by Joseph Knoop
Flying serpents, ebony-skinned elves and fantastic vistas teeming with foreign life inhabit the covers of our favorite fantasy novels, but it can be easy to forget the artists serving as the gatekeepers to new worlds. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly ponder the journey the artwork and its creator took to get it to you.
Enter Tracy Flynn, fantasy artist and painter. The middle-aged father of three has a knack for bringing imaginative worlds evocative of Dungeons & Dragons to life, turning his passion for the art into a large part of his identity.
Like many artists, Flynn was inspired by the works of prominent creators, such as Frank Frazetta.
“I saw ‘Conan the Usurper’ sitting on somebody’s book back in middle school, and it found its way home with me,” Flynn said. “I was 12 or 13. I was fascinated with it, and then it just grew into ‘I can draw like that.’ With fantasy art, you can do portraits, landscapes, people, beasts. You can do everything. You encompass all aspects of it.”
Flynn’s work has been published in a number of creative fictions, including David List’s novel “A Sawmill’s Hope” and Blade Runner Press’ “Endless Terror” role-playing game. Flynn’s commission work often affords him a high level of freedom.
“I was sent a copy [of ‘A Sawmill’s Hope’], read it, and the author said, ‘Pull out what you like,’” Flynn said. “One guy describes ‘OK, this is the premise of the book. I want to see a girl standing over the dead king with his crown at twilight,’ and I take it from there.”
Sometimes the creators Flynn works alongside with, like the developer of “Endless Terror,” have even more specific requests.
“He wanted four people at nighttime in a camping setting, and he wants him and his three friends’ portraits as the characters,” Flynn said. “Hey, it’s his game.”
Make no mistake, though, the life of an artist is often more difficult than determining what shade of green to use for troll blood. Flynn, who works a day job in the electronics department of an Indiana Wal-Mart, underwent neck and carpal tunnel surgery, briefly rendering his right hand too weak to paint.
“I couldn’t just sit and not paint for three months, so I taught myself left-handed,” Flynn said. “It was exhausting. You have to think about it. Right handed, it’s just unconscious. Without insurance, I wouldn’t be able to use my right hand.”
Though that difficult time is in the past, Flynn continues to rely on his family for support. Art became a central component of the family’s life when Flynn married his wife Dana and became a stepfather to her daughter Tia.
“Art comes up in a daily basis for us,” Tia said. “It’s not just something he does. It’s not just his job. It’s our lifestyle. We’ll sit in the living room and he’s got his paintings that he’s working on sitting next to the TV. I always knew I was going to be a teacher, but for years I wanted to be an art teacher.”
According to Flynn’s wife, that sense of authenticity translates into greater learning experiences and opportunities for their family.
“My kids have grown up with real art in the house,” Dana said. “They’ve seen the process, they know how long it takes. They know the difference between Kmart art versus real art that someone actually made. It’s neat to not have to take the kids to a museum to see real art. You don’t draw with a paintbrush. It’s sketched. There’s an underlayer of all the shadows, then color’s applied, more color applied.”
“Then there’s the part where you throw it against the wall and say it sucks,” Tracy said.
That process has taught the Flynn family the value of hard work within the realm of art, including how some people might disregard the true value of a piece.
“We know he’s got 40 hours in that,” Dana said. “Of course, he’s asking for $400. That’s only ten bucks an hour. He had one guy say ‘Well, you can’t judge it like that.’ Yes, he can. It’s his work.”
Then Tracy raised the price to $500 for arguing with him.
“I gave him a lesson in economics,” he said. “There’s a demand for this painting, so the price has gone up.”
Thankfully for the Flynn family, the world of art has taken a turn in the creators’ favor. Websites and printing companies like Society6, Kickstarter and Storenvy have put the control of professional works back in the hands of those that make them, eliminating a needless middleman. Many retail stores demand artists supply hundreds of prints before sale in order to bring the price down to the price range of a regular consumer.
“A gallery is going to mark you up anywhere from 50 to 70 percent, so that’s out of the range of most people,” Tracy said.
Though the fantasy art industry can be a tough place to make a living, Tracy has experienced anything but hardship from other fantasy artists. He takes his greatest inspiration from the man that started it all, Frank Frazetta, artist for “Conan,” “Tarzan,” “King Kong” and is a 1995 inductee of the Wil Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame. Frazetta also created album covers for groups like Nazareth, Yngwie Malmsteen and Wolfmother before his death in 2010.
“The fantasy community is wonderful with sharing information and talking,” Tracy said. “They’re all open and totally willing to share their knowledge and help you out. Everybody benefits from everybody.”
While attending college, Tracy managed to track down Frazetta through a phone number listing, meeting the artist a few years later at his residence in Pennsylvania. Treated to a tour of Frazetta’s museum and ranch, Tracy went on to spend roughly three hours in the artist’s studio.
“You know how you always dream of meeting your idol, whoever it is, and you always want it to be better than anything you can imagine?” Tracy said. “It was like that. He was very complimentary about my art. We got to talk about guns and knives and all sorts of things, but it was the way I want to treat somebody when they come up to me.”
Tracy also received unsolicited assistance from Joe Jusko, the artist behind “Savage Sword of Conan,” as well as runs on the Hulk and the Punisher. Jusko had taken a painting of Tarzan that Tracy had created and modified it, later surprising Tracy with a message detailing the changes he made and how he could recreate them in future works.
“It was a really cool thing to do,” Tracy said. “He made it a better image.”
Though he prefers taking a back seat to any limelight fantasy art might attract, Tracy acknowledges a desire to instill the same sense of wonder and community that artists before him did.
“We’re all links in the same chain,” he said. “You can either be a strong link and teach and train and pass on what you know, or you can be a weak link and let it rust.”