Last year, I was interviewed by Fantasy Artist Magazine on the topic of painting fantasy armor. It was nice to reflect on what I'd learned over the years and share some thoughts with others. I wanted to make sure I posted it here for you to read as well. Feel free to pass it along, if you find it insightful.
FA: What familiar tropes/clichés are there in fantasy clothing/armour? And how do you use/subvert these?
AB: It’s a very interesting question. There’s a fair amount of tropes out there in fantasy art. And there’s good and bad sides to that. In fantasy art, the clothing/armor that a character wears defines his/her role. You have your standand classes of characters (mage, warrior, thief, etc.) and each has iconic elements in their costume that make them easy to identify. In an illustration, where you’re portraying a moment in a story without the help of text, being able to read the moment quickly is an important thing. Some of these tropes can help with that. However, if we’re lazy and rely too heavily on those clichés, it leads to bland and shallow characters. I think a healthy balance is key. Take those tropes and twist them. Combine them. If you’re painting a wizard, giving him a staff will help sell the role quickly. And that’s o.k. Embrace the staff, but do something new with it.
FA: How important is it to you to create some new and different?
AB: I’m sure the concept artist side of me is speaking up here, but painting an illustration that isn’t new or different is not very fulfilling to me. I like to design things. And I want people to remember my illustrations and the characters in them. No one’s going to remember something that looks like everything else.
FA: How do you feel about female armour/clothing (or the lack of it) in fantasy art?
AB: That’s a good one. We all want the strong women in our illustrations to look attractive. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But the longstanding trend in the industry is to create female sex objects, devoid of purpose or depth. Bikini-clad eye candy. I’m not sure if it’s artist-driven or audience-driven, but it has always seemed like a lazy, and slightly adolescent, design choice. I’m of the personal mindset that modest is hot too, so I try to prove that in my illustrations as much as possible. Fortunately, I’m seeing others try to break the trend as well.
FA: How much time do you spend researching costumes? Do you work more from historical examples or more from your own inspiration?
AB: I’m not an expert in armor or costume design, but I do a lot of reference gathering. Both historical and fictional. Even if I’m designing something completely imagined, understanding the principles from real life is crucial. Centuries of intelligent thought has gone into designing real armor and clothes for real people. Tapping into that knowledge will make your costume design more intelligent and believable.
FA: How much time do you spend thinking about the materials involved?
AB: Not as much as I should, honestly. Knowing what material your costume is made of and being able to paint it accurately will allow you to convey more info in your illustration and give it more confidence. It’s something I’m constantly trying to improve.
FA: How much do you worry about how practical the costume would be?
AB: Maybe not as much as some, but I think about the practicality of the costumes a lot. I try to educate myself, through research, about what makes sense first. Then I may choose to embrace that reality or ignore it depending on the content and style of the illustration. If my illustration is more historically based, then accuracy is more important. If it’s purely fiction, then I take more liberties.
FA: Aside from actually dressing the character then, how important are clothing/armour in defining the world you are illustrating?
AB: Costume has the potential to define whole kingdoms and worlds, if we allow them to. Think about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring films. Every character’s costume is purposely designed to reflect the culture that character came from. The smooth, organic shapes in Legolas’ clothes and armor are design elements mirrored in everything else Elvish. Seeing Legolas gives us a glimpse of an entire civilization. The boxy, geometric patterns of Gimli’s costume do the same for the Dwarvish world. I try to put this much thought into the costumes I create as well.
FA: What shortcuts/tricks do you have to creating clothing/armour?
AB: I don’t have many tricks, but Photoshop has some great tools that help in the process. The use of custom brushes in Photoshop really helps to streamline my work. I have brushes for chainmail, fur, stitching, brushed metal, leather, as well as others for nature, creatures, and architecture. Being able to add texture to my painting so easily is a huge asset. I also composite photos into my work, on occasion. If I’m able to find the perfect costume element (leather scale armor for example) in a photo, I’ll often grab it, throw it in my piece, and then tweak it so it fits in with the rest of my painting.
FA: What do you find the hardest elements of the process?
AB: Personally, I think its breaking those clichés. Whether it’s for a client or for myself, time is always short. And it’s easy to fall on the same old formulas when you’re in a hurry. And sometimes you have clients that don’t fully appreciate the value in trying new things. You have to check yourself and remind yourself that it’s worth the effort.