How to make your unicorn more evil

Artist Leesha Hannigan shows you how to go against the grain and paint a fantasy creature unlike you've ever seen before!

Subverting fantasy tropes - Leesha Hannigan's unicorn

There are many ways to get creative with your subversions. I avoid the predictable evil 'black' unicorn and instead choose a muted, rusty colour scheme for my beast

Subverting tropes and expectations for a fantasy creature or character is a great way to create an interesting depiction of your subject. While there's something reassuring and familiar about tropes in any context, it’s somewhat more difficult to learn to draw a subject in a creative way, when that subject has been designed a million times before.

Fantasy as a genre has an extensive list of tropes! All you have to do to subvert them is sit down and think about opposites before you even get your Photoshop brushes out. For this article, my approach is to write out a fantasy bestiary, and categorise them into good, evil and neutral. After that it becomes pretty easy 
to choose which subject you want to depict against type.

Subverting fantasy tropes - artist's secret

Use a Color Dodge layer to paint highlights with a gritty, textured brush. First double-click the layer and then deselect Transparency Shapes Layer. Can you see the difference?

Colour and lighting can strongly support your narrative as well as the tone of your piece. Want to paint a typically evil creature as friendly or cute? Use bright, saturated colours. Warm lighting and cool shadows works well for this. Looking for ways to make a good character look evil or foreboding? Try featuring some desaturated colours and gritty textures.

01. Rough sketch

Subverting fantasy tropes - rough sketch

I block in some of my evil unicorn's form in a rough sketch. Typically, unicorns are shown as standing around looking pretty and serene, so I give my subject a more dynamic, charging pose. Reference will always help you out when deciding upon a pose or gesture. I tend to use Flickr and Pinterest, or I shoot my own.

02.  Set it up

Subverting fantasy tropes - set it up

I pay attention to the setting, which is key because it gives context to the subject. I want it to be an isolated, cold environment, which is different to the cosy woods where a unicorn may usually hang out. A sweeping snowscape would complement the tone of the piece, along with some ominous-looking storm clouds.

03. Research the details

Subverting fantasy tropes - research the details

When detailing your subject, think about your choices when it comes to iconic or recognisable elements of it's design. For this unicorn's horn. I look up some reference for different types of animal horns, and chose one that's less streamlined, jagged, and perhaps a little more fit for impaling a gnome or two.

Words: Leesha Hannigan

Leesha is an Australian illustrator and concept artist. Her interests lie in fantasy illustration, with a personal focus on creature and environment art. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 131.

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