Saturday, January 31, 2009

Creature Feature #2: Wayne Barlowe

When I was a young child, about seven or eight, I came across Wayne Barlowe's Expedition in the sci-fi section of Barnes & Noble. While it would be a bit overdramatic to say that it was a life-changing event, since I was already very interested in creature design, it certainly was a formative moment for me, as I understand it was for a great many artists. Wayne Barlowe is the most influential creature designer of our time. The publishing of his books such as Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials and Expedition are perhaps the closest thing to events in the history of the admittedly small field of creature design.

But let's go back a few years first. According to his biography, Barlowe's parents were well-known natural history illustrators, so he had both nature and nurture on his side. He attended the Art Student's League of New York and The Cooper Union in New York City, while at the same time working at the American Museum of Natural History and collaborating with his parents in book projects. This solid background in fine art principles an natural history is readily apparent in his work.

While starting out as an illustrator, Barlowe worked on a number of book covers. Many of these can be seen in The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe. The example above left shows Barlowe's rendition of a Yilane, an intelligent mosasaur from Harry Harrison's Eden novels. Barlowe's breakthrough, though, came with the publishing of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. In this book, he painted many of the most well-known creatures in science fiction, forever influencing how fans would imagine them. The book won many awards and was nominated for many more. Though Barlowe's painting style was not as well-developed as in later books, he nonetheless painted the creatures with a great sense of naturalism and creativity, and forever influenced how those creatures would be imagined by science fiction fans. The above right image shows Barlowe's version of the Puppeteer from Larry Niven's Known Space universe (I apologize for the poor quality of this image; Google did not have a good selection to choose from).

Ten years and hundreds of book cover illustrations later, Barlowe published his second book, Expedition. As I have already said, it was a watershed event in the field of creature design. With the vivid, bizarre, extraordinarily well-realized creatures in this book, Barlowe reinvented what it meant to be alien. It had such a huge influence, in fact, that nowadays it seems that you cannot draw a strange alien creature without someone saying that it reminds them of Barlowe, even if there really is no resemblance. Wayne Barlowe and very non-Earthly aliens have become synonymous in the public consciousness.
The images above, from Barlowe's Expedition, clearly show his natural history background, as well as his understanding of fine art techniques. As stated in The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, he is a firm believer in the importance of composition. Notice his use of color, value, and horizontal and diagonal lines in these images.

Barlowe published a number of other books after Expedition. An Alphabet of Dinosaurs is obviously a children's alphabet book, but nonetheless contains many unique and interesting depictions of dinosaurs. The upper leftmost image shows another dinosaur painting by Barlowe; he has done many. The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe is something of an autobiography, showing many of Barlowe's other book illustrations, and snippets of unpublished projects. Barlowe has written a few paragraphs to go along with each painting, describing the process of creating each work. It's quite fascinating, and I of course highly recommend it. Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy is a sequel of sorts to his Guide to Extraterrestrials, though this book obviously deals with creatures and characters from fantasy novels rather than science-fiction. Though it contains many interesting designs, such as the Gug pictured above, Clive Barker's Gek-a-Gek, and Gene Wolfe's Alzabo, it also contains a disappointing amount of very ordinary and uninteresting designs. Still worth a look, though.

In recent years, Barlowe has turned his considerable talents to reimagining Hell. His vision of Hell is the most fascinating I've ever scene. In Barlowe's Hell, every tool and implement is made of a damned soul. Those mounts that you see the demons riding are souls. Siege engines and the very bricks of buildings are made of souls. His demons are horrifying combinations of biological, abstract, and artificial features. Barlowe has even imagined the indigenous fauna of Hell, which evolved their naturally before the demons came. That's probably the most original and fascinating Hell-related idea I've ever come across.
Barlowe has three books related to Hell: Barlowe's Inferno, Brushfire: Illuminations from the Inferno, and God's Demon. God's Demon is a novel, and from what I hear it's very good. He is still pumping out new Hell work, so look forward to more books in the future.

It's been a while since Barlowe published an illustrated book, but you've probably still been seeing his work, whether you realize it or not. He's been working as a concept artist, most notably for Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy movies.

Visit the following links to learn and see more.
Wayne Barlowe's website:
Video of Wayne Barlowe sketching (notice how he holds the pencil):
Interview on CG Channel:
An extensive gallery of his work from some random spot on the internet:
Search results for Wayne Barlowe on (buy his books!):

All images in this post are (c) Wayne Barlowe.


hermann.sitz said...

Barlowe shure IS one of the greatest artists I know... This guy really changed my life and my understanding of art, and he heavily influenced all I have been drawing and writing since I bought EXPEDITION.

I'm considering to get some of the INFERNO series as well, but I'm not sure about that, since I'm making a series about Hell myself and there could be a real danger I just copy a lot of his stuff :D.

Moai said...

Barlowe was a huge influence for me as well. I filled hundreds of sketchbook pages with Darwin IV style aliens when I was younger, and I still occasionally draw a creature and realize afterwards that I was just subconsciously copying a daggerwrist.:P
His Hell stuff is awesome. I do recommend that you take a look at it after you're finished with your own Hell project.

N said...

His work is amazing!
I only found a couple of those, it nice to see a tonne of his other work :D

dananddna said...

I just recently got a hold of "The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe". It is quite amazing how far his style has progressed. I wonder if his "Thype" universe will ever become published? I look forward to that day.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links! That sketch theater piece was such a great insight, I'm definitely bookmarking that site.

Moai said...

Thanks for the comments, peeps.
danandda- His website seems to suggest that he's working on, or planning to work on, more Thype stuff. I eagerly await that day as well.