Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sham on Art


Sham's ramblings on art, or lack thereof, written after reading a few other articles on the topic, found here at Trollsmyth and here at M&M.

There has been much hand-wringing of late in our Blognard circles on the topic of D&D art, specifically old style versus new style. Much of this debating is in regard to the distinct change in artistic approach which can be traced from the early, amateurish OD&D illustrations right through to the slick, professional pieces we see in the WotC publications. Somewhere in between is found each fan’s personal preference. That’s just it, the thing about art, and music (which is another form of art), is that it’s a very personal thing.

Matt Finch goes into great detail covering the specific subject matter differences between the old and the new, and delivers more than a few nuggets of wisdom in his comments to this post at Grognardia. It’s enlightening and well worth the read. It’s also one of the truly rare times that the comments portion of a post outshines the post itself (apologies to James, but I’m sure he’d agree), especially considering it’s location at Grognardia.

While not an expert in the field of D&D art as a whole, I can certainly blather on and on while engaged in the greater topic of art in general. First of all, let me suggest that this topic is one which I find to be somewhat inane. These illustrations are simply the dressing for this grand hobby we all enjoy so much. I do understand the context from which most of these discussions has arisen; that of publication values and the question of aping the classics juxtaposed with the values of glorious modern eye-candy. In that context, I do believe the authorities have spoken and made their decision, and no amount of pining for the old days is going to change the direction and feel of modern D&D art. The topic at hand is D&D art and what that means, whether old or new.

Realistically, those of us who prefer the older D&D art must, at some point, admit that this preference is simply one of associative value. As youths (or more aptly, back in the day, as not all of us were youths back then), we stared at the works of the classic D&D illustrators for hours upon end, to the point that we now associate those works with the game itself. In fact, the game is the game, and, as I stated earlier, the artwork is the dressing. These are not one and the same, but we have inexorably linked these images to our own nostalgic feelings of whatever older edition we enjoyed so much back then (and for the most part, I think that this topic is channeling that AD&D art vibe; the period when the hobby was at it’s pinnacle).

There’s no denying the fact that the modern D&D illustrations are more professional. If we, the Blognards, are removed from the equation, and the various D&D illustration periods are compared, side by side, even a 4th grader would be able to discern which works are the “higher quality” pieces. The funny thing is, we can do this with the rules themselves, but that’s a topic that has been driven into the ground here, and at other blog sites frequented by ones such as myself.

If we are to take a leap of faith and actually consider these illustrations to be a form of art, though, we can agree that nostalgia and professionalism are not factored into our own personal preference. When you begin to think in such a manner, you yourself are becoming an art appreciator. If you truly believe that the modern D&D illustrations are technically superior, and more attractive, you might be missing the boat in regard to the art contained within the vast D&D collection; OR it might simply be that those works speak to your individual art appreciation values. No one can tell YOU which art is better. You need to make this decision.

Each artist/illustrator, and his or her works within the D&D anthology, should be considered individually, and not as simply another chunk of someone’s broad categorization. For example, anime, by and large, is an art form which is completely lost upon this critic. But, I can watch a movie like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and love the art therein. Therefore, I understand that I don’t despise ALL anime, just most of it. Again, this is a personal preference.

As a side note, and as an individual who has studied art to an extensive degree, I’d like to just stop and defend my own stance of calling ANY of these illustrations, or anime, ART. The notion of using the terms art and anime and D&D together in the same article is almost blasphemous. Is it art or isn’t it? You be the judge. At some point the lines between illustration and art become blurred, and I’d defend my words here by simply pointing out that given the amount of discussion which D&D art has generated, then yes, it is art and not simply a collection of illustrations. The illustrators are exercising creative control and often taking their works beyond the scope of the rules themselves. If a bunch of folks are sitting around debating the merits of the illustration, it can safely be considered art. Although I must remand myself in this matter, as I am often one of the blow-hards who declares “That’s not ART!”. Meh. Hmmm, where’s my Cab Sav and room-temp Brie?

So, having established that yes, this is art, and tossed out the notions of professionalism and nostalgia, we can move forward and actually attempt to appreciate the various artists and their works within the D&D anthology. Forget old and new. Look at the works themselves, and decide which ones you prefer. I can tell you which artists I prefer, but each person reading this who might actually give a damn about this topic should be able to reach their own opinion based on the art itself, and not upon what edition it was found in, nor upon the subject matter itself.

From where I stand, art should be evocative; it should move you and it should be creative. Lacking these essentials, it’s nothing more than an illustration. When I say “move you”, I don’t mean bring you to tears or make you rush for the men’s room. I mean it should successfully separate itself from the written work to which it is attached. The piece should have it’s own voice, and not simply act as a pictogram for the module or guide within which it might be located.

Even some of my favorite D&D artists have churned out some clunkers, those pieces that I recognize as illustrations…there was a deadline, there was a spot for a drawing, and there was some mundane text which did little to inspire. Thus, we have a clunker. I don’t think there are too many clunkers in modern D&D art, but then again, as I declared earlier, I am not an expert in the field of modern D&D art. Clunkers aside, there are some wonderful pieces of artwork just waiting to be (re)discovered in the older D&D works, AND there are some works that I feel are simply bereft of artistic talent and value.

From all accounts, God rest his soul and bless his family, I am led to believe that Dave Sutherland was a fantastic friend and all-around great guy. That little DCS III litters the old school D&D landscape, and is an unforgettable footprint through the history of this game. BUT, in my opinion, Dave’s stuff is, quite simply, strictly illustrative and totally lacking in artistic value. Given the omnipresence of Sutherland’s works throughout D&D, I’m of the opinion that these illustrations are the very ones used as examples to show how bad D&D art used to be. There are some DCS works that I enjoy, but for the most part, Dave was a clunk-o-matic.

Now, the above is a fine example of how art is a personal thing. I know for a fact that many of my fellow Blognards like Sutherland’s stuff. And I appreciate their opinion, even if I don’t share it. Further, this is an example of how the old vs. new genre thing loses it’s meaning. I love me some old school D&D art, so how can I loathe 95% of DCS III’s works? It’s not about the categories, it’s about the artist.

If you’re still reading this, you’re either somewhat interested in art, an artist yourself, or unemployed. So take this exercise since you have ample time on your hands:

Grab a copy of the AD&D 1e Player’s Handbook. Take however long is required to leaf through it and look at all of the illustrations within. Now, go back to the beginning and see who the two artists are. Lastly, consider which of these illustrations you might be willing to frame, hang on a wall, and allow guests to appreciate. In other words, which of these would you call art? This is your opinion and nothing more, and neither I nor anyone else can change your preference. It is what it is.

I just wish I appreciated Sutherland as much as I do Trampier. That’s what I really wish, but rather than decry the living and praise the departed, I’ll leave it at that. But DAMN that Tramp could draw. In all fairness, here's one of the select DCS pieces that I do appreciate (and I believe, given time and inspiration, Mr. Sutherland was a fine illustrator and artist, it's unfortunate that this was not always the case).



I appreciate Mr. Sutherland's work for it's nostalgic value, but I must add that I spent more time searching for a suitable image to place here than I did in writing this post. I finally settled on what is perhaps his most famous piece, seen above (I considered A Paladin in Hell as well).

I have seen plenty of pieces from amongst the broad category of modern D&D art that are very well done, creative and evocative. I have seen more than my fair share of poorly drawn old school art, as well. I admit that the older stuff will always carry with it the nostalgic link to AD&D 1e for me, so I will always appreciate it. To me, these old black and white drawings ARE D&D. To others, they are simply crude and amateurish drawings from a time when D&D was a crude and amateurish game. I can convince fans of modern D&D that this older art is fantastic about as readily as I can convince them that the versions in which they appear are likewise fantastic.

It is what it is.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

12 comments:

Dwayanu said...

The snobbery against illustration -- repeated references to it as non-art -- yanked my chain a bit.

A friend of mine ran up against that when she chose to illustrate Dunsany's "The King of Elfland's Daughter" for her art-degree thesis.

I really don't see how that makes sense. It certainly is not applied to the great masters of former eras!

trollsmyth said...

There's a lot of clunk, yeah, scattered throughout the history of D&D. In fact, I'd propose that one of the enduring mysteries of D&D is why there's so much clunk when clearly top-notch artists are out there, ready to sling ink and paint and pixels for cold, hard cash.

Which is why I'll take exception to your comment about the more recent stuff looking more "professional". There is a more professional vibe all across the board compared to the 1e core books, certainly. But even 4e has some shocking clunkers in it that really look like they were dashed out by someone who lacked the skill or the desire to create something evocative. In fact, I'll even go out on a limb to say that the apex of professionalism in the core books of D&D probably peaked with 2e.

That aside, I'm curious as to your opinions on the direction the simulacra creators should take with their art. Should they strive for pieces that mimic the art of the original editions? Use art that evokes those older pieces without necessarily adhering to the style and principles of those works? Or go for something completely new?

I realize for you it's primarily an academic exercise, since you're less interested in old vs. new than you are in fun, but that just makes me more curious, honestly. When you pick up an "old school" product, how important is that old school look and feel for you?

- Brian

Anonymous said...

I leafed through the 4th edition books and I thought the art was mostly pretty terrible. Lots of chainmail bikinis (even on the bugbears - apparentley the female of every female species needed to be illustrated) but the bikinis couldn't be too small. The whole thing looked like art designed by a commitee and didn't really work.

-Eli

Sham aka Dave said...

Dwayanu: That's why I devoted an entire paragraph to defending the use of the term "art" in this context. You might notice it finishes with a bit about snobbery, Cab Sav and room-temp Brie? The clunkers? Those are rushed illustrations (and I think the artists who handed in their assignments like this would probably agree).

Brian: I don't prefer modern D&D art, but from what I've seen it certainly appears to be more professional. As I mentioned in the post, 'more professional' doesn't equate to better. For ME, more professional normally means bland, generic, and boring. It's a personal thing, though.

Eli: I haven't seen much of it yet, but I assume it's similar to 3.5, which I have. Not my cup of tea, but there are those who like that style/look more than the classic stuff.

Thanks for the comments, guys. I assumed spouting off with opinions about art might ruffle some feathers.

trollsmyth said...

It always does.

Ok, yeah, if your definition of "professional" means "fairly boring and safe", then yeah, you're probably right. I'd always defined it as being clean with a high degree of exactitude in the details, especially the anatomical ones, such that, if characters are disproportioned, they are so in a way that is commercially appealing. Thus, when I say "professional", I include Elmore, Alan Davis, Frank Miller, Frazetta, John Picacio, and most of the folks doing art for Warhammer 40k. Not always safe, but exhibiting a high degree of technical competence, even if I don't much like the style or whatever.

Thanks as always for daring the slings and arrows of outraged nerds! ;D

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks for the comments, Brian. As someone who's atudied art, I knew going in, and tried to point it out in this article, that it's all about personal taste. I KNOW my tastes in art and music aren't shared by everyone.

Keep in mind that when I was comparing D&D art periods, as I mentioned in the post, I was speaking in 1e AD&D terms. There's no denying that much of that old stuff was lacking in professionalism, whether you are comparing it to 2e AD&D, or later.

And yes, as you can tell from my own Punk, Proto-Punk, Post-Punk, and Ska/Reggae/Dub preferences, as well as OD&D for crying out loud, I like things a little less 'produced', raw, visceral and rough around the edges. My art preferences are no different, really. This even extends to my preference in pulp fiction, as opposed to overwrought high fantasy epic novels.

As always, YMMV!

trollsmyth said...

Thanks for the comments, Brian. As someone who's atudied art, I knew going in, and tried to point it out in this article, that it's all about personal taste. I KNOW my tastes in art and music aren't shared by everyone.

Yeah, which is why I far prefer to talk about what the art is attempting to achieve, and what the publisher is attempting to communicate with their choices in art. As an example, I think Mr. Maliszewski would be better off using the art that inspired Gygax, Arneson, etc, rather than knock-offs of, or even reproductions of, the art in the original books, because that's what he's trying to get back to. The art of the pulps and comics and fantasy movies that helped shape D&D should be his inspiration, since what he's trying to do is recreate D&D in a fashion that better reflects those sensibilities. Whether or not I, or anyone else, really likes it is beside the point.

What might be most useful is an analysis of the art that actually appears in the books. What does that earliest art attempt, what does it achieve, and what does it say about the folks who created these games? Once you've wrestled that monster to the ground, you can then step back and find other art, in other styles and media, that shares those goals.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Yeah, which is why I far prefer to talk about what the art is attempting to achieve, and what the publisher is attempting to communicate with their choices in art.

That's a fair comment. I'll keep my inner art-critic locked up and instead praise the pieces I enjoy in the future. I wasn't so much trying to compare D&D art versions, in my opinion, we should be looking at the artists themselves, rather than the material to which these pieces are attached. I think so many of us get caught up in the nostalgic value of a piece simply because it has been linked forever with a version or module we loved back in the day. I have my preferences in style and feel...but I'm also aware that others might have a different preference.

The funny thing about this article, I figured I'd stay away from the genre thing, as it's akin to edition wars, and just try to play art critic. Again, I can't believe I am debating D&D illustrations. It's window dressing and doesn't change the rules. The 1e DMG by Gygax could've been drawn with stick-figure illustration, and it would still be a classic.

trollsmyth said...

I'll keep my inner art-critic locked up and instead praise the pieces I enjoy in the future. I wasn't so much trying to compare D&D art versions, in my opinion, we should be looking at the artists themselves, rather than the material to which these pieces are attached.

I don't think you need to go that far. Heck, I've been brutal at times myself, especially on that orc piece and even to Wayne Reynolds, whose work I typically enjoy. I prefer to have a framework from which to critique an individual piece, but I've also never had any formal training in that area. So I wouldn't let my hangups or the general nerd rage dissuade you if you enjoy doing that sort of thing.

As for spilling digital ink on the subject, well, you could also say that Bernini's "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa" is just window-dressing for Roman Catholicism, but that doesn't in any way devalue its artistic merit. Neither Elmore nor Reynolds are Bernini, but what they produce is still art, and thus worthy of contemplation, I think, whether we choose to discuss it in terms of the rules they package or on raw artistic merits.

That said, this entire conversation was sparked by questioning the style of art that would best serve simulacra products, which is another matter entirely, though certainly wrapped up in questions of art. Again, I have no formal training to fall back on when considering such questions, so when somebody who does speaks on the matter, I'm always curious to hear what they have to say.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

As for spilling digital ink on the subject, well, you could also say that Bernini's "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa" is just window-dressing for Roman Catholicism, but that doesn't in any way devalue its artistic merit.

You know, I was going to go there (well, not to that particular piece), but decided against it.
It's not a fair analogy, BUT I do understand what you are getting at. If we're going to talk about the art, it's clearly more than window dressing. Once we do so, we can agree we have left the realm of D&D (or Religion). That's what I'm getting at. Not simply dismissing the art, just seperating it from the hobby itself. I think it's safe to say that only D&D fans discuss D&D art, unlike some of the masterpieces associated with Religion.

this entire conversation was sparked by questioning the style of art that would best serve simulacra products, which is another matter entirely, though certainly wrapped up in questions of art.

Yes, a topic which I didn't want to address, but got me started on the topic of art.

Seems we might be agreeing here now! I think.

trollsmyth said...

I don't think we were ever too far off from one another, honestly.

But I will disagree about only gamers discussing D&D art. I suggest you get your hands on a copy of Spectrum. I just got the latest for the Trollwife for her birthday. It's gorgeous, though, as always, many of the pics are just too small to a get the full effect.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Curses! Foiled Again by that Trollsmyth character!

Nice link - Thanks!