November 19, 2019

Picturing the Unseen

        There is a particular issue that comes up when illustrating fantasy, which is how to depict those things that are unseen: invisible, or never witnessed by human eyes.  It’s a contradiction that encompasses illustrators of dinosaurs, prehistoric personalities, and ancient cities, as well, but it hits fantasy and sci-fi illustrators particularly hard.  I think invisibility deserves its own post some day, so for now I’m thinking about drawing things that no one has ever seen.
        First, there are the things that, within the context of a story, are perfectly visible, such as dragons, time machines, or indeed any fictional person, place, or thing.  These cannot be drawn from life or copied from reference photos, so what’s an artist to do?  The more popular mythical things, such as dragons and fairies, have no shortage of previous depictions to be used for inspiration, but some creatures are entirely new.  The most common method for depicting fantastical things is the chimera approach: wings like a bat, tail like a snake, feet
like a raptor, and so on.  In other words, find something real that relates to it, and use that model just for the element to which it relates.  In many cases we have written descriptions to work from, as well.  Ultimately, however, there has to be a picture in the mind to be used for guidance, instead of a real object or photo.  All we have to do is imagine something, and then it can be drawn.
        What about things that even within the context of a story, no one has ever seen?  Some ghosts or spirits are supposed to be invisible, some objects are hidden away in utmost secrecy, some beings are veiled from mortal view by darkness, light, mist, or distance…  In these cases  we must make pictures that reveal nothing — Or we get caught in a contradiction.
        This is an illumination of the simurgh, a bird that this thirteenth century Persian bestiary tells us lives “in fastnesses never penetrated by man,” and hidden from view.  The marginal note is by a later reader, who wrote testily, “Thou fool, if nobody has seen the simurgh, then how dost thou portray it?”  It’s a fair point.  Here’s where an artist’s superpowers become evident: sometimes an illustrator is omniscient and can show you in lavish and loving detail what no mortal has ever seen.  I say, just go with it!
        For a satirical little poem about a never-seen microbe (with a picture, of course!) revisit this previous post.

[Pictures: 10. Landscape with Ruins and Cylinder Segments, wood block print by Lorenz Stöer, 1567 (Image from TU);
Drollery, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Simurgh, painting from Persian bestiary, c 1297-1300 (Image from The Morgan Library & Museum).]


eeldip said...

Similarly, interesting to see how artists depicted things we now "see" through photography, things that move too fast or are in constant motion that couldn't be captured by the human mind, frozen in time. Lightning, explosions, fireworks, even fire and smoke and water to some extent.

eeldip said...

Oh! And "magic", which we now see through the lens of animation, used to be depicted so differently. Much more symbolically, as if the symbols of magic would sort of float in space. Unclear if it was meant to be an actual visualization, or if it was a place holder for the viewer to imagine the actual magic happening.

I suppose it was both, mixed together. Like when people dreamed of magic in the 16th century what did they see? Did it look like what they saw in a book of emblems? Or like how we animate it now?

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Interesting questions. I'm assuming that the images in the mind come first - someone had to picture something in their imagination before they could translate it into animation or CGI. So probably similar sorts of pictures were in people's minds even before there was the technology to reproduce it for others to see. But it's also true that once we can see what someone else has imagined, our own imaginations are influenced by it. So if you see emblem books and portraits of saints' miracles, your imagination may tend to emulate those, while if you see Disney animation or Marvel superheroes your imagination may go in those directions.