Wayne Barlowe is a living legend in the world of science fiction painting and creature art. Classically-trained at The Cooper Union, he became an award-winning author at age twenty-one with his first painted book, Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1979). Since then, his work has been seen in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines, on trading cards and on The Discovery Channel, in galleries and on hundreds of book covers. In the nineties, his science fiction and fantasy art books Expedition (1990), The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe (1995) and Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy (1996) secured his place as an artist’s artist and fan favorite. In the 2000s, he become synonymous with the arsenal of work he produced about Hell — from books of paintings and drawings to his critically-acclaimed debut novel, God’s Demon (Tor Books, 2007). He’s now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after creature designers and concept artists, contributing to such films as Avatar (2009), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), The Hobbit (2012) and most recently, Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Pacific Rim (2013). Today, I have the honor of speaking with Wayne about his projects, his inspirations, his processes and the underworld that’s filled his work for a decade.
Your parents Sy and Dorothea Barlowe were well-known natural history artists, which I assume laid the groundwork for the refined knowledge you now have of anatomy. Did you spend much time drawing under your parents’ instruction as a child? Drawing animals from life? What were your childhood artistic years like?
My education was, primarily, by osmosis. Growing up with working, professional artists inculcated me with a sense of self-discipline and an appreciation for the degree of hard work that went into doing illustrations and putting books together. It was a slow process and the time-consuming, painstaking effort that went into doing scientifically accurate work was not lost on me. It imbued me with a personal desire to “get it right,” to measure twice and cut once, as the saying goes. And that philosophy layered itself atop my love of biology, anatomy and all things scientific. Okay, so I was an odd child. I drew constantly and my parents were both honest and encouraging. I rarely drew animals from life but we did have a ton of dried specimens and other natural objects which I did enjoy trying to render. But my interests in SF, Fantasy, WWI and ancient Rome skewed the drawings and I veered off from my parents’ work pretty early on. My school notebooks were filled with marginalia and studies of all kinds of things. The freedom was fun. I didn’t really get a handle on paint until I was in my mid teens. I had gone to an art and music camp for a few summers on Long Island and picked up acrylics there. They were a relatively new medium and I learned their attributes pretty quickly. I owe my continued use of them to those summers. My parents worked in gouache and I never really got the hang of it — the fact that you could re-activate the paint beneath annoyed me. But I was very happy with the fast drying speed of acrylics and the greater body. Once I got bitten by the paint bug, I was forever changed. I did a ton of work in my old, cluttered room. I painted a lot of aliens, and robots and Picts and you name it. Eventually, I managed to put a portfolio of paintings together (mostly imaginative stuff) and I was accepted into Cooper Union.
Your first book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1979) was published when you were only twenty-one, and remains an earmark of modern science fiction illustration still today. Since then, you’ve rendered and crafted countless creatures while rotating seamlessly between alien, prehistoric and horror imagery. Are there projects from your career that stand out as more challenging or more rewarding than others?
Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials was the product of a hungry youth with something to prove. I had just left Cooper early and was more than ready to go out and conquer the world. I came up with the idea over a beer with my parents — it was the perfect merging of what they did with what I wanted to do in the world of science fiction. I probably could not come close to producing it as quickly as I did way back then. And, I’m not so keen on the quality of it these days. I was a kid and it was the perfect project for me back in 1979. Expedition was a real challenge. I had been painting covers for quite some time and had gotten into a rut. It was not a comfortable rut either. I realized, luckily, that I was losing touch with myself and simply jumping from one cover to the next without any thoughts other than those of pleasing sometimes arbitrary art directors. It was a dead end. So, I gambled with Expedition. I took the leap and did a painting and put together a proposal and sold it. And then had to spend three years working on it! It was a great, stimulating project and led to many other great projects, but it was pretty taxing. I was doing the artwork (30+ paintings and over a hundred drawings) and the writing (which, at that time, I was even more uncertain of than I am today) and the back/forth was daunting. On a positive note, I learned how the written word could catalyze images and vice versa. All in all, it was a struggle, complete with editorial battles, but very much worth it in the end.
Writing God’s Demon was, in a different way, even more challenging because while I had done some forty or so paintings in the Hell universe, I never considered myself a novelist. I still don’t. But here I was suddenly holding a contract in my hands and tasked with writing the epic story of Hell, of bringing together all of my paintings and eighteen years of thoughts into one comprehensive work. I don’t think a day went by when I didn’t ask myself what new, self-delusional form of hubris had been invented to enable me to think I could do this. It didn’t help that towards the end, when all of my creative juices were urging me on to finish the damned thing, I suddenly got called away to work on AVATAR. I had, insanely, thought I could write on weekends. It never happened. That book was probably the single hardest, creative endeavor to date.
I heard that you used sea life as an inspiration for some of the designs you worked on for Avatar. Can you share a little more about this and about your artistic involvement on the film as creature designer? Your art sensibility seems very well-suited to the production.
Thank you. Actually, only the sweeping lines and curves and detailing of cetaceans made their way into my early, personal design bible for AVATAR. A lot of that got dialed back, too. I was the first person called in on AVATAR and I remember how nervous and excited I was to be in the first wave, along with the three other talented designers under me, on such an ambitious project. It was such a deep, black-ops phase that not even the person who much later wrote the Art Of book was aware of us! Working with Jim was a blast — a true peak experience. After listening carefully to him I went down a path wherein I started to blend the aforementioned cetacean lines with Formula 1 car elements and added a dollop of amphibian skin for good measure. Big air scoops to accommodate and visually convey the denser air, large, flat skin surfaces for bold markings, pinched anatomical curves to suggest speed and power and plain alien-ness. I was doing some pretty strange things to animal forms and Jim liked it but, quite wisely, pulled me back. After all, it was his vision for Pandora and he had a very clear idea of where he wanted to go. I think, in hindsight, my earliest designs might have been too extreme and not relatable to a larger audience. That’s Jim’s genius — to know what will speak to people. AVATAR was a rich and amazing project and will remain, for me, a high-water mark in every way.
You also worked as a concept artist for the films Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There have never been art books for any of the Harry Potter movies, correct? Are you able to tell us about your design contributions to Harry Potter 3 and 4?
There is a book out now, but sadly, I am not mentioned. That happens. Art Of books come out so long after production that the lines of communication and awareness constrict until only the last few people are there to discuss the projects. It’s a shame because a lot of people deserve a lot of credit for their work but the last men standing simply aren’t aware of their contributions. Anyway, on HP3 I designed the werewolf, made major contributions on the hippogriff, designed the monster books, the Hogwarts ghosts. On HP4 I had a lesser role, but I did work extensively on the Death Eaters’ costumes, the dragons, the shark kid, Mad-eyed Moody’s artificial leg and a few other elements.
Your first novel God’s Demon (2007) was preceded by your art books about Hell (Barlowe’s Inferno  and Brushfire: Illuminations from the Inferno ), as well by as your 2000 screenplay, Inferno: Rebellion in Hell. The novel fleshes out ideas touched upon in all three of these works, which is part of what made it such a rich, ambitious and far-reaching narrative. Did it ever feel daunting to be working up a story based off a larger creative manifesto, rather than working within the confines of a more limited concept or stand-alone novel outline?
Actually, there is no one answer to that question. On the one hand, I had the screenplay which served as a really good underpinning for the writing. And I had all of those annoying paintings and drawings which kept pushing their way into the process. They actually did a fine job of serving as visual touchstones for me. But once I started to get further into the writing, my spit-balled estimate of three pages of manuscript to one page of script started to go away. In other words, the book started to take on a life of its own and the script morphed into becoming a good skeleton to drape the narrative on. The script and the paintings were more of a resource to tap into than a burden. But I did feel the pressure of trying to get as much into the book as I could simply to mark out the territory and make it as real as I could.
One of most chilling attributes of the Hell depicted in your work is the sheer vastness of it, which imbues the place with an other-worldly hopelessness. The idea of a boundless landscape as a prison — where going anywhere leads you nowhere — reinforces notion that the suffering is inescapable because the space it is housed by is infinite. How did you come up with this idea which is a contrast to the typical, finite underworld or leveled Hell we’re accustomed to seeing?
To me, Hell had to be dwarfing in scale, both for physical reasons and psychological. The world of Dante’s Inferno seemed too limiting to me — a series of rings that by definition are constraining. Clearly, that was appealing hundreds of years ago and something that the public could relate to. Later, Milton expanded upon it and made his Hell feel more like a dark region, a world that somehow existed but was vast. I ran with that ball. We live in an era where we are just beginning to understand the vastness of the universe and see it depicted in films. I could not have created a world for Hell that would have been any less expansive. I sometimes played with the idea of layering a temporal element to Hell — a kind of string-theory approach that would have involved multiple Hells that could co-exist but only be joined in certain locations. I had this crazy desire to show what humanity would evolve into and then place them in Hell next to our more familiar form. It was a rough concept but not one that found its way into the story.
You’re an avid reader with an extensive knowledge of traditional literature and classical science fiction. Looking at the text accompaniments in your art books, it’s not surprising that you branched out into writing. Did you write much fiction in your spare time before you began your first screenplay in 1999?
I dabbled. I wrote a treatment for an old college project that people have asked me about for years — Thype. I still have to do something with that. I also tried a couple of short stories but they were small experiments. Nothing more. The screenplay came out of my love for the form. I think it’s particularly well-suited to me because of its obvious visual component. And I love narrative. So it’s a perfect blend. I suspect I will be writing more of them.
People have said that God’s Demon is in good company with classical works like Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. The characters in God’s Demon have an elevated capacity for humanity — though they are not technically human — which draws the reader to empathize and feel invested in their struggle. Sadness, regret, will, a yearning for redemption, a desensitization to the suffering of others and a wish to feel sympathy — these big themes are as pertinent to worldly suffering as they are to the idea of punishment in eternity. Was this an early part of the narrative, or did it come out organically as you crafted the story? How important was it to you to “humanize” Hell?
I am humbled by anyone who makes a comparison such as you suggest. I tried hard to write something that would last and be engaging for a long time. That’s one of the reasons you find very few references to actual people in Hell, let alone any references to modern touchstones. And that’s also the reason I chose to “humanize” the demons. While I wanted them to be strange and, in some ways, distant, I did not want a reader to completely disassociate from their situation. It’s entertainment and by definition one needs to be able to relate to the struggles a character you are reading and enjoying is undergoing. All of the emotions you listed are, indeed, human but there is no reason to suggest that demons or angels would not feel them. Were I writing about true aliens I would probably have pushed further away from those emotions. But, if you buy the canon, the angels and demons were created by the same hand as we were. So, it makes sense that they would have the same kinds of emotions. And, that is pretty much how Milton, my spiritual muse on this project, envisioned them as well. His characters are the epitome of the emotions they display — nobility becomes Nobility, pride becomes Pride.
Well put. One of the visualizations that carried over from Barlowe’s Inferno to God’s Demon is the image of each of the condemned souls carrying their sins around in a heavy, black sphere, visible as a mobile and tumor-like orb in their form. Did utilizing these and other elements from your visual work make plotting the framework for God’s Demon easier, or was it a challenge to string together the components you wanted to retain for the novel?
The heavy-lifting of plotting was pretty much mapped-out and determined by the screenplay. For the novel, I added scenes as they seemed necessary, recognizing that I had more elbow-room and no real parameters with its length. And, by the time I began to write God’s Demon, I obviously knew I would not have the luxury of the artwork accompanying the text which was a mixed blessing — it forced me to be more descriptive but made the book a bit heavy on the visuals — something today’s readers are not always happy with. Luckily, more people than not enjoyed that degree of description. I very much wanted a reader who had seen my artwork to recognize scenes or elements from the paintings so it was important to make sure that I didn’t miss putting in anything key. That part — sprinkling in bits of from the art — was actually fun. For me, kind of like when you eat a bowl of Lucky Charms and you find a nice little marshmallow in with the cereal. But not all of the art is represented. Some of it was less narrative and just wasn’t appropriate to the greater story.
Creatively, how do your approaches differ between writing and visual art? Do painting and drawing come more easily to you since you’ve done them longer?
Without a doubt, my artwork is much easier to generate. I’ve been doing it since I was a child whereas I have only been writing seriously for six or seven years. I truly labor over the writing and, when I’m really stuck, ponder how real writers do it. Probably with as little effort as I draw. If I say that I draw and paint more easily I’m not actually implying that I am satisfied with it. I can’t look at my artwork a week after I’ve done it. If my self-criticism is bad with art, it’s off the charts when it comes to my writing. As for my methods of writing, I made a lot of small notes on index cards for both the novel and the screenplays I’ve written. They are handy and I can tear them up with impunity if I don’t like the thought or even the way it’s written on the card. My notes are pretty neat and concise. Similar in tone with the thumbnail sketches I do in my notebooks. Though, I will say the thumbnails for my paintings are sometimes pretty sketchy. At this point in my career, I’m pretty practiced at taking a rough thumb and turning it into a painting. And, I also like the many small things that happen if you wing it with paint and are not slavish to a sketch. But, then, there’s the painting I finished that has four paintings beneath it…
Speaking of painting, I’m curious about your process and the types of materials you use. Depending on the needs of the project, do you prefer oils or acrylics? How large do you typically work when painting for yourself or for personal projects?
I only use acrylics. I used to use Lascaux acrylics from Switzerland but I have, in recent years, switched to Golden brand. Domestically produced, easier to find and almost the same quality. I prefer the paint to dry matte and the other brands don’t achieve that. I use Winsor & Newton watercolor brushes for the finer detail and many different brands for the flats. I generally paint on Gessoboard because it’s not hard to get, is archival and relatively tough. I don’t work larger than 24″ X 36” and have been gravitating to 16″ X 20” lately. I will frequently put down a colored ground or go right to blocking in the background and then take pastels and block in the foreground elements. Nothing very unique about that. The acrylics are fairly forgiving and I can erase mistakes easily. As well as paint out big problems. Like entire paintings when I don’t like them!
Can you tell us what you have in the works right now? Any plans for a sequel to God’s Demon in the future?
I am in the midst of rewrites on a major, optioned screenplay — the details of which I cannot elaborate upon just yet. Safe to say, it is not set in Hell or any other universe I have created. I am also under contract to write a screenplay based on God’s Demon as well as a sequel to the novel. That book will be entitled The Heart of Hell and centers around Lilith and the Salamandrines. And, for those who’ve asked, many of the characters from the first book will be reappearing. I’ve gotten a bit into it and it’s giving me the opportunity to further expand Hell and the world-building that I so enjoy.
See more of Wayne Barlowe’s work on his website, www.waynebarlowe.com. You can also find Wayne’s complete film resume on The Internet Movie Database and view a live sketching video of him drawing on YouTube.
Header photo of Wayne Barlowe by Laura Hansen.
Rosemary Van Deuren is the author of the young adult fantasy novel, Basajaun. View more of her fiction and essays at www.rosemaryvandeuren.com. You can also be Rosemary’s friend on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @rosemaryvan.