Friday, April 30, 2021

Dave Sutherland and the Birth of the D&D Esthetic

The three little brown books of original Dungeons & Dragons have notoriously amateurish artwork, most of it by the teenaged Greg Bell. Bell provided artwork for many early TSR products, not simply OD&D, much of which consists of swipes of Marvel comics from the late '60s and early '70s. He is also responsible for TSR's lizard man colophon depicted on the right. 

In a very real sense, D&D's earliest stab at an esthetic was established by Bell, who was the first artist to illustrate such iconic monsters as the beholder, the owlbear, and the black pudding (as well as pumpkin-headed bugbears). For the first year and a half of D&D's existence, Bell's artwork was the primary means by which players and referees imagined what the world of Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to look like.

Despite this, I don't think I'm doing a disservice to Bell when I say that his illustrations had very little lasting impact on D&D's evolving esthetic. Some of this is no doubt due to the broadly generic nature of his artwork. With very few exceptions, there's nothing distinctive about it, either in terms of its subject matter or its style. Furthermore, his stint as a D&D illustrator was quite short; his work disappears entirely after the publication of Supplement II, Blackmoor.

Not coincidentally, Blackmoor was the first appearance of the work of David C. Sutherland III. Sutherland's art stands head and shoulders above the work of Bell and Tracy Lesch, another teenager whom Gygax tapped in the early days. Take a look, for example, at Sutherland's rendition of another iconic D&D monster, the umber hulk, which made its debut in Supplement II.

Sutherland was a Minneapolis native who was introduced to M.A.R. Barker by Mike Mornard and, through Barker, to TSR. He very quickly impressed Gary Gygax, who hired him as one of the company's first staff artists. He remained with TSR until its acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. 

OD&D's Supplement III, Eldritch Wizardry, featured a great deal of Sutherland's artwork. I'd argue that many of his pieces in it proved extremely influential on D&D's growing sense of what it was and, more importantly, what it looked like. Take, for instance, this lovely illustration.
I know it's fashionable in some quarters to belittle Sutherland as a "talented amateur" and maybe that's true. I can only say that pieces like this one, appearing in 1976, give me a better idea of what D&D is supposed to be than most of the supposedly "professional" illustrations produced for the brand in the last two decades. What I notice about a piece like this one is a groundedness that, in the past, I referred to as "the extraordinary ordinary." This groundedness is rooted in history, with arms and armor, to cite just two things, resembling those found in the real world. Even the swords of the Type V demon aren't purely fantastical, despite being wielded by a six-armed snake-woman. 

Ultimately, this esthetic derived from wargaming. OD&D was, after all, subtitled "rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns," but another bit of evidence for this can be seen in Sutherland's Eldritch Wizardry artwork, like this depiction of the demon lord Orcus.
The miniatures base beneath the cloven feet of Orcus is unmistakable. Many of the other demons in Supplement III are drawn in a similar manner. This suggests to me that Sutherland was drawing on his experiences as a miniatures wargamer in conceiving the look of D&D. His "extraordinary ordinary" style rested on the idea of men in historical armor fighting beasts from myth and legend, a theme to which he returned again and again his artwork.

Of course, Sutherland's role in shaping the esthetics of Dungeons & Dragons achieved its greatest impact through the AD&D hardbacks, two of whose covers were done by him. The Monster Manual – arguably the single most influential book in the history of RPGs and, by extension, on fantasy in general – contains several examples of what I've been describing, like this battle against kobolds.
Maybe even more significant is that Sutherland was the first illustrator of many of D&D's monsters, establishing their distinctive appearances. Consider the following list of some of the notable monsters Sutherland contributed to the MM:
  • Bugbear (of the non-pumpkin head variety)
  • Carrion Crawler
  • Demons (all but Juiblex)
  • Dragons
  • Gnoll
  • Hobgoblin
  • Kobold
  • Mimic 
  • Mind Flayer
  • Orcs
  • Owlbear
  • Purple Worm
  • Roper
  • Troll
  • Umber Hulk
  • Xorn
That's a selective list; Sutherland contributed even more monsters than those listed above. His imaginative and idiosyncratic conceptions have exercised a potent influence over subsequent artists, not to mention generations of players. Consider the way that, for instance, mimics are still almost always drawn in the form of a chest attacking an unwary adventurer. That's the power of Sutherland's art and proof, I think, that he is the father of the D&D esthetic.


  1. DCS has always been my favorite D&D artist for the reason you wrote of, being grounded. Sutherland was also an active member of the SCA while at TSR and that no doubt contributed to his illustrations of arms & armour. I also appreciate Sutherland's use of rapidiograph pens, which I was also using heavily for my own amateur work in the '70s. The rapidiograph can give you nice clean lines that is not possible with a brush which means that you get get away from the comic-book look while still maintaining a high quality black and white illustration.

  2. I think I'd credit him with being the father of the entire early TSR esthetic rather than limiting it to just D&D. He came to work for them through Barker, and contributed art to a wide variety of the company's products. The list includes EPT, Metamorphosis Alpha, Battle of Five Armies, Cordite & Steel, many issues of Dragon, and cartography for dozens of products including Castle Ravenloft itself, as well as doing basically all the work on Legions of the Petal Throne. While his D&D contributions may be his most influential work in broad terms, his impact on the (smaller) Tekumel community may have been even greater, and everyone who played Metamorphosis Alpha knows his name.

    His poor treatment by WotC following their buyout of TSR is one of the relatively few things I really resent about that whole affair. The man deserved better, and their behavior may well have contributed to the decline of his health that led to his death on 2005.

    1. Quite true! DCS, along with Craig Smith, is one of the artists I consider foundational to the look of Tékumel and his contributions to the wider realm of TSR publishing is quite significant.

    2. Seconding Craig Smith, especially for his work in The Book of Ebon Bindings and the S&G Sourcebook.

      As far as DCS goes, it sure looks like his Ahoggyá was the first (at least published), and the ones that follow all look like his. And I love his Shén vs Ssú fight in EPT.

      However, I find Barker’s own illustrations to be the most evocative of Tékumel, at least for me. I just can’t fathom why the sacrifice to Durritlámish looks blonde.

    3. @Bonnacon Hair dye? Genetic sport? Albinism? :)

      Book of Ebon Bindings triggered one of the most serious freakouts I've ever seen in a game store. Some BADD mom looking for trouble spotted it on the shelf and started shrieking at the top of her lungs about how it was proof that we were all Satanists and she was going to call the police. The store owner wasted about five minutes trying to get her to calm down and then she grabbed some teenage kid who'd just walked in and tried to push him outside (no doubt to save him from human sacrifice) only to run face first into his father, who was an off-duty police officer. She got a ride downtown with some friends of his for trespassing (after she refused to leave the store) and something like "assault on a minor" for shoving his kid. Whether anything ever came of the charges I don't know, but I never saw the nutter again and Gary (the officer's kid) later played Runequest with us on and off for most of high school.

    4. Great story! Thanks for sharing.

      In this sense, it’s good that D&D, rather than EPT, was the public face of the hobby. (“It’ll make you a Satanist or, gasp, a Muslim or, cover your ears, a university professor!”)

  3. I kind of hate to be "that guy," but...the picture from the goblin entry is by Trampier (though there are several DCS goblins on the MM cover).

  4. I'm with you on DSC. I adore his style. He is one of my very fave of the early artists (along with Dee, Willingham, and Roslof)

    But I wanted to add that I think a few Monster Manual illustrations of his (and possibly Tramp) made it past Gary somehow, and Gary was not happy. I say this because Gary and I had a convo over on ENworld (where he posted as Col. Pladoh) before his death regarding it. The Kobold was one Gary brought up. They were NOT supposed to be little scaly dog men. Gary indicated that it had "slipped by" him and he stated that Kobolds were suppose to be the twisted little gnome like creatures of Earth legend. Makes one wonder who actually WROTE the descriptions . I'm guessing Gary had some help and just didn't check everything. I wonder what others were purely DCS or Tramp's visual, and not Gary's.

    1. Interestingly, Holmes Basic describes kobolds in just those terms.

    2. I have to admit I've slowly (over 20 years or so) come around to preferring the "tiny reptile folk" style of WotC's kobolds along with their associated "draconic fanboys" motif. The old "scaly dog people" still stand out for their sheer weirdness, though. Both options strike me as being more memorable than Gygax's "twisted evil gnomes" even that would have been a better fit for the mythology behind the name.

    3. Thanks James. I didn't even realize that in Holmes. I had to go back and check my copy out. There was a disconnect somewhere between those two products. I'll have to go check out Zenopus' archives now and see if Holmes' original manuscript was the same as the published version.

  5. While my favourite D&D artist would be Erol Otus, my favourite image is the Sutherland one in B1 where the party is walking past the tree with the pixies/sprites/brownies sitting in the tree. The key element for me is the distracted fighter who is looking towards the knight and the castle far off.

    All of it combines to project the kind of game that I want to play, a bunch of speculative treasure seekers out for a high risk reward in the face of ordinary and fantastic adversaries.

    1. Love Erol's work. Has just the right touch of psychedelic style for me without being completely gonzo. It's hard to pick a single favorite, but the "center spread" of Revolt on Antares for his ability to cram an incredible amount of stuff into a tiny space while still having everything immediately recognizable. Under a page worth of real estate in a microgame format rulebook and he's got Lyra Starfire, Andros, Magron the Invincible, Doctor Death *and* their bodyguard troops in a single panel, and I wouldn't be surprised if the "combat drop" in the upper right is supposed to by Tovan Palequire's ship delivering a payload of mercenary troopers as he's wont to do. That game's mostly memorable for how well it sells the leaders and setting as being more than just a (very basic) wargame, and it's teh art of Erol Otus and Jeff Dee that do most of the work.

  6. If I’m not mistaken, DCS did the cover of the White Box and the revised cover of Men & Magic, replacing Bell’s mounted-warrior. Those are two of my favorites. Another fave is the Holmes title page with the cleric, fighter, and magic-user fighting a hall filled with four-foot, pig-faced orcs.

  7. The little adventure scenes in the DMG by Sutherland are some of the most iconic D&D art ever, in my opinion.
    I think the "extraordinary ordinary" aesthetics should make a comeback in rpg art, all the bling and "excess" in art is making us jaded.

  8. Marooned with me on my deserted island, along with Zeppelin 2 and a Bottomless Bottle of Rum, is Erol's Drow-Witch (whatever she's called) with the fetus earrings. Terrifying and awesome.

    Okay, fine. Also Wilma Deering minus the Space Vampire, speaking of terrifying. A castaway has to keep warm.

  9. I must be in the minority. My favorite TSR artists were the ones with the best artistic ability. Sutherland was among my least favorites. I preferred Otus, Trampier, Roslof and Willingham.

    1. What, no love for Jeff Dee while you're at it? Or the recently deceased Jim Holloway (although he's better known for Star Frontiers and Gamma World than D&D)? I wouldn't leave Tony DiTerlizzi off the list of major TSR artists either, although he was much later than the others.

      Regardless, I think the original post's point was how iconic Sutherland's work is for D&D, which holds true regardless of what you think of his skills.

    2. Art appreciation is pretty subjective, even moreso when viewed through the prism of nostalgia.

      But since you asked...

      For me, of the four original iconic AD&D hardbacks, the two least likely to stir the soul are Sutherland's MM and DMG covers. Give me Trampier and Otus any day. :)

      Trampier was as iconic for D&D as Sutherland AND had skills. It doesn't have to be either/or.

      Trampier's cover for Village of Hommlet, the PHB cover, that incredible DM Screen, all those Wormys, dozens of Monster Manual images including Baalzebul, Efreeti, the Giants, Goblin, Lich, Lizard Man, Wererat, Shrieker, Giant Spider, Wight, etc. is what set the D&D style for me.

      And Otus is just the best ever. So imaginative, otherworldly and strange, he might be the anti-Sutherland, whose strivings for "realism" made his work seem mundane despite the fantastic subject matter.

      Dee might be next tier down for me, due to the overly superhero-ey style. Just compare his Norse gods to Roslof's Greek gods. Nuff said!

      Holloway is too goofy and silly for my tastes. His troglodyte bonking a PC on the head with an ax in N1 feels more Three Stooges than Robert E. Howard. So does his dwarf adventurer mugging for the 'camera' in Moldvay's Lost City.

      But I will say I love Sutherland's A Paladin In Hell. I just wish Trampier, Roslof or Willingham had inked it. And I can't even imagine what Otus would have drawn for this!

      But again, art is pretty subjective.

    3. Trampier's Wormy was the primary reason I first subscribed to Dragon rather than taking my chances on missing an installment on the stands. To put it mildly, I was unhappy when the series was left hanging without warning...and even more unhappy when I learned about Trampier's eventual fate many years later. His PHB cover is the most memorable of the AD&D covers to me as well, to the point where I've painted the Otherworld Miniatures version of that statue (complete with source lighting effects) several times over teh years for various customers. They're the only company I've seen that's done justice to it in 3D - the recent WizKids version of the statue in a walking pose is disappointingly small.

      Otus was and is a genius, agreed. Not really much more to say about that.

      Dee's comic book style is hardly surprising given the rest of his career, but I like it for what it is. I'll take his Thor over even Kirby's, which is high praise indeed from me.

      Holloway has a fondness for working comedic elements in where they might be better left out, but that hasn't stopped me from liking his style. In particular, I'd credit him with being the iconic Spelljammer artist, a setting I'm still very nostalgically fond of. Also Star Frontiers of course, which he generally did a bit more serious work for. Have to admit his work on AvHill's Floating Vagabond RPG was the only thing that got me to try the fool thing, and his jokey art fit the game's tongue in cheek tone better than D&D.

    4. Agree with all of that.

      Can we see your PHB statue miniatures? Talk about iconic!

      I miss Wormy! Trampier's eventual fate is a tragedy. Like Kirby, Wally Wood, Ditko, Trimpe, Sutherland and many others, sometimes the life of a fantasy artist can be hard.

      Otus' incredible covers for the B/X books made me second-guess my original, naive belief that Basic was for kids, and AD&D was for serious gamers. His Theleb K'aarna makes me wish he had done all of the Melnibonean Mythos, not that Dee did a bad job at all. Just different.

      Yeah, Dee's Thor is right at home with Marvel Comics, and V&V. :)

      I'll have to check out Holloway's other work. And DiTerlizzi. Thanks for the tips.

    5. Sadly every photo I had of the darned things (and quite a lot of other stuff) died in a hard drive crash. I thought I had them online somewhere but digging through my folders and blogs it appears I'm wrong.

    6. Sorry to hear that. Thanks for looking.

  10. "I think the original post's point was how iconic Sutherland's work is for D&D, which holds true regardless of what you think of his skills."