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October 2011

October 2011 -- Scandinavian Mythology

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  • Ask an Artist:
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  • Behind the Art:
    Map of Worlds

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  • Scandinavian Mythology
  • Appreciating Speculative Art Part 2: Parts and Layout of a Picture

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  • Fiction: At the Gates of Valhalla
  • Fiction: Mother Never Spoke About the Sea
  • Fiction: To Love Loki


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  • Map of Worlds
    Behind the Art
    by Melissa Acker

    I have a friend who is really into Norse mythology, so I decided to make a map of how they saw the universe in order to give her a visual aid to use when she is planning her next book (which includes copious amounts of Norse antics).

    So first I had to make a list of all the things I wanted to include in the map. The world tree, Yggdrasil, was the starting point. I made a list of all the worlds I needed to include -- Asgard, Vanaheim, Midgard, Alfheim, Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, Niflheim, Muspellheim, and Helheimr. I knew that Asgard sits at the top of the tree and Niflheim sits at the bottom, with the serpent Nighogg chewing on its roots. I also knew I wanted to include the Midgar Serpent in some way (also known as Jörmungandr).

    Other things to think about included the Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that leads into Asgard), Fenrir, Odin's ravens, and Sleipnir, just to name a few. That's a lot of material to cover!

    Before I go any further, here's the line drawing I ended up using as the base for this painting. I think it may be helpful to see the result before I explain how I further developed the idea.



    I started with the tree. Using a ruler and the lid to a small round container I had lying around, I spaced out the globes that would stand in as ‘worlds' and drew branches of the tree curling around them. Other than knowing where Asgard and Niflheim are, I had little to go on for the placement of the other worlds. I tried to keep everything roughly symmetrical. I tried to work the Bifrost into the composition in a few different ways, but in the end I decided it took too much away from the ‘tree' concept, and I decided not to include it.

    Asgard is the home of the gods, and Odin in particular. I fooled around with a few ideas of a silhouette of Odin riding Sleipnir, or a perhaps a depiction of Odin's famed hall, Valhalla. In the end I settled on a picture of Odin himself, with his eagle-winged helm and eyepatch.

    Niflheim is the land of ice, so I had a rough idea of icy stalactites and stalagmites. An idea I was struck with early on was to have the serpent both in and out of the icy world at the same time. The shape of the curling serpent echoes the curls of the branches and roots around the world.

    Helheimr is the world of the dead. A skeletal warrior seemed a natural choice (honored warriors go to Valhalla, of course, but not everyone dies with honor). I decided early on that all the faces depicted in the painting would be looking towards the center of the tree.

    I threw in Muspellheim next -- the world of fire. Again, flames seemed a pretty natural choice. Alfheim -- the world of Alfar, or elves -- was another easy one. I threw in some greenery and leaves to add some variety to the different worlds.

    Vanaheim gave me a great deal of trouble for a little while, but I ended up settling on some feathered wings, more or less just because I felt like it. I could not find a great deal of information about Vanir, or not enough to really distinguish them visually from the Aesir.

    Next, after Asgard, was Midgar -- or Earth. I drew a picture of man, and decided on a sword as the weapon in the background. As I mentioned earlier, it was very important to include Jörmungandr curled around the world. I tried to make him look at tightly intertwined as possible.

    Svartalfheim, land of the dwarves, was next, so a dwarf with an axe seemed about as dwarvish as possible. It took me a little bit to decide how to show the scale of the giant depicted in Jotunheim, but ended up choosing the (relatively tiny) human skulls hanging in its hair as trophies. I also made an effort to keep the proportions of the human, elf, dwarf, and giant as different as possible. They all have faces with eyes and noses and mouths and ears, but none of them look remotely alike.

    I had an extra branch to play with, so I threw Huginn and Muninn, Odin's ravens, on them. I could not find a way to add in Fenrir or Sleipnir in the composition without ruining the symmetry or adding to the design, so I reluctantly cut them out of my designs.

    Whew, that was a lot of explaining to do! Now we can start painting.



    I put in a background wash of raw sienna over the whole painting -- worlds and all, even if the wash was lighter in intensity over them. After letting it dry, I attacked the tree. For a little while I played with the idea of painting rainbows of light throughout the tree, but discarded it. The bark and wood textures were done with many different, almost random mixes of brown, and I would join the different wet areas with brush strokes of clean water to spread the color around.

    It took awhile.

    Once it was done -- and thoroughly dry -- I laid in the base local colors of the worlds, step by step.



    Time for detail work! I went back and forth through the various worlds, using many of the same colors and mixes in all of them. The color scheme is relatively limited, and few colors are very bright or intense. I gave the backgrounds all different color schemes to help separate them a little bit. I used a little white gouache for the highlights on the dead warrior's helmet.



    I worked in the same method on this side, using the same colors and mixes all over the place, and focusing on value more than color. I made sure to put reflected color into the metal of the man's sword and the dwarf's axe -- that makes it immediately look more like metal.



    For the ravens I was not concerned so much with detail. I concentrated more on simply making them dark and, well, raven-ish. This involved a few passes of dark color, with a lot of brushwork.



    For Nidhogg I added in successive layers of value, scale texture, and reflected colors. I played with the colors of the various coils of the snake to make it difficult to discern which parts where in the world and which were outside of it.



    The Midgar serpent was one of the last parts I did. I darkened it with dark mixes of green and red (winsor red and winsor green in this case, although for this specific painting the exact paints don't really matter). I alternated between adding darks and adding scaly texture. The light-source, in this case, is the world of Midgar itself. The end result is a gloomy, foreboding-colored serpent that is carefully waiting.



    And here is the final painting! This piece is quite large -- more than twenty inches a side -- and so each stage was quite time-consuming. The end result is a painting that has a distinctive style and mood, and is very close to the goal I was aiming for.

    Melissa Acker
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