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.
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
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
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
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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