Friday, November 10, 2006

A Critique of Larry Elmore’s Art

Continuing with my thoughts on gaming art, especially art associated with the various incarnations of D&D, I’ve jotted down some of what I think of Larry Elmore. Recent back-and-forth over at RPGnet implies that Mr. Elmore is something of a divisive figure. People either adore his work or abhor it. All agree, however, that it is very closely associated with D&D and fantasy gaming in general for a specific period of time.

About Elmore’s work. I like it. But I think if you didn’t come to it at the right time, it may rub you the wrong way, because it’s very dated in its style.

Today’s fantasy art, especially in D&D, is very superheroic. The guys have rippling, sometimes bulging muscles, extremely broad shoulders, chiseled features. The ladies are all slim, almost ethereal. Weapons are oversized, shields and armour are highly ornamental, and the action is over-the-top to match that look. Even the great Lockwood isn’t immune; check out his pencil-sketch races on pp 12-14 of 3.0’s PHB. The men sport overly long arms that reach almost to the knee. The women are all lithe and cut, with the bodies of gymnast. There’s not an hourglass figure to be seen on any of them.

Elmore’s art usually isn’t like that. He came into gaming art early in the 1st edition AD&D years. The look was still defined by the rough and scruffy art of Otus, Trampier, Pekul, and Southerland. Even comic-styled artists like Willingham and Dee “reigned it in” by modern standards, giving us characters with more human proportions and less fantastical equipment. There seemed almost a tendency towards realism, whether it was Holloway’s armour and weapons, or Trampier’s spent-last-night-sleeping-in-a-ditch hair styles.

Elmore brought to this trend an exacting knowledge of anatomy. You never look at an Elmore piece, even in his most humorous work, and think, “arm’s don’t move that way.” Whether a figure was standing, kneeling, sitting, sprawling, running or leaping, the movement looked natural and the body looked real. Clothing hung naturally from the body’s frame, flowed in realistic breezes, or swung under the body’s motions. Weapons and armour may have been fantastic, by they also looked like they worked. Shields would deflect blows, not catch them. Swords clearly would slide easily in and out of scabbards or enemy bodies without getting hooked on bones, or shattering due to bizarre metallurgies.

We’d seen similar before, from Frazetta (though I’d almost say that Frazetta’s muscular men and voluptuous women are more akin in their superheroism to today’s dungeonpunk style in many ways). But where Frazetta’s backgrounds were vague, obscured by smoke and mist, Elmore brought the same exacting detail that he applied to the human body into his backgrounds. We saw the intricate detail of bark upon the tree, autumn leaves curled and caught among the grass, the dusting of snow upon the mountainside, wisps of cloud scudding across blue skies. His environments were rich in such details, and he wasn’t afraid of distance or depth. Giants thundered in the middle distance, castles perched upon distant mountain peaks, and even further out and up, dragons soared far, far above.

The total effect, which extended to beasts both mundane and mythological, gave his art a sense of verisimilitude. They felt less like expressions of boundless imagination and more like portraits of a world just next door. These were images of our world, as it might have been, maybe even as it should have been. The restraints of gravity and physics, weather and sunlight, anchored his amazing people and creatures in a reality that felt solid and three-dimensional.

I think the zenith of this style is found in the late Parkinson’s “Druid Stone.” You can taste the crispness of the autumn air, feel the cool solidity of the granite rocks. The girl’s body is both voluptuous and in the grip of gravity; no balloon breasts here, but honest flesh, soft and warm. Her posture and attitude are so relaxed, it doesn’t feel like a pose, but like a memory. This isn’t so much a portrait as it is a snapshot, a moment of time captured on the canvas. You want to say you’ve known her, heard her grinch about what a mess her hair is, eliciting chuckles from the scaley friend at her side. I love the way the lizard’s forelegs are locked, pushing up and back into the girl’s nails as she scratches the back of its head. This is what we were aiming for in our gaming, back then: a sense of being there, of walking through elven woods, or wyrm-infested caverns. It wasn’t about the wild wire-fu acrobatics of action movies, or the brilliant lens-flares of computer animation. It was about the crunch of dried leaves beneath your boots, the weight of mail across your shoulders, the smell of leather and horse in your nostrils, and the thrill of wondering what was beyond those hills, or past that turn in the trail.

One thing that made Elmore great, however, was that while his art felt wonderfully real, it wasn’t quite photographic. Some artists of the time painted too much what they knew and not enough of what they dreamed. You ended up with characters who looked less like adventurers and more like Bob and Cindy from accounting, dressed in funny costumes. Elmore struck a balance, and you can see it in the faces of his characters, especially the women. Cool, almost cold, with lips just shy of pouting, doe-eyed beauties gaze out of his paintings and sketches. To a teenage boy in the 80’s, these were not the girls we knew, but the women we dreamed of deserving some day. There was confrontation in their eyes, hesitation in their postures, the sense that, if you didn’t do or say just the right thing in the next moment, blades would be drawn, ensorcelments would be cast, and a chance would be forever lost.

And there was the hair. Oh, gods, that 80’s hair! Not the mussed, sleeping outdoors look, or even the finger-combed, practical ponytail of Parkinson’s druidess. This was the full on, big hair of the 80’s. Poofed, curled, styled, descending in thick waves, cascading in bouncing curls, escaping loose and heavy braids. To my eyes, the eyes of a man who came of age watching Cybill Shepherd in “Moonlighting”, Stephanie Zimbalist in “Remington Steele”, and Madonna, who changed her hair every other week to something new and shocking, the hair of Elmore’s women is simply a dash of fantasy, a playful touch that gives his ironclad realism a magical flourish. Instead of the jarring image of the girl next door brandishing a cleaving blade of war, you know you’re looking at the princess of a fantasy realm, with just enough of the common touch to make her possibly approachable, but never taken for granted. I can only imagine, however, to sensibilities not forged in the decade of “Miami Vice” and “Dynasty”, that this hair must look, at best, mildly anachronistic. To today’s teenagers, obsessed with regimentally straight and “natural” hairstyles, Elmore’s choices must seem laughably baroque.

That sense of almost real applied the costumes he created as well. Worn and used, clearly, but also clearly in the style of traditional fantasy tropes. The billowing cloak was kept in proportion to the body. The wizard’s robes, while trimmed with arcane sigils, was short enough to not impede walking. Boots were sensible, and it was rare to see anyone in high heels, or sporting bizarre projections or hooks upon their armour. His outfits were almost always sensible, and looked to be the sort of thing people would actually adventure in. Yes, he did have a few babes in chainmail bikinis, but he hardly deserves to be singled out for that. Metal bikinis were more the province of Boris Vallejo. Elmore’s men were commonly showing as much skin as the ladies. And the ladies were more likely to be in gowns, robes, or armour themselves.

For me, Elmore’s vision of fantasy armour became my expectations: separate pieces, sometimes mismatched, strapped to the body for protection but as slimmed down as possible. The profile was human, not fantastic, and there was little to hinder the nimble adventurer, whether wading away from a sinking ship or squeezing through a tight crevice in a deep cavern. Protection balanced against encumbrance, with style lagging far behind both as a concern. But a bit of “costume” armour was fun too, every now and then.

In terms of realism versus superheroism, the period dominated by Elmore and Parkinson is something of an anomaly. Before them, we have the superheroisms of Vallejo and Frazetta, earthy and muscular, passionate and wild. They painted with a certain realistic veneer atop a Dionysian poetry. Today, it’s the superheroism of comics and action movies, frozen in snapshots, baroque in its costumes, and vertigo-inducing in its composition. But because Elmore was central to the look and feel of gaming for nearly a decade over a broad range of material, his influence on the genre has been profound. From “Star Frontiers” to the covers of the Dragonlance novels, an entire generation of gamers grew up with his images shaping their assumptions about the fantastic.

UPDATE (Jan 27, 2008): Mr. Elmore has reorganized his web page, and all my links to his art were broken. They're fixed now, but some of the art I originally linked to is gone. I've done my best to replace them with other options that still represent my point. In any event, you shouldn't take my word for anything I say here. Browse his site, find something you like, and buy a work of your own from this master of the genre. You know there's more than one thing over there you've always wanted to hang on your wall.


Lea said...

Some of those images totally gave me some serious flashbacks!!!!!

Unknown said...

I think you did a good and honest critique...although, some I may want to disagree with, but honestly you are right. I hope I can continue be honest to my art and images and still help fire up the imaginations of people who enjoy fantasy art. Ok-OK, I will watch the hair on the women, try to get them out of the 80's-- LOL!

trollsmyth said...

Wow! Thanks for taking the time to read it. :) And for the very kind words. I try to call 'em as I see them, and while I don't have nearly the formal training I'd like to have, growing up with a mother who's got a Masters in fine art does tend to rub off a bit. Everything I know I learned from her.

Anyway, I hope you're feeling better, and I always look forward to seeing what you've come up with next. Best wishes and I hope to see you at GenCon in '10.

Datagoblin said...

I really enjoyed reading your commentary on fantasy art and choosing Elmore as the bar on your scale was a good one.

I think there are many fine artists out there that helped define the 'genre' of D&D art, as well as to set the feel of the game, Erol Otus, Willingham, Jim Holloway, Rosloff, Moldvay, Trampier and the late Dave Sutherland were my favorites.

My enjoyment wasnt your actual critique of Mr. Elmore's artwork, but your spot on analysis of todays comic-book style that dominates the current trend in the D&D (read same as AD&D-4E whatever) universe.

The game has lost that 'average guy doing heroic tasks' feel that it once had. I feel this has cheapened the game and turned it into somewhat of a joke, in relation to the way it 'used to be'. And a lot of this feeling is the way the artwork is done in the newer editions of the game.

I think there is a need to try and help this generation of gamers 'see the light' through a more realistic representation. This may seem funny in reference to a fantasy game, but I think the time has come to dust off the old books and D&D manuals and try to bring some of that old school flair to a new audience. I think this can be helped with the continued influence of more 'realistic' artists like Mr. Elmore.

Thanks again for your article, it was very well written and helped me realize the focus of some of my criticisms for the way the game has evolved.

Anonymous said...

Nice Blog. I think of modern gaming art and it is too over the top. The expressions on people's faces in the 3.0 system.... One needs to wonder if the art director wasn't telling everyone "I need them howling, as if severly constipated and desperately trying to clear the blockage."
Clyde Caldwell was a bit too much in the T&A department, but Elmore gave equal weight to every part of the image, and truly made you feel as if there was something there, something more than just characters made of stats on a page. That there was actually a world behind the game - somewhere. Which was just what the game needed.

Unknown said...

This was a garbage critique for a garbage audience.