"I'm often called a 'fantasy' painter," Brian notes, "but my imagery springs from myth, folklore and the old oral story–telling tradition, not from the modern fantasy genre — although I'm grateful for the support that fantasy readers have given me over the years. I have to confess that, unlike Wendy, I rarely read fiction at all. Most of my reading is nonfiction: history, mythology, archetypal psychology and the like. I prefer the enchantment of a story told rather than one that is written down. In the oral tradition, where stories are told around the fireplace in semi–darkness, the words are alive: they leave the lips, enter into the air and before they fall onto your ear they transform themselves into magic. They're not fixed; they change from telling to telling, and from listener to listener. I want my pictures to have that same quality of mutability. I don't want things to be fixed too solidly or explained too fully; I want each viewing to be like a re–telling of a tale, full of new possibilities.
"Back in my illustration days, I remember working on a book called The Wind Between the Stars by Margaret Mahy which was a great technical challenge, for how does one draw the wind? Most of what I do today still has that sort of challenge: drawing things that are normally beyond human perception, turning the invisible world of Faerie into visible form. Myth surrounds us every day, particularly in a landscape as soaked in history and old stories as Dartmoor. If I do my job well, not only does myth become visible within a painting, but that painting becomes a doorway into a new way of looking at the world. You turn and look at the land around you, and you begin to see the faces in the trees and faeries flitting through the shadows.
"Part of the challenge in painting faeries is to convince the viewer that what I've depicted is true, that I've got it right. When Cocteau was making his classic film Beauty & the Beast, he strove for what he called 'the supernatural within realism' — in other words, grounding fantastical elements with ordinary imagery, which gives plausibility to the first and enchantment to the second. I think this is important to mythic art no matter what the medium: drawing, writing, filmmaking. You need realism as an underpinning, an anchor, for the magic. In order to do this, I usually start my large, complex paintings with a human image. The familiarity of the human form provides a touchstone and a reference — and then as we continue on in our journey around the picture, encountering stranger and stranger imagery, we have confidence that these faeries look just as they're supposed to look. We know that the distortions in their forms or faces are deliberate, not just a stylistic aberration or bad drawing. Every distortion in my paintings actually has a precise meaning behind it. In traditional lore, one often finds that faeries have some striking defect of form: some are hollow–backed or elongated, others have goat — or lion — feet. Heads, hands, and feet are often large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is due to the plastic nature of faery forms, which are often glimpsed in states of transition from one shape to the next.
"I start each painting by drawing a geometrical grid based on the Golden Section (or Golden Ratio a system of proportions and perspective developed by the ancient Greeks. The grid is overlaid with circles, triangles and the like and where these things cross over is where I place the major figures. This gives the 'chaos' of a crowded painting an underlying structure of order. The central human figure is generally based on a photograph — again, this provides an underpinning of reality for the more fantastical aspects. I take my own photographs of models: friends and neighbors generally. The imagery surrounding the central figure is always in relationship to it. These secondary creatures are often drawn from earlier sketches — I have many, many sketchbooks filled with such things. I keep the drawing fairly loose; I don't like to get tight at this stage, which would close down possibilities. And even in the final stages of a painting I strive to maintain a looseness and a sense of mystery.
"I find that some fantasy genre painters tend to over–paint their pictures; they're a bit too . . .over–wrought for my taste. When I look at them I find them much too bright and shiny. The artist has finished every detail, and every edge is hard and bright — which doesn't allow me into their world, my eye slides right off that shiny surface. I prefer to keep the rendering as loose as possible, just on the edge of being finished. I want a painting to give just enough information for the picture to make sense; there should always be a little bit kept back, a few pieces missing, which the viewer must supply himself. In doing that, the picture comes to life. It becomes part of a reciprocal process, a communication. The painting allows you inside, where it can grow, and you can grow.
"After years of painting faeries, I'm often asked if I 'believe' in them. The best answer I can give is that I don't have much of a choice in whether I believe in them or not, for they seem to insist on my painting them. I paint by intuition, and faeries keep appearing on the page before me. Mind you, it's not that I lie around on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike — painting is a discipline and I'm in my studio working a regular work day from 9 to 5. But on a Monday morning I'm often not sure what exactly I'm going to be doing next. I'll get out my tools, I'll get to work, and something will demand to come through — some creature will form on the page before me, demanding to say: Hello! When I'm working at my best, I try to step aside and allow for this spontaneity; I try not to let rigid ideas or fussing about technique step in the way.
"In capturing faery imagery, I find it useful to have a variety of different tools at hand: acrylics, pencils, watercolor, photography. The large, formal paintings are done in acrylics, with imagery built up in layer upon layer. These can take up to a month to complete and are quite laborious — so more and more I've been enjoying working on a smaller scale: pencil drawings with watercolor washes that I can do quite quickly. There's something particularly magical about the smaller drawings, portraying the fleeting essence of Faerie and giving me moments of bright insight in ways that the larger works cannot."
Text copyright by Brian Froud and Terri Windling. It may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of both authors. All images on this page copyright by Brian Froud. They may not be reproduced in any form without the artist's express permission. Visit his website for more information.