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Jakub Rozalski’s Howling at the Moon is a beautiful art book that merges real and fictional worlds

From the artist behind the board game Scythe

Late last year, concept art website ArtStation unveiled its first print book: Martin Deschambault’s Project 77, a neat collection that blends science fiction concept art and storytelling. The site announced its next book earlier this week: Howling at the Moon by Jakub Rozalski, the artist behind the acclaimed board game Scythe.

The book is a beautiful collection of fantastical art that reminds me of the style of Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop, which depicts an alternate, futuristic Sweden. Rozalski’s art features menacing robots and machines dotting the countryside of his native Poland, but rather than looking at the future, he draws his inspiration from the country’s rich past, using its history, wars, and folklore as the basis for his work.

Rozalski tells The Verge that he draws his inspiration for each painting from a variety of sources, sometimes finding an idea from a picture or something while he’s out on a walk or brainstorming scenes that fit into a larger story. “I spend many days looking for a topic or a story to tell. I imagine different scenes, characters, composition, and what I would like to show.”

From there, he arranges the scene in his head before sitting down to begin work. “These days, I work mainly digitally, which saves a lot of time. Sometimes, the final effect is exactly the same as what I imagined, and sometimes things have changed or evolved during the work process.”

“I like open spaces, grays, fogs, silence, understatements, atmosphere of mysticism and mystery. I always look forward to autumn and winter. I’m not a huge fan of the summer. Sun and motley of colors, because everything is flat, literal, loud, and burnt out.”

Like Project 77, the book packages together Rozalski’s body of work from ArtStation, but it’s not exactly the same: Howling at the Moon doesn’t come with an overarching story that spans the entire book, but rather a series of smaller worlds that feature art that depicts a shared world: The Ancients, which pits medieval figures against enormous, fantastical giants; The World of 1920 +, an alternate past in which soldiers ride mechs across pastoral, Polish countrysides and forests; Apocalypse Day, which is set in an alternate World War II with giant, mechanical Nazi soldiers; Wolf Pack 1863, which features menacing werewolves facing off against soldiers; Folk Stories, with a random assortment of fantasy creatures; and finally, a section of tutorials, in which Rozalski outlines the steps that he takes to create his fictional worlds. We’ll see more of The World of 1920+ in an upcoming video game adaptation of the world called Iron Harvest, which just funded on Kickstarter.

“I always try to make everything connected with each other,” he explains, “develop[ing] and build[ing] the larger narrative, characters and the atmosphere of the world. World-building and storytelling, it was always a most interesting part for me in the whole creative process.”

One of the things that stands out the most while reading this book is his fascination with landscapes, something featured in almost every one of his paintings, giving his body of work a look and feel like it’s art snatched from an alternate timeline. He says that he’s most inspired by 19th century painters, such as Józef Chełmoński, Józef Brandt, Isaac Levitan, and Ivan Shishkin, known for their realistic takes on landscapes and portraits. “I try to combine classical painting style, wild nature, mythology, history, and interesting concepts, create a unique atmosphere via telling some kind of story, showing everyday situations in an unusual environment.”

Rozalski incorporates fantastical elements into his landscapes: almost every painting includes some sort of leviathan or massive mech lumbering in the background. “I really like to use massive objects / figures in the background,” he explains. “It helps create a sense of space and depth, mysterious atmosphere, and this kind of “what will happen next” feeling.”

Those fantastical mechs and soldiers are in the forefront of series like World of 1920+, which depicts an alternate world of mechanized warfare set against the Polish countryside. Rozalski says that he’s particularly fascinated by early 20th century history, “when tradition clashed with modernity, and the world was still full of mysteries and secrets.”

The entire series, he explains, is based on real events. For example, the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 and the Polish-Soviet War, which are both pivotal battles in the realm of military history, where traditional warfighting methods like mounted cavalry were used for the last time on a large scale. He’s not just interested in depictions of war, but the type of world left behind during the transition from a more agrarian society to a mechanized one: “You can also find that there is a certain kind of longing and nostalgia for the world with living close to nature, wild forests, and rural landscapes, all of which were violently taken over by progress, technology, and civilization.”

Jakub Rozalski’s Howling at the Moon is now available from ArtStation.

Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge