INTERVIEW: Illustrator Denis Kornev on Creating Detailed Fantasy Worlds

Drawing on a versatile pool of inspiration spanning history, science and mythology Denis Kornev creates art that breathes life into the most magical of fantasy and science fiction worlds. His use of colour and detail combines to form vividly captivating scenes that absorb you into a place into a world that is completely alien, but feels absolutely real.

We spoke to Denis to find more about the stories that inspire him and the worlds he weaves in his art.

Kirstie: How did you get into art?

Denis: When I was a child, I drew a lot in my albums and notebooks, especially at school. At that time, I did not consider this to be something serious, and it’s normal for everyone who did not study at an art school. Yes, it was a big fail for my self-development. Then it was time to choose a profession and I was puzzled. I had a thought to become a doctor or a biologist. Imagine that! But at the last minute I changed my mind and decided that my way is design.

Because I did not draw seriously earlier, I had to go to the preparatory courses before the entrance exams. There was the hardcore two weeks (only two weeks) when I worked every damn day exterminating pencils, erasers and paper. I entered the faculty of advertising where I studied the basics of academic drawing and painting. From this began my serious passion for visual arts.

Four years later, I started working as a graphic designer in an advertising agency. My love is using the traditional drawing and CG in design work; I consider this my advantage, my feature. I call myself an illustrator more than designer.

Kirstie: Who were your earliest influences?

Denis: My earliest influencers were Italian and Northern Renaissance artists as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Breugel, and Durer. Their stunning technique and anatomy, amazing detail work, accuracy of shaped strokes and colour schemes were like a wonder for me. Besides them I want to call also Ivan Shishkin, Nikolai Roerich, Jan Vermeer, Vasili Vereschagin, Alfons Mucha, Gustav Klimt. As you can see, my taste was rather traditional.

Kirstie: Who are your predominant influences now?

Denis: For years, I’ve discovered social media much more widely and have developed an interest in game and movie concept art. There are thousands of cool artists in this field, you know. Thousands! Every of them is too interesting, and you can learn a lot from them. But the most important artists for me are Sparth (Nicolas Bouvier), Jakub Rozalski, Pjotr Jablonski, Jean-Baptiste Monge, Raphael Lacoste, Eytan Zana, Theo Prins, Peter Mohrbacher, Adrian Smith and tons of others.

Kirstie: What is your favourite material to work with?

Denis: Like most modern artists, I work with traditional materials as often as digital. For traditional graphics I prefer graphite pencils, simple black capillary pen and acrylic paint. There are golden and white inks in some of pencil sketches, which are nice to spot highlights and details. My digital instruments are mainly Photoshop, Illustrator and Wacom tablet. Also 3DS Max I found undoubtedly useful to create the base for environmental paintings.

Kirstie: If you could design the poster for any movie, what would it be? What would your design be like?

Denis: Hmm… I don’t know for sure but I think it would be something in sci-fi setting such as Interstellar, Oblivion, The Martian and Alien. Of course, I would make simple minimalistic design including digital painting or matte painting ’cause after 90s we have too many posters based on edited photos. Thanks to God, at last time it’s reversal trend appeared when the highest chick is author’s hand-made work, and I really hope for a similar collaboration.

Kirstie: What is the first piece of work you were really proud of?

Denis: Unfortunately (or not?) I am very critical of myself and so it’s hard to choose the oldest work I am really proud of. But remembering these my feelings many years ago I think there are illustrations I did for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yes, although there are bunch of mistakes in every piece, this is the first big serious personal work.

Kirstie: How have you changed as an artist since then?

Denis: After years full of trials and errors, I learned a lot things, developed my skills in drawing anatomy, rendering and speed of drawing. Some methods of work I applied to my creative process were absolutely unnecessary for better result. Now I pay more attention to details, stylization and developing an interesting color scheme. Also my style shifted to a more gloomy brutal side.

Kirstie: How did you get into drawing fantasy art?

Denis: After my childhood, when I had a strong interest in fairy tales, the Medieval Age and knights. Also important are my past hobbies, including historical fencing and historical reenactment of the 13th and 15th centuries. I love to read fantasy books and play fantasy games. I founded an ensemble for medieval music Schellen which played from 2010 to 2016. So this is a natural result, which is closely related to my way of life.

Kirstie: Your work has a lot of realistic detail in very unreal settings. How did you develop this art style?

Denis: Historical reenactments have taken a prominent place in my life, so I know about many medieval things from my own experience. In my fantasy settings, I apply knowledge about armour, weapons, clothing, architecture and much more, because these details must be practical. And practicality in everyday objects for the character leads to the convincing illustration.

My style is named ‘fantasy realism’, or ‘imaginative realism’ so similar treatment is suitable for it.

Kirstie: What is your favourite fantasy story?

Denis: The Witcher, no doubt! I’ve read whole saga not once and played PC games. This story is attractive because it’s … real, I suppose. There are no cardboard villains and scenery, any solution has far-reaching consequences, and instead of black and white there are only shades of grey. Well, what can I say. I love the dark fantasy.

Kirstie: What do you think are the most important elements in building a fantasy world?

Denis: As in the construction of any other literary or game universe, I will say that one must be guided by a single SOLID logic. This statement applies to both the visual style and the overall concept. Also useful are the so-called “anchors”, eyestoppers. These are the elements that are familiar to us in the real world, they are the connection between our familiar world and the virtuality. Such a connection can be mythology, technical discoveries, everyday objects or references to famous personalities, etc.

A few original ideas, too, would not be superfluous, but to come up with something really fresh is very difficult. It’s possible thanks to some special sort of mind or afflatus.

Kirstie: How do you decide which elements of the real world to embellish in your fantastical art?

Denis: First of all, I bring to the setting elements that fit stylistically. I am inspired by different cultures, ancient civilizations or the modern world. My design development is based on decor, objects of the environment, fashion and other things. An important point is armour and weapons. They should be comfortable and functional, considering the human anatomy and dynamics of the body. Although, I have my own style as every artist does, I try to embellish my characters with different ways each time, so fashion shows and tribal jewellery gazing is extremely useful for me. The combination of a few of these pieces with your own ideas is the foundation of a concept art.

Kirstie: Do you have any plans to develop a narrative around the characters and scenes you create?

Denis: I have developed it earlier for some of my scenes. For example, I released the video dedicated to my Futuristic Moscow dystopian cycle, which you can watch here.

Also I wrote small introductions to the Exoplanet cycle, extraterrestrial worlds living by their own laws and surprising researchers. The description is presented in the form of travel notes. This is a small project in the technique of matte painting.

At the end of 2017, I participated in Inktober, where I had to draw every day of October on a given topic. I chose the classic fantasy setting. I would like to issue small pamphlets with these drawings, each will be written a pre-story for a couple of paragraphs.

Kirstie: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Denis: Just simple advice: draw every day, do not give up if something does not work out. Take criticism calmly, it helps you to become stronger and better. When I’ve started my way, the criticism on the Internet was much more hardcore and categorical. Now is easier.

Try new techniques to gain experience in different styles so as not to go into self-repetition. Learn something new everyday because the artist should expand his own horizons. Find your inspiration inside books, music, travelling and whole the world totally and you will succeed.

We’d like to say a big thank you to Denis for taking the time to talk to us! To keep up with his work, you can follow him on Instagram and Artstation.


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