Contemporary fantasy artists cover a wide range of subjects and genres, with techniques that confidently blur the lines between styles. Loosely defined ideas of imaginative realism allow the artist to express their visions through unfettered imaginative journeys that result in new and unique experiences for the viewer.
Being able to skillfully recreate one’s imagination is a characteristic treasured across all forms of art, and contemporary fantasy art is no exception. Strange worlds, creatures, ambiances, and atmospheres are all communicated in visually stunning style, with vivid colors and forms that depart from the more traditionally accepted norms of fine art.
It is bold and provocative, promoting subjects that garner derision from the conservative sectors of mainstream art and love from those who rebel against the norms, challenging established doctrines. Here are 8 masters of its form.
1. Frank Frazetta (1928 – 2010)
Known as “The Grandfather of Fantasy Art,” Frazetta was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was encouraged to start drawing from the age of just two. This fantasy artist’s career started in the comic book industry before moving on to covers for paperback fiction. He worked primarily in oil but also used watercolor, ink, and pencil.
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Frazetta’s success caught the eyes of the public, and he became a household name in the Sword and Sorcery genre of art, eventually leading him to work in Hollywood. In the early eighties, he was heavily involved in the rotoscoped animation movie Fire and Ice, and his continuing success allowed him to break free of commissioned work and open his own gallery.
Frazetta’s works have also graced the covers of several music albums, and his painting Death Dealer, one of his most iconic paintings, is used as the mascot of the US Army III Corps. A large metal statue of the Death Dealer stands outside Fort Hood military base.
Frazetta’s work has been a major influence in the genre, with many of the most well-known fantasy artists citing him as their original inspiration. His work, in many respects, had a heavy hand in defining the style of contemporary fantasy art.
In 2019, his painting Egyptian Queen sold for $5.4 million, the world record for comic book art.
2. Boris Vallejo
Although fantasy artists in their own right, the married couple Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell are known as an artistic duo. Their styles are similar, and they have often collaborated on projects. It is difficult to focus on one without including the other.
Born in 1941 in Lima, Peru, Boris Vallejo started painting at the age of 13. He attended an art college and, at the age of 23, emigrated to the United States. He worked in the same field as Frank Frazetta, creating covers for paperback fiction before moving on to movie posters, advertising, and collectible cards. Through his hyper-representational style, his art covers high fantasy and science fiction, often with a dose of erotica.
3. Julie Bell
Born in 1958, Julie Bell attended various art schools and also took a keen interest in bodybuilding, which influenced her art in painting well-muscled women. She has an intricate knowledge of human anatomy, which shows through in her works that display both strength and grace. Since 1990, Julie has painted work for the covers of over 100 fantasy and science-fiction books, and along with video games and trading cards, Julie provided the cover art for several of Meat Loaf’s albums. Although known primarily as a fantasy artist painting heroic fantasy and imaginative realism, Julie also paints wildlife.
Together, the duo has provided paintings for advertising campaigns of major companies such as Nike, Coca-Cola, and Toyota. Every year, these two fantasy artists release an eagerly anticipated calendar of their work.
4. Gerald Brom
Known simply as “Brom,” this fantasy artist was born into a military family and was constantly on the move. He started drawing from an early age but never received any formal art classes. He cites Frank Frazetta, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell as his earliest influences.
By the age of 20, Brom had started his career in art as a commercial illustrator, creating art for Coca-Cola, IBM, CNN, and Columbia Pictures. TSR (which owned the Dungeons & Dragons line) hired Brom in 1989, and he contributed to a wide range of their products. His vision defined the look of the “Dark Sun” setting in Dungeons & Dragons. After a few years, he left TSR and began working as a freelancer, creating designs for book covers and concept art for movies.
In 1998, this fantasy artist returned to TSR and currently works for its successor company, Wizards of the Coast. He has also created a series of horror books that he has both written and illustrated.
His style tends more towards the darker, more ominous aspects of fantasy art, with many of his works being characterized as “gothic fantasy.” He fuses beauty with intrigue, mystery, and the macabre, managing to turn the malevolent and grotesque into elegant grace.
5. Michael Whelan
Inarguably one of the masters of imaginative realism, Michael Whelan’s career was grounded in formal training. At the age of 15, he studied at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. After he finished school, he studied at San José State University, where he majored in pre-medical biology. This knowledge of anatomy helped him in his artistic career, and after graduating, Whelan studied art further at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
While studying, Whelan displayed his art in a gallery. It was then that his career as a fantasy artist was kickstarted, and he became successful by painting covers for fantasy and science-fiction novels. He also painted album covers for major musicians, including Meat Loaf, Michael Jackson, and Sepultura.
In the early 90s, his success enabled him to devote his time to private work and pursue a career in fine art, although he still paints covers for books. Recent and noteworthy are his covers for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. During his career, Whelan has won 50 Hugo Awards, and his art can be found on the covers of over 350 books.
6. Keith Parkinson
Keith Parkinson is best known for his heroic fantasy artform, in which he painted all manner of creatures inspired by the fantasy genre and, indeed, the Dungeons & Dragons franchise.
In 1980, Parkinson graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design and got his first job working for a company called Advertising Posters, where he created art for pinball and arcade games. He was soon introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by a co-worker and seeing an opportunity, he drove to the TSR headquarters and asked for freelance work. He joined the team of artists there, working with other masters of the fantasy genre like Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley.
After several years of working at TSR, Parkinson left to pursue his own career as a fantasy artist, painting covers for books. His clients included Palladium Books, Random House, Bantam Books, and Penguin Books.
He was then hired as the art director for Sigil Games Online and worked there until he fell ill with leukemia. In 2005, Keith Parkinson died at the age of 47.
7. Gustavo ‘Ciruelo’ Cabral
Born in 1963, Gustavo “Ciruelo” Cabral is one of the leaders of fantasy art and has become especially famous for his depictions of dragons. At a young age, he discovered that he had personal drawing skills, which he was encouraged to explore. In his teens, he discovered the works of Frank Frazetta, Moebius, Alan Lee, Carlos Nine, and Oscar Chichoni–fantasy artists with wildly different styles–and he thought about how wonderful it would be to have a career creating otherworldly imagery like these artists.
At the age of 18, he found work at an advertising agency as an illustrator. Three years later, he struck out on his own as a freelance illustrator and, in 1987, moved to Spain. Ciruelo has since created covers for books by George Lucas, among others, and has done art for music albums, magazine covers, and movie posters.
Cabral works mainly in acrylics but also uses oils, and he often makes use of an airbrush to finish his paintings. Although primarily famous for his dragons, Ciruelo’s work explores many themes found throughout imaginative fantasy, and his paintings include portraiture, heroic fantasy, and symbolism.
8. Dariusz Zawadzki
Born in 1958 in Poland, Dariusz Zawadzki is a fantasy artist who has an unusual sensitivity to the world around him. His work is known for its ability to evoke powerful emotions.
At the age of 11, he was refused entry into art school because his eyesight was too poor. He is thus self-taught. With strong influences from the Polish master of the surreal and fantastique, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Zawadzki adds a fantasy element to his art.
Generally set in fantastical dystopian worlds, his work shows elements of surrealism, horror, the grotesque, and wonder. With a large international following, this fantasy artist’s paintings often sell before they are even finished.
As the genre becomes increasingly popular, fantasy art has attracted many practitioners, both amateur and professional, who paint for the love of the subject, and as a career.
Reducing the list of great fantasy artists to a simple few is a difficult process, as there are so many masters of the genre who deserve mention. Nevertheless, the aforementioned artists have made a huge impact on fantasy art, infusing it with their own unique styles, influencing others, and drawing millions of new fans to the realm of contemporary fantasy art.
As the genre widens to new forms of media and styles, drawing influence from multiple cultures and subjects from around the world, the growth of fantasy art and the number of fantasy artists seems almost exponential. It is assured that the near future will bring fresh talent that will brighten our visions with new and exciting images from realms we could never have imagined.