The Art of Worldbuilding: An Artist’s Approach (Illustration pt. 1)
Written by: JJ Otto
Edited by: Mary Joaquin
“Worldbuilding” is the combination of storytelling, the world design itself, and how all these different facets fit together in a believable way.
It allows you to design a world from the ground up—everything from the ecology and environment, to the intricate social structures of its population, to the epic tales and heroes it hosts. While writers like Tolkien are one of the first to come to mind, worldbuilding with visual art, music, and other media is just as effective as text.
"The Art of Worldbuilding" series features interviews with creators across a range of media types. To start, I sat down with visual artists to take a deep dive into their worldbuilding process - "An Artist's Approach". Each one had key advice regarding their artistic specialty, as well as more general tips for every artist.
In this first article, I talked to Kin, a concept artist who has been working professionally since 2018. She had insightful advice about an artist’s role in worldbuilding, the importance of shape and color language, and utilizing iterations of a design to test out different ideas. In a follow-up article, we will go on a more in-depth walkthrough of a few of her worldbuilding illustrations to demonstrate the process discussed here.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
JJ: What is an artist’s role in worldbuilding? What does “worldbuilding” mean to you as an artist?
Kin: So for me, an artist's job is always to tell a story, and to communicate the story behind the piece they're doing without having to tell you explicitly what the story is.
Worldbuilding is the meat and bones of an illustration. Really, it is the structure connecting the storytelling of every part of any visual product.
In a way, artists act as translators when worldbuilding. If you’re working on a team, this could mean successfully communicating the director or writer’s vision in your illustration.
Your goal is to translate the lore of the world, the mood, and the characters that are in the illustration into one cohesive visual piece that looks good for your audience.
What does diversity mean to you as an artist? What role does diversity play in visual worldbuilding?
For me, as a creative person, I always find it disappointing to see “same-y” worldbuilding in all different kinds of media. (Here, Kin is referring to the Western European medieval fantasy common in books like Game of Thrones and games like D&D or the Elder Scrolls series.)
As an artist, I feel like it’s my job to make spaces that are tailored to a variety of unique people, rather than simply showing any world that isn't ours. To do this, it’s important to take inspiration from places that are more diverse than that pool of “same-y” worldbuilding.
Where do you go to find new avenues of worldbuilding inspiration?
There's so many fascinating places to get inspiration from, but the library has always been my favorite place to look.
I like to go and find books about clothing, architecture, and places all over the world. For example, on my desk right now I have a book about Islamic tile art and one about ancient Thai architecture.
There's just a wealth of resources out there, from experts who study those places or from the places themselves all around the world. It’s information that can get lost or overlooked, and you often find things that you can't find online.
That said, you can find tons of useful resources online, too.
One of my favorite things is that you can find artists from all over the world, see what they create, and appreciate how their world has influenced their art. Do a little reverse engineering: pay attention to the shapes, colors, and other elements and try to understand why the artist depicted them that way.
Kin emphasizes that taking in art created by those not in "your world" is invaluable visual information for your personal worldbuilding. After all, if you're only exposed to "your world", you can't expect to build new worlds that appeal to those outside your immediate circle.