Realistic Fantasy

Making fantasy look tangible.

For me, one of the best parts about creating a comic, an animation, or even just a single illustration is thinking up its setting. What kind of place are we in, what buildings to feature, what about the atmosphere, the time of day, and so on.

A lot of artists I know, get the same kind of creative “kick” off making characters and thinking up their looks, personality, oddities, and backstories, sometimes down to the most minute details. I can understand this perfectly, and think that putting a similar amount of thought into how a scene or a building looks can bring the whole setting to “life,” in the same way that well-made characters in a story can feel alive.

I talked a bit about this in a past article — “Thinking in Parts” — but here I would like to touch upon a different aspect of this creative process.

What I think is necessary to make the setting feel “alive” and tangible, even if it’s made-up.

There can usually be two ways of imagining a setting — starting from a single detail or from a general idea.

For example: “I want to create a very cozy cafe” — is starting from the general image. But “I like this cup, I wonder what kind of a cafe it would fit in?” — is starting from a detail. Both of these approaches are valid, and I use both in my work. Sometimes it’s easier to aim for a certain feeling to figure out all the details, but at other times I’m inspired to create an entire painting just by a single small thing I saw somewhere.

Another example for this: We can either start from an interesting door handle, imagine what door it would fit on, what kind of room could use those doors, what house would fit it, and finally what kind of neighborhood we could find such a house in. Or, we can go the other way around, starting with the neighborhood and ending on small details, like the door handle. It just depends on what we need and what we already “have.”

The important aspect is that, I think to create a tangible world, it’s absolutely necessary to eventually get to the gritty, everyday details.

No matter if we start from something small or from the overall image, if these details are omitted, the illustration, animation, or comic background will look empty, artificial, and generic.

As a matter of fact, I think that one of the reasons so many of the modern Japanese animated series backgrounds look uninteresting and generic is because the studios don’t have enough time and resources. A lot of the images have to be rushed, often with the help of libraries of template parts (like generic buildings or trees) to be put together in just an hour or so.

OK, so to make a better, more tangible scene setting one should put more “thought” and time into it! But how to exactly go about that? Well, the process is again similar to creating a character, we can just use a game of associations of sorts:

When making a character, we can think, for example, “OK, what nationality is she – Polish. Then she will speak Polish, and maybe a bit of English too. Why does she speak English – because she went to England to study when she was in her late teens. What did she study there?…”, and so on. Asking such increasingly detailed questions about the character and answering them works great for architecture too: “What building is this – a shop. What does it sell – furniture. So it has to be big and spacious, have big windows and a stylish sign…” goes the thought process that gives one the basic things about a building that can be used in a scene.

But, the point is not to stop at the overall image, and dig much deeper! Ask more specific questions!

“Who works there?” “Where is it located?” “When was it built?” “Who made it?” “Is it popular right now?” — deciding the answers to questions like these gives us a lot more data to create our sketches and also some footholds that we can use to do (online or offline) research. It’s easier to find interesting references if we are looking for an “old furniture shop, downtown, 1980’s, New York” than just “a cute shop.”

And, we should not stop there either, there are still a lot of details to explore:
“What posters would such shop have in its windows?” “Where the people working there rest, where do they eat, where they go to the toilet?” “What kind of goods are on display?” “How is the shop lit?” “Where is the light switch and what does it look like?” “How do the doors open?” “How does the floor look like?” “Is this part of the floor worn down?” and so on.

Of course, I do not propose that all the details should be figured out and written down before sketching! That’s just impossible and unnecessary unless maybe if you are a novelist writing a story set in an old furniture shop.

But this is how the thinking process should look like while imagining and sketching out a building or a whole scene, and for the best results, it should go pretty deep into details.

It is also very important for all these details that one is adding to the scene through this process to be as realistic and concrete as possible. The most fantastic scene will suddenly become more tangible if we add some elements known to the audience to it.

We can be picturing a fantastic castle room, but if we have a chair and maybe a table with an apple and some books on it, and the window has a latch that we know how to open, we suddenly feel that we know what kind of room it is. We can relate to this place, we can kind of “feel it” even if the rest of the furniture is of unknown, magical purpose. At least we know that the person who uses this room sits, eats apples, reads books, and has hands human enough to operate usual window latches.

If one balances these two aspects just right “tangibility coming from realistic structure and details” and “captivating, fresh made-up contents,” they can get a scene that is at the same time fantastic and believable.

In practice.

OK, so let us go over an example of details from a made-up background that add the tangibility and realism:

This is a Japanese street scene that I painted some time ago. I had many people asking me on Instagram what place is this scene based on (most suggested Kyoto), but the truth is this bridge crossing is completely made-up. It uses enough real elements and details, mostly taken from places I saw on my walks around Tokyo and other Japanese cities, that it looks realistic. I tried to make every part of the picture contain some non-generic elements using references for the bridge, most of the buildings, the road surface, and signs, the greenery, etc., filling the piece with unique details.
I even tried to make the small pamphlets on the city notice board or the signs on the building in the back into designs that look like one might spot them “in the wild.” When designing the sign (which advertises a dentist’s office), I thought what kind of an establishment would look natural on the second floor of a building like this, what would be its name, what font and design would the owner use for the sign, and finally, how a sign like this would be made and how it would look like after years hanging there on the wall.

Not every element in a scene has to have this depth of thought put into it but to achieve the tangible look it’s necessary to have at least some featured in strategic points around the scene.

Where does this come from?

The difficult thing about this approach is that as easy as it might be for some artists to dream up the fantastic, the realistic structure and details require a completely different set of skills and knowledge.

  • The first necessary thing is the ability to look at things a little bit like an engineer would — always thinking about how a thing is made, what parts, materials are used, how it operates, how and by whom it’s being used. I talked about this way of analyzing things in the “Thinking in Parts” article.
  • The second part is having a library of realistic, tangible elements ready to use in a scene. These elements might be in one’s head as things that were seen and purposefully remembered, on a hard drive, or in a book as reference photos ready to be used. Personally, I think it’s more important and useful to have interesting elements remembered, but I also have and use a lot of reference photos to search for small details when I need something more specific. Which gets us back a bit to the idea of the “creative refrigerator” — storing interesting elements for later use in own works.

One of the best methods for getting the knowledge needed is just going “out there” — for a walk or for a purposeful location hunt, to not only gather elements but also to train yourself to look for them and at them in this analytic way.
This is why Hayao Miyazaki always goes for long walks on weekends, and why it’s better to actually go somewhere than just Google a photo. When at a place you can always look around the corner to see where this particular cable or pipe that interested you goes. And you can always find some unexpected, but very usable details too!

Let’s use it!

I think that the most important and difficult at the same time part comes when one is actually drawing or painting something. It requires constant conscious effort to keep up this flow of inquiry and decisions and not get discouraged, distracted, or just stop caring. Personally, I don’t believe in the myth of the “inspired” artist anymore and recognize that it requires effort to get to and stay in this focused zone. I can usually manage no longer than twenty-thirty minutes of this process at a time before I need a break. However, as I’m more conscious about how important this process is for the quality of my work I’m trying to train these “mental muscles” on every piece.

I hope that this article opened up a bit the “secret” of how I’m trying to approach the world-building stage of my art and that you can use this way of thinking to make your art better. Also, if you are not an artist, this should tell you a bit about exactly why some fantastic works feel more tangible than others.

6 thoughts on “Realistic Fantasy”

  1. I’m happy to see you’ve collected your thoughts on tangible backgrounds into a blog post. I’ve already heard some of them:), but it’s good to remind them and see new insights, and I appreciate the structure. Loved the wisdom behind the “old furniture shop, downtown, 1980’s, New York” comment on reference searching. And the thinking process – well articulated!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great, I draw a lot of houses and try to make my way to the location to see them personally. This helps me get inspired and get the details right for the illustration.

    I dream of the day that I can create scenes like yours. Thank you for the article and thank you for sharing your Art.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing the thoughts behind your process! I absolutely loved reading Yuragi because of all the little details in the house, it made it so realistic.


  4. I completely agree about getting the detail makes anime backgrounds more realistic. Whenever I watch a Studio Gibhli film the scenes always make me think ‘I saw’ that scene or it looks like a town I visited, or a house I stayed in.


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