giovedì 7 settembre 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Roger Dean

While fantasy artists on the western shore of the Atlantic focused on portraying faithfully the bodies of heroes and villains, something different was happening on the other side of the Ocean and namely in England.

This country already had a rich tradition of fantasy illustration dating from the end of the 19th century, with Arthur Rackham and other artists giving form to fairy tales and, somehow, inherited a very different approach to fantasy art, one that was more related to the general feeling and atmosphere offered by an illustration rather than the story it told. Roger Dean was one of the earliest fantasy artists in UK, and he started to become famous more or less at the time of Frazetta in the US.

Dean was born in Ashford, Kent, in 1944 but he spent his childhood travelling with his family (his father was in the Army). Only at 15 did Dean settled down again in England; he studied at the Canterbury College of Art and later at the Royal College of Art where he graduated in 1969 with a thesis on 'The psychology of the built environment'. Dean was not interested specifically in Fantasy literature, but rather in landscape and designs, and yet his work has had a huge impact on Fantasy Art.

Not only his paintings, on which we will focus on this post, but also his designs, at which it’s worth taking a quick look. Roger Dean’s first project was finished while he was still in University: in 1968 he presented his Sea Urchin chair.

Later he came out with a new idea, which was seminal for his work in design: the Retreat Pod. This is a piece of furniture that could be presented as a chair or a sofa, but it is much more: essentially, a closed space where a person can “retreat” like inside a womb, a personal space for concentration and imagination. This was groundbreaking at the time, so much that even Stanley Kubrick wanted one of those in his movie Clockwork Orange (1972).


The concept of the Retreat Pod evolved from piece of furniture to living space. With the project Home for Life, Roger Dean and his brother Martin created a concept for a new kind of housing - cheap, sustainable and beautiful. It has evolved ever since and, at the time of posting, Dean is still working on it making it larger and better.

But enough of this - what we want is pictures, illustrations, paintings. Dean worked mostly with watercolour (I know, so British!) with occasional experiments with gouache, ink and crayons. The first famous painting Dean produced was produced again in 1968, the year before he graduated - it was the cover for a Progressive Rock band, Gun.

This was the first of a long list of album covers the artist did. He worked mostly with prog bands, so much that his style became a sort of trademark for the genre, but he occasionally covered other genres, too.

Ramases - Space Hymns (1970)

Earth and Fire - Earth and Fire (1970)

Billy Cox - Nitro Function (1971)

Osibisa - Osibisa (1971)
Midnight Sun - Midnight Sun (1971)
Yes - Close to the Edge (1972)
Uriah Heep - Demons and Wizards (1972)
Uriah Heep - The Magician's Birthday (1972)

Yes - Awakenings (1972)

Yes - Escape (1973)

Yes - Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)

McKendree Spring - Spring Suite (1973)
In 1972 Dean designed the first Virgin logo, which the company used for it debut until 1977, the period when Progressive Rock was big. When Punk became the next thing and Virgin signed the Sex Pistols, the logo became the one we know today.

In 1985, Dean started his cooperation with a software house, Psygnosis, for which he designed logo and developed concepts. He designed the covers for the boxes of Obliterator (1988), Shadow of the Beast (1989) and Ork (1991).


For all his life so far, Dean painted almost only landscapes - the occasional living things or vehicles had the only purpose of providing perspective and proportions to the whole. This was the opposite approach of his American colleagues.
Light, brightness and haze play a very important role in all his work: they provide depth and give proportions to what we see, and at the same thy evoke a mood. Dean learns directly the lesson of Romantic painters, like C.D. Friedrich: sometimes a sunset, a misty veil or moonshine in the background can be the very the centrepiece of a work.

Alpha - Asia (1983)

Blue Desert (1989)

Yes - The Ladder (1989)

Asia - Aura (2000)

The Old Brige (2006)

Black Moth - Condemned to Hope (2014)
As said before, despite never actually basing his works on Fantasy sagas like Lord of the Rings or Conan the Barbarian, Roger Dean has been a huge influence on all Fantasy artists who came after him, especially British ones. But his influence has been even greater on science fiction. Look at the following couples of images and tell me if you think they are related.

Chances are you answered "yes". In 2013 Dean filed a legal case against director James Cameron about Avatar, claiming - quite reasonably, if you ask me - that most of the landscape art was a total rip-off of his work in the last 40 years. Less reasonable was the compensation he asked for - 50 million US$. The filmmakers admitted being influenced by Roger Dean, but not so much to owe him money, on which the court agreed, so that in 2014 the case was dismissed.
One thing Dean never worked on, as far as I know, is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. But I remember all the time I was reading it, I had in mind Dean’s landscapes. This is the only way I can imagine the fantastic structures created by the planet. Pity it didn’t happen - if you ever read us, Mr. Dean, please do a watercolour of a Mimoid. Pleaaaase.

Lighthouse - One Fine Morning (1970)

Electric Sheep (2004)

Yes - Like it is (2014)
What do you think of Roger Dean’s art? As usual, to close the post, here are my favourite pieces. They all share the same visionary majesty of an architecture that blends with the surrounding nature, and at the same time dominates it. The light is used to perfection to create depth and perspective, and at the same time evoke a sense of mystery all painting share - don't you feel an urge to go forward, to explore these outworldy and beautiful landscapes? This is what Fantasy is all about to me. Roger Dean simply nails it.

Jade Sea (1976)
Troll Home (?)

Green Towers (1981)
Freija's Castle (1987)
The Ladder (1999)

GW Night Goblins

I never liked Warhammer Goblinoids (or Greenskins, if you wish). In fact, in many years of playing in the Warhammer setting I think I didn't use them more than once or twice.

Being a Tolkienist, my idea of Orcs and Goblins was already set on dark skin and an evil disposition leading towards the service of the Enemy. These disproportionate, cartoonish, green-skinned things were just silly to me. Green skin? What kind of living creature has green skin?

Everything changed in 2016 when I downloaded Warhammer Quest for Android. It rekindled the love for the Warhammer setting, which had lain dormant for a long time. And made me discover Goblins and the rich visual background GW had developed for them. I read the new fluff behind them and I was charmed.

Sure, WFRP 1st ed. Goblinoids may have been lame for me, but these new Goblins with fungus DNA, multiplying by spores and being born under mushrooms, consorting with giant spiders and worshipping colossal ones, riding Squigs and chewing on toxic mushrooms to get high, frenzied or to work magic, were a whole other thing. The first time I saw them in a GW shop I just had to buy them: it was just 20 Euros for a nice red box sitting in the middle of many new white AoS boxes. It was not only buying something I liked, it was a statement. Take this, new setting!

The miniatures, I soon found out, were a delight, and while I painted I started making up my own fluff for an upcoming WFRP campaign, which more or less goes like this.

In the Appuccini mountains dividing Tilea and the Border Princedoms, Goblinoids are rare. Only a few Goblin tribes survive, remnants of old invasions (ok, Waaagh! is a silly name so we won't use it). Orcs are almost non-existent among them, and Snotlings are quite rare. In the southern part of the range there are four Goblin tribes, united by the common symbol of a Moon, which they worship as a deity.

The Green Moon Goblins are the most devious; they are masters of disguise, deceit and poison. They are the ones I painted. Not far from them live the Red Moon Goblins, who are the more warlike and aggressive tribe; they consume a special fungus that makes them frenzied and, occasionally, turns them completely red and rabid. The White Moon Goblins live further north: they are creepy and insular, and it is said that they practice necromancy. Finally, there are the Yellow Moon Goblins: they are the richest, and their traders visit regularly the other tribes to exchange resources. The four tribes battle each other most of the time but occasionally they unite against the Humans of the Lowlands or the Skaven of the Underdeeps.

Goblins all look the same, but I tried to have little differences to highlight special characters among them.

The Goblin leader has a fancy green hood with horns, and carries the insignia of the Green Moon. He also wields the holy moonscythe, a weapon passed on by all leaders of the tribe since it foundation. This guy has an eyepatch, also decorated with a crescent motif. I must say I like him a lot and he makes a great leader on the battlefield, immediately recognizable because of the insignia.
His fluff name is Shargot, and he is a devious little bastard, always ready to negotiate with anybody and then stab them in the back. He's the kind who is ambitious and sees opportunities everywhere - sure, today he's the leader of a tribe, but tomorrow he could well be Goblin King of all the four Moon Tribes, or even of all the Goblinoids of the Appuccini Mountains! So when he is confronted with an adventuring party he doesn't think about killing them: he'll try instead to bribe them and manipulate them to his dirty ends, which are somewhat unclear to him as well but certainly include having all his enemies and rivals killed.cHe'll make a great NPC for my WFRP campaign.

This other guy is the Shaman. He carries the Green Moon Gong and the relative crescent-shaped hammer. The Gong is an ancestral tresure of the tribe. The Shaman has his hood decorated with white and green cheques to mark his status.

The third most important Goblin in the tribe is Maruk, the Champion. He carries a magical shield and a cruelly barbed, oversized scimitar. His hood is marked in red to display his warrior prowess. He leads the warriors of the tribe, armed with vicious, barbed nets and melee weapons.

A number of Goblins are not considered strong enough to be part of the élite and they are armed with spears and shields, so they can strike enemies and keep at a distance.

Finally, some Goblins are armed with short, crooked bows. Their leader has a white-marked hood. Another one carries a bone bow scavenged from a battlefield, of much better making than the wooden bows of his companions.
Green Moon Goblin lurk most of the time in the Mountains and nearby hills and forests. They grow underground fungi, gather food from the forest and hunt for game. Being naturaly cautious and cowardlt, they venture out of their territory only when famine forces them: in these times they mostly steal sheep, goats and cows from shepherds. They only move at night, and by dawn they make sure they can reach the safety of their underground lair.