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John Stephens

Ten artists that changed the face of fantasy forever

Step outside the realms of reality with game designers, concept artists and sci-fi extraordinaires

Around our latest issue – Autumn's Twisted Reality / Twisted Fantasy – we asked our Lore Oxford, Co-Curator of Melt and intrepid explorer of art's outer reaches, to tell us the ten best fantasy artists. What is fantasy? And how can it be represented in a visual aesthetic?

Here's her list of the sci-fi visionaries and mind-boggling illustrators, plucked straight from the covers of pulp books and prog record sleeves. From Paul Lehr’s sci-fi futurism to Raffaello Ossola’s notion of dystopian space to Tim White’s robotic surveillance to the influence of colorful conceptual artist Hiro Isono on Japanese role-playing games, let your mind cast itself adrift momentarily from the mundane happenings of day-to-day reality, and imagine yourself transported to pure fantasy. Below are ten of our favorite next-generation, otherworldly dimensional representations of the idea. 


Throughout the 60s and 70s it was impossible for sci-fi fans to miss the vibrant realism of the landscapes signature to Lehr, splashed across book covers and movie posters alike. From his first commission for Jeffery Lloyd Castle’s Satellite E One in 1954 to the angry spacescape he designed for the 1968 edition of The War of the Worlds, the works that the American illustrator’s work adorned defined him as a pioneer who shaped the aesthetic of sci-fi futurism. 


When discussing his work, Ossola consistently refers to the transcendence of space and time, and this concept is fitting given the static nature of his images. Populated with disconnected doorways that apparently lead to nowhere and fluffy clouds that appear to have drifted to a standstill, they take on a dreamy quality which is somehow as sinister as it is beautiful. They capture the same sense of discomfort that Leonardo DiCaprio describes when he’s explaining dream states to Ellen Page in Inception.


Water glimmers in the pools below, the light of dawn splashes the sky with varying hues of pink and orange, and lengthy tentacles trail behind the jellyfish that defy gravity in the foreground. This is a fairly standard scene for McCarthy’s surreal imaginings. Each one acts as a window into fantastical landscapes where the laws of physics don’t apply, all four seasons inflict themselves simultaneously and everything seems to seethe with magic.


When Terry Pratchet published Dark Side of the Sun in 1976, the surveillance device that adorned the cover – disguised as a robotic insect – was one of its most distinguishing features. More than four decades later, that image is still iconic, but it’s a proverbial needle in White’s haystack of a backlog. Featuring towering, spindled structures, smooth metallic spacecrafts and vivid colour palettes, White bridged the gap between sci-fi and psychedelia. 


Japanese Isono is held in most high regard for his work in video game design. His concept art for Squaresoft’s early 90s RPG Secret of Mana (think a 16-bit adventure complete with primitive electronic soundtrack and blocky text narration) is telling of his fascination with nature – particularly trees and forests. The nostalgic among us who nurture fond memories of Japanese gaming offerings like the SNES, Gameboy and Final Fantasy have Isono to thank for inspiring so much of the artwork that coloured their childhoods.


The surreal images Siudmak is responsible for are inspired by everything from the technological prowess of the human race to the philosophy of humanity itself – in his own words, “an intelligent balance of opposites: yin and yang, arrogance and meekness, hope and doubt.” Having enjoyed a long career throughout which he has garnered a reputation as a gatekeeper of fantastic realism, Siudmak has been aligned with the likes of M.C. Escher.


The Italian-born painter has defined his work with an ability to create fairy tale scenes that conceal hidden images within them. The face of a man surreptitiously resides in the crevasse of a cliff, while curling leaves of over-sized plants overshadow parted thighs in a forest. And while the sometimes erotic implications are telling of the sexualised undertones so prominent in the realms of fantasy, they’re also a comment on humanity’s rightful place within the world.


In school Pennington nurtured a fascination with birds which would evolve into a hobby in taxidermy. He speculates that these early pastimes may have influenced him subconsciously, and it certainly seems fitting given that he’d later play such an integral role in defining the imagery of fantastical horror. While his later work took on a less ominous character, it’s these apocalyptic landscapes populated with hooded figures and grotesque monsters that defined his work in the art world.


“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” so said Einstein. “Knowledge has its limitations, while imagination has no limits.” Kush references this quote when discussing his art. His surreal interpretations of the world are by his own admission a ‘metaphor’ which leaves the subject matter open to the perception of the viewer. Do you see a rippling pool of water surrounded by grass or an eye shrouded in lashes? Is that an animal or architecture?


Fantasy never took on a more literal state than in the dreamscapes designed by John Stephens. Religious themes – both man-made and natural – are solidified in impressions of stained glass and gushing waterfalls, and each painting feels strangely grandiose and awe-inspiring. From a lack of proportion reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, to the depiction of entire mountain ranges residing within cathedrals, the absurdity of the subject matter is offset only by the philosophical symbolism it’s underlined with.