After twenty years of working in the fantasy genre, the inevitable finally happened: last year, I was asked to paint a unicorn.
As I’ve said before, one of the benefits of this job is that I end up being asked to paint things that I would never assign to myself. Overall, I think that’s a good thing as I’m essentially being paid to broaden my horizons. However, there’s a potential downside to this aspect of the job, as well, and that is that I’m not always enthusiastic about the things I’m asked to paint—precisely because they’re not the kind of thing I would assign to myself.
An excellent argument could be made that part of the job is finding a reason to be interested in any given job—regardless of whether or not one’s “thing.” Usually, that is something I endeavor to do. However, I confess that I was less than enthusiastic about painting a unicorn. I’m not really a unicorn guy, honestly. At least, I don’t think I am. Plus, most of what makes up a unicorn is a horse. And horses are hard.
Of course, I’ve never really thought of myself as a dragon guy, either, and yet at this point I’ve painted quite a few of them. As my wife is fond of saying, sometimes the only way out is through, and so I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
The assignment called for the unicorn in question to be standing on a bluff or in a grassy field at dusk, its horn ablaze with brilliant white light, keeping the shadows at bay. Clearly this was no average unicorn.
Off the bat, my thinking wasn’t about composition or lighting. My thought was on what the unicorn even looked like. I confess that I am a bit of a traditionalist with these things. I like my unicorns to look…like unicorns. It’s a horse. With a horn. I didn’t feel any need to get too far from that basic design. I’m not knocking anyone else for really pushing the boundaries of unicorn-dom, but I just wasn’t going to be the guy to turn a giraffe or antelope into a unicorn, or blend together a lot of other animals along with a horse and come up with something really outside the box. So I was definitely going to come at this with a horse-based mentality.
With that in mind, I started to jot down some thumbnail sketches. The brightly lit horn made certain compositions less appealing to me. A frontal or 3/4 view meant that keeping the horse shape clear and focused would be more difficult since a lot of the front-facing planes would be blown out by the bright light (at least that’s how I saw it in my head). So, I decided on something approaching more of a side-view that leaned on the horse silhouette against the dusk sky and a strong pose to sell the unicorn’s power (you know, beyond the brightly glowing horn).
Once I’d settled on a thumbnail, I took a posable horse model I have, lit it accordingly and took my reference.
I really liked the graphic shapes the stark light created. They’d need to be adjusted to fit a horse’s actual anatomy of course, but I think the model provided a good start.
Along with the above image, I added to my selection of reference some images of horses I have in books and some more I found on the internet. Those resources in hand, I put this pencil sketch together:
As I sketched, I sort of stumbled upon the added gag of having the grass blowing away from a central point (that being the unicorn’s horn) as a means of further illustrating the impact the horn’s light is having on the environment. I wasn’t sure that was clear, and I also wanted to nail down the piece’s value structure, so I decided to do a digital pass before handing the sketch in for clarity.
The above image was approved and I was off to paint.
Once again, I pulled the above image into Photoshop to explore my options. Furthermore, I consulted a couple of my fellow illustrators for their input, as well. Eventually I settled on a plan of attack and implemented some subtle changes as I completed the piece.
Brightmare. The finished piece is oil on hardboard and measures sixteen inches wide by twelve inches tall. It was art directed by Cynthia Sheppard.
Sometimes the joy of a thing is found in the doing rather than the thing itself. I think I can safely say that’s how I feel about this piece. To reiterate, I don’t hate unicorns, they’re just not the kind of thing I’m moved to paint given the choice. At the same time, this piece turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun to work on. That I’m actually pleased with where it landed makes the experience all the better to me.
Unfortunately, I feel I’ve not been consistently successful at finding something about each assignment to get excited about as I did in the making of this piece. And sometimes the stuff I do find exciting about a piece ends up being art directed out because of necessary changes. It’s all part of the show, however, and each new assignment represents a new opportunity.