Turning the Real World into Fantasy Art [D&D meets GIMP]

  Hello readers! 

In my continuing exploration of GIMP I’ve stumbled across a fun hobby: transforming the real world into fantasy.

How do you turn the real world into fantasy?

It turns out that there are a lot of very high quality pictures of the planet Earth floating around on the internet. Some are breathtaking, others still astonishing in their beauty, but all of them look like pictures of the Earth.

This is the chief obstacle to using them in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons and Dragons. The contrast between beautifully surreal fantasy art and the mundanity of real world photos is often so drastic that it breaks immersion.

By using a few simple techniques and an image editor such as GIMP, you can transform real world images, making them more surreal and giving them a hand-painted kind of feel and then incorporate high quality fantasy imagery into your game.

I spent last evening (about 4 hours) transforming 4 real world images into fantasy art. I’m going to talk about them a little bit in detail.

The Foggy Mountain

I found a picture of a mountain shrouded in fog. It looked very pretty but, most likely due to Tolkein’s subconscious influence, I associate mountains with winter and cold, dangerous things. So I set about “turning” the image. It’s kind of like “turning undead” but instead of  turning zombies to ash with holy power, I turn earth imagery into fantasy art through the power of nerdiness and determination.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on this one (about 3 minutes). But it illustrates how easy it is to change the feel of an image very quickly, By just changing the color balance, and applying a blurring filter (Van Gogh) we achieve a colder, more ominous feel.

In hindsight, applying the blur effect was unnecessary.



A River Runs Through It

The next batch of terrain turned out much better and took roughly 20 min of time. 


The original picture: a lively river exploring an ancient canyon, was BEAUTIFUL, but not surreal. 

Once that was done, I applied a simple pixel-grouping algorithm (I believe this one was set to group 6 pixels at a time) and it was done. The canyon and the river look great. 

Next time I will pull the sky out into its own layer to keep it separate from the rest. The pixel-clustering technique does not work very well on clouds.

A Cursed Mansion

While surfing the internet, I found a picture of a house at once bizarre and appealingly (beautiful?) symmetrical that stack op to the sky like some sort strange, reverse pyramind block tower.

It was not great leap to see that this house was meant for magic:

This piece was bit more complex than the previous ones and took about an hour and a half.

When working with a piece like this, it’s important to stick to basics: separate out the different portions of the image (foreground, background, features) into different layers. In this case, the house, the grass, and the sky make up the 3 main layers of the image.

The sky was, without competition, the most difficult part of the image. It turns out that applying cheap tricks and gradients to clouds not work very well; they require a more dedicated touch.

Happily though, the obstinatence  of the clouds led to a great discovery: the dark aura emanating from the house.  

At first it was a mistake: I’d simply forgotten to fill the layer with transparency and so there was a large, house-shaped grey blob in layer when I distorted it with some water colors. Seeing the result, I channeled my inner Bob Ross and decided that the clouds had led me to a “happy little accident”. The mansion would be cursed from that moment on.

After that, adding in the ruined grass, the stained glass and the door was easy. Though I wish I’d had a bit more time to adjust the color, contrast, and brightness on the door to make it “blend” a little better.

Forgotten Holy Ground in the Forest

My favorite image, by far, was converting the Warsaw School of Economics into an ancient, and ominous altar in the middle of a forest.

This one had a simpler division of foreground and background. It didn’t take much effort to find a beautiful forest in which to place the schoolroom and, thankys to the room’s regular geometry, separating the foreground and background was fairly easy.

I had to apply a lot of patch work to cover up some of the technology and white spots on the image, but it turned out pretty well: you can’t even tell there were projectors in each of the corners.

After that, I used the same techniques of contrast, brightness, and color balance adjustment though I, noticeably) forgot to adjust the background image to match the foreground.

My one regret was that I did not have more time to spend on the portal and I was a bit… overly ambitious with it. While the contrast between the glowing white of the altar and the black of the bench seats turned out lovely, the portal….not so much. 

Though there is a bit of an easter egg here: the “plane” inside of the portal is actualy NASA imagery! It’s literally a portal to space =)


While I still consider myself extremely novice at GIMP, in a short amount of time I was able to use it to turn some decent pictures.

It seems that on my Twitter there’s been a little bit of interest in me live-streaming the next time I do this. I’ll be setting up a Twitch soon and I’ll come back to update this post with details. I’m looking forward to exploring new techniques and making fantastic fantasy art with you all online!


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