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.

Annotation: The Subversive Imagination

My sentiments about this book can really be summed up best by one of the author quotes on the back of the book:

If you want to think about what’s happening to the arts across the world today, you need to read this book. It brings the reader face to face with a lot of new situations. An unavoidable book. After that, you can start arguing like hell with it.” (John Berger, back cover)

The Subversive Imagination is a collection of essays by artists of various forms gathered under the auspices of discussing the role of art in society. Considering my interest in sociology and social responsibility and the subtitle of the book (“Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility”), it seemed like an interesting book that would be well worth reading. I suppose in a way it IS worth reading, and certainly has some good ideas and comments in some of the essays… that is, if you can put up with the intellectual arrogance of the essays. I’m sorry, but it really just ends up irritating me when I read page after page (essay after essay) of over-intellectualized ego-stroking. The essays themselves varied in topic and style, but they all carry an underlying theme: to sell art is to sell out, and the only art that is worthwhile is never appreciated by the masses.

Really, my particular stance on this sort of dreck boils down to two basic sentiments. First: art, in particular visual art, is the communication tool of the masses, and as such is made impotent by the intellectuals and academics that try to wring every last iota of value or meaning from it. Artists that choose to target that group simply serve to perpetuate the elitist myth surrounding art. Second: I disagree with the “intellectual movement” in general. By this, I am not talking about the discussion, study, critique, or appreciation of art or any other subject, so much as when the accessibility of that subject is intentionally stratified. In all my reading, I’ve yet to see one of these “academic” “intellectual” books say anything that could not have been said more simply, eloquently, concisely, and accessibly. Further, I’ve known too many “intellectuals” to not believe that at least some of the time, this stratification is done intentionally.

Moving right along to another gripe: Carol Becker, the editor and anthologist behind the book, is the Associate Dean at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This professional attachment has colored her work as editor. She makes a point of stating that there are a variety of opposing stances found within the essays, yet the majority (not all) of the essays not only come to the same conclusions, but get there along the same routes. It just makes the whole book come off as a self-fulfillment, a way of proving her own opinions as valid and important.

Of course, for all my complaints, there is still a lot of merit to what is said in the book, regardless of whether you agree with it (or, as in my case, their method of delivery). There was an interesting essay by Kathy Acker called Dead Doll Prophecy, discussing her experiences dealing with irate publishers after she released a book comprised of a montage of other works (which in essence is no different than creating photomontage with other people’s photographs). It pointed out the absurdity of the current gallery/publisher philosophy in a not uncommon but still unfortunate scenario. One particular publisher was informed that Acker had used a few snippets of an author they publish, and contacted her publisher to shut down publication of the book, and to demand a public apology from Acker. Neither publisher bothered to check to see how much had actually been used (an amount well within fair use), nor what the author (the actual copyright holder) felt about it. They continued to threaten and harass Kathy for many months, during which she received counsel from several lawyers to just ignore it, including the lawyer of the other author, but finally simply gave up and signed the apology, because she wanted a moment’s peace. I realize and acknowledge the need to protect one’s intellectual property, but so many corporate entities take it too far, knowing full well that they can bully whoever they want, so long as they’re small enough to not be able to bully back.

Another interesting (though heavy handed) essay was written by Elizam Escobar, a Puerto Rican freedom fighter, poet, and artist, who is currently serving an extended sentence for conspiracy to rebel. He is, at times, eloquent, though at other times his choice of words get in the way of his message. Nothing he says is greatly revelatory, in my opinion, but it is interesting to read, regardless. His discussion of the searching process of finding a balance between personal art and art for a cause (whether that cause is money or politics is relatively unimportant) was particularly familiar and relevant. Without the opportunity to do art that satisfies the self, it becomes increasingly difficult to find value in the art done for others. That said, it is hard to justify doing art just for yourself if it means neglecting work that puts food on the table.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone studying art and sociology, but I would not recommend it to the general artist or art appreciator. It’s got a LOT of flaws, but it does have some worthwhile discussion on the topic of art in society. As far as I’m concerned, it has more merit as something to argue against than as a seminal body of thought on the topic.

Becker, Carol. The Subversive Imagination. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Annotation: Magic Worlds of Fantasy

It is very easy to get caught up in the notion being an artist in such a way that you fail to make any art at all. The idea of being a famous avant garde artist is far more romantic than actually making avant garde art, and as such is far more alluring than simply making art whatever way you can, whatever way makes the most sense to you. That idea is the basis behind Magic Worlds of Fantasy: it showcases four relatively unknown artists that the author had come across who ignored the idea of an artist, and simply made art.

Before I get into talking about the book, I should mention that none of these artists were using drawing as their medium, so really the artwork gains more of its relevance in the act of creation and the philosophy behind the book more than discovering drawing technique or style that I like. That said, there is a lot of value to be found in this sort of book. I find that it is very easy to get wrapped up in the “proper” way of doing things, so a book that says to find something I enjoy and then make art out of that is really quite delightful.

The author, David Douglas Duncan, was a good friend of Pablo Picasso. As such, when he traveled around the world on his own artistic journeys, other people would approach him to ask about Picasso, and (occasionally) to bring gifts or art to be passed along. It was through this process that he came across several artists who were not well known by anyone, and really pursued art purely for their own sake. They might never have ended up in a gallery or museum, though their art was certainly good enough, because it wasn’t their purpose.

The book opens with a brief essay about the author’s relationship with Picasso, including a collection of “posters” Picasso did for some of his friends, each one with the same elements but each unique and individualized. The idea of Picasso’s house is really quite appealing: when he opened his doors, he opened them wide, to any who could claim his friendship. Diplomats, priests, paupers, circus performers, it didn’t matter. If anyone took offense to this panoply, no one mentioned it: a friend of Pablo was a friend of theirs. There is so much to be said for this idea, the idea of a space where individuals of varying fields could all be comfortable and interact regardless of social status. It’s an idea that I personally would love to foster, but have no idea how to go about doing this.

The first artist in the book is a housewife in England, who used scratchboard to create fantastic, dreamlike creatures and locations. Her work was clearly her own, though I could see some references to early Chinese art in some of her linework. Born in war-torn Berlin, she invented robust dream worlds in her mind in order to block out the bombed out buildings around her, and continued to tell stories and draw from this imaginary world once they fled to Switzerland. She discovered scratchboard when she was 8 or 9, and fell in love with the medium, working in it ever since. Most of her work was made to accompany the stories that she would tell her own children.

The second artist highlighted was a retired psychologist who would go out into the woods and find interesting patterns in the bark of various trees, and photograph them. Some of them are extremely abstract, to the point where it is not entirely clear whether it is a photograph or a painting. Wild swirling mishmashes of color combined with variegated texture to create unique images. As a psychologist, he had always been fascinated by finding order in chaos, so when he retired from psychology, he picked up a camera and became fascinated with the patterns and order and shapes found in the bark of trees.

The third artist is the most fascinating to me. Hsueh Shao-Tang was a tailor in pre-Communist China, and fled to escape Mao’s army. He was then conscripted by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, and forced to serve in Taiwan for several years. After finally being discharged, he trained as a chef, and became a chef for diplomatic envoys to foreign countries. The author discovered his work while visiting the house of an ambassador in Switzerland, where he had been master chef for several years. The particular style of art that he does is what is particularly fascinating to me… he collects canceled stamps, and cuts them up into small pieces, which he uses to create elaborate and detailed mosaics. Some of the work is truly impressive, and is clearly enhanced by the texture and variation that is provided through the medium, such as a mosaic dragon he created, where the texture of the scales is created through the shape and color gradation of the stamps he used. It’s absolutely brilliant work.

The fourth and final artist showcased in this book is a widowed Baroness who likes to wander through old growth forests barefoot accompanied by a great dane and her camera. She has some really phenomenal nature photography, which is my own personal hobby. None of it is necessarily innovative — to a certain extent, a photograph of a cobweb is a photograph of a cobweb — but there is an underlying voice that permeates all of her work, which reinforces the basis of art: there are only so many variations of a still life: what makes it unique, expressive, and “art” is the addition of the individual’s viewpoint and creative voice, the focus that they choose to apply to it.

On the larger subject of art, I thought this was an interesting book, worth the time to read it. On the specific subject of drawing, it’s certainly less relevant, but I still feel my time was well spent by reading it. No art (if you could call my chicken scratchings art) exists in a vacuum, and viewing alternative mediums definitely helps energize my mind as to what things I could do.

Duncan, David Douglas. Magic Worlds of Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Chase Me

You have dishonored my dog! (Why? because it’s fun. Apologies to those on dialup.)

I’ve gotten pretty used to the new Movable Type at this point, though there are still a few tweaks I need to do (like adding internal site navigation again). Expect those back up sometime in the not too distant future, but in the interim, I’ve re-uploaded my Online Communities essay[PDF], so if you missed it the first time, feel free to check it out.

I’m actually a little irked about that essay. The PDF as it stands is just the core essay and the bibliography. The cover letter, the cover page, the table of contents, the appendices… are all gone. For some strange reason, I didn’t manage to save them last time I reformatted my hard drive or something, because it’s all GONE. I only have the PDF that used to be on the website left, because I had it in a tarballed archive I’d made of my site prior to the last major housecleaning. This is extremely upsetting, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. The only idea I have is to borrow the copy the school has next time I’m on campus, and scan it all in as text. (This might involve an intermediary step of photocopying it all, since they’re not willing to release those essays from the building.)
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Jolly Good Fun

What a completely enjoyable and yet utterly useless day. Though I had no intention to, I slept in til 10 AM (dehydrated). Then I got up and geeked out with Eli, futzing with website stuff (he’s refining and redesigning his site) til three in the afternoon. We made some good progress with the site stuff as you can see, and then went for sushi up at the mall. After that, we went down to the coffee shop again, and hung out for the rest of the day.

Chris met us down there after he got out of work, and we hung out a while longer, until finally around 8, I picked up Mickey from the house and we went down to the Cheesecake Factory and had dinner… by the time we got done, we were running up around 10 PM… low and behold, it was still 80 degrees out, so we went swimming. Lots of fun, swimming around til 11… Aaaaand now we’ve rounded out the night by watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force on DVD.

Good but useless day indeed. Tee Hee!


I ranted about the high prices and subscription-based model that Movable Type had implemented for MT3 a while back, and said that unless things changed, I wasn’t going to upgrade to it…

Well, they fixed the pricing structure. So I upgraded. I’m just using the free version for now (no money to really spare at the moment, and for the moment at least I don’t need the paid features), and will be working out the kinks over the next few days.

In other news, Eli and I found a really nifty coffee shop in downtown Bellevue with free wifi access. (Oh the joys of


Allow me to preface this post by stating that I have dreams with people I haven’t actually MET but know through other means pretty regularly, usually when I’ve been doing a lot with them. A prime (pardon the pun) example would be dreaming that the Decepticons were spying on our apartment after watching the entirety of seasons one and two on DVD, followed by reading up on the full Transformers Metaverse history. What makes the dream in this post a bit more unique is that I HADN’T done any overload prior. In fact it had been quite some time since I’d even read his blog, let alone any of his work.

So, about a week ago, I had a particularly vivid dream. I was travelling with Mickey, and we were in a grocery store somewhere in the northern midwest (I’d say either Minnesota, Wisconsin, or possibly the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), and while leaving the store, ran into Neil Gaiman. Mickey had run back inside to get something, and so I struck up a conversation with Neil in order to stall him, because I knew that Mickey would want a chance to talk to him as well.

The conversation continues, and one or two other people join in (talking about the nature of dreams and the impact they have on reality), until finally Neil simply has to get back to his office, which is in the shopping plaza across the street, in a converted storefront. He invites me to swing by later to finish the conversation, and to bring my wife (since Mickey had still not come out of the store).
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House Foo

The house hunting is apparently over. We looked at some houses on Saturday, and then some others on Tuesday, discussed them, and decided to place a bid on our top choice, down in the Federal Way area. It’s great heaping gobs of money ($236,000), but well worth it: it’s in excellent condition and suits us well. We went down and took a second look last night, then submitted the bid.

Well, the tentative answer is a big YES! I say tentative because the seller’s wife is out of town currently. He’s said yes and told his agent to mark it as in contract, but his wife still has a veto. This is fine by us, as no one is expecting any issues. So, big ol’ woohoo!
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Programming (1)

So, some of you may be wondering where I’ve been for the past few days… the short answer (ie, ignoring everything else that was going on) is that I’ve been wading through the last few chapters of Stephen Kochan‘s Programming in Objective-C. Useful, well written book that does more for actually teaching the language than most of the other books on my shelf combined.

I finally got through it, and feel moderately comfortable with it, ready to take the next step, and actually try my hand at actual development. Never one for small bites, I decided to dive right into building a MUD server. From scratch. In Objective-C, which none of my friends know and thus can’t help with. Woo!
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Happy Fourth of July!

Just sending out a quick Happy 4th of July to all of you out there. I hope you all have a lovely day. Chris and Lise are heading to the Adobe fireworks display, and Mickey and I are heading out to Port Angeles for today and tomorrow to explore Olympic National Park and in general have a good time. (I’m bringing my camera AND my sketchbook, so expect pictures later.)

I’d also like to give a shout out to my brother, who is doing something really cool. Kudos to you!

At some point in the not too distant future, I’ll sit down and fill you in on what’s happening with the house hunting process (yes, house hunting, as in seeking to purchase a house). Before you bother, yes the thought of a duplex or some other house that we could use to pull in another stream of revenue has crossed our minds. It was subsequently crossed out, as it’s not something either of us want to do right now.
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