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.
Further, it is not enough to simply observe a diverse group of artists and their work - it's important to support them however you can: commissioning, sharing their work, and even employment so they can work on all kinds of different projects. They deserve their own opportunities rather than serving solely as inspiration to others.
The more I study books from the library and designs from artists around the world, the more I learn about how things are constructed and where they came from. Once I have that information, I start to notice features that other artists are using that I wouldn’t have before - I start putting the puzzle pieces together.
For example, recently I was looking at Seljuk and Byzantine architecture, and it reminded me of some Tevinter designs in the Dragon Age series.
What are the most important waypoints in your worldbuilding design process?
I approach worldbuilding from a concept art perspective, so my first instinct is to pinpoint what story I’m trying to communicate. What’s the mood, the narrative, the feeling I want to evoke from the audience?
Then, I think about how that story can be told with color and shape. Does it need a warm or cool palette, curvy lines, sharp angles?
Finally, I think about how storytelling can be woven into the world itself with that shape and color language. How do I put them into the environment, the characters, the composition of each piece? Is the final product communicating the story I want to tell?
Within that process, establishing shape and color language is the most important tool on your belt because that's when everything starts to fit together and make sense story-wise. If you can translate the story you want to tell into the right shapes and colors, then you can use them any way you want to - it’s fun!
If you look at any piece of media out there, you'll find shape and color languages. They’re the main tools that artists use to make you feel a certain way about whatever it is you're seeing, and often you don't even realize that they're doing it.
Tapping into subconscious associations is an important part of an effective shape and color language. When you're building your characters in your world, you're not just trying to find shapes that have the feeling that you're going for, like “round shape is friendly”, “a triangular shape is dangerous”. You can look around you for shapes that are going to be associated with the story that you're trying to tell.
For example, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo is designed like a bell because he's a bell ringer. His back down to his belt is the top of the bell, and he has a little bit of fringe on his tunic below the belt which is the edge of the bell. When designing characters or a world, you want to be clever with the subtle little details you add.
If you’re pulling from a certain culture, there's so many beautiful and unique shapes you can find to use! Just looking at Mulan, they used a consistent shape language everywhere: the environment, characters, and prop design. It all has these blunt, teardrop shapes that are like brushstrokes, and calligraphy is quintessentially Chinese.
In my own art, I worked on a version of The Phantom of the Opera using Bian Lian, a type of Chinese opera which involves changing masks really fast.
When I went to China, it really struck me how detailed everything is: the architecture, the costumes, the artwork. I let myself get really scribbly with the painting to imply more detail than there is, and I added shapes associated with Bian Lian to the costume and environment.
My co-creator and I researched what different masks and coloring mean, and since we wanted this character to be dangerous, we stuck to a color scheme that implies that. Adding those extra cultural details and symbols give even more layers to your shape language.
All that said, Kin also emphasized that it is absolutely essential for artists to do their research and implement it in their designs with respect. If you find a culture’s colors and shapes to be beautiful, but then use them for your irredeemably, mindlessly evil barbarians, that’s not respect. We’re all human and we’re going to make mistakes, but it’s your responsibility as an artist to be open to criticism, learn from the communities you’re inspired by, and follow their lead with any changes you need to make.
How is character design and environment design related? How can I use character design skills in visual worldbuilding?
If you’re coming from a character design background, making the jump to environment design can be intimidating.
Before I started studying concept art and enjoying environment design, I really hated drawing backgrounds. In college I took a character design class, and one of our major units was environment design. At first I wondered, “why are we doing environment design in a character design class?”, but it quickly became clear that it’s because the principles remain the same. You’re still telling a story the same way, whether you’re building a character or an environment, and you can still use the same tools the same way.
Environment design is even more flexible than character design, in a way, because you can put any shape you want in an environment - you can make trees and rocks with literally any shape! Plus, since you’re using the same principles, going back and forth between the character and their environment continuously builds them both. You can take your character’s shapes and colors and put them into the environment, and the audience inherently knows that this person belongs here.
No matter if you’re starting from a character or environment design background, just use the same tools back and forth to build your world piece by piece.
As we wrap up, is there any general advice you’d like to give budding artists reading this?
Trust your skills! You know you have the building blocks, and you’re free to arrange them however you’d like.
You’re more qualified than you think! It can be intimidating to look at everything a piece needs (composition, color and shape language, story, characters, etc) and become too overwhelmed to even start - I definitely have times where I think too far ahead and psych myself out.
So, to take some of the pressure to be perfect off, I do quick iterations in a sketchbook. There, you can try ideas without worrying about wasting space, time, or the final product. You approach it from different angles until, slowly, you can combine iterations with feedback from others and arrive at a version you are confident about expanding into the final piece.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
Next time, we will take a deeper dive into Kin's worldbuilding process by following the design of an illustration series from start to finish. We'll take a look at how the design principles discussed here can be applied in practice to create unique, believable worlds.
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