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