How to Find the Heart of a Story: Into the Feywild

I am very excited to release my latest digital painting, “Into the Feywild.”

In developing the concept for this piece, I had a bit of a revelation. I realized that the beginning stage of thumbnails and concepts for a new painting is always the most difficult for me. Rarely do I have an idea that’s fully formed in my mind’s eye – 99% of the time, it takes a lot of scribbling, erasing and digging to get at the little nugget that makes for a good, narrative image.

During the concept stage, I often struggle with conflicting desires of what I am envisioning for the final painting. A lot of times, I have a basic idea – let’s call it a seed – but I’m not sure how to make that seed blossom into a full fledged plant.  In this case, I knew I wanted a character that was on a journey returning a lost fairy to her home. Sounds simple enough, right?

I have so much more respect for these chicken scratch thumbnails that when I first started my career as an illustrator. They don’t look like much but these little thumbs represent a creative battlefield. My first ideas all revolved around the druid character returning a lost fairy to her people, who angrily swarmed him upon his arrival in their domain. It was a story of a misunderstood, bumbling, well-meaning protagonist coming face to face with another world.

I imported my pencil thumbnails into Photoshop and started playing with color and value, thinking this whole misunderstood druid character was going to work. But everything felt so stiff and staged no matter what I tried. The angry fairies hovering around him felt comical and not what I was going for. I even tried having a gigantic fairy god in the background  looming behind the druid in a menacing fashion. Also not working.

My next round of ideas threw out the antagonistic fairies entirely. I tried thinking of what the most dramatic part of this story actually was and came across the idea of a fairy portal. This is actually inspired by a D&D campaign that I’m running right now in which the players have crossed from their home world into the world of the fairies called the Feywild. I really liked the idea that the portal between the Feywild and the regular world are these hidden gateways that anyone can cross through if they know where to find them. A lot of this is inspired by Irish folktales of people who accidentally stumble into the fairy realm. The whole concept is so cool because it hints that magic is all around us, just waiting to be found.

I knew at this point that the idea was getting stronger, but something just still wasn’t clicking. That sense of drama and mystery wasn’t there yet. Sure, the druid finds a portal but what is beyond the portal? Is it just a big glowing circle? That’s kinda boring…

I started googling my favorite fairy movies to dislodge my creative block. I immediately thought of Guillermo del Toro’s tour de force, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I remember this movie just rocking my world during my years at art school. The image of the protagonist walking through the arch in the labyrinth struck a chord – that feeling was exactly what I wanted! A portal into another world that doesn’t announce itself with so much fanfare leaves a lot more mystery and enchantment for the viewer. Also, I have a serious love affair with all things crumbling and ruined and this was the perfect opportunity to dig into that material.

Four more thumbs later and I finally had something I knew was working. The archway transformed into a water filled ruin, hinting that the druid was coming from a broken world. I knew that since he would be turned away from the viewer, the setting would have to really do a lot of narrative heavy lifting. Anytime you can’t see a protagonist’s face, you have to rely on other things to tell the viewer what’s going on. I resolved that the fairy in his hand should be injured or dying, showing a bit of drama and another clue as to why the druid has come to this portal. He’s risking extreme danger by walking through the portal, perhaps his life and everything he knows to be true, but he’s doing what’s right for this fragile being that he has formed a bond with.

Everything that comes after the thumbnail stage is essentially technical. Of course, that isn’t to say it’s easy! But, if I have the heart of the story established in the thumbnail, I know that all following work will be worth it. Cherish the thumbnail. It’s your guide in a perilous world!