Artist Iris Compiet found inspiration in Brian Froud’s work when she was a child. Fast forward to the present and she’s the artist for Insight Editions’ upcoming The Dark Crystal Bestiary: The Definitive Guide to the Creatures of Thra. The book features a foreword by Brian Froud. “Every single fantasy or faerie artist probably has the same story when talking about Brian Froud because we all discovered him through either Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. In my case it was definitely the Faeries book he did together with Alan Lee. I think I picked that up when I was seven years old,” Compiet tells Nerdist.
Faeries opened a whole new world for Iris. Flipping through the book’s lovingly illustrated pages she realized that doing art as a career was actually possible. Because she set out to become an artist and has succeeded, she now jokes to Brian and Alan that it’s their fault she doesn’t have a steady paying job. Though she initially had some resistance to creating faerie art because of how the professional art world in the Netherlands (and in many locations, to be honest) looked down their nose at it and expected all faerie drawings to be like Tinker Bell. Not the weirdly wonderful faeries Iris had seen in Brian and Alan’s collection. But then faeries found her. She created a whole world called Faeries of the Faultlines.
That led her to connecting to the Frouds. Wendy Froud visited an art show in the United States where Iris was participating—so was Wendy’s husband, Brian Froud. Wendy bought some of Iris’ work, and later Iris emailed Wendy to ask if Brian would write the foreword for Faeries of the Faultlines. He loved Iris’ art and their friendship started then. When The Dark Crystal Bestiary came about, Brian, the conceptual designer for Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s The Dark Crystal, couldn’t do it… but he recommended Iris. She came full circle. And she stepped into some big shoes.
“There’s a legacy with The Dark Crystal,” Iris says. “So many of us grew up with this, so many have good memories of this. That was definitely a scary thing to be handed because I want to honor what’s already there and then try and give my twist on it. I do want to put myself in there as well, because that’s the only way I can create and only way I can create something that I feel has soul and is right.”
The Dark Crystal Bestiary explores Thra’s many fantastical denizens from the film, the Age of Resistance TV series, and the books and comics. Readers will see friends they know such as Aughra and also some illustrations of characters they haven’t seen yet. As Iris sketched and painted, she recalls it took her a while to get away from the notion that the illustrations had to look like Brian’s work. She’s not Brian. They both draw faeries, but the comparisons end there. She found a mental switch that worked, “Just let that be and just do whatever you can to honor what has been before. Add to it and to explore that world of Froud and be an explorer and document what you see,” Iris says.
Along the way, she visited Brian and Wendy to share her work on the bestiary so far and got a stamp of approval. That encouraged her to continue on her path. And she wasn’t bringing Thra’s creatures to life in a vacuum. Iris’ illustrations accompany text by Adam Cesare. Adam wrote the descriptions of the creatures using what’s known about them. He and Iris checked in with each other regularly, and also with The Jim Henson Company to make sure they were on the right track.
For all of the illustrations, Iris researched however she could, including watching The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance multiple times and pausing at just the right moment for reference on not only how a creature looks but also how it moves and interacts with the world. Then there were characters like Aughra, who felt like a friend. Iris says, “She felt very familiar and I felt very comfortable painting Aughra. I watched everything, but especially to see how she moves. I want to have a sense of movement in my pieces because that’s life,and I want that life in those pieces. So I hope I succeeded in that to just have those moments of how she moves her body and how she just looks at you with that one eye.”
Capturing a character or creature just so is why Iris does so many sketches, some of them featured in this article. She estimates that she scanned over 1,000 images and 200 of those made it into The Dark Crystal Bestiary. It’s all about taking the time to discover whatever she can about a creature. Take the tortle (above). Look at the detailing on his feet and the way his mouth is open in one of the sketches. The tortle’s skin presented a certain challenge as well. Iris explains, “These tortles have skin that’s stone and stuff like that. So I do research for that.”
And then take the gangly Raunip. “I can tell his body, with the really long limbs will move in a different way,” Iris says. “His middle finger is just a little longer than the others. This all different than our bodies. So I do the stick figures just to get a feel for that character. He’s described as being mischievous. He’s just a bit of a trickster and I’m trying to find poses that convey that idea of him being that kind of a creature.”
With a being like Lore, the TV series blessed Iris with a lot of information. His body is comprised of stacks of rocks, which made for some interesting movement. Iris points out the design was already there for Lore, but beyond looking at Lore’s scenes in Age of Resistance, she got to peek behind the curtain. She recalls, “I’ve been very, very lucky to see all of Brian’s original artwork for Age of Resistance. So he just gave me some of his stacks of paper or paintings and he was like, ‘Here look.’ It was so unreal to go through all of these designs and see how Lore evolved. I would’ve loved being on board for that. Even if it was just a fly on the wall. But yeah, I had it easy. It was already done.”
The natural world inspires Iris. She’ll reference herself for certain poses or moods as well, but she definitely turns to existing animals. She looks at the world around her and considers how that could translate to a fictional creature. The connection to something in the actual world makes a creature from Thra or any other fantasy universe more believable. It creates roots in something known, and that makes it easier for our brains to take a leap. And that’s at the core of it for Iris—illustrating a vivid world. She says, “It’s all about bringing to life, a world that we feel is alive.”
The Dark Crystal Bestiary: The Definitive Guide to the Creatures of Thra arrives on October 13. You can place a pre-order now.
Featured Image: Iris Compiet
Amy Ratcliffe is the Managing Editor for Nerdist and the author of The Jedi Mind, available for pre-order now. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.