A lot of this appears to be based on how deeply the art of Wayne Reynolds has become associated with D&D’s 3.5th edition. For whatever reason, when people think about current D&D, they imagine Mr. Reynolds’ work. And well they should, because Mr. Reynolds is a master at his craft.
But it’s a lot harder to write a critique of Mr. Reynolds’ art than it is for other artists who have put their stamp on D&D. The others have a very firm, easily recognizable, and rarely changing signature style. The work of Erol Otus has its bizarre, fever-dream feel. Larry Elmore is the chief practitioner of the you-are-there school.
But among the many things that make Wayne Reynolds’ work unique is his mutability as an artist. Simply put, Mr. Reynolds adjusts his style conform to the needs of his clients. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at some warriors he’s painted. This first was for WotC. She’s clearly an exemplar of what has become known as the “dungeon punk” style. Note the insanely spikey armour, that would seem to be as great a threat to the wearer as it would be to her opponents. Also notice the shield and sword, which seem heavy, ornate, and unwieldy. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually trying to fight in that get-up, but it’s certainly eye-catching, and fits perfectly the feel WotC has gone for with their D&D 3.5 products.
Now, let’s take a look at something different. This depicts a historical clash between Asian and eastern European warriors. Notice how much smaller the weapons are, how the armour and shields are clearly functional. Notice also how much more you feel drawn into the picture. The first picture is cool-on-display. This second has a much stronger you-are-there vibe. I believe it was done for Osprey’s series of military history books, so you’d expect them to stress historical accuracy and the ability to put the reader into the action. Again, Mr. Reynolds’ delivers, though the challenge is quite different.
Finally, here’s a dwarven warrior created as one of Paizo’s “iconic characters” for their Pathfinder series. The first thing you’ll notice is all the gear the poor guy is loaded down with. What sort of moron, you might say, would burden themselves with that much junk before venturing into a dungeon… that is, until you looked down at your own favorite D&D character sheet.
Oh yeah. Pot, meet kettle. Big time. ;)
It’s an interesting stylistic choice. I’m not sure who should get the credit, whether it belongs to Mr. Reynolds, or Sarah Robinson, the art director at Paizo. It’s not the anime-esque ultra-cool of artists like Wen-M. It’s also not exactly the you-are-there realism of Elmore and Parkinson. Instead, Mr. Reynolds is illustrating our RPG adventures. Sometimes, they’re heroic. Sometimes, they’re creepy. Other times, they can be a little silly.
I can’t think of another artist who has better captured the feel of our games as much as Wayne Reynolds has. Whether it’s the heroes strapped down with a hundred-and-one little odds-and-ends, or the black humor of the gaming table, or the joy that comes with struggling against what seem to be titanic odds, Mr. Reynolds has, for me, captured those slices of gaming life better than any other artist. Where Larry Elmore’s art illustrated what we were striving for in our gaming, I think Wayne Reynolds shows us what our games are actually like.
As such, it’s excusable when his anatomy seems a bit off, or the details seem a touch hazy around the edges. In his fantasy art, Mr. Reynolds appears less interested in capturing a world-that-never-was than in providing you, the viewer, with a visceral experience. Nothing exemplifies this better than his wall-of-action pieces. This is the stuff of childhood daydreams, where a hundred things are going on at once, gravity is a suggestion, and plausibility depends entirely on how much sugar you had in your breakfast cereal. This is what fans of D&D’s 3rd edition artwork mean when they say the new art is full of action and energy, where the art of older editions seems static, lifeless, and placid. Again, for these, Mr. Reynolds shifts his style, drawing on the techniques of comic book art. The silhouettes are iconic, the poses are full of action and momentum. We see not the moment of impact, but the follow-through afterwards that gives the impact its sense of energy. The weapons and armour are fantastical, without much thought given to such matters as how they could be crafted, or how they work. The focus is clearly on giving each figure a unique personality, expressed in that character’s choice of accouterments. Again, this stylistic choice reflects how we play D&D, with our focus on equipment as a way to empower and differentiate our characters from others of the same class and race.
I’m not one of those who thinks Mr. Reynolds can do no wrong. His cover for Green Ronin’s Black Company RPG is a mess, the sense of perspective so off that I can make myself feel a bit motion sick if I look at it too long. But I do get excited when I hear he’s got a new piece coming out. More than anything else, I find his art inspires me to think up new ideas for my gaming, whether it be unusual places to adventure, new foes to fight, or unusual challenges to overcome. Frankly, there’s no more important talent an RPG artist can have than that.