Feature: Art Lessons

Yoon Ha LeeYoon Ha Lee is a writer from Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has published over forty short stories, and his critically acclaimed collection Conservation of Shadows was released in 2013. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators. His new novel, Ninefox Gambit, is out on 14 June from Solaris; here he talks about how he visualizes his characters…



Every so often I meet someone who catches me sketching my story characters, and they remark on how nice it must be that I can draw said characters. In fact, the sordid truth is that it started out the other way around. I can’t visualize things–no, really, I can’t. I realized this was a problem when a friend of mine back in college read the first chapter of a novel I had in draft and he pointed out that never once had I described the protagonist.

Some writers can come up with beautiful technicolor descriptions of their characters, and even if I don’t see a movie in my head, it helps me get a sense of the characters’ personalities. I’d also heard of the trick where you “cast” your characters with movie or TV stars, but I suspected that would backfire horribly. Among other things, I appear to be the only person on the planet who thinks that Jensen Ackles is merely okay in the looks department (sorry, Supernatural fans!).

So instead, I decided I was going to learn to draw.

NinefoxI’d doodled since childhood, but that was mostly horses and dragons, because people were boring. Drawing characters meant that I had to take up figure drawing. My early efforts were godawful. I am mostly self-taught. I took a semester of art back in high school, and then a six-week cartooning course in college; that was all. On the other hand, all it takes to practice drawing is a writing implement and paper.

I began life drawing, not in a class (I wish!) but by taking a small sketchbook to the game store or library and sketching the people I saw there. There’s something incredibly soothing about life drawing. Even more, it teaches me to consider face and body types that I wouldn’t construct from the same tired formulas I reach for by habit; to attempt poses that normally I would be too intimidated to draw.

Weirdly, books on animation had the best tips on character design. They’re pretty blunt about visual stereotypes, because the whole point of character design is to get the character’s personality across as quickly as possible. Sly characters have narrow eyes, so, okay. I will give my antagonist narrow eyes, check. And so on.

All the same, I go clutch on the silliest things when I try to do a character design. How do I make their hairstyles look different? If I want them to have fancy military uniforms, how do I design one without making it look completely derivative? Now that I’ve figured out a position for one arm, what do I do with the other arm? Foreshortening? HOW DO???

I am never going to be a professional artist, but I am better than I was when I started. I’ve been having fun with a series of lineart “coloring pages” for the major characters in my hexarchate books. I confess I was partly inspired by seeing that they had made George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones into a coloring book. (You should have seen my expression when I found it in the children’s section of the local bookstore.) Also because I’m still struggling with color and lineart sidesteps that completely!

Here’s my heroine, Captain Kel Cheris (http://yoonhalee.com/images-hxt2/2016-03-10-cheris-sm.png and http://yoonhalee.com/images-hxt2/hxt-magician-cheris-sm.png) and here’s her ally and enemy, General Shuos Jedao (http://yoonhalee.com/images-hxt2/2016-02-09-jedao-sm.png and http://yoonhalee.com/images-hxt2/hxt-kn-eyes-marker-sm.png). What can I say, Copic markers are addictive.

And sometimes I need to blow off steam. The Machineries of Empire trilogy is military space opera with a lot of grimdark, and beyond the grimdark, sometimes I get stuck and my damn characters won’t do what I want them to do. So, like any sane writer, I poke fun at them by drawing cartoons about them (http://yoonhalee.com/images-hxx/hxx-cartoon004-sm.png). As Cheris can tell you, Jedao is the worst roommate ever.

My long-term project for this set of characters is to come up with a set of hexarchate Tarot Major Arcana for them, mainly because I get stuck for ideas easily and having a set of themes helps me get unstuck. I won’t lie; doing a good series of pieces is probably above my skill level, especially in color. But I can’t afford to hire a real artist to do all the art for me, and in the meantime, the experience of trying to realize these imaginary people visually helps solidify them in my head and makes them more real to me.

And besides, what else am I going to do with all these art supplies, right? Might as well use them since I’ve accumulated them already.

Click on the links to order Ninefox Gambit from Amazon: it’s released 14 June in the US; 16 June in the UK. Or preorder from Rebellion here

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