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Diversity in art: "This is fantasy. Why wouldn’t there be people of colour?"

Diversity in art
Lauren plans to create loc jewellery based on her illustrations (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

The lack of diversity in art overall is surprising, but the lack of diversity in fantasy art, in particular, is shocking. After all, this is a genre that is only limited by our imaginations. The artist and video games art director, Lauren Brown, aims to change things through her work.

Whimsical, ornate and elegant, Lauren Brown’s illustrations for her own series, which she humorously dubs the Avant Garden, are striking interpretations of the traditional art movement. Each is themed around an element in nature we all take for granted but in Lauren’s hands becomes a window into a new world (don't shy away if you look at her art with envy, as there are plenty of online art classes to help you get to her level).

“The moment I saw Alphonse Mucha’s work, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly what I wanted’," Brown says. "There was something so beautiful about the graphic design approach, but also the way that he treated his figures as women. The drapery of fabrics, the elegance… it’s almost like royalty of how they were framed by flowers.”

Brown, who regularly puts her work online, talks about that 'wow' moment like it was a turning point, but as she reveals more about her artistic journey, it’s clear this was always where she was meant to be. As a child, she drew copiously from nature and sketched animals. “I just loved everything: how animals worked, and how they moved and how they interacted,” she says, revealing how she would create stories and adventures for them. Later, her interests took in fashion as well as fantasy art, and everything began to click.

Diversity in art

Diversity in art: fantasy illustration by Lauren Brown

“With a lot of my illustrations, there’s usually some kind of narrative being told – whether big or small,” says Lauren Brown (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

There was something missing, however, and that was herself. Growing up, Lauren Brown never saw herself in the art that she loved.  “I remember walking around halls of many conventions, looking at the fantasy art displays, and just seeing no people of colour whatsoever,” says the artist.

She continues: “This is fantasy. Why wouldn’t there be people of colour? This is the lowest common denominator of diversity you could put in these realms, and yet we just don’t see any people who look like us. So a part of my aim is meeting people who look like us in those settings that I love to see. […] We’re out here too and there’s a lot of stuff that we can do with these characters and the way we present ourselves.”

The secret to good illustration

Diversity in art: illustration of a woman of colour in a fantasy world surrounded by mushrooms

The artist reveals that a love of animation is her secret weapon for creating dynamic portraits (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

The Mushroom Queen illustration, part of the Avant Garden series, is representative of the artist’s approach. The idea grew from an unusual cluster of mushrooms Brown had spotted. Starting with a simple sketch, she began peeling apart the panicle to craft the character’s outfit. Her own hair and jewellery inspired the Mushroom Queen’s long elegant locs that mirror the mushroom stalks, framing the character. Inspired by Alphonse Mucha? Of course, but the artist’s own life is represented in her illustrations, too.  

“It was really important to me to make a character that had hair like mine, because I just love seeing that, and I love seeing that representation in art,” she shares. “And I’d like to represent people who look like me and my art, because historically we’ve been extremely underrepresented, especially black women, in illustration and fantasy illustration.”

Even in her own art, when starting out Brown says she fell into the same trap of drawing largely white characters, which restricted her own imagination. That’s what the media around her had reflected.  “It was interesting,” she comments, “because I look back at my younger self, and I’m like, ‘Why were you making these characters?’, but really I wasn’t to blame. It was just what I was exposed to.”

Dealing with critics

Diversity in art: fantasy illustration with flames

“I didn’t get any training on how to render dark skin or how to texture hair […] And I think that’s such a loss, because that’s such a big part of art,” says Lauren Brown (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

The more of herself Brown put into her art, the harder it could be to take criticism. But she’s become far more philosophical about critique over the years. Life in a video game studio’s art team, and now as art director, means she can easily distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. 

Brown explains: “Every artist has gotten different criticisms over the years. I definitely have. It can be really hard at first because it’s like taking a little piece of your soul and putting it on the table and telling people to look at this part of me and tell me what you think about it. It’s basically thinking that somebody is criticising a fundamental part of who you are. And that can be really painful for a lot of people.”

The illustration that caused a stir

Diversity in art: Tiefling illustration

Inspired by Adeyanju Adeleke, this Tiefling caused a stir. “Why wouldn’t there be a Tiefling with an afro?” Brown asks. (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

Now, she says, it’s possible to separate herself from what other people think, and take on board other people’s opinions. Yet that anxiety can still creep in, and it was notable during lockdown when Brown examined her work.  She discovered a lot of unfinished paintings and illustrations held back by her own internal critic. What would happen if she finished a piece? Or completed it in a way that didn’t make her proud? Would she let people down if her art didn’t match up to expectations? The anxiety was evident.

“I was putting these invisible expectations of myself on my own art, and it was holding me back from actually producing more content,” Brown says candidly. “I’ve put that pressure on myself to have to make each piece the best of the best, or it has to be my magnum opus, or it has to be something that’s stellar enough to be featured somewhere, or get, you know, a certain amount of likes on social media.”

The spectre of social media has “definitely put a lot of pressure on many different artists,” she says, “including myself,” to create art that looks good presented in an online collection, in an established style or in a nine-by-nine grid on Instagram. The life of a modern illustrator is fraught with anxieties. This is why Lauren set up the Painted In Color podcast, where guest artists discuss their issues and raise awareness of mental health concerns, and offer advice. “It helped me establish a better relationship with social media,” she states.

Pictures can tell stories

Diversity in art: fantasy character underwater

“It’s amazing to see how much space there still is to create positive representations of black characters or black presenting characters,” says Lauren Brown  (Image credit: Lauren Brown)

Brown is now working up her old ideas, including a graceful Rose Queen design that has sat dormant for a year. It’s ignited her imagination and drive, too. She’s always loved exploring narrative in her illustrations and explains every character she’s created has a story to tell – one that fits into a broader project. “I have this big world in my head that I haven’t gotten a chance to really put out there. Part of my exploration is really exploring that writing, exploring that narrative, developing characters, and developing a world,” she tells us.

Brown is putting the same detail into her written words that she is in the line-art that brings her queens to life. Her goal is to create stories where the language and beat of her words match the whimsy and sense of movement found in the elegant art she creates. “It’s going to be a process; writing is really scary. But it’s something that I really, really love to do,” she says. “That’s what one of my objectives are for the rest of this year.”

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Subscribe here.

Ian Dean

Ian Dean is Digital Arts Editor on Creative Bloq and the Editor of ImagineFX magazine. With over 25 years' experience in both print and online journalism, Ian has worked on many leading video game and digital art brands, including Official PlayStation Magazine, 3D World and GamesRadar. With a passion for video games and art, Ian combines his interests to run ImagineFX, the world's leading digital art magazine for fantasy, sci-fi, video game, film, and animation artists. In his spare time he doodles in Corel Painter, teaches himself ZBrush, and plays PS5.