Ideas Made of Light

#20: Tales From Topographic Oceans, by Roger Dean

Tales From Topographic Oceans by Roger Dean.
This scan from the book Views, by Roger Dean, copyright 1975.
This analysis copyright Scott M. McDaniel, 2009.

The Image


Click here for a larger version.

Last night I took my family to go see James Cameron’s new movie Avatar. It’s set on a moon called Pandora in distant space. As we saw more and more of it I found myself thinking that it was a Roger Dean painting come to life. While I don’t believe he had direct involvement in the movie, his influence is immediately obvious. What’s so strange is that I’d already planned to do an analysis of one of his paintings before I’d seen the movie. So, before I go any further, here are a few links that those who have seen the movie should check out:

Floating Jungle
Floating Islands
Sea of Light

And, of course, the subject of this week’s analysis: Tales From Topographic Oceans.

“Tales” was the front and back cover art for Yes’ album Tales From Topographic Oceans. Since the album cover opened out, Dean faced an interesting problem. The right half of the painting is all that would be visible to most customers in a record store, so that had to work as an image all on its own. But, since it wrapped around to the back side the entire thing had to work as a coherent image as well. Basically, he had to construct two halves that add to a greater sum that the parts. To solve this problem Dean came up with a picture that has one focus when you’re seeing the right half and a different focus when you see the whole thing.

In addition to all of that, band members and others suggested different objects to include in the cover art. From the book Views:

The final collection of landmarks was more complex than he had intended because it seemed appropriate to the nature of the project that everyone who wanted to contribute should do so. The landscape comprised amongst other things, some famous English rocks taken from Dominy Hamilton’s postcard collection. These are, specifically : Brimham Rocks, the last rocks at Lands End, the Logan rock at Treen and single stones from Avebury and Stonehenge. Jon Anderson wanted the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza with the sun behind it, and Alan White suggested using markings from the plains of Nazca. The result is a somewhat incongruous mixture, but effective nonetheless.

The Concept

Let’s start with the title. I’ve been a Yes fan since the middle ’80’s, and I’ll be the first to admit that their lyrics are cryptic at best. I mean, how could the line, “Shining flying purple wolfhounds show me where you are” not be chemically inspired? So I don’t tend to look for a whole lot of meaning in the phrases. As weird as they are, though, they offer striking images and a title like “Tales from Topographic Oceans” gives an illustrator lots of room to play. Let’s look at the right half of the picture.


Right. Oceans, eh? It’s hard to get much further removed from an ocean than a desert scene. Right off the bat we’re given this puzzle. We decide that it’s not an ocean after all. So then, let’s look at the left side.


Well, this seems to be an underwater scene what with the fish and all. Kind of weird that we can see stars in the sky, and that branch wouldn’t normally be underwater, but because of the fish we initially read the scene as being underwater. Only when we open up the record cover to see the full image do we get that same kind of mental rearrangement Magritte was so fond of. Now, I haven’t studied a lot about Topology, but I know enough about it to understand the spatial paradoxes it presents. Dean didn’t use a literal topographic trick in the artwork, but he certainly delivered that same sense of the space warp.

The Right

Now that we’ve looked at the halves, let’s focus in on the right half. It’s the most critical part since its job is to catch the casual record browser’s eye. The focus here is the pyramid in the background. We can tell because Dean leads our eye to it with the rock formations and even some of the stars. He’s also put the pyramid at the intersection of two of the golden section lines. There’s a fairly high contrast between the moon and the pyramid’s edge.


The Whole

When we look at the whole thing, the focus shifts to the rock formation in general and the waterfall in particular. (A waterfall with no source and no outlet.) We see some of the same lines from before guiding the eye again. Others are new, though, such as the stars on the right side of the sky and the fish. The waterfall itself is close to the right vertical section line but not quite on it. If Dean was using the golden sections deliberately, he probably didn’t want to crowd the pyramid on the right half since that is the most important part of the picture.


Let’s digress for a second. That question of “if” comes up regularly. We can note that certain things line up with the golden section, but did the artist do that deliberately or did it come from an innate sense of design? It depends on the picture and artist of course, but regardless of whether it’s intentional or not I wholeheartedly agree with Dean when he says he “would like technique to be invisible.” If the first thing a viewer thinks when looking at an illustration is “Wow, nice use of the golden section” then the artist has probably failed. All of the techniques I cover in these analyses should generally be transparent.

Why spend so much time on them then? Personally, I think it’s like learning to execute a good forehand in racquetball (my own personal frame of reference). Before muscle memory sets in you have to pay attention to lots of details – angle of the racket, speed of the ball, force of the swing, balance of the body, etc. Eventually, though, it all merges together into a single thing – a forehand swing. After that it can be instinctive. Until then, though, you’ve got to pay attention and try controlling the different parts on purpose. The “different parts” in the context of art are all the techniques at our disposal to create an experience in the viewer’s head.

The Style

What is it about a Roger Dean painting that makes it so instantly identifiable? He’s got a unique, distinct style that’s sharpened over the years but is definitely his. Choice of subject is one part of it – beautiful and surreal landscapes dominate his work. Even when animals and people appear in the paintings, it’s the landscape that seems the most realistic. For example, in Blue Desert look how Dean uses light and value to give mass to the rock formations. Then look at the eagle in the foreground – it’s quite flat by comparison and clearly not the focus of the picture.

Let’s look at a few details from Tales to get an idea of how Dean renders his pictures. Here are the fish. Their scales are just suggested and in places just loose scribbles. The shape and anatomy is realistic, and the lighting gives them form and depth. Dean uses moderately saturated greens and yellows with highly saturated reds serving as accents. We’ve got a mixture of accurate form and anatomy with punched up colors.


When it comes to the rocks, Dean doesn’t render every last detail. He uses color and value to give us the general shape of the rock and then uses a few lines and textures to get us to fill in the rest. Dean does the same thing with the water and foliage. The shapes and forms are realistic, but he doesn’t render every last detail.


Here is the pyramid, which is the focus of the right half of the image. It’s in the background, so the colors are less saturated and Dean has dropped the linework. He communicates space effectively by using these techniques, plus having other objects clearly in the foreground and midground. Again with the pyramid, it’s basic shapes and colors to define the mass, and relatively few rendered details.


Finally here’s a detail of a rock in the lower left part of the picture. You can get a good look at how Dean uses linework not just for outlines but also for texture. And the cool fossil is just fun.


The Elements

To wrap up we’ll go through Lee Moyer’s Elements of a Successful Illustration.

Focus: Dean gives us a dual focus depending on whether we’re looking at the front cover only (the right half) or the full image. The left half of the image is less clearly defined, but I’d say the focus is on the fish due to their saturated red accents.

Composition and Design: Dean guides our eye to the pyramid in the right half and to the waterfall in the full version. When viewing only the right half, the rock formation with the waterfall acts as a frame for the pyramid.

Palette: This painting is quite saturated overall. I have a theory that illustrations from the ’70’s were more saturated overall, but I’ll need to check that out. Also, if you’re a Yes geek like I am you may notice that the horizon itself uses a green gradient similar to Yes’ previous album, Close To The Edge.

Value: The sky is dark and the foreground generally bright. Values define the rock formations and the fish, giving them solidity and mass.

Mass: Dean gives us a mixture of flat and more three dimensional objects. The pyramid, for example, is quite flat since it’s in the distance, and it’s less saturated.

Texture: Views doesn’t comment on the specific techniques Dean used for this painting, but he often used a variety of media to get his effects. Some of the linework looks like it could be ink, there are some watercolor textures, and what is likely layers of airbrush. Each adds its own kind of texture.

Symbolism: Dean supports the notion of a topographic ocean by placing stones, pyramids, and plains markings that wouldn’t normally be seen together in a single image. Couple that with fish seemingly swimming through mid-air and we have a surreal mix that fits the albums name nicely. As for what a topographic ocean symbolizes… I’ve no clue.

Micro/Macro: Looking at the details above, I note that Dean is pretty conservative with his rendering of detail in the objects of focus. The lines, when present, serve more as outline and texture than detailed rendering. The fossil, though, has plenty of detail, though the lines he uses to execute it don’t contrast sharply with the rock surface so it doesn’t distract us.

Ornament: The band’s logo and the album title don’t appear in this version, and they certainly count. I also consider the simplified stars to be ornament as well.

Narrative: Dean’s focus on landscapes means that narrative usually takes a back seat in his illustrations. His pictures for Yes’ earlier albums Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Yessongs did use a narrative thread, but it’s not carried over to this album.

Juxtaposition: The two halves of the picture read fairly normally on their own, but together they reveal a new level that makes us do a double-take. There’s also the juxtaposition of the stones, markings, and pyramid to reinforce the theme of a folding of space.

Stylization: Dean has his own unique style that focuses on landscapes, saturated palettes, and unusual logic. It’s common to see little paradoxes like the waterfall with no source and no outlet. One of my favorite paintings of his is the cover for The Steve Howe Album. At first you think that you’re looking at a pond that reflects the rocks around it until you notice that the reflections don’t match the rocks above. Only then do you realize that the island is floating and that we’re looking through the pond to the sky below.

Character: Character isn’t a strong element of the painting. At least, not in the sense of presenting a sentient character.

Tension: The tension here is mostly perceptual. It’s a tension of logic, not plot.

Line: Dean uses lines for outline and for texture. The fish and fossil show him using it to add detail as well.

Research/Reference: See the description at the beginning for the various things Dean included in the image. He used postcards for many of the rock formations, and I imagine that he also used reference for the fish and the fossils.

Vignette: There’s a clear separation of planes of depth, but there’s not a central figure in the illustration that I’d call a classic vignette.

Perspective: The sense of depth and space comes from those planes of depth and some atmospheric perspective.

That’s it for this time. I’ll be taking next week off for Christmas related traveling, so I’ll begin the new year with a look at Gabriel Rodríguez’ cover for the comic Locke & Key.


    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by pluto, Art Globe. Art Globe said: Tales From Topographic Oceans, by Roger Dean. This takes apart an old Yes album cover. And talks about Avatar. #art […]

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by artglobe: Tales From Topographic Oceans, by Roger Dean. This takes apart an old Yes album cover. And talks about Avatar. #art

  • I think Dean had a large part in Avatar’s inspiration also. Also, that line isn’t cryptic at all…They’re spaceships (Shining flying purple), and wolfhounds is just a reference to seeking out prey.

  • Matt is right about Yours is No Disgrace lyric. The pyramid was requested by Jon Anderson to represent mayan or some ancient culture. I’m not sure if it’s the Tales cover, but one of them you can see cat prints from Deans’ kitten.