No matter how old I get, I think this illustration by Dave Sutherland will always be the closest anyone has ever come to encapsulating Dungeons & Dragons in a single image. That's in large part because it adorns the inside cover of the rules edited by J. Eric Holmes, which was the first D&D product I ever owned. So, it's invested with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Of course, I also happen to like the image: two fighting men with historical armor and weapons holding back a veritable horde of pig-faced orcs, also with historical armor and weapons, while the magic-user -- complete with a bestarred conical cap -- stands behind them casting a spell.
That's pretty much my mind's eye view of the game, then and now. It's a particular conception of the game, I'll grant. Even in 1977, when this image first appeared, it wasn't the only approach to it, but it was certainly the one I had the most contact with. Looking back on it, what I found appealing was its "groundedness." The armor and weapons in the picture are all based on real armor and weapons from the Middle Ages. Though a mishmash of periods and styles, they're not at all fantastical in origin, which nicely contrasts with the orcs. The magic-user is an interesting case, because, while not "real" in any sense, he's so archetypal that I somehow don't put him in the same category of unreality as the orcs.
One of the interesting things about this illustration is that you can see in it the seeds that would blossom into the fantastic realism of the Silver Age. In a certain sense, guys like Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson are very much in the same tradition as this early work. In another sense, though, there's a clear difference. Sutherland's men aren't buffed action heroes and his women -- what few of them there are -- don't look like supermodels. This helps reinforce the notion that D&D adventurers are ordinary people, albeit extraordinarily courageous (or foolhardy) ones.
I think it's an important difference and it almost certainly explains both my mild distaste for the Silver Age generally and the continued appeal of the Holmes rulebook. The book includes several other examples of very ordinary looking fighters engage in battle against monstrous opponents. None of these fighters look like Schwarzenegger and that's important to me. The issues I have with post-Golden Age D&D art are not technical in nature but conceptual: the abandonment first of anatomical verisimilitude, reflecting the growing focus on the character as the "star" of his own story, and then of physical verisimilitude, reflecting the shift away from groundedness more generally -- oversized weapons, impractical armor, gravity-defying poses, etc.
All these things seem a break with the past and that saddens me. D&D needs more extraordinary ordinariness in my opinion. Not only would it be a return to the game's esthetic roots but it'd also help distinguish the game better from its bastard descendants, most of which abandoned verisimilitude long before D&D art directors decided aping them was the way to go. Instead of dancing to someone else's tune, wouldn't it be nice to see D&D calling its own once again?