Friday, January 2, 2009

In Praise of Larry Elmore

This wasn't the first issue of Dragon I owned (that honor goes to issue 56, I think), but it's one I remember buying very clearly and part of it is because of this cover by Larry Elmore. Looking at it now, 27 years later, I still like it a lot, even as I can clearly see within it the seeds of everything I'd eventually come to dislike about Elmore's art specifically and Silver Age D&D art in particular.

But that's not the purpose of this post. I'm writing this to give credit where it's due. Larry Elmore catches a lot of flak on this blog, some of it unjustly. I know I tend to forget that he started his tenure at TSR during the Golden Age and that there's a reason he was so highly regarded back in the day: he's a very a talented artist.

I was perusing back issues of Dragon from 1982 to 1984 and Elmore makes his appearance in many of them. His work back then shows a clarity and precision that was unique and nicely embodied the esthetic of the Silver Age, when "fantastic realism" was the style of the day. His figures looked real, as did the clothing they wore, the weapons they carried, and the environments they inhabited. He evoked an impression of "groundedness" that contrasted powerfully with the fever dream phantasmagoria of Otus and the dark density of Trampier, both of whom were examplars of an age that was passing, while Elmore was the spirit of the transition between Gold and Silver.

I don't think it's fair to blame Elmore for the subject matter he was asked to illustrate as a staff artist. Though I forever associate him with Dragonlance, it's not as if he created that series or was responsible for the direction it took. Likewise, I can hardly blame the man for producing more of the kind of art that gamers so clearly enjoyed. Much like Wayne Reynolds, another artist regularly singled out for the failings of his art directors, Elmore has often produced memorable and evocative pieces that really capture the spirit of this game we all love. I have no doubt his artwork, even the pieces I don't much like, did a lot to bring plenty of people into the hobby. Frankly, that's something worth praising and I need to do more of that.

37 comments:

  1. Indeed. I like that particular piece, and a good number of others by Elmore. I enjoy the contrast with the darker and weirder imagery that preceded it.

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  2. I like Elmore's art a lot if I'm going for a particular feel in a game - good vs evil, high fantasy in a realistic but somwhat brighter-than-real world. Great for adventures with elves and anti-paladins. :)

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  3. Much like Wayne Reynolds, another artist regularly singled out for the failings of his art directors,

    Is there something wrong with Wayne Reynold's art? I like his style, but I was just curious what you thought was wrong?

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  4. I dislike most of Reynolds' late 3e work, particularly the stuff he did for Eberron, which I find too comic book-like and over the top. On the other hand, I (mostly) like his Paizo work, especially his Pathfinder iconics, even if I'm none too keen on the notion of iconics in general.

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  5. "Fantastic realism"--I love the term! Consider it officially adopted by an unapologetic lover of Silver Age D&D. :D

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  6. I find Elmore to be too "cold." His subjects seem stiff and lifeless. Static. Posed and "Harlequin-romacey." Etc. Pretty landscapes, but that's about it.

    Jim Holloway, mentioned in your last post, is a much better example of second-generation D&D art with genuine character in evidence.

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  7. Pretty landscapes, but that's about it.

    Only now do I realize that it's the landscapes that I really enjoy from Elmore's work. Though that cover landscape makes me feel like he later copied it for the D&D Companion Set front, I still like it. The figures I can live without if necessary.

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  8. I'll add another shout out for Holloway. Although not as technically proficient as Elmore, his work definitely explodes with characterization.

    Although Elmore's figures are stiff and posed, he's able to use that to his advantage (or once was--I think most of his recent stuff is far too plasticine, but we're discussing his Silver Age work here). The posed figures may look artificial, but they also suggest a complex backstory and, of course, a "realistic" fantasy world in their accouterments, which is what's always attracted me to Elmore's art. Having said all that, I'll agree that it's his landscapes (and architecture for that matter) that are what really make his work stand out.

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  9. Ehh. I find Holloway's illustration hollow and utterly characterless, especially compared to Golden Age illos. There's a blandness to Holloway's illustrations, a lack of spirit and atmosphere that just oozes from other artists of the time (Dee, Otus, Tramp, Willingham, etc.).

    However, I generally like Elmore's stuff. It's quality art, has an immediacy to it, and as pointed out, nicely inspires high fantasy gaming. Of the Silver Age and 2E era, it's Caldwell I can't stand. All Caldwell's armor looks like it's made of plastic, and the weapons all look blunt.

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  10. That was my very first issue of Dragon.

    I remember Gary writing on his ENWorld Q&A thread that Larry Elmore was his favorite D&D artist.

    The only D&D artists I really like are:
    1. Erol Otus
    2. Sutherland
    3. Trampier
    4. some of the Fiend Folio artists, esp. Russ Nicholson

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  11. I don't think this is stiff an lifeless. That and this one are hanging over my bed. And a trixy hobbit is a couple feet from my head.

    I dig most all art, I thrill to the cover of Deities and Demigods and all the classic line drawings. But I love new stuff too, lots of MTG card art. (some of the OD&D is a little too whack for me to like, but I still can appreciate the atmosphere it lends to the LBB)

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  12. Jim Holloway, mentioned in your last post, is a much better example of second-generation D&D art with genuine character in evidence.

    I like Holloway too, mostly for his dark humor and the "Joe Average" quality of his people, which is in stark contrast to Elmore's pro athletes and super models approach to models.

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  13. Having said all that, I'll agree that it's his landscapes (and architecture for that matter) that are what really make his work stand out.

    Very much agreed. His landscapes are naturalistic and yet somehow evocative of fantasy, which is a vital combination.

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  14. Of the Silver Age and 2E era, it's Caldwell I can't stand. All Caldwell's armor looks like it's made of plastic, and the weapons all look blunt.

    I'm with you there. I can't stand Caldwell's art.

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  15. Huh! I remember this image from an early-eighties print ad for D&D that showed up in the comics I was reading. The accompanying blurb talked about "Dark Ages adventure" or somesuch, which had young me trying to imagine how the default D&D setting of orcs and such were supposed to fit into the actual historical Dark Ages. I tended to take fluff text too literally, back then.

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  16. Some of Elmore's stuff is great. I actually bought an original on Ebay a couple of years ago, just to have 'an Elmore'. The grandkids will thank me, won't they?

    However, I'm not a fan of the ridiculous female "armor" that appears in a lot of his work.

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  17. Elmore is awesome! Anyone who disses him deserves to roll straight 3s for their character's stats.

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  18. I dislike most of Reynolds' late 3e work, particularly the stuff he did for Eberron, which I find too comic book-like and over the top.
    Although with Eberron, that was part of the whole point, was it not?

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  19. Although with Eberron, that was part of the whole point, was it not?

    Which is why I lay the blame for it with his art director and not with Reynolds, who's actually a very talented artist.

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  20. Although with Eberron, that was part of the whole point, was it not?

    I'd certainly agree. One thing about Reynolds is he's rather eclectic in his styles, and is willing, if not eager, to shift his style to suit the needs of his clients.

    - Brian

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  21. Which is why I lay the blame for it with his art director
    So, did you dislike the pulp/comic influences in the Eberron setting, or was it just how they were expressed through the art style?

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  22. I could go on at great length about every wrong note that Eberron took, starting with its rather ham-fisted attempt to treat "pulp" as a genre (I think what they meant was some unholy amalgam of film noir and adventure serials). Even given that, the over the top, comic style of the art only made the whole thing seem more ludicrous. I think an equally vibrant but less kinetic style would have served it better.

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  23. There was a bit of cyberpunk in there too, as I recall.

    I've not warmed to Elmore's art, as it's a bit too clean and sterile for my liking. I have always loved his "disco cleric" from the Red Box set however. Her pose is ridiculous, but there's something about that image that keeps drawing me back.

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  24. Since Reynolds is part of the discussion - I think James is absolutely correct in laying the blame on WizBro's art director(s). Reynolds did a lot (all?) of the illos for L3 when it was published as part of the Silver Anniversary set, and I think they're fantastic and harken back to the Golden Age without aping the style. (Too bad the module itself was not anywhere near as good.)

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  25. Michael, really good point about L3.

    I really did like WAR's artwork in the 3E DMG -- particularly his black-and-white drawings of construction work (p. 16), dungeon features (p. 106-113), stuff like that.

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  26. Elmore is my favorite D&D artist. He's clearly the most technically proficient. He has flaws, like the way his pictures have that strangely static quality, but all the D&D artists have some specific aspects like that to their work.

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  27. Elmore's work often looks like the characters themselves are posing to have their portrait taken! Which actually can often work rather well. By contrast Boris Vallejo (eg) paints very static-looking characters, but without any sense of in-world posing, they just look odd.

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  28. To me Elmore IS D&D and many of these "beloved" older D&D artists were either totally unsuited for what they drew most of the time, or weren't really very good at all.

    (That or its a mixture of nostalgia and age. Yall 40+ folks might wanna get yer eyes examined! :P)

    Holloway was awesome when doing creatures and more humorous bits.

    Some of the older guys like Otus were put on things they really didn't belong. The Moldvay Cook covers were really bad. Otus on goopy monsters and wierdness? Oh god YES. General fantasy swordy stuff? No.

    For a more recent example look at Geier's artwork. His stuff for Call of Cthulhu is awesome. His stuff for Battletech?

    GAAAAAAG.

    Though the whole D&D art thing is another in the line of "My childhood is more important than YOURS" category so many retro D&D fan comments seem to end up being.

    Though to be honest RPGs to me should always look like the old Ultima manuals and covers. Denis Loubet's stuff is nearly perfect for "middle" fantasy artwork.

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  29. Mr. Elmore is a good artist if artists painting kittens playing with balls of yarn are good artists. Because the subject matter of Mr. Elmore's output is the fantasy equivalent of kittens playing with balls of yarn (that, and "landscapes so beautiful they make your eyes bleed").

    This sort of thing is colloquially referred to as 'kitsch'.

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  30. Elmore is awesome! Anyone who disses him deserves to roll straight 3s for their character's stats.

    It's often easy to diss Elmore, because much of his work is unintentionally a parody of his own best work. I think the man has a lot of talent, but he also has demonstrated a tendency to "phone it in" when it comes to some of his artwork. I think his best pieces rightly belong in the pantheon of D&D art. Some of his worst, though -- and there's a lot of it -- is really bad and probably explains why many people have an aversion to him.

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  31. Though the whole D&D art thing is another in the line of "My childhood is more important than YOURS" category so many retro D&D fan comments seem to end up being.

    Except that it doesn't have to be and, as the discussion here has shown, that's not what we're about at all. Art can be discussed in a rational fashion and, for the most part, that's precisely what's going on here. Elmore, like Otus and Trampier and Sutherland, is a product of his time and there's much to be gained by discussing his virtues and vices in the context of when he did his seminal work and why he drew it as he did. I don't see much empty posturing here about whose childhood was better than anyone else. What I see is a lot of thoughtful discussion and reminiscences of why people like or dislike Elmore's art, which is precisely what I hoped would happen.

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  32. This sort of thing is colloquially referred to as 'kitsch'.

    Some of Elmore's art is very kitschy, no question, but I don't think that's all he ever produced. He's not my favorite D&D artist by a long-shot, but he's not that bad.

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  33. Aleena, the disco cleric, is a "Betty." I'm always drawn to back to her image. :)

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  34. I remember once commenting that I associated Holloway's work with "fin de siecle" AD&D, and wasn't sure myself what I meant at the time apart from the later books with Jeff Easley covers. I think that was the same period in which I started to see Elmore's work, and your previous column spoke to Dragon Magazine of the time.

    I do like the sense of action in so many Holloway pieces, and there are things I appreciate in illustrations from those other artists as well.

    I think Michael Whelan, in his covers for the DAW Elric of Melnibone paperbacks, managed a wonderful combination of techniques including some perhaps not too far from Elmore's.

    The crying shame is that (as far as I know) neither Frank Frazetta nor Joe Kubert ever did a piece for D&D.

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  35. Till now! http://www.enworld.org/forum/publishers-press-releases/242817-d-d-4th-edition-frank-frazettas-death-dealer-adventure-goodman-games.html

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  36. I wonder what Elmore's art process is -- particularly, I wonder if he poses real models, photographs them, and uses that as reference for his figures?

    Because it occurs to me that there's a comic book artist, Alex Ross, who similarly paints bloody beautiful figures, but can't draw them in motion or throwing a proper kinetic punch to save his life. It finally dawned on me that's because he's having models hold a pose in a photo, and their muscles/limbs can't ever be right for someone actually in motion.

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  37. Again, I think it all depends when you enter the game. I entered the game in the Silver Age or late Golden Age (circa 1981/82). Therefore, Larry's art does define what I considered pleasurable. Part of the appeal of RPGs is the escape factor...Larry's scapes allow people to do that.

    What came afterwards in 3.x and Ebberon was a disasterous mixture of colours and themes that bore little resemblance to how I could imagine myself (with quite a number notable exceptions).

    The same thing applies to the Golden Age art...mostly I could never see myself as the Wizard or Magic User with "Stars & Moons" cap rather I was Gandalf.

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