Digital art has revolutionized the field of fantasy and sci-fi imaging. We spoke to some of the leading exponents of fantasy art about how to push the boundaries of imagination.

Artists have been indulging in painting the fantastic for centuries now – just look at the works of Hieronymus Bosch or the Pre-Raphaelites for a glimpse of some strange and outlandish material.

In the more recent past, there was a flourishing market for fantasy and sci-fi art for book covers, posters and gatefold record sleeves. For much of this work in the 70s and 80s the airbrush reigned, but just as the rise of the CD caused the demise of the vinyl record, so digital tools have taken over the realm of fantasy art.

“Digital art has changed things dramatically, for some at least,” says Mark Gibbons, a professional artist since 1985 and currently working for Blizzard Entertainment’s Creative Development team.

“While I’m using Photoshop to recreate fairly traditional techniques in a speedier and more flexible fashion, those more open to experimentation are really throwing caution to the wind and producing art in a style entirely unachievable just a few years ago.”

“Fantasy/sci-fi art is very different today from 10-15 years ago,” agrees Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini, senior concept artist at Ninja Theory, who is working on the hotly anticipated PlayStation 3 console game Heavenly Sword.

“Craig Mullins’ style is very popular today and many people use similar techniques in their work. For me, he’s a master. The evolution of software and hardware such as Photoshop, Painter, graphic tablets and so on allows artists more choice in the way they work. This in turn has allowed fantasy and sci-fi art to move in new directions that weren’t available before,” he says.

Gibbons agrees, claiming digital techniques have blown the doors off this industry. “An eye for design and an in-depth understanding of software has meant a good number of artists who may not have acquired the ‘old school’ skills are now making a very decent living in this business,” he says.

“What I would say to those embracing the digital age is not to neglect your traditional artistic skills. The one should complement the other and make you a stronger, more versatile artist.” Martin McKenna, an award- winning book cover and concept artist on computer games, film, and television productions, feels a certain homogenized look is apparent in fantasy and sci-fi today.

“Creativity is increasingly narrowed under the perpetuating influence of the big movies and computer games,” he says.

“This often leads to artwork that conforms to accepted interpretations of overly-familiar subjects. Combined with this, painting styles also tend to become extremely similar in the pursuit of fashionable effects, particularly in the field of concept design where individualism can be obscured through the emulation of certain universally adopted rapid digital techniques. These can produce slick, effective, but often rather anonymous results.”

However, McKenna found both similarities and differences among an international pool of artists when editing his forthcoming Fantasy Art Now collection.

“It’s refreshing to encounter distinctive work that reflects an artist’s unique cultural heritage and a more interesting wider frame of reference.”

Kristen Perry, concept and texture artist with Arena Net (creator of Guild Wars) feels fantasy/sci-fi art as a whole has split itself into three very unique directions.

“Off-hand, I see a lot of classic super realism, expressive, fine art gesture painting, and highly stylized works,” she says.

“It seemed to me that in the past, the main style of the industry was largely more cohesive; there seemed to be one overall look for fantasy or sci-fi and everyone tried to push boundaries within those genres. There may have been exceptions of this from various independent artists, but largely, the industry had sort of a corporate identity.”

“I think over the last couple of decades, those who raised the bar within that genre began experimenting with the design of the bar itself,” continues Perry.

“They began redefining just what made fantasy/sci-fi art and manipulated or even threw out a lot of the conventions. From this, we have seen a veritable explosion of new inventions, new styles and new ideas. It’s a great time to be in the industry right now and I look forward to all the new possibilities and inspirations.”

Perry is another fan of Craig Mullins. “He is a master matte painter, which I truly admire,” she says. “I’m ever-striving for such ultimate realistic notes to my own work. But perhaps the facets of his art I admire most are his rough concept works.

"It is one thing to painstakingly replicate all details into a work, but it is quite another to paint something equally believable with a minimal amount of strokes. To have the experienced eye that knows what information to omit is an art form in itself and I find this talent amazing.”

As positive as these established professionals may be about their own and others work, outsiders might still doubt if this genre is commercially viable.

Well, the days when art by the likes of Roger Dean or Rodney Matthews could leap from a record sleeve to a ubiquitous student poster are probably over, but the opportunities for fantasy/sci-fi art are far from scarce.

“Artists often don’t consider the games industry as a viable career option but creative and visual people are more and more in demand,” suggests Talexi.

“It’s also a great opportunity to have your visions expressed as part of a bigger project that is showcased internationally.”

“When I began working in the videogame industry in the mid-90s very few studios were hiring artists like myself,” says Mark Gibbons.

“The limited level of realism the technology was capable of producing rarely demanded the skills of a dedicated concept artist. These days, by contrast, a large development studio is likely to have three or four concept artists working on every project. The technology at last can now deliver whatever we may ask of it.

“Fantasy and sci-fi seem to have an endless appeal and the genre seems as popular today as ever,” continues Gibbons.

“While I’ve tended to find gainful employment in the more traditional avenues of book publishing, game development and film/television work, it would seem today that no commercial business is opposed to the concept of the fantastic to promote its services, whether it’s financial institutions, car manufacturers or fastfood chains. Everybody loves goblins!”

Case study

Artist: Martin McKenna
Image: Talisman of Death
This image was created by Martin McKenna for the cover of Talisman of Death, one of the series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks published by Wizard Books and is a good example of how the artist works.

“The original idea came from the text of the book, which describes a black horse and hooded rider,” says McKenna. “It required a very quick turnaround, so the pressure was on.”

The artist created a rough sketch in Photoshop, filled the image with grey at about 75 per cent opacity, and used the eraser and smudge tool on the grey to indicate clouds. On separate layers, the horse’s breath and small highlights were picked out in white, while the eliptical marquee was used to outline the shape of the moon, then filled with white.

“Once the rough was approved, I worked with semi-opaque tones on the horse and rider, using transparent colour to subtly tint the grey shades of the rough, bringing in darker tones on a layer set to multiply at about 70 per cent opacity,” explains McKenna.

“I added further texture to the sky, and painted the moon’s surface on another separate layer behind the horse and rider, and gave it an Outer Glow in Layer Styles.

“On a new topmost layer I filled the entire image with a green colour, and set the layer to ‘Color’ at about 60 per cent opacity, to give everything a slightly gloomy green-blue tint. I introduced the horse’s fiery breath, and the burning pits of its eyes, nose, and mouth, on a new layer above the green tint layer, so that the warm colours would stand out fully against it, by applying very rough patches of red.

“I set this layer to ‘Color’, so the red became transparent and blended with the white highlights on the drawing beneath. I then duplicated the layer, and with hue/saturation turned the red to yellow, the layers mixing like glazes and resulting in a blend of the transparent colours; all the real work still being done by the simple white highlights underneath.”

McKenna tries to avoid a ‘finished’ look and liked the sense of movement in the spontaneous sketch, so used only limited detail in the tatty robes of the wraith. Gaussian Blur was used on the trees to reduce some of their detail and set them back, helping to maintain focus on the horse and rider.

Final touches included the addition of some low trails of ground-mist, a final adjustment to the overall colour to provide a slightly more pronounced palette of green and blue, as well as moving the fiery horse-breath to the topmost layer so that it appeared more vibrant.

“This is the picture’s only flash of warm colour in a cool and muted, almost monochromatic scheme,” says McKenna. “It was a necessarily simple, rapid process, completed in a couple of days.”

Case study

Artist: Kristen Perry
Image: Gwen from Guild Wars
Kristen Perry would say part of her specialty lies in a love of painting materials. “Some of the smallest details spark my interest and manifest themselves as leathers and metals, stone and silks,” she says.

“This love started when I was an environmental texture artist, but fully came into bloom as a character artist. Designing the outfit and the whole presentation of the character is a wonderful thing, particularly when that comes with such a plethora of material options.”

Photoshop is definitely Perry’s software of choice and for a full painting, she tends to spend anywhere from 25-50 hours, depending on complexity.

“All my paintings have a similar approach: thumbnail layout sketches, rough pencil sketch, rough colour sketch for lighting and mood, final pencils and then I spend at least half the time painting in all the details. Sometimes I keep the pencil lines for flavour, sometimes they’re completely painted out. It depends on the style desired.”

Gwen is the main character lead for Guild Wars: Eye of the North. She is the adult version of the child character the player knew from the original game.

The image depicts a Gwen with determined focus, adventuring through the countryside. She sees an unknown foe over the glade before her and readies herself to fight.

Guild Wars is known for the beauty of its environments, and I knew it would be best to illustrate relevant areas for the scene,” explains Perry.

“Since Gwen’s outfit is largely dark green and a charcoal brown, the background needed something that would provide adequate contrast for a good visual read. I purposefully chose the snows of Shiverpeaks rather than a green valley, for the snow would aid in a couple factors: one, there’s plenty of contrast against the darks of her outfit and two, snow allows some pretty interesting ranges of colour for dramatic lighting.

"Because of this, I opted for a setting sun and had a lot of fun playing the warms and cools of the painting off each other.”

Gwen followed Perrry’s normal stages of development through thumbnails and colour drafts. “I use few texture brushes,” she adds.

“Most of my paintings are entirely created with the simple round and fuzzy round brush. A good texture brush is also a useful tool, but I find myself returning to the simple ones frequently. This painting probably took about 35 hours from thumbnails to finish.”

Case study

Artist: Alessandro Taini
Image: King Portrait
Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini is a senior concept artist and illustrator at Ninja Sword, a role that involves everything from sketches for character design to environment concept paintings, posters and prints.

“I use Photoshop, or sometimes Painter just to give to the illustration a more realistic paint effect,” he says, adding that he has several different approaches to painting.

“Sometimes I scan a sketch and paint over it and sometimes I use a life model as a guide to drive the image. I also have a dark side, and I use that to develop my techniques in a different way, sometimes creating pieces using original photographs that I have taken.”

An average painting takes Talexi about a week, but this depends on the complexity of the illustration. “If I have a life model to start with it is much easier, if not, I have to be careful about the character anatomy and it takes time. A lot depends on how realistic I want to make the painting.”

A concept piece depicting the character King Bohan, played in the forthcoming Heavenly Sword game by actor Andy Serkis, is one of the artist’s favourites.

“The king portrait is a painting I like in particular for many reasons,” says Talexi. “Primarily because it was the first painting I did to show Andy Serkis what the king was going to look like and secondly because it is a painting that demonstrates what I like to use as a reference.”

“Rembrandt and Caravaggio are master painters, I love the light they use and the details that come through each brush stroke,” he explains.

“When I can, I like to try and emulate their style but translate it in a fantasy way. Using master painters as a reference in fantasy art is a big benefit, the Hildebrandt Brothers’ use of light in their work is a good example.

"In The Man With The Gold Helmet I love how the gold has been painted and how the details are accurate only where Rembrandt wanted people to focus their attention. In my version of King Bohan, I have tried to use the same technique by creating strong, extreme shapes for the armor and making the detail here more intense and elaborate.”

Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini uses Photoshop and Painter to give his illustrations a more realistic paint effect.

“The use of digital software such as Photoshop and Painter has allowed fantasy and sci-fi art to move in new directions that weren’t available before,” says concept artist Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini.

“We’ve seen a veritable explosion of new innovations, new styles, and new ideas. It’s a great time to be in the industry and I look forward to all new possibilities and inspirations,” says concept and texture artist Kristen Perry.

Tips from Martin Mckenna

During the painting process, try to retain at least some of the sense of movement and spontaneity contained within an initial sketch. In places, allow the underlying drawing to show through slightly, so as not to lose the original freshness of an image.

Working in any medium, the understanding of form and how it relates to perspective is important. The ability to break an object down to light, shadow and half tone is crucial to keeping the delineation of form true and solid.

Get tonal values correct and you can paint a picture in any colour, and it’ll still work. Block-in a ground colour so that your digital paints have something to work against, not least so that this overcomes the glare of the white ‘page’, which can be as much of a psychological barrier as a visual one.

Layers are great, not only for preserving flexibility during the creation, but for client presentations. Consider the preparation of a layered file for final submission, so a publisher has greater freedom when working with your image.

Creative tips

“Name your layers!” urges Mark Gibbons. “I must have wasted countless hours trying to work out what was painted where. It goes against my natural, carefree Bohemian tendencies, but I now discipline myself to name each Photoshop layer as I create it.”

“If you can create a few really good brushes of your own, that’s all you’ll ever need to use,” advises Alessandro Taini. “Practice and observation are crucial. I carry my camera everywhere – it’s invaluable! Light is the soul of any image, creating pieces using only light is a good exercise.”

Tips from Kristen Perry

Always try to paint at least at printing resolution (300dpi). It may start out as a casual concept sketch, but you never know when that innocent doodle may become the next printable art piece for magazines, merchandise or even your portfolio.

It’s a whole lot easier to remove pixels than put them back in! If you’re creating pieces for games, make your original files double size. When shrinking the image for use, the compression tends to behave a bit like a photo effect: details will look better smaller than if you painted them at size.

Pay attention to reflected light. The materials you paint are not one colour – they react to the environment. This may be most apparent in metals, but occurs in everything else as well.

A subtle range of hue with cool shadows and warm highlights will give more life to your work than flat colour alone. Using real textures (from photo references to actual, hand-drawn charcoal scratchings) can be the best grit and noise additive.

Rather than spending hours painstakingly adding tiny grime, a nice first pass can be a desaturated, low opacity, overlay layer of a texture source. Time is money and the client won’t appreciate you took ten hours to hand-paint the same effect.


Martin McKenna,
Kristen Perry,
Mark Gibbons, Ninja Theory, Arena Net,
Sony Computer Entertainment Europe,
Online galleries and art community sites like;; and come highly recommended for artistic development and learning.

illustration Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini,