I'm surprising myself by being very meh on a lot of the interior 4e art we've seen so far. Part of the problem is considering Paizo to be the standard for the industry. They're not; it's clear they're a cut above in terms of layout and art direction. Green Ronin stumbles at times, but at others, they've clearly shown themselves to be capable of absolutely gorgeous books, such as Blue Rose.
But D&D is supposed to be the industry standard, and I remember being wonderfully in awe of some of the stuff I saw in the 3.0 Monster Manual. Todd Lockwood and Sam Wood did some very evocative, menacing work in that book.
The stuff so far for 4e has been less than stunning. Some have been better than others. Some might have been just fine in another context. But nothing so far has gotten me all that excited. Partly, I'm sure, I'm pickier than I used to be. Partly it's a matter of styles changing. Still...
Let's look at the orcs, just released today. I can't quite make out the artist's name in the bottom right corner. It looks like "RCH". Anyone know who this is?
In terms of anatomy, it's not bad. It's clear that all four of these villains are of the same race even though they're also clearly not identical. The colors aren't bad and there's lots of fun detail. But there's not much real menace here. Starting with the figure on the right, it's very easy to imagine him casually talking about how he wants to plant a few rose bushes along the back fence, maybe put in a new tree behind the garage. Even with all his accouterments of death and barbarian splendor, his body language is utterly suburban.
The orc in the back is the best, though I feel that's mostly because you can barely see him. And again, I'm not getting much of a sense of menace, in spite of all his severed heads. I certainly get no sense that he's commanding anything like the eldritch power of his god, or that he's the one in charge, in spite of his being a "Leader" class monster as an Eye of Gruumsh.
The orc on the far left looks like he's breaking out his dance moves. No menace and no sense of impending attack. In fact, he makes me wonder if there's some sort of subtle dig here on a '90s grunge-band I'm missing.
The one in the middle is the worst. I assume he's supposed to be charging in to attack. What he actually appears to be doing is throwing a temper-tantrum. The odd stance, the timidity with which he holds his axe, the way his head is tilted back and his eyes are squinted shut, it's easier to imagine him stomping up and down and crying about not getting to play with the big kids rather than rushing forward to indulge in bloodshed and mayhem.
The background shows a certain competence in color choice and depiction, but the composition is horrible. Why is the world so curved, as if photographed with a fish-eye lens? Why are the trees and orcs standing at such bizarre angles, as if all of them were radiating out like spokes on a wheel? It gives the entire picture a slight sense of vertigo and repels the viewer, rather than drawing them in to linger on this page.
I really don't know what to make of this. There's a certain level of artistic competence on display here, but not much follow-through. Was this rushed? Is this an example of too many cooks giving conflicting art direction? Was the artist attempting to mimic miniatures that have already been produced, or, conversely, attempting to create poses and looks that would be easy to reproduce as miniatures? Was there a goal for the art that I'm missing? Any of these could be the truth, and it's entirely possible that I'm judging this piece based on standards and assumptions that had absolutely no bearing on the goals and desires of the artist or the art director. What I can say for certain is that this art doesn't do a thing towards inspiring me to put orcs in my game. For me, that's the highest and most important goal for art in a monster book.