the work. I usually commission artwork for the cover somewhere around steps one and two. That usually means that the art is done while I am either writing or editing the second draft. When this happens, I often refer back to the artwork, just as I do when I'm reading, to allow it to transport me into my world and influence my descriptions in my writing. Don't mistake this for taking away my own agency as a creator though, the Herald kept his wings after all.

A sneak peak of Akklor by Patrick Buermeyer

A sneak peak of Akklor by Patrick Buermeyer

This brings me to what I plan to do going forward. The universe that I created for the Gods and Men Cycle is diverse, populated by all manners of fantastical creatures. In order to illustrate (I couldn't help myself) this, I will be commissioning several works of concept art of these beings. For now, this art will be showcased here on the website, but eventually the illustrations will be compiled into a world book of some kind when I have enough history to warrant writing one (see The World of Shannara by Terry Brooks or The World of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin) or possibly an illustrated edition of Wrath of the Fallen or The Broken Pact Trilogy as a whole.

The art won't always match what is in the books perfectly, so don't let it ruin your headcanon or mental image. But enjoy it all the same. I know I will.