Essay: Realistic Art versus Fantasy

Over the course of the past semester, I have been attempting to learn to draw, with the longer-term goal of character design. This dual intent (learning the elements of figure drawing in general, and learning to create unique imaginary characters) has created an interesting juxtaposition of styles, namely that of the fantasy character, and realistic figure drawing. They are distinctly different in nature, while retaining many similarties. In fact, one (fantasy) builds upon the other (realism).

Because we dwell within the world, the world is inherently subjective in nature. There is a certain amount of distortion to what we see that is dictated by our vision, our mood, and our perspective of a given situation. To draw or paint realistically is to objectively draw a subjective world. There is a lot to be said for this stylistic choice, not the least of which is that it allows for an understanding of shape, form, and proportion that can be applied to any form.

Conversely, fantasy art is a bit more amorphous, it is not itself strictly a style so much as a parent genre which contains multiple styles. The shared definition of all these styles, however, is that they acknowledge the subjective nature of what we see, and consciously work to extend that subjectivity. From there, the definitions fragment, some choosing to create an idealized version of the world (traditional comic book style, proportionally slightly larger than “realistic proportions”, perfect body types), others choosing to modify or enhance basic structure (anime or manga style comes immediately to mind, characterized by big eyes, small mouth, proportionally smaller than “realistic proportions”).

When you consider these two working definitions, it becomes readily apparent that fantasy art has grown out of realism. What it comes down to is that the most effective way to break any rule is to have a firm grasp of the rule in the first place. While it is certainly not the only way to learn, there is a great deal to be said for learning the rules of human proportion and form if only so you know how to break them, while keeping the figure reasonable. That is to say nothing of universal aspects of figure drawing (realistic or fantasy), such as foreshortening, shading, and perspective.

I say these are universal, because regardless of style, the goal of creating a character is to make it believable and “real” in the eyes of the viewer. The human mind is happily willing to accept a fantasy creation, as long as there is nothing jarring it from what it normally expects from the eye: depth, and perspective. If the drawing lacks appropriate shading or foreshortening, the image will lack texture, it will lack depth, instead appearing flat. Perspective sets the stage for the viewer, gives the image a sense of place (even if that place is nothing more than the paper it sits on), and without it, again the image is flat and unbelievable.

In Non-Photorealistic Computer Graphics, the author briefly discusses this concept, and why realistic graphics have advanced so much more quickly and completely than non-photorealistic graphics (stippling, for example). Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that because of the nature of realistic graphics, we are able to quantify the process in such a way that is easily understandable to a computer. Non-photorealistic graphics lag behind in this because beyond these key concepts, it is extremely hard to quantify what elements are needed to generate an image using a computer that is believable to the eye. Interestingly, the mind retains more data looking at abstracted (non-photorealistic) images than it does looking at realistic images, which is indicative of the willingness of the mind to accept an idea that is not necessarily realistic.

Of course, discussing the mind’s willingness to accept a fantastic creature or environment is not to say that the mind is immersed in the world to the point of being unable to distinguish it from the real world. More the opposite: the mind is able to acknowledge the fantasy while allowing for an emotional distancing not available in realism. A perfect example of this would be Looney Tunes. Bugs bunny is by no means mistakable for a real rabbit, or a real person for that matter. He does dastardly things to Elmer Fudd, things that we would never condone in the real world. Cartoons are able to be blown up, shot, crushed, flung through the air, mangled, and in some cases killed, without impacting us in the way that such events happening in a realistic painting would. Yet, we still are able to laugh and cry with the antics of these fantasy creatures. This fantasy world, this abstraction, allows us to distance ourselves from these acts, while still allowing us to identify and emotionally respond to the “art”. Even small children are able to make this abstraction — even if they don’t realize that Bugs and Daffy don’t really exist, they are still aware that they are “different”, and able to do things normal people can’t.

The more real the style, the less the mind will abstract the art. Anime is moderately realistic, and is often accused of being too violent for minors. Gainax Productions created an anime television series called Neon Genesis Evangelion back in the 1990s, which ends in a fashion that still makes me feel uneasy and ill in a way that even live footage of atrocities don’t make me feel. They spent the entire series putting the characters in situations that test them physically and psychologically, showing their frailties and humanity, endearing them to you… and then systematically kill each one in a brutal manner. In some ways it is made more disturbing by the fact that it IS animated in a near-realistic style, because it keeps it from being truly abstracted, yet still separate enough to keep you from thinking they are real. You would think that would make it less disturbing when they die, but in fact it’s the opposite: as each is killed, you can’t help but think in the back of your head, “but they’re not real, and why bother killing them if they aren’t real? It’s a fantasy world, they did their job, they should be able to at least live, even if not necessarily happily ever after!”

Moving on from the psychology of fantasy art versus realistic art, lets look at a few different examples of fantasy art, and how they are influenced by realistic art. A good example of taking the principles of realistic drawing and applying it to a fantasy setting is the work by Yoshitaka Amano, such as his work in The Dream Hunters. His work is a combination of anime and realistic proportions placed in fantastic situations, plus a sketchy, flowing, personal style that gives a unique flavor to his work. His sense of proportion is clearly drawn out of traditional realistic figure drawing, with the hands, and bodies being well formed and realistic. The eyes and face is more akin to an anime style (small mouth, larger eyes), and the hair, clothing, and environments are wildly varied. If I were to simplify his style into some generalizations, bodies (human or otherwise) tend to be more concrete, with strong definition. The environment varies on the piece, depending on whether the environment could be considered an entity in the piece or not. Everything else, including the clothing on the figures, is secondary and drawn in a wispy, ethereal manner. The nature of it being a piece of fantasy is established with every stroke.

As a juxtaposition, Alex Ross also does comic illustration, but in a photorealistic style. His work is exquisitely detailed, and gives a sense of reality to comic book heroes like Superman (Kingdom Come), or Captain America (Earth X). In the graphic novel Kingdom Come, Ross documented his process at the end of the book, which was fascinating to learn about. What is particularly interesting about this style given the medium is that you are talking about perfect beings given realistic flesh, which establishes fantasy through the idea of perfect beings. A particularly striking image introduces chapter 2 of Kingdom Come, involving row upon row of superbeings, and standing amongst them is a comparatively frail old man, a simple preacher who is the central point of view of the story. (Coincidentally, the preacher is modeled after Alex’s father, also a preacher.) This contrast establishes the fantasy, even in a realistic style.

This does pose the question of where, exactly, the line between fantasy and realism occurs, if artists can use realism to create fantasy? It has been argued that Albert Bierstadt, who painted a variety of gorgeous landscapes in the west, had distorted reality to make the landscape even more grandiose. If so, would that qualify as fantasy art? And if that is the case, then really any painting becomes circumspect as not being truly “realistic”. Ultimately, I think it comes down to two things: the medium, and the creation. The medium (the style and materials) serves as an initial (and most obvious) method to determine the nature of whether it is meant as a realistic depiction of a person, place, object, or event. The secondary assessment comes from the content of the painting itself. Alex Ross draws in a realistic style, but it is fantasy art because he is drawing beings flying through the air, lifting cars over their heads, and shooting rays out of their eyes. (If these events ever do start happening in real life, I suppose we will have to reassess this.) Bierstadt, on the other hand, painted realistically, but used “objective” means to reach his slightly exaggerated conclusions, such as shifted viewpoints and skewed perspectives.

Bierstadt is by no means the only one. In John Updike’s collection of critiques, Just Looking: Essays on Art, he discusses the same use of shifted viewpoints in Vermeer’s work, View of Delft: “Many of the buildings still stand, and it can be seen that Vermeer moved them about for aesthetic effect.” (Updike 24) That Vermeer, an artist widely considered to be one of the most precise and talented painters of his day, would perform these shifts and exaggerations, and no one argues his work as a “fantasy” reinforces the belief that exaggeration or alteration can still be a part of realism, so long as it is applied as an objective view.

Given what I’ve brought up thus far, namely that fantasy versus realism is objectivity versus subjectivity, and that the line between fantasy and realism can be blurred or even broken in both directions, really there is one more key distinction to discuss: the role of imagination and creativity in realistic and fantastic art.

There is a great deal more to art than just technique, even in situations where you are simply “recording what you see.” The act of seeing is what makes the world subjective, no matter how objectively you may try to view it. It is our creativity and our imagination that allows us to choose the viewpoint, the pose, and the focus of the piece. Our personality, our creative impulses, contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. For example, in John Singer Sargent’s piece, The Daughters of Edward D. Boit, the expressions on each child’s face is clearly influenced by both the act of having to pose for a painting, as well as the actions of the painter.

This creative influence is magnified in fantasy works. Where the realist might draw a stump in a forest, a fantasy artist might extrapolate on that stump, letting their imagination run wild. Perhaps the stump is home to a gnome, or faeries? Perhaps this stump is all that is left of a mighty forest that once towered into the clouds? We have no way of knowing, which frees the artist to create their own fantasy, without a single concern about whether it is objectively feasible. (The trees and towns and creatures of Dr. Seuss immediately come to mind.)

Ultimately, the only true separation of fantasy and reality is in the eye of the beholder. The artist can have every intent for his work to be treated in a particular fashion, but if the people who view his art disagree, who is to say that one is more correct than the other? If the artist intended it to be a mystical fantasy realm, and someone comes along and says “Hey, you really managed to capture the feel of Morocco quite well. Were you out in a boat to get that perspective?” Who is to say that one is any less true than the other? More often, the reverse is true, where an artist objectively and realistic depicts a location, person, or event, and is then accused of having made it up. As has been said in the past, “One man’s fantasy is another man’s reality.” Both are equally valid when it comes to art.

Sources Cited:
Gaiman, Neil; Amano, Yoshitaka. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. New York: DC Comics, 1999.
Krueger, Jim; Ross, Alex; et al. Earth X. New York: Marvel Comics, 2002.
Strothotte, Thomas; Schlechtweg, Stefan. Non-Photorealistic Computer Graphics. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufman, 2002.
Updike, John. Just Looking: Essays on Art. Boston: MFA Publications, 2000.
Waid, Mark; Ross, Alex. Kingdom Come. New York: DC Comics, 1997.