Back in 1984, a sci-fi movie called Dune, based on a 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, was released… to muted response. It did poorly at the box office, was damned by critics, and director David Lynch disowned it, after being forced into making savage cuts to shorten it.
And yet following the release of the film in 2021, with part two just announced for 2023, Lynch’s ambitious creation has been widely reappraised. You’ll find die-hard fans everywhere, and many artists see it as a big influence on their careers. Alongside the original book, which offers just enough detail to inspire but not enough to swamp the imagination.
“Dune has influenced my art, and the art of many artists,” says Gary Jamroz, a freelance senior concept artist with Gunzilla Games (opens in new tab). “Its intricate world building make it easy to get lost in. You have advanced tech. You have space. You have legends and myth. You have royalty, mysticism, medieval references too.”
Its most iconic images centre around desert landscapes, which helped lure in freelance concept artist Simon Goinard (opens in new tab). “My mind works with geometry, and it’s easier to visualise geometry when you paint deserts and angular shapes,” he explains. “This may be why I like Dune so much.”
But there’s more to Dune than sand. “The costume design is what really opened my eyes, not only to a possible career opportunity in concept art, but also to the idea of functional design,” recalls Bruno Gauthier Leblanc, an art director at Eidos Montreal (opens in new tab).
“The design of the Freman stillsuit [a full body suit worn in the open desert] is a perfect example of function blending seamlessly with aesthetics. Every piece of the design has a purpose; it can be mechanical, cultural or even personal to the character, but nothing is done without a reason. This design philosophy has influenced my entire career as a concept artist, and what I try to instil in my team as an art director.”
Then there were those giant sandworms. “Back then, movies knew how to build tension, without showing the full creature right away,” enthuses Jordan Lamarre-Wan (opens in new tab), lead concept artist on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. “In Dune, the sheer size of the sandworm was so impactful; it really helped to create a ‘David vs Goliath’ underdog relationship. In the same way [in Star Wars], the endless Star Destroyer intro helps to emphasise the size of the emperor’s power, and therefore the protagonist’s challenge.”
“Dune is one of many movies that’s left an influence on my art, by developing a love for older sci-fi and an appreciation for practical sets over CG,” Lamarre-Wan adds. “Dune  has plenty of great practical sets, props and costumes, and it’s an inspiring example of what great work can be achieved within the boundaries of creative limitations and film production budgets.”
Some artists first came to Dune through other routes than the movie, such as the video games or the Marvel Comics. For Devon Cady-Lee (opens in new tab), visual development artist at Warner Bros. Entertainment, it was the original books. “This was the first time I found a sci-fi universe with the same depth and breadth of the fantasy novels I’d been reading,” he recalls. “The way they touch on politics, religion and culture struck a real chord.”
They proved key to developing himself as an artist. “Making artwork based on Dune taught me how to interpret source material,” Cady-Lee says. “In some ways, the books offered a huge amount of information, and in other aspects very little. So I learned how to adapt book descriptions into designs, as well as taking liberties with the material and making inferences.”
Internal art library
Maria Trepalina, (opens in new tab)a freelance concept artist working in the games industry, also discovered Dune through the novels. “It greatly enriched my ‘internal art library’ that helps you come up with complex, thoughtful images,” she recalls. “Later I watched the movie, and was amazed by the combination of sci-fi and fantasy, and unusual costume designs. I was hooked by the elements of mentality, aesthetics, and designs from the Middle East, Japan, and China.
“These elements are organically woven into the design of the costumes, the environment, and the traditions shown in the book and film. Dune shows how the concept of development can be applied as an example for creating designs for other civilisations, and teaches us to create something new based on existing ones.”
Even if you’ve never seen Dune, you’ve probably been influenced by it indirectly, because it shaped so many other films. “Take Tremors, a movie that more helped shape my love of drawing monsters,” says Henrik Sahlström (opens in new tab), a senior concept artist at Ubisoft. “The whole sandworm thing is blatantly pulled from Dune. Plus, how much did Sting appearing in Dune influence or inspire Hellblazer/John Constantine popping up in DC Vertigo´s Swamp Thing in 1985?”
All of these artists have been driven at some point to create their own Dune-inspired art. “I started illustrating Dune as a pitch vis test around 2014, because the IP was a bit under-represented at the time, and I thought it deserved more than that,” says Simon. “It was also pretty clear that most of the art circulating around the internet was based on the film’s aesthetic, and not representative of the books’ mood and poetry.”
“My main idea for those small pictures was to bring back this particular feeling that rise from Herbert’s descriptions,” he adds. “The struggle for life. The bone-crushing desert wind. The strong female warriors. The blue and the red.”
For anyone inspired to create their own Dune art, Gary offers this advice. “If you want to portray people living in the desert correctly, you have to take references of what we have already have. Study it, understand it, be curious about it. This will save you in the long run. Knowing what you are designing and why you took those choices will make all the difference.”