Contemporary Art and RPG Illustration

Early in the email conversation between Ryan Browning, Tim Hutchings, Chris Hagerty, and myself that led to the upcoming panel on Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art, Tim suggested “Let’s think about some topics that might interest artist/gamer types.” The one I’ll trace in this post was:

The creation of something brand new upon the earth (RPGs) which is then completely defined through a handful of illustrators (Erol Otus, Trampier, etc) who may or may not have played the games.

I wrote back to encourage the conversation to pursue the relationship between art and illustration, and resolve Tim’s may or may not:

TSR’s “big three”, Otus, Trampier, and Sutherland, were all game-players of one kind or another. Otus has said: “We were all playing D&D a lot.” Sutherland co-authored Demonweb Pits with Gygax and as a child “played war games with his artistic dad using plastic molded figures they repainted to be historically accurate“. Trampier co-designed the great hex wargame Titan; his RPG pedigree is less well-confirmed (apparently he drew on the walls of a place called Linda’s where TSR guys liked to drink and got hired that way) but I can’t imagine that anyone working for TSR back in the day managed never to play D&D.

I’m tempted to draw an old-school/new-school distinction (or at least Golden Age/Silver Age distinction) by saying that more technically proficient guys like Elmore, Parkinson, and Easley weren’t players, but a little Googling doesn’t back me up.

Parkinson: “Now, I was introduced to D&D many years ago in a city far far away. Chicago I believe, and the year was….Uh, nevermind what the year was…But what is important is how much I liked the game. It was so much fun I found myself and four other people, two of which were also artists that started the same night I did, getting together every weekend to play.”

Elmore was also TSR staff and Gygax’s favorite artist; it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t also rolling dice.

Later I found and shared a quotation from Elmore that was especially interesting because it made explicit how playing the game influenced the TSR staff’s approach:

We played D&D. I had played it once before I went to work there. Keith Parkinson played it a lot and ran a campaign there for three or four years. We played every lunch, and we’d usually meet once or twice a month and play all night at somebody’s house.

It was good for us, too, because we were consumers of the game and were confronting the same adventures and problems that the consumers were. That helped us in painting, too.

From the very onset… I wanted to work the whole scene. I got there and said, “Look, I’ve only played a couple of times, but it seems like, in this game, everything is important — the landscape, the weather, if you’re in a dungeon. Everything is important.”

At that time in fantasy art, it was very popular to do figures in fog. You’d do one figure and then just sort of fog the background out. I said, “This is not about figures in fog. It’s about the land, the trees, the terrain, everything.” I really pushed to do the whole scene. Keith Parkinson caught on that fast. That’s how he believed, too. Jeff is more of a figures-in-fog kind of painter. As soon as they started playing the game, they saw how effective it was.

Larry Elmore, "Dragon Slayers, and Proud of It"

Ryan said:

Those early D&D illustrators (Otus, Trampier, Sutherland) defined my earliest foundations of artistic taste – I was pretty young when they came out but my brother had quite a few modules and the core books. He never let me touch them, they were like gold. There was something medieval about their work (not just the imagery of weaponry and dragons) that’s disappeared in game illustration. Like Tavis said, I think there is something to say about old-school players and the early illustrations. Some of them were pretty dreamlike or psychedelic (magic) and others very theatrically dramatic, lacking environment – more conducive to a theater-of-the-mind attitude of play. Everything now is hyper real… with the minis and everything especially – its all about visualization. This reminds me – the first character I ever rolled was a (gnome?) illusionist with 18/00 strength. I guess I didn’t understand the rules, and I probably cheated with the dice, but man, that was an awesome character… I couldn’t wait to bend some bars.

In talking about his background as a gamer, Chris had mentioned his relationship to game illustration:

I do however credit RPGs and game culture for starting me out as a visual artist… All those bitchin pictures in my D&D books were always way more interesting than any other subject I studied in school. I essentially went to art school to become a game illustrator but ditched out of that program focus after the first semester when I found out illustrators don’t get to always draw what they want. So here I am now, still loving to play these fun games but they kind of maintain a different part of my brainspace than what I want to do the art thing for. Recently I have been enjoying a slight resurgence in doing game illustration and crafting game design objects purely for my own enjoyment. I think because they don’t have to interact with anybody else except my fellow players, it gives me a simple pleasure.

Ryan followed up on this:

Chris, I like that you mentioned making illustrations for your own games and benefit – I also thought about becoming an illustrator, and then was convinced by one of my teachers that it wasn’t what I wanted (for the same reason you gave – that I could not draw whatever I liked). I just realized that I’ve been actively avoiding drawing the figure for about 4 years (ever since I went to grad school) as I’ve been avoiding dumbly falling into illustration. I really miss it, especially now as I’m getting back into gaming. I’ll have to start drawing my own stuff again too.

Chris replied:

I think this is a really common shared experience with about half of us or more coming from comics love and the other portion from RPG game illustration. There was a mixture of different reasons why I wanted to make my profession as an artist as opposed to illustrator. Mainly it dealt with the breadth of communication that I could pursue with fine art as opposed to doing freelance work for game companies and whatnot. Up until college I had been heavily involved with forms of escapism like RPGs and I made the decision to turn more outward in the work I wanted to spend my time on. I could go on for quite a while on escapism in art and some of it’s model sources for the games we play now [here he linked the images below] but I fear I have typed too much already.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Untitled etching (called "The Drawbridge"), plate VII (of 16) from the series The Imaginary Prisons (Le Carceri d'Invenzione), Rome, 1761 edition (reworked from 1745)


Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Unconscious Rivals", 1893

I totally can relate to Ryan’s stopped time of doing game/lowbrow drawings, although my reasons were that after college, I felt I was highly skilled observational draftsmen and it was downright embarrassing to do such lousy game illustrations, when I tried, at the same time. I am now starting to be at the point where I can blow my time on the game drawings and accept them as a fun activity if I have the time to spare. It was hard for me as an artist to thinks of multiple levels of art making, not so much mind-pollution, more like guilt at time I wasn’t spending in the studio.

In response to this and Chris’s earlier statement “illustrators don’t get to always draw what they want,” I wrote:

When I do freelance writing for RPGs, I’m sometimes in the position of trying to get an illustrator to draw what I tell them to. This is mysterious (because it passes through an art director’s hands as well) and sometimes frustrating (esp. because I have little training in suggesting illustrations, and there are often good reasons for the other agents in the process to say “no, what Tavis describes here won’t work”). I always try to write my art orders to focus on non-white characters using medieval-realistic equipment in situations that really emerge in play, and the output is often white heroes in anime-stylized gear in situations that happen in fantasy novels or the player’s daydream about playing D&D but don’t get any attention at the table.

Originally: "This lithe and athletic survivor is wearing HIDE ARMOR made from the gray, spiky plates of a macetail behemoth. Her skin is dark brown, and her curly black hair is kept short; on Earth, one would assume that she was from Africa. She has a simple, functional, and deadly-looking GREATAXE strapped over her back, and a coil of rope at her belt."

In contrast, the great Trampier illustrations like confronting a magic mouth or opening a treasure chest are very specific to D&D and are the collective focus of play when they happen.


David A. Trampier, published by TSR in the 1979 AD&D Players Handbook

David A. Trampier, published by TSR in the 1979 AD&D Players Handbook

As a freelancer I’m currently in a different mindset than y’all mentioned about illustration and art school: nowadays I like being told “write about this specific thing under a work-for-hire contract that gives away all your rights” because it’s relaxing for me to approach creativity as just a job. When I was younger artistic freedom and self-expression were a lot more important to me, but that wound up being stressful because having more involvement in it meant I was more insecure about its success and reception, which seemed like a referendum on my self-worth. (This was especially true before I moved to NYC and started doing psychotherapy, which Woody Allen had conditioned me to think of, like bagels, as an essential part of a New Yorker’s lifestyle.)

During the time I was away from gaming I wrote science fiction, but when I sold a story to Asimov’s I got anxious about how I was going to follow up that success. After I got back into RPGs, writing for games felt easier because I was filling in the blanks in a structured format, without the terrifying expanse of blank canvas that came from sitting down and thinking “Today I must write a SF story from scratch.” I got three of my friends started a company to self-publish some monster books we’d pitched to another publisher who wanted all the rights; doing it ourselves meant we had creative control but lost money, so there’s definitely an appeal for me these days in knowing that if I write something for WotC I will get paid on time, and if people think it sucks it’s not entirely my fault (sometimes their editing and developing team makes the published article better than my manuscript, and sometimes not) and besides I already cashed the check so to hell with what they think!

Last night after one of the Red Box games, Eric (that game’s DM) was talking about self-publishing some old-school adventures etc. and enlisting Chris as an illustrator, which I think would rock! I may well decide to jump on that bandwagon, which would interestingly be a move towards more artistic license than I get as a freelancer at the same time that Chris accepts less by working within the confines of illustrating a text.

One thing that I like about game writing (and also the grant writing that I do as a day job) is that it’s collaborative. That is as important to my enjoyment as the fact that it’s more structured. Fiction writing felt awfully lonely with just me and the keyboard!

Ryan replied:

I really understand the thing about working alone on a creative project. I’m tempted constantly to go play a flash game or something as I try to paint – or anything easier than thinking about what to do next with my work. Working with people sounds nice – I teach, and I like that, but a lot of my students drive me crazy. And, paychecks really are a benefit that can’t be overlooked – I need more of them!

The illustration that didn’t quite turn out is hilarious when you explain what it should have been. It looks like D&D nature porn. The RPG audience probably won’t ever kick it’s preference for chain-mail bikinis though. WoW-looking elf chicks might die out someday soon… I hope.


Karyn Lewis, "Chainmail Bikini"

Tim’s suggestion opened a really interesting vein. I think there’s still a lot to talk about concerning the breadth of communication granted to the contemporary artist vs. the limitations of an illustrator working within a text, as well as issues about the critical reception of each that I hope the panel will explore further. A question I raised early on is still unanswered for me:

Do we award guys like Otus and Trampier a different status than modern RPG artists who work for a company that has an actual art director, while early TSR almost certainly had a much higher degree of creative freedom?

Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an example of an artist independently choosing to work within the limitations of illustrating an existing text. When we emailed him about taking part in the discussion, he also raised the issue of critical reception:

I feel like any decent panel on art & RPGs, if it isn’t going to get mired entirely in hippie post-performance art theoretics, needs to seriously address precisely this question: Why is the alleged difference between commercial artists: Dave Trampier, Ian Miller, Gary Gygax et al. and gallery artists taken seriously at all by anyone–ESPECIALLY now that pretty much any gallery in New York will show a picture of a 3-headed dragon eating a spaceman with a laser gun if its presented properly and any game company is capable of producing trendy, self-aware, post-human Ballardian sci-fi or whatever? Is this merely a commercial reality or does it point to fundamentally different aims?


9 Responses to “Contemporary Art and RPG Illustration”

  1. 1 Greengoat
    November 5, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Excellent compilation Tavis. You make us look more intelligent than we actually are.

  2. November 5, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    No, all the editing of the original emails is done only to make myself look better. I have nobly refrained from making any of y’all look worse, though.

  3. November 5, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    I’ve often wondered why we still do that very split – ‘the artist’ vs. ‘the illustrator’ – and apparently for the same reasons you have. I have some ideas, but I’d like to wait and see what you come up with first.

    Some really interesting discussion going on here guys. Thanks for sharing it with us! I’ll look forward to future compilations on these topics and how you feel the questions are/should be answered.

  4. 4 Jack Colby
    June 12, 2012 at 6:27 am

    Great post. I personally think D&D art is at it’s best when it reflects things that really happen in the game. There is a reason Tramp’s Player’s Handbook cover is a classic and the others are barely remembered. So much D&D art today does not seem to reflect anything about the game itself, and that is off-putting to me. It’s not that the artists aren’t talented, but I believe the art direction is not appropriate to illustrating the game. It is fantasy novel style art, or just generic fantasy imagery and characters. It seems wrong when you know how the game really plays out.

  5. March 2, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after looking at some of the posts I realized it’s new to me.
    Regardless, I’m definitely pleased I discovered it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2010

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