Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Artistic Sensibilities

Over at Monsters and Manuals, there's a pretty good rant that touches on the question of old school art and its relevance to contemporary gaming products. I don't agree with it all, but there's much there with which I sympathize. As I noted in the comments to yesterday's review, though, I'm still grappling with the precise nature of my problems with a lot of neo-old school art and why I want something different. So, please bear with me on this question. Right now, I'm mostly at the instinctual, "That ain't right" phase of plumbing my esthetic sensibilities. I can't quite put into words why I dislike much of what I've seen in old school gaming products without sounding like I'm just being arbitrary -- which I may in fact be.

At this stage, I can only say that I think there must be room for something in between the aping of the past and the total rejection of it. I realize that's not very helpful, which is why I haven't taken much time to talk about what I do want and do like on the art front. I'm going to have to do some thinking on the subject, though, and see what I can come up with. I talk too often about my reaction to neo-old school art to be able to get away with not having a positive explanation for what I do like and why. So, give me a couple of days and I'll get around to the subject.

I'm off to get some other work done, but I'll likely be back later with some thoughts on one or two other subjects later today.


  1. In the Pod-Caverns post below, you asked me to write a little more about what characterizes old-school art's content - as opposed to its technique (which I think doesn't exist as a single type of technique). In general I don't like the term "old-school" for purposes of discussion because it means so many things to different people - "old school" is whenever you started playing. Watch for 3e players to begin using the term to refer to the 2000-2008 period very soon.

    I think the first and foremost distinction between old and new school is that old school art tends - tends only - to assume that the fascinating thing which needs illustration isn't the characters so much as the situations in which they find themselves. Moreover, these situations aren't so much the combat situations as the "thinking" situations. To my mind, the shift from "situation" to "character" mirrors a focus in the game in general, but that's for another day. Suffice to say that the best primary definition of old school art is that focus upon interesting backgrounds and on thinking situations. Look at James' avatar of the GH cover. The fighter is pretty generic - you can't tell a thing about his personality. The focus of the piece is that he's faced with a tactical situation: an interesting one, an unusual one, and a creepy/cool one. He's neither depicted in swashbuckling action nor in a "face the camera" pose. He's nothing but an archetype. He's a character any player might have. For these reasons, the piece is pretty electric in a way that matches up with old-school play. The roleplaying is not brought to the fore, nor is the moment of combat. What's brought to the fore is the moment of decision, the moment that the player of a game knows well and where the player feels the tension of decision-making. Another example is the "magic mouth" picture from the old PHB, the picture of the adventurers reaching out for treasure (also the PHB, I think), and the PHB cover itself, where the combat is finished, but thieves are about to pry out the jeweled eye of a huge idol - there's a mix of "job completed" and "oh, crap, what's about to happen..." These are all examples of thinking situations where the characters are very much in the background and the situation or the environment are in the foreground.

    This "rule" is broken all over the place, especially with the pictures in the AD&D Monster Manual, where many of the monsters are posing for the camera. To a degree, this is certainly due to the fact that in a monster book the purpose of the book is to show off the monsters, not backgrounds - and it's also a fair comment to note that a monster is per se a matter of the environment and a thinking situation rather than a focus upon the characters and their roleplaying or individuality or their coolness of hair and muscle. I think the line between the old MM and a brand new, b&w book of 3e monsters would be virtually non-existent except for perhaps a few other features of old school art.

    I mentioned "posing for the camera." This is a tradition that seems to have started with Larry Elmore (if you ignore monsters that do it). In many of Elmore's pictures, adventurers seem to be caught in poses - as if they know they're being photographed. Or pictures of their faces are drawn without bodies or action - just portraits. The fascinating and fantastic nature of their personalities is supposed to leap forth, I guess.
    Humor is another signal characteristic of old school art, and it exemplifies something much, much more than just "humor is included." It signifies that the artist/art editor are quite comfortable breaking the "willing suspension of disbelief." Why is that? Because in old school, you're allowed to remember that you're playing a game. No one is going to tell you that this is wrong - you've got Mountain Dew, and you've got chips, and your character sheet has greasy fingerprints on it, and you're playing the best game in the world with your newly-inked dice, and you might just make level in the very next combat. You aren't thinking about whether your character loves dwarven beer and Immyrian tapestries, you're playing a game with your buds, and it's fun as a game. You don't have to forget the game to have fun. It's a gaaaaaaame, as my players all tell one of the other players. Yes, you get immersed in it, but no, it isn't bad to high-five Stuart when he rolls a natural 20 and does 20 hit points of damage. The art reflects this. Who hasn't used Stuart's plan just because you couldn't think of something smarter than wearing Mickey Mouse ears as a disguise to sneak into the Temple of the Rat God? We've all done things like this that we KNEW were terrible ideas, just on the chance that they might work ... somehow. The humor, like the archetypal fighter in the Greyhawk cover, address moments that resonate with players of a game, not with immersive role-playing. This is why some new-school art (the cover of Return to the Caves of Chaos, for example) is utterly old-school in many respects. That painting couples great art and the wonder of fantasy surroundings with the player question of, "which damn cave do we start with?"

    There's more, I guess, but I've been typing forever and no one but James is still reading.

  2. I need to correct something that's not clear above. I see "Posing for the camera" as new school - it sounds like I'm listing it as an old school characteristic. I meant it to be read as a contrast, but that's not clear. It's new school.

  3. A bit more: To summarize the above so far, (1) old school art focuses on interacting with moments the players empathize with - moments of decision or imminent action or even humor (breaking willing suspension of disbelief). (2) Old school art focuses on the dungeon rather than the characters - characters are more generic and do NOT pose for the camera.

    One reason people erroneously describe old school art as more medieval (Otus being a major non-medievalist) is because of this archetypalization of the characters; the default "generic" fighter is dressed in standard, accurate medieval gear. But the medievalism isn't the purpose, so that rule is broken all the time - what's important is that many of the adventurers depicted are just Joe-adventurer. Joe adventurer is who speaks to the old-school game-player rather than to the new-school roleplayer. It's also why old school gaming in general can be seen as wargamey - not because of the figures but because on a sliding scale there's less of an attempt to have an "experience" in old school gaming than there is to have a hell of a time rolling dice with your buddies and kicking butt in a gaaaaaaame.

    One other thing to add to this summary: old school art tends to have heavier line weights (ie, more ink, more shadows, more darkness) than newer school art (starting with 2e). This is reversed by some newer school artists who draw on the "graphic novel" style where the shadows are REALLY dark. But in general, old school stuff uses heavy line weights and thus portrays a somewhat darker feel to it. I think this correlates somewhat to the sword & sorcery feel of older D&D, but it's neither as good a rule for the technique nor as correlable to the game than the other two "rules" I've described above. Nevertheless, I think it bears notice. Things lurk and go bump in the night a bit more in old school than they do in new school art. Great recent old-school piece from a call of Cthulhu card where a guys is summoning a glowing thing in a very dark surrounding. CGI art, but very old school.

    Another point, relating to the "characters are portrayed at moments of decision" in old school art. This is why much later art is described as being comic-book-like or video-game like. It's not just the CGI techniques of newer art - it's that much of the non-posed art of newer school is shown mid action or immediately AFTER the decision is made. Action has started, responses have begun. Everyone seems more decisive, cooler, not frightened or nervous or confused. That's an attribute of comic book art, where the frame snapshots focus on sustained excitement. Even the "graphic art" school tends to show people brooding rather than puzzled. Old school connects with player puzzlement, not roleplaying brooding. We know that our Elric wannabes have stats and hit points somewhere behind the clouds of temporary immersion.

    Old school art shows characters who may be about to get their butts handed to them. Innumerable examples of inattention, prospective ambushes, characters who look weak relative to the monster, characters making mistakes (Yes, the troll rolled your string up behind you. Nice try, but no biscuit). Again, this connects with player, not character. Again, this is a way to identify "new" old school artworks.

    Can think of no more.

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for taking the time to write these posts. I found myself nodding in agreement and, when I wasn't, it was because you made some things clearer to me. In particular, I agree that Elmore marks a transitional period between the old and new style. Not all of Elmore's art is thoroughly new style, but much of it is and he certainly set the tone for what came later. Indeed, he might be called paradigmatic of the new style: technically adept but soulless. Or perhaps I should say that it feels far less "alive" than the best art that preceded it.

    You've given me a lot of food for thought. I'll certainly be posting more on this. It's a work in progress for me, but it's something I need to get a good handle on, so my future reviews and posts are more clear when I start speaking about art.

    Thanks again for the posts. They were very useful.

  5. This post just got linked from my "Artwork" post, that's for sure.

  6. Excellent and thoughtful posts, Matt. I am mostly in agreement.

    On good non-old school art: at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I will say that I like Wayne Reynolds when he is under sensible art direction (i.e. he is not under command to make everything EXXXXXTREME!!!!ELEVEN!!!ONE!!!). Take, for example, the example dungeon features and many of the magic items in the 3.0 Dungeon Master's Guide, or even a good number of illustrations from the (freely downloadable) Pathfinder Alpha edition. Wayne Reynolds is not "old school" by most standards, but he has the ability to produce distinctive and visually interesting art, particularly in black&white (his colour pieces can get too crowded and busy). There is even an anime influence, which, at the further risk of branded with the "Definitely Not Cool" tag, is not always a bad thing.

    But then again, I will still take Otus over Mr. Reynolds, not because he worked for TSR, but because I just plain dig what he is doing.


  7. Mr. Reynolds has done a couple bits for Osprey, which puts him in the same group with Angus McBride, which is a good place to be, in my opinion. But I think he's definitely in the 'new wave' of RPG artists.

    I kind of miss the comic-booky Bill Willingham and Jeff Dee art, as well. Otus was great, but drawing from a different fantasy aesthetic than anyone today, really.

  8. I just stumbled on this blog and I am so happy that this community exists. I agree with everything in this post/comments.

    I find myself getting a touch frustrated that all of the new D&D artwork is almost universally described as excellent when I can't help but find it soulless because of the very fact that it is just characters posing. There doesn't seem to be any sense of adventure in any of it.

    One of my guesses is that it is much easier to draw a character facing forward without much posing and therefore this style of artwork is much easier to manage from a production line perspective. I think high-quality old school style art would be much more expensive to produce.