Saturday, August 18, 2012

Alien Portraiture

By Terryl Whitlatch

Towards the end of my tenure at JAK films (aka the Star Wars—the Phantom Menace Art Department), I started to work on other Lucasfilm related projects. One of these included pitching my idea for my book, The Wildlife of Star Wars, and another was art that would appear on the back covers of a new trilology of Star Wars novels written by Deborah Chester and published by Ace/Putnam-Berkeley, called The Alien Chronicles.

These were sci-fi tales that took place outside of the vast reaches of Federation or Imperial Space, depending upon what side you were on, during the same time frame of the events of The Phantom Menace. The wonderful and unique aspect about these novels was that there were no humans or humanoid characters involved—only very “creaturely” creatures, albeit very intelligent , with their own cultures, sophisticated technologies, and civilizations.

All three characters—two mammals and one reptile-- were of different species, and needed to be quite physically distinct from one another, plus their personalities had to shine through. The other, practical aspect was that the composition of these portraits had to be simple and easily readable, as their final reproduction size would average around 2 X 3 inches.

The first, The Golden One told the story of Ampris, a strong and noble female slave of the Aaroun race, that were basically tall bipedal, beautifully furred canines with pricked ears and extremely expressive, long lashed eyes. At first, the art direction was to give her a more wolf-like muzzle, but it was decided to shorten it, to contrast with that of the character, Elrabin, of the second book. Ampris has suffered most of her life, especially in her lonely exile from her own kind, but remains resolutely brave, hopeful, and long suffering, even to the point of enduring much to protect her overbearing and selfish mistress. It is this determination, combined with the physical characteristics noted above, that I tried to invest in her image.

Elbrabin of the second novel, The Crimson Claw, while likewise a mammal, is an entirely different species and personality. About the size of a large badger, he’s the epitomy of the wise-cracking tough guy and con artist par excellence. He has a long snout and long thick fur that hangs in matted dreadlocks, and is a real wheeler dealer. Naturally, this ends up in eventual disaster for him, and leads up to his meeting with Ampris. Unlike Ampris, who wears no clothes slave the jewels that identify her as a slave, Elrabin has a tattered jacket where his stows his petty thefts, but that’s about it. Thinking of his personality, I tried to come up with a mix of The Artful Dodger and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Israi is the focus of the third novel, The Crystal Eye. She is of the Viis race, a species of elegant reptilians that resemble Australian Frilled lizards. They consider themselves to be the most beautiful beings in their world, and are the dominant civilization, enslaving Ampris and her kind, and well as eventually capturing the n’ere do well Elrabin. Israi is a princess among her kind, proud and spoiled, and it is through unexpected turmoil and unforeseen disaster that she and Ampris are able to come to terms. All the imperial empresses and princesses of history came to my mind, and I settled on a combination of Queen Elizabeth I and Cleopatra for her portrayal, as well as designing a slightly Egypto-Greco shift for her to wear. The supporting neck ruff came right out of 1600’s Dutch costume, although it is jeweled, rather than lace.

For each of these three portraits I did several versions of course for the art director at Ace, in various poses, and basically I undertook the same methodology that is common to any portrait—form, character, personality, staging, lighting, color harmonies, and costume. The backgrounds I kept as simple as possible—an infinity background of faint stars against a symbolic sky color—blue for purity of heart for Ampris, vermilion-orange for intense, conniving Elrabin, and a pastel gradient from light petal to faint azure to suggest dawn on a balcony for Israi.

As far as format and media goes, these were painted in acrylics on gessoed four-ply cold press illustration board (around 10 X 12 inches), and took about 10 days for all three once I got approval on the designs.

It was a very fun job, and the stories were an entertaining read. But truly when it comes down to it, I get the greatest joys in portraying the real creatures that inhabit this world with us, for those are where, I’m convinced, the best creature designs come from. To this end, here is a close-up from one on my studies of Katook the lemur, also done in acrylics. For me, it is the striving to capture the inquiring gaze and possible thoughts of this very real animal, and others like him, that is both the most elusive and most rewarding of all.


  1. I remember reading one of those books, when I was a kid! It was the first one, and I only had the vaguest of ideas of what it was about--but wow, the memories are coming back. I had no idea it was a trilogy. I'll have to go check them and their cover-art out now. :)

  2. So great! When you paint with acrylics, do you use a wet in wet technique? It looks like they are quite transparent with layers from these paintings. (I could be completely wrong though! Haha!)

  3. The moment I saw the art, I immediately knew what these were from! I loved the books, and it's so awesome to hear about your method for designing these portraits!