Familiar Witches - Creative Urban Fantasy Project
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Familiar Witches - Creative Urban Fantasy Project

by GemmaTweedy on 12 Feb 2022

On this page is a personal creative project focusing on Celtic mythology and witch-craft. I know “young witches learning magic” is a common trope, but I still love designing for it. I’ve also tried to take from the original mythology as possible, with the witches having fairy familliers to help them with magic.

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The Story

A personal project I’ve worked on for the past year, Familiar Witches (title not final) follows a group of friends growing up as their home grows more and more fantastical. With the UK trying to reconnect with the fairies of their heritage, having not contacted them since the world wars, Gwyn, Raven and Charlotte find themselves in the center of a magical conspiracy.

After a crow steals Gwyn’s phone, they follow it to an abandoned cottage in the woods and discover a talking horse. Though afraid at first, the horse eventually warms up to them and the girls start getting excited about having this obviously fay horse be their familiar, a familiar being a fairy who helps a witch with their magic. Though the horse, called Cnaimhin, is unsure, she warms up to the company and teaches them some basic wood and music magic.

However, soon a criminal organization comes to claim the “horse”, and it’s true identity is revealed; a Nuckelavee, the most powerful fairy with the most evil magic known to man, though she is unable control it yet. Although this revelation is shocking, the group knows their new friend would never want to hurt anyone. They team up and defend her from the group with the magic the Nuckelavee taught them, and vow to protect her from those who would hurt her in the future.

Despite the thriller plot of the first episode, I imagine this story as a slice of life cartoon. While the goal of all the characters is to learn magic to protect Cnaimhin, everyone has their own personal reasons for doing so as well. The plot of each episode would be relatively grounded, focusing on the normal struggles teenagers face, but trying to solve it with a magical witchy twist.


The Characters

Note: the monster bellow is meant to be a horse. My dad has let me know that it looks like a cow because of the horns. It is not a cow, it's a horse. I added the horns because ears would look weird on it but I still needed an ear like shape to fit the silhouette.

Above are the main cast of my story: Levene, Gwyn, Cnaimhin,Charlotte and Raven.

Gwyn, the redhead with a witch hat, is the best candidate for the main character. Raised by a stage mum, Gwendolen Blackburn wants nothing to do with her old, mum-approved hobby of ballet. Now she’s rebelling, learning witch-craft against her parents wishes, with the help of her new fairy familiar, Cnaimhin. However, old habits die hard, and the standards which her mother held her up to are now internalized. Setting herself expectations no one could achieve, Gwyn is doomed to promise too much and fail herself, even if what she does achieve is something to appreciate.

Cnaimhin (pronounced Nave-in) is a fairy monster, and was not prepared for Gwyn and her friends to enter her life. In fact, she’s been hiding in the woods for as long as she can remember, and adjusting to life with people is hard. But now she seems to be in a race against time. Both a character and a MacGuffin, Cnaimhin seems to be at the center of a fairy conspiracy, with evil forces wanting to kidnap her, and use her evil Nuckelavee powers for some nefarious purpose. Wanting nothing to do with her cursed form, Cnaimhin decides to stick with Gwyn and the gang, with hopes of learning how to control her magic better or perhaps undoing the curse altogether.

Levene (pronounced Lev-een) considers herself a fairy ambassador. A Selkie (seal fairy) living most of her life in the human realm, she’s been answering questions about fay all her life. Now, she has taken her explanations to Tik Tok, showing off Selkie magic and customs to her follower base with the goal of improving solidarity between the two groups. However, since she’s moved to a small peak district town with her mum, she’s appointed herself a new task: to protect some class-mates from killing themselves with forces they can’t understand. Even though Levene is kind and truly believes that humans and fay can live in harmony, she is also stubborn and, if some humans don’t follow her brilliant advice, she’ll laugh from the sidelines and record their misfortune for views.

Raven (dark haired NB on a broom) would like nothing more than for you to think of them as cool, swav and unaffected by anything. They’re the class clown, making jokes at others' expense and copying Charlotte’s homework even if it gets them into trouble. However, under their calm persona is someone with a lot of insecurities. Struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, Raven sees themselves as a failure, and blames themselves for never being enough for those around them. Looking up to Charlotte and Gwyn, people who are reliable and seem to be good at everything, Raven keeps their true self behind a mask, keeping their hobby of drawing a secret, as they wouldn't want something they hold so dear to be criticized. And even though magic starts off as a fun curiosity, they’ll develop a similar affection for it, one which will bring them out if their shell in ways no one would have expected.

(Levene hates mud)

And finally, Charlotte, the big, strong and blond heart of the group. Being recently diagnosed with autism, Charlotte feels greatly indebted to Gwyn and Raven for being her first true friends and is willing to do anything for them. However, this won’t stop her from being the voice of reason. If the rest of the group is about to do something dumb or dangerous, Charlotte will almost always be the first to realize and try to get the group out of it. However, her confidence at the start of the story is lacking, and it is confidence she will gain as she's challenged more and more throughout the story.


Designing the Characters

I first started conceptualizing the story after watching Wolfwalkers by Cartoon Saloon. I found the film so stunning that I watched the rest of their Celtic trilogy, and then researched a bunch of it's mythology. Now, when you look up “Celtic monsters” on google images, the devilish “Nuckelavee” is the first thing to pop up. A monster with flayed skin, a human torso with a horse body, spewing disease and death wherever it went. Of course, the first thing I think of when I see this monstrosity is “... Now how can I make this a protagonist?”

I made the character above in only a few days and posted it on my art account. I was disappointing by my design, and I didn’t have much of a story back then. I knew I wanted to have witches and familiars work together and that this Nuckelavee would be a familiar, but not much more than that. However, soon after, I got a new follower who said they loved the design and wanted to see more of my story. And that person is why I’ve made so much art of this concept. For the last year, I’ve been posting my design process as I create the characters and the world, and that follower has been commenting and favoriting every post about it. So, in honor of their contributions, I dedicate this post to gordhanx on DeviantArt! I wouldn’t have come this far without you buddy :3

Inspired by gordhanx's kind comment, I decided to work on some other characters for the story. Despite my limited ideas for the plot, I knew that I would have a couple of main characters: A Nuckelavee, a human teenager, an elderly witch, an old black dog, and a Selkie. I decided to design the young characters first, which was a good idea since I ended up scrapping the witch and dog later.

I first designed Levene the Selkie. Selkies are a race of fay who can shapeshift by dorning a seal skin coat. I first had a go at the seal form which I was very happy with, feeling that I had found a good design after only 3 tries. However, her human one was a lot harder. There were several things I was trying to keep in mind when designing her: First of all, she would need to be overweight, since she’s a seal and seals have blubber. This was hard enough since I’d never drawn an overweight character, let alone design one. However, at the time, I also wanted her to be a shy character. If you’ve read my current description of her, you can tell that her personality has developed since drawing this, but at the time, I was trying to juggle her both being big in size but small in personality.

Though I consider this page as an important one in Levene’s development, everything other than her hair and eye shadow was scrapped. I was especially happy with the hair since it looked like a crashing wave. I edited it a year later to make it easier to draw, but even her new hair style retains the wave motif.

The second design I decided to tackle was Cnaimhin the Nuckelavee. As you can see, I mostly focused on the skull since I felt that it was the most important part of her design. The original Nuckelavee was a monster that haunted the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. My Nuckelavee however was going to be a lot friendlier, even if she still isn't a fan of people.

While the design prompt of "nice Nuckelavee" is obviously a daunting one, I found it quite fun. I enjoy making creature characters far more then human ones, and I feel like with each drawing I was getting closer and closer to the design I wanted, like a sculptor reveling their maiden from stone.

The image above shows the finalised designs for Cnaimhin, Gwyn and Levene. I made this image mostly to make a “finished” picture of my characters, since it feels weird for me to keep my character in development for so long, but compared to my previous pics of them, they are an improvement.

Cnaimhin is probably the design which changed the most after this picture, since after the skull, I got lazy and just copied the horse from anatomy references. You can tell that I had no idea what to do about the legs, but I’m still quite proud about her human half and how appealing I was able to get it.

Then there’s Levene, a character design which virtually hasn’t changed since this image (at least the design for her in uniform). Even though I drew her too thin (a habit that is very hard for me to get out of), I’m happy with her shape and how friendly she looks.

And finally, Gwyn, the main character which, for some reason, I hadn't drawn until how. Out of all the characters I’ve designed so far, Gwyn was by far the easiest. I’ve looked through my files and I could not find any previous designs for her. I’m pretty sure I liked her first draft so much that I just coloured it in and called it a day. From what I remember, Gwyn back then didn’t have many character traits other than “spunky”, so her character design process was just making a thin frame and giving her scruffy hair. I also made her hair match Cnaimhin’s at the back to connect the designs a little bit, a detail which I forgot about and ditched in her later incarnations.

This illustration was both a design of Gwyn in casual clothes, and a study of LuigiL on DeviantArt. LuigiL is a character illustrator who makes extremely pleasing character designs. I love their style and wanted to mimic it, and this exploration into his style permanently changed my own going forward, especially in the face. I think that the way I draw noses and ears came directly from what I learned from this illustration, and I learned just how important Line Weight is to make a picture pop.

This image is probably one of my favourites. I think this was the first time I truly “got” Cnaimhin’s design. When everything clicked and I was like “Yes. That’s my girl!” (And yes, they are female. I've definitely thought of making their anatomy more feminine, but how could I do that for a naked character?) I still edited the design a little bit here and there, mostly with the shape of the horse head, but when it comes to the colours, human face shape and anatomy of the body, this image is my go to reference.

It was around autumn last year that I realized that Gwyn needed an update. No longer could her character be simplified down to the term “spunky”. Now she was a girl with personality. Previously a prodigy at ballet (which I chose because swan lake was based on celtic mythology), Gwyn is trying to escape her mum’s overly strict upbringing. In her pursuit for freedom, she discovers Cnaimhin who shows her the art of witchcraft, an art which will get her into so much trouble when her mum finds out.

With this new back story, Gwyn’s previous “scruffy” design didn’t fit. I kept her body shape the same, but experimented with the hair since that was the problem area. After exploring for a while I found a design which fit her character nicely. It was angular with very few curves. Sharp, but with a slight roughness which hinted to her darker tendencies.

Above are two WIPs for Cnaimhin’s cursed form. For you see, Cnaimhin has a few secrets up her sleeve. She might look scary now, but her true form will give you nightmares. Cnaimhin’s true form is a screaming, soul thirsty monster, existing in agony as it’s emotions are too strong for it to handle. It’s something Cnaimhin does everything in her power to repress, but of course, sometimes things don’t go to plan.

The first image was kind of a flop. When designing this new form, I wanted it to look more like the original description of the Nuckelavee. This meant the design needed “ a mouth sticking out like the snout of a pig”, “arms so long, that it could reach the ground without even bending over”, a horse head with “steam belched out of it”, a “single red eye”, “hairless” and “black blood pumping through its veins.”

I started by designing the skulls, but none of them looked threatening enough for the beast. However, in my second attempt, I found some angels on Google image search which covered their eyes with horns. I tried it out on Cnaimhin and I loved it! It fits this form since she's going to be "blind with rage" during it. It also justifies her having horns in her small form, something I was always unsure about since they were never mentioned in the original description, and did only for the silhouette. But now, they add to the description as they're the reason why she only has an eye on her horse head. 

Speaking of horse head, I also experimented with it's design. I started with making it more draconic, but soon preferred the shape of a thin, unnaturally long head. I had in mind that this form would be impossibly fast, so a thin design would be best to show that. I also experimented with placing the eye somewhere that wasn't at the top of the head, but decided to scrap them.

I’m really happy with this image. My favourite thing about it being how I replaced Cnaimhin’s hair with goo. Not only does it fit the original, hairless description, but It makes her cursed form look like it’s exploding from liquid malice, as if Cnaimhin’s own body isn’t enough to contain her evil power.

There are, however, some things about the design that I’m not quite happy about. For one, I feel like the horns are a bit empty. They are a big flat shape joined to this complicated design and it just doesn’t fit. I made them a different color to try and solve the problem but I don’t think it helped. Adding some pattern to them, like growth rings or cracks, would have probably been better.

I regret rendering this picture. This looks WAY too nice for the first drafts of these characters.

I drew this to iron-out some design problems with Gwyn and Levene, as well as make two characters that I’ve had in my head for a while. Raven and Charlotte are characters which I’ve been scared to make, mostly because they are two character types I’ve never designed before: Non-Binary and Buff Woman. I rely on references a lot when designing, and when it comes to those two character types, there’s hardly any to look at.

I’m kind of okay with Charlotte, since I think I was able to balance her strength with her femininity, but Raven looks nothing like I imagine them. I didn’t really know what Raven looked like before drawing them, but I know that they didn’t look like that, leaving me very unsatisfied with this piece.

Apart from that, I updated Gwyn’s school uniform to reflect her new personality, while I changed Levene’s hair: I reduced the amount of spikes in her hair to make her easier to draw.

For some reason, designing anything for Levene is unimaginably frustrating for me.

At first this page wasn’t going to be about levene. It was going to be me improving Raven’s design since I felt so unsatisfied with them last time. However, two minute in and I had an epiphany: Make their hair look like bird wings! Get it? Cuz they’re called Raven? Anyway, I felt so hyped after that break through that I wanted to work on something else I’ve been putting off, that being Lenene’s casual dress.

I thought that putting casual clothes on Levene would be easy (since it was so easy for Gwyn), but oh boy was Levene’s design infuriating! Nothing I did looked right. I tried patterned clothes, I tried plain clothes. Something about Levene screamed “fancy” to me but I didn’t want her casual clothes to be fancy!

After 3 days of frenzied drawing, I asked my sister for help. She gave me some pointers about her color scheme, theming and what to research and I feel so much better about the design that I created. For starters, she actually has her seal coat incorporated into her design! At the start, I didn’t think I would be able to fit it in, but I’m so happy that I did. It’s also the first time I used the “photo as a color palette” technique and I think I’ll be using it more in the future.


What's Next?

Now that I've designed the main characters, I definitely want to design the villains. I've had them in mind for a while and I really want to show them off. I also want to design some magical creatures and make comics with different scenarios. However, something I also want to do is make a movie-length story instead of a cartoon length one. There's a saying along the lines of "If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." While I love this story, I want to try and make a shorter one since I think it takes more skill to condense a plot into only it's essentials. And skill requires practice. It would also make my dreams of becoming a film maker more achievable since cartoons are bigger risks than movies.


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