Where would science fiction and fantasy be without their awesome visuals? Orbit Books Creative Director Lauren Panepinto gives us a crash course in appreciating speculative artwork, and reveals the two unshakable rules of science fiction and fantasy art.

Welcome to Science Fiction & Fantasy Art Appreciation 101. (a.k.a. SFF Art). The fabulous folks here at io9 think I'm qualified to give you this little overview because, as the Creative Director of Orbit Books, I've created hundreds of covers for books in the genre, and have been a fan of SFF Art in all of its forms as far back as I can remember. Plus, I've logged more hours working in comic book stores than I care to admit.


Let me start with a little disclaimer: in the hopes of keeping this an overview and not an encyclopedia, I am going to be making wild generalizations across genres, skipping around wily-nilly with chronology, and leaving out a great many artists we all love. I apologize up-front for these crimes, so feel free to crucify me in the comments. Now off we go…

Before we start covering genre and artists, let's take a moment to think about what makes SFF Art unique. I could talk about proportions, color theory, and proper lighting all day, but these are qualities that are important to all genres of art. I really want to focus on what makes a fantastic work of SFF Art, and the most important thing is its purpose. All well-made commercial works of art — whether they're movie posters, book covers, or ads — need to catch the eye and hold it long enough for the viewer's brain to engage. Most commercial art does this by relating to a target audience and making them recognize something familiar-it's about the art coming to meet the viewer. The purpose of a great work of SFF Art is almost exactly the opposite: it is to depict something alien, and then drag the viewer away from their world into the imagined world of the book, movie, or video game.

To this end I offer the Two Rules of Awesome SFF Art:

1) It must have that elusive special quality of a visual hook, or as I like to call it, the "Holy Sh*t That's F*cking Cool" Factor. People are bombarded by images all their waking lives, and you have about a nanosecond to grab them and hold them. In SFF art, this usually means taking advantage of genre cues, like a completely bad-ass heroine, insane looking spaceship, or haunting alien landscape. It's a hard quality to define, and even harder to capture, but we've all had that moment of "oooh me want!" in front of a book cover, movie poster, comic, or video game. I literally had a case of whiplash by the end of Comic-con this year.


2) Once the artwork has grabbed the viewer, it must draw them into the world of the art. SFF fans are fans, ultimately, of world-building, and it is the art's job to begin that story. The best SFF artists just somehow magically put pages worth of stories into a single visual, and it is truly the storytelling quality that distinguishes SFF Art. It is the artist's job to accurately depict the world of the creation behind the art, using their own imagination to fill in the details. In no other genre of art is the reader/moviegoer/video game player so affected by the artist's vision, because they don't have the safety net of reality to fall back on.

So now let's talk about some of the subgenres within SFF art, and some of the fantastic artists that have made such an impact on our imaginations.


Swords & sorcery, dungeons and dragons… this is the meat and potatoes of the fantasy world. There are many ways to go about tackling this realm, but it usually boils down to scene or character. The great hurdle is fighting against the tendency to info-dump — you want to give an enticing glimpse into this alien world, not end up with an overstuffed mess.


For the "character" end of the spectrum (and some hot babes) I direct you to Frank Frazetta. Even when his characters aren't really doing much, you just know there's some insane backstory happening.

For the "scene" end of the spectrum I direct you to Alan Lee, whose art, along with that of John Howe, pretty much directly dictated the Lord of the Rings movies. The magic of Alan Lee is all in his framing and cropping – it's almost more about what he doesn't show.


See also: Greg & Tim Hildebrandt, John Jude Palencar, Cliff Nielsen, Steve Stone, Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell, Sam Weber


Space opera is to science fiction what epic is to fantasy, and there are many similarities between the two. Again, as in most of these categories, you'll have a character-driven vision or a scene-driven vision. Let's stick to depictions of space scenes and spaceships and I'll use Daniel Dociu as my artist example. As with the work of Alan Lee, much of the magic is in the composition and balance of elements, but I love Dociu's brush-heavy painterly style – which is ironic, since I know he paints digitally, not with a brush — it gives a real energy to his work that I love. A lot of the artists who do these kinds of scenes work most heavily in concept art for movies and video games, and it's a treat when I can steal them away to work on a book cover for me.


See also: Stephan Martiniere, Sparth, Ralph McQuarrie, John Schoenherr


Urban Fantasy is really bookcover-based, and as a genre is really a mashup of fantasy and romance novels, and we're still sorting out the schizophrenia of clichés that this has produced. It's the subgenre that gets the most artistic bashing, but there are people doing it with an emphasis on the art, and it's interesting to me to see how people can tackle the same kind of cover from both a traditional painting direction, and photo-illustration technique.


In the photo-illustration corner is Chris McGrath, who gets a special gold star in my book for being equally good at female-led and male-led urban fantasy, without drowning in a pool of cheese.

In the painting corner is Dan Dos Santos, who I'm including specifically for his covers for the Mercy Thompson books, as he could be included in any of these genres. On paper these covers are the urban fantasy stereotype: hot chick, scantily clad, tattoos — but I love them anyway, so sue me. It's the powerful personality he gives the character that keeps it about being a strong woman, rather than just a cheesecake image.


See also: Larry Rostant, Gordon Crabb


As opposed to the above genres, where a wider view of the world or character signals genre, Cyberpunk and Steampunk is all about the details. For Steampunk, gears, goggles, airships, and/or Victorian accessories must be recognizable components. Since this is a relatively new genre, artists really have a chance to redefine the boundaries. Because of the opportunity to enforce the historical aspect through typography, I'm going to include art with text. Instead of picking one artist here, I'm going to jump around, which is also a fabulous opportunity to show how, especially in these two genres, bookcovers can influence movies, fashion can influence comics, and it becomes one big messy cultural collaboraton.


(Boneshaker, art by Jon Foster, design by Jamie Stafford-Hill, Suckerpunch movie directed by Zach Snyder, Soulless cover designed by me, photo by Derek Caballero, model Donna Ricci, Steampunk Vader by Eric Poulton, Laptop by Datamancer, Time Traveller ensemble by Clockwork Couture, modeled by Donna Ricci)

Cyberpunk and Steampunk are closely linked, but where Steampunk looks to the past, Cyberpunk looks to a (usually) dystopian future overrun with technology. We all know Blade Runner and The Matrix, but do you know Moebius, and H. R. Giger? Their art was so inspirational to Ridley Scott, Luc Besson, and William Gibson. And without Geof Darrow, I can't imagine The Matrix being anywhere near as visually rich. Cyberpunk, like Steampunk, is all about the details, but now its all about crammed skylines full of mile-high spires, knots of wires and robotic cybernetics.


(H. R. Giger)



(Geof Darrow, Matrix concept art)

See also: Mike Mignola, Frank Quitely

I wish I could have a dozen posts to cover SFF Art, but this is supposed to be an overview. I'm going to try to wrap it up, even though I've left out countless masters and genres like SFF/Horror, Military SF, and so many others. (and don't forget the poor neglected zombies!) I've pretty much sidestepped the entire issue of tools: oil paint, digital paint, photo-montage, photography, and even sculpture. I've also completely glossed over some important issues I deal with on the industry side. For example, this post has been an overview done by a fan aimed towards people who have some interest in SFF already. However, every day at Orbit I try to balance on the fine line between making fans happy while also reaching potential new fans. It can be tough to find the right balance, but we are all about converting the masses.


SFF Art is such an emotional topic for many people, myself included, because it's often so tied up in our childhood nostalgia. I can't picture Dune without John Schoenherr. I couldn't imagine a Middle Earth without John Howe & Alan Lee (and Peter Jackson couldn't either). There's a little girl inside me riding a Hildebrandt dragon flying over a landscape by Michael Whelan and I'm really blessed that it's my job at Orbit to get to work with such fantastic art and artists. I hope this look into the SFF Art World is a pleasant refresher for you fans out there, and a good overview for those of you not so versed in the SFF world.

Homework for SFF Art 102: Dave McKean, Mélanie Delon, Frank Miller, Gregory Manchess, Adam Hughes, Cliff Chiang, Donato Giancola, Ben Templesmith, Dave Palumbo, Charles Vess