Aaron Miller

Cap­tur­ing the mo­ment is the key to this Amer­i­can artist’s strik­ing fan­tasy work, as Nick Car­son dis­cov­ers…

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When asked what makes his style unique, Aaron B Miller takes his time for­mu­lat­ing an an­swer. It’s not an easy one to pin down, but he be­lieves it’s one of the most im­por­tant things for an il­lus­tra­tor to con­sider. “I’ve heard it’s my use of light­ing. I think it’s the mo­ments I choose to fo­cus on,” he muses. “I aim for a re­al­is­tic, but painterly style. I want my im­ages to look painted, not like pho­tos. It’s not about the de­tails, but the marks and shapes that make us see more de­tail than is ac­tu­ally there.”

Fig­ures, crea­tures and land­scapes are Aaron’s sub­jects of choice, and he es­chews com­plex, chaotic ac­tion scenes in favour of tak­ing his time paint­ing one fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter – un­der his trade­mark dra­matic light­ing scheme, nat­u­rally.

Although he con­cedes that dig­i­tal art is faster and cheaper – and can achieve a sim­i­larly painterly feel – Aaron works in oils when­ever he has the time, and brings his crea­tures to life with won­der­fully tac­tile tex­tures. “I tend to choose fur over scales,” he re­veals. “And feath­ers, of course.”

His high school pro­vided tech­ni­cal, il­lus­tra­tion-fo­cused art classes, and he went on to study at Chicago’s

Amer­i­can Academy of Art. But he firmly be­lieves in on­go­ing per­sonal de­vel­op­ment, and still at­tends life­draw­ing and sculp­ture classes to per­fect his grasp of anatomy, as well as run­ning his own Fig­u­ra­tive Il­lus­tra­tion work­shops to help emerg­ing il­lus­tra­tors hone their own tech­nique by draw­ing cos­tumed mod­els.

Ta pping into art his­tory

Cre­ative in­flu­ences were around from an early age. Time-Life book series The En­chanted World in­tro­duced Aaron to the Ro­man­tic and PreRaphaelite art­work that he would later fall in love with. “It was, and is, an easy as­so­ci­a­tion to find fan­tasy through­out art his­tory. Our mu­se­ums are filled with fan­tasy art. Many are mis­la­belled as re­li­gious,” he says.

Next came Dun­geons & Drag­ons minia­tures, as well as books – picked pri­mar­ily for their cover art – plus an ar­ray of left-field comics. “I was at­tracted to the non-main­stream ti­tles, although they did be­come so later,” he re­calls. “I was a fan of Moe­bius, and Nau­sica was my in­tro to anime. I col­lected TMNT when no one cared.”

These days, his stu­dio hosts a gi­ant li­brary of art books. “I’ve given away more books than most artists I’ve met own,” Aaron says. “Artists I turn to when I’m look­ing for spe­cific themes, tech­niques and sub­jects in­clude Donato, Greg Manchess, James Gur­ney, Chris Rahn, Sar­gent, Dave Palumbo, Water­house, NC Wyeth, Rock­well… I could go on and on.”

His books give him in­sights into how his artis­tic he­roes over­came

It was, and is, an easy as­so­ci­a­tion to find fan­tasy through­out art his­tory. Our mu­se­ums are filled with fan­tasy art

tech­ni­cal hur­dles, but they also help re­solve aes­thetic head-scratch­ers. “How did he cap­ture a mood? How did she ex­press emo­tion? How did this artist solve an ac­tion prob­lem for a static sub­ject?” he reels off. “It’s a de­con­struc­tion process.”

By most peo­ple’s stan­dards, Aaron has hit the big-time him­self now, with a dream ros­ter of clients and col­lab­o­ra­tors that in­cludes Magic:

the Gath­er­ing, Star Wars, D&D and Wizards of the Coast. They didn’t just fall in his lap, though: it took years of hard work to build a port­fo­lio, and he has some cau­tion­ary words for any­one who thinks they’ve ‘made it’ after their first big com­mis­sion.

“Fi­nally get­ting work doesn’t mean you’re at the top,” he warns. “It means you’ve made it to the bot­tom of the top, and there’s still a lot of work to do. Now that it’s been a few years, I’m sure new op­por­tu­ni­ties will open up that I’m not even aware of.”

Work­ing on the likes of Magic in­volves col­lab­o­rat­ing with an art di­rec­tor, a process that Aaron en­joys – so long as it doesn’t con­strict him too much. “I love briefs as a jump­ing-off point,” he ex­plains. “I also love them be­ing as brief as pos­si­ble.”

Good briefs, ac­cord­ing to the artist, are like good travel guides: they should pro­vide all you need to ex­plore and have fun, with the free­dom to ap­proach things from your own per­spec­tive. “If the brief is too de­tailed, it can be sti­fling,” he ad­mits.

What are your needs?

“Some­times those are projects where a very spe­cific vi­sion is try­ing to be re­alised, and they just need a ‘wrist’ as the old term goes. Also, over-de­tailed briefs can run the risk of fail­ing to fo­cus on the im­por­tant ideas. A good art di­rec­tor knows what an il­lus­tra­tor needs and doesn’t need.”

Miller is a reg­u­lar sight at art events, and lauds the fan­tasy genre com­mu­nity as par­tic­u­larly warm and wel­com­ing. “Go­ing to events feels like

Now that it’s been a few years, I’m sure new op­por­tu­ni­ties will open up that I’m not even aware of

go­ing to a fam­ily re­union you ac­tu­ally want to at­tend,” he says. “And the con­tacts that you make at events can be life chang­ing.”

Face-to-face con­tact with like­minded souls “adds that spe­cial as­ter­isk to your name with oth­ers, in that you be­come a friend or ac­quain­tance in real life, rather than in an on­line list,” he points out. “See­ing oth­ers’ work is also im­por­tant. You can ask about tech­nique, and gain in­sight into an artist. If it makes sense fi­nan­cially, I sug­gest to any aspir­ing artist to at­tend a fea­tured event or work­shop.”

After a decade or so of skill­build­ing, Aaron be­lieves a new chap­ter in his ca­reer is just open­ing up. “Some­times I’ve said about par­tic­u­lar paint­ings that I love that I can­not wait to hate it,” he con­fesses. “By that, I mean my skills have im­proved so much that I know I could out-paint my old self. I want to paint cir­cles around the old me, and that only comes with time-in­vested ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Com­pan­ion of the Tri­als “I bought kids blocks to build my ar­chi­tec­ture ref­er­ence,” re­veals Aaron of the cre­ative process be­hind 2016’s Wizards of the Coast com­mis­sion.

Lude­vic Aaron used his fa­ther as a ref­er­ence for the mad sci­en­tist in this 2015 dig­i­tal com­mis­sion from Wizards of the Coast.

Painted for a fairy tale-themed show at the Maza Mu­seum in 2015, Ra­pun­zel was the “lucky last ref­er­ence” for a sketch Aaron never ex­pected to use. “Glad I de­cided to ex­plore it,” he says. Ra pun­zel Elder Wa­ter Ele­men­tal of the Drowned La nds Here’s one of Aaron’s re­cent per­sonal pieces: “The rock basin that is the body of the ele­men­tal is ref­er­enced from an onion. The peel­ing lay­ers sym­bol­ise life.”

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