Imaginative Realism – Interview with Marc Fishman, Illustrator of A Dance with Dragons

Divine Hammer: Kingpriest Trilogy, Volume Two
Divine Hammer: Kingpriest Trilogy, Volume Two (Cover)

Imaginative Realism is the art of painting or drawing what doesn’t exist.  It’s the act of bringing visual life to fantasy, often based on the words of fantasy authors.

Several months ago I knew Marc Fishman to be an amazing artist and an insightful human being, and A Song of Ice and Fire was just a series of books that people kept pestering me to read.  Then an HBO series (Game of Thrones) based on the books came along, and I decided to live tweet during it for Mythic Scribes.  I read the first book, watched the series and was hooked.

Shortly thereafter I learned that Marc was illustrating a limited edition version of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons.  So, one can imagine my excitement when Marc granted me an interview for Mythic Scribes.  I had high expectations and they were exceeded.

During my live tweeting of Game of Thrones, my friend Mike Rapino became my personal expert in all things A Song of Ice and Fire.  So when it came time for me to decide which of Marc’s illustrations from A Dance with Dragons to include in this post, Mike hand-picked each picture.  He didn’t have an easy job, as all of Marc’s work is amazing.

Ser Jorah Mormont
Ser Jorah Mormont

What was the first thing you remember drawing or painting?

Our family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union, and what today is Molodova. I was six when we started the journey, and reached the US when I was seven.  During that trip we stayed in Italy for quite a few months, outside of Rome.  It was as if I awoke on that trip, and began to remember everything clearly from then on.

Conan comic books were the fuel of my imagination in Italy. I couldn’t read but I could see, and started to copy those amazing drawings.

Conan comes up quite a bit on Mythic Scribes. What drew you to fantasy? You started with Conan, but what kept you with the genre? Do you try to tell a story with each piece? And, if so, how do you go about doing that?

I suppose what drew me was the intensity which was portrayed in those drawings.  Action is part of it, yes, but quiet intensity is far greater, and quite difficult to achieve.  I suppose that’s what drove me to it.

Emotion has always been the driving force of my work.  For me, it’s less about the story, and more about the emotional impact of the image.  There is usually a story attached to the piece, but that is only the first step to the image.  The story then needs to connect to me somehow; otherwise, it won’t have any of my soul added to it. It is difficult to explain how exactly this is achieved, but I would have to say that the more experiences you share in life, the more triggers you have to find that connection with whatever it is you are painting.

Books of the Gods: Part One
Books of the Gods: Part One (Cover)

What artists/works have been most influential to you? Do you have a favorite piece or pieces that you’ve done?

Part of my university education was spent in Florence, Italy.  Florence is fascinating for an artist, but what specifically interested me was Michelangelo’s David.  It changed the way that I approached art.

Before, as I said, I was only drawn towards the emotional in art, without actually understanding it.  After seeing the David in person (not the countless copies that we have all seen), I realized what I need to do in order to put MY emotion into MY art.  I have to actually feel it, like an actor feels his role.  I also learned how important it is to be aware of what you are leaving out of a piece of art as much as you are aware of what you are putting into it.  Balance has become the theme of art, and life.

I do have a favorite piece.  The easiest one I have done.  Angel of Death took me about four hours.  There is an entirely different painting under it, which I had been working on for six months or so, of the Biblical Deluge.  It wasn’t going well for months, so I decided to paint over it that day.  Let’s just say that an outside event, coupled with quite a few beers, inspired a painting that I can still feel today.

Angel of Death
Angel of Death

I’m glad you didn’t just go the whole, “They’re all like my children, and I can’t just pick one” route.   Are there any projects that you’ve worked on that people from the fantasy/RPG genre might know your work from?

Oh, they are far from my babies.  They are exactly the opposite.  With a baby, you have to take care of it, nurture it into an adult.  But with a painting, the idea and the concept is the thing that you have to nurture.  When it is done you have a “finished” painting.  You have done all that you can, and it is no longer precious to you. You can’t be like Gollum.

I have worked on a few books for Wizards of the Coast, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Magic, and others.  A few years back I did some of the original concept design on the Narnia film.  I just finished, as you know, illustrating A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin.

Theon Greyjoy " Reek"
Theon Greyjoy ” Reek”

Speaking of A Dance with Dragons, how did you come across the opportunity to illustrate it?  Did you collaborate at all with George R.R. Martin, or did he just give you complete freedom?

I was contacted by the publisher and George to do the book, and naturally I accepted.  Beyond a certain quota of illustrations, I had free reign to illustrate what I wanted.  I ended up producing much more work than was asked for.

George’s words are so very descriptive, and resonate with my sensibilities, so I found a great set to walk onto in my mind.  From there all I had to do is look around and take it in. Breathe in the cold air that he writes so well. These are the connections you are looking for when you want to make an emotional imprint on a piece of art.

I spoke to George a few times, but collaborated very little.  He had already described his vivid vision in the book; all I had to do is be sensitive to it.

Jon and Wun Wun
Jon and Wun Wun

Do you have any advice for aspiring fantasy artists? How hard is it for a new artist to break into this business?

The best advice that I can give is to not approach this thing as a way to break into a business. What you need to do is break into your art.  That takes an incredible amount of hard work.  Just work harder at becoming a better artist, at becoming a better person – more well-rounded, balanced and observant.

Think of yourself as not only a creative vessel but as a recording device.  Observe and analyze the world around you from the mundane to the sublime.  Be interested and inquisitive.  The culmination of all of life’s experience is the well from which you can nourish your creativity.  And from there the business should take care of itself.

Young Griff
Young Griff

What are you working on now? Where can we go to view/purchase your work?

I’m still finishing up some of the design issues with A Dance with Dragons, and working on quite a few commissions, along with some personal pieces.  This is a great time for fantasy artists or as we like to say imaginative realists, courtesy of James Gurney.

There is an exhibit coming up in 2012 starting in June at the Allentown Museum of Art.  It’s a major retrospective of imaginative realists, from the pre-Raphaelites to the golden age of illustrations, to contemporary leaders in the field.  Around 180 paintings and sculptures will be assembled from around the world. The exhibition is called AT THE EDGE: Art of the Fantastic.  I will be represented with at least one piece in the exhibition.

This is an honor, and extremely exciting for the field. For the first time Fantasy art will be considered next to the masters of the past centuries, further squashing the difference between illustration and fine art.  You can reach me on Facebook, or my email ([email protected]).

Last weekend I was at Illuxcon, the premier convention for artists, collectors and students of the field of fantasy art/imaginative realism. It is a fantastic place for students to go to and learn as much as they can. I wish that I had that kind of a resource when I was younger.

Tristan and Isolde
Tristan and Isolde

This has been an amazing and insightful interview, Marc. Do you have any final words for everyone?

I enjoyed it Nathan, thank you for thinking of me for this. I hope I’ve been helpful in some way.

Dante on the Banks of the Styx
Dante on the Banks of the Styx