Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Golden vs. Silver Age Artwork: Larry Elmore

I love the artwork from Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons. And I don't particularly care much for the artwork of the previous periods. I'll be frank and unapologetic--I believe that the art of the so-called "Golden Age" of D&D was overly juvenile and simplistic. Granted, much of it was humorous, but it was quite possessed of that minimalism and cartoonish malleability that marked a great deal of the non-Frazetta fantasy artwork of the 1960s and 70s.

James Maliszewski over at Grognardia wrote in a recent post regarding some Golden Age-era artwork:
Yet, at the same time, there's a strange vibrancy to it. This is the same kind of crude charm I continue to find in the earliest products of the hobby, back before TSR was employing guys like Elmore and Caldwell to "professionalize" (aka blandify) the look of its books.
Now, he doesn't necessarily hate Elmore and Caldwell, as he clarifies in the comments section. Actually, he feels that Elmore was somewhat neutered by the industry standards that TSR required--and I agree! And yet, Elmore's mass of talent and ability still managed to shine through and bring a degree of realism to D&D art.

It's that realism that James seems to lament. He seems to prefer that cartoonish surreality and silly impossibility that is only three steps away from falling off cliffs or getting hit by anvils and shrugging it off after spending a few moments flopping around shaped like an accordion. The art often looked like the sort of thing a talented yet untrained kid in your senior year high school art class would whip out during a free period.

I mean, I must ask, what is so great about the art to the left? It is basic, simplistic, and barely characterizes anything. It demonstrates a very broad and basic understanding of arms and armor, as well as medieval clothing in general. To me, it is totally dead. Yeah, it looks cool for a high school notebook doodle. It's better than anything I, myself, am likely to produce. But I want more for my books. I get little inspiration from this sketch, and indeed, from sketches like it.

These pictures depict a narrative, but it is a relatively generic and uninspired narrative. A fighter and wizard face off against a demon. It is set against a featureless black backdrop. The demoness is on an elevated platform suggestive of a dais of some sort. A beast is ambushing the heroes from behind. It is, altogether, a typical mid-to-high level dungeon fight. The fighter's hand is contorted in some sort of overhand chop that lacks any and all grace, holding his shield before him. I find a lot of this stuff charming, simple, but not great. It's not evocative.

Perhaps the most iconic picture out of the first edition D&D books, "Emirikol the Chaotic" by Dave Trampier. This is yet another picture I find uninteresting. Because my artistic vocabulary is very limited (I'm not an art critic by any means) please bear with me as I try to elucidate what, exactly, I find disappointing with Trampier's work.

I guess because he's chaotic that means he's just going to ride through town blasting random people with magic missile. The town itself is bland and unauthentic in appearance. It doesn't look lived-in. It looks like a preliminary sketch or rough draft of something that, once refined, could have some depth. But looking at it as-is, I'm disappointed by its shortcomings. Basically, there's not enough detail. It appears overly generic. We have no real angles. The street doesn't wind, it is a straight line with almost no alleyways. We glimpse everything straight-on. Even the left-hand buildings are at too steep an angle to get a view of their interiors. The street itself, paved brick, lacks a sense of unevenness. The stones are unmortared. Everything is just too smooth and featureless. The buildings are bereft of shutters, awnings, cracks, nooks, planters, charms on the frames, or other accouterments that would lend a sense of realism and life to the scene beyond the motion of the characters, which is angular and wooden as opposed to fluid and graceful.

EDITING NOTE: Lord Gwydion of What a horrible night has just humbled me regarding "Emirikol the Chaotic." The street is actually based off of a real location in Rhodes, called the Street of the Knights. Yes, I am eating crow right now. Mmmm.... Tasty! (Follow this link for more information!)

"Unsurpassed in brilliance," Grognardia James says of Trampier's cover of the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook. And I cannot help but disagree. The picture lacks a great many of the finer artistic points of depth and dimension. It's a simple foreground and background, with no middle-ground and no transition between the two. It's all profiles or straight-on. There's no sense of depth, no feeling of realism. It has atmosphere but it is tragically lacking in characterization. I find it, again, wholly uninspired.

See, I've been to ruins. I've been to ruins in Korea and Japan. I've pictures of the graves of the Kuroda daimyo from the 17th century and the remains of Fukuoka Castle, as well as photos of the ancient tombs of the Silla kings of Korean antiquity. When you get nice and close to the stones around Fukuoka castle (inner gate below and right), you can see their shape. They're unmortared, piled almost ashlar style. There are cracks in the edifice. Moss grows on some of the stones. Although barely a few centuries old, to this American, the site feels as though it is possessed of a hoary antiquity. Gazing at the tombs of the Kuroda lords of Hakata and Fukuoka from the Edo period (above, left), I cannot help but feel the weight of history. The ancient tombs of the Silla kings in Korea (above) are largely a tourist trap, these days, although it is not difficult to imagine them hundreds of years ago. Those men lived, fought, and died a thousand years and more before I was born, and reigned over a kingdom the size of my home state of New Jersey.

I'm not just tooting my own horn, here. I've seen the real thing, to an extent. And that makes my imagination fire up all that much more fiercely. So when I see a picture, I want it to evoke everything that a photograph can... and more. When I visit a historical site, I'm literally inspired to imagine. What did this site look like hundreds of years ago? What would this place be like if it was inhabited by monsters and strange guardians? What if I were an adventurer, garbed for exploration and girded for combat? What would my experience in this strange and wondrous place be like if magic were real? Sound cheesy? Yeah. That's not the only thing I think when I'm there. I spend a lot of time thinking more "professional" and historical thoughts. But the fantasies do run through my mind a bit. And sometimes, when I go to bed, I try to re-imagine my visit to these places on an Earth where magic worked and I wasn't just an English teacher and aspiring history professor.

That's where Larry Elmore comes in.

Elmore's work possesses everything that a lot of the older stuff lacks--vibrancy and realism. And it is the realism that gets the greatest amount of flack from Old School gamers, I feel.
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.
To be fair, Grognardia James isn't blasting Elmore for his realism. Instead, he's indicating that the realism is, for him, a bridge into an era in D&D where he feels the game left him, and therefore associates that sort of art with it. But, to me, it's that sort of realism that captured my imagination as a kid and convinced me that dragonslaying may just have been possible in the medieval era.

Let's take a look at a few of Elmore's pieces and see why I love them so much.

This piece, usually entitled "The Bloodstone Lands" online, is a great example of what I adore in Elmore's work. This picture is the opposite of everything I've seen in Golden Age art. It has a vast landscape, influenced by weather, to create an effect. You can feel the chill of the winter air, smell the pine scent of the forests, feel the heat coming from the horses. There's visual depth in the picture; the point-of-view isn't from a straight angle; there's grace and fluidity in the positions of the subjects as if Elmore caught them mid-motion. Most importantly, the picture carries an emotional response. Are we being challenged by a goblin outrider? Is he a scout or a herald come to treat with us?

Now compare that with this:

No, seriously, compare the two pictures. Really, really look at them. The sketch is straightforward, easy to grasp, contains a narrative that is immediately understood. The artistry involved in characterizing the figures is nowhere near as smooth. The fighter indeed appears clumsy and awkward swinging his sword. Elmore's picture was more ambiguous, more realistic, and had far, far more emotion and atmosphere. And more mystery.

Let me discuss just a few more pictures before closing.

Pictures like this make me think back to the Kuroda tombs in Hakata, Japan (see left-hand photograph above). In this picture, it appears a ranger or druid is keeping watch while a wizard transcribes information from a strange, undoubtedly ancient standing stone lost and forgotten in a deep forest. He is using magic to do so, and it is here where I feel Elmore actually grasps the arcane qualities of D&D magic like few others have ever done. The wizard sits in a circle, drawn with chalk, inscribed with strange runes and geometric figures. Green tendrils of magic reach from the circle to play among the curious glyphs inscribed upon the stone marker. The wizard, in a purely medieval haircut, hurriedly makes notes in his tome (perhaps copying a spell). Casting implements and spell components are strewn around him and his satchel lies half open, curious contents spilling forth. A female character, perhaps a druid, perhaps another wizard, gazes on, but it is clear that the man in the circle, clad in purple silken robes, is the focus of the picture and is the character that has the spotlight for this illustration.

Why does this remind me of the Kuroda tombs? Because I can just imagine those tombs as a thousand years old, instead of four hundred, inscribed with mysterious clues that the characters need to decipher in order to achieve their next goal. But I also love this picture because of Elmore's attention to detail. The magic circle, the inscription on the stone, the magic spellbook, the satchel's contents, the spell components, and the various odds-and-ends that hang from the belts of the ranger and the druid-girl all give them the feeling of having been real people with possessions and trinkets. Some of them undoubtedly carried sentimental value. Some of them helped define their cares and personalities. This helps me to define D&D because it helps me imagine what my character looks like, how he/she carries their equipment, where he/she keeps that equipment.

That attention to detail breathes life into otherwise desolate pages of a rulebook. The mechanics don't need to spring to reality only when you actually sit down to play. They can spring to life long before that! When you create your character, they can achieve the sort of vibrancy that Elmore gives them in his paintings.

Elmore's art is, for me, like a snapshot of a time or place that never was but should have been. Like my photographs of Fukuoka castle ruins, or the burial mounds of the ancient Silla kings, Elmore's paintings evoke a sense of things that had once been, places distant and times lost. They evoke a romance with history and myth and legend. And they exhibit the wear and tear of age. The photos are from real life, and show cracks and moss on the broken stones that had been beaten by the weather. So do the standing stones or jumbled ruins that Elmore paints. His subjects display the effects of time and age, whether they're landscapes, people, or buildings. There's a sense of reality there, and that sense of reality fuels my imagination as much as a photograph, and then some.


Dennis Laffey said...

Dave, in general I agree with you. I also started gaming in the Elmore years, and his artwork really spells out what D&D looks like in my mind's eye to this day.

However, with regards to Emirikol the Chaotic, that street is actually based on a real location:


Dave Cesarano said...

Dennis, I can always trust you to correct me when I need it.

Wow. Kudos to you for that. You learn something new everyday.

Guillaume said...

I feel the same about Elmore's paintings his best at least): when I play, it is his imagery that come to my mind. The PCs and NPCs often look like Elmore's characters.