Wednesday, June 11, 2008

4rt vs. Elmore

David at The RPG Corner tackles 4e's art and doesn't have much nice to say about it:

Today's art is all about the action--and then some! Cram as much emphatic intensity into a painting, goes the current reasoning. It's a reflection of the age--music is mastered to leave no "open spaces", to be as loud as possible regardless of what the music sounds like. There is little room to breathe; it is an assault on the senses. It goes beyond mere action, which was amply illustrated in old school art (see the classic "Bridge of Sorrows" painting for an example of an action shot that still leaves room to breathe).

I'm going to take a whack at placing 4e's art in my discussion of the shifting aesthetics of D&D eventually, but I haven't had enough time with it yet to feel like I can speak definitively on the topic. Like David, I'm not wowed by it, but it also doesn't me want to poke my eyes out with a stick. (Well, ok, the Sorrowsworn comes close.)

I think I'm willing to hesitantly posit that there's a strong Games Workshop influence in the art. I'm getting a strong, "see how cool" vibe from many character portraits and combat scenes that just rings similar to Warhammer art. But I'm also reminded of something Odyssey wrote recently, inspired by reading the 1e DMG:

As I was writing about the assumption of a long term campaign in 1st edition, it occurred to me (at least partly) why that is. The game is about the world, not the characters. That's why Gygax keeps going on about "the milieu," that's why the game is supposed to last as long as possible. Because the point is the world that everyone is building.

I'm not sure it's quite as emphatic a character-vs.-setting dichotomy as Odyssey's writing implies, but there's certainly some truth to that statement. And it's revealed in the art. Whether it's the "you are there" style of Elmore or the fever dreams of Otus, yeah, those works are about creating a world. You get a sense of place and culture, a hint of a reality that may be alien to our own, but still feels solid and possible.

4e's art has a much stronger focus on the actions of individual characters. Lots of characters exist without any or very minimal backgrounds. I think I'm even seeing a difference from WAR's wall-o'-action pieces in that the heroes of 4e really pop more, and command the attention and the foreground. These characters don't need backgrounds or settings unless they serve to accentuate the action and individuality of the characters. You don't get many detailed backgrounds because detailed backgrounds are not what the art is attempting to communicate. The art is speaking about the joys of playing a cool character in D&D, of being the focus of the story and the linchpin of events.

To my eyes, this leaves the characters feeling ungrounded, floating without restraint in the eye, untethered by culture or environment or any sorts of preconceptions that could limit their potential. That makes them harder to accept as "real" but does make it far easier for the viewer to adopt them as their own. Much like the simplified facial features of anime characters, a lack of detail invites viewer empathy by avoiding details that might be off-putting.

Anyway, those are just my random thoughts to-date, but I don't own any 4e books and so I really haven't been able to immerse myself in the art of the new edition to the point where I feel confident about anything I've written about it. But yes, eventually, I plan to add 4e to the discussion of the changing aesthetics of D&D.


noisms said...

That's a very good analysis. There's nothing much to add, except that for me a large part of the attraction of AD&D art was the spur to Adventure. You wanted to step into those paintings and explore that world.

4e art doesn't do that for me. It's nice to look at and shows what kind of powerful things characters are capable of. But it doesn't make me want to live in the places it shows - mainly because I can't really imagine them existing.

Bartoneus said...

I really hope these are criticisms that Wizards takes to heart and applies to future 4E books, though not back to the extreme that older books were.

As I suggested on RPG Corner, I'd say keep an eye out for the pieces which are done by William O'Conner, they definitely have jumped out at me as some of the best in the 4E core books.

trollsmyth said...

Mr. O'Conner has some great stuff in the books, but I think he's also a pretty big "offender" in the backgroundless, "Who do you want to be?" style. But he's also got some that are grounded in at least simple backgrounds that at least hint at the existence of a world.

Some of Raven's stuff is pleasantly atmospheric. And there's another artist named Eva something whose work also really jumped out at me, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you why. Which is just another indication that I need to study the art in more detail before I write too much about it.

- Brian

Anonymous said...

I always liked the art of the old AD&D books, from people like

Larry Elmore
Keith Parkinson
Clyde Caldwell
Jeff Easly

I read your post (critique of Elmores' art) today, and there was something very interesting in there:

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.

Maybe a bit overenthusiastic, but that says it all. It was the same for me.
The former editions of D&D were about a world you would like to step in and you tried find a place in, and this was reflected in the Core Books and in the art.
The focus of the newer editions is on the characters and the action, and this is also shown in the books and the art.

Natalie said...

Yep, yep. Definitely a symptom of general shifts in the assumed D&D play style. Though, yeah, those shifts probably aren't as major as my somewhat hyperbolic post makes them out to be.

One other big trend in the 4e art is a shift away from the "posing" that defined a lot of 3e art. (Though not as much as reading internet forums might lead you to believe.) A good bit of the frenetic action is in response to that criticism, though I'm not sure it was the right response.

trollsmyth said...


I'd agree with that. Also, the frenetic action draws attention to the new combat engine, with it's emphasis on movement, positioning, and PC teamwork against multiple foes in interesting environments.

- Brian

David Larkins said...

Yeah, had I been writing my blog back in the days of 3e this would be a familiar rant--my friends have definitely heard it a few times. :)

"Much like the simplified facial features of anime characters, a lack of detail invites viewer empathy by avoiding details that might be off-putting."

Well-observed! This a discussion along these lines in Understanding Comics: detail forces the eye to pay attention. So a character's sword, say might be drawn very simplistically until that one panel where he brandishes it dramatically--then it is rendered is hyper-detail, to make it the center of attention. Detailing everything simply overwhelms the viewer and makes nothing important. The more successful 4e pieces, like O'Connor's, de-emphasize the background. And that's a reflection of the larger implications of D&D's shifting emphasis. I look forward to your post about that!

Bartoneus said...

"Much like the simplified facial features of anime characters, a lack of detail invites viewer empathy by avoiding details that might be off-putting."

Now I do have to say, I was discussing with a friend this morning and he expressed his dislike of the artwork for Elves in the PHB, because he doesn't like how their faces look. To me, that is one of my favorite pieces, because they purposely designed the Elves with some interesting detail and tried to make them different from Eladrin but still very interesting. More rustic also, and I think the risk there with that art paid off to me, EXCEPT that is the only place I can remember seeing that kind of Elf in the core books so far...

trollsmyth said...


Yeah, I think that's O'Conner again. Did he do all the race portraits? I don't have a the book here to look.

As an aside, I love the way WotC makes it easy to tell which artist did which work. That's a really classy thing for them to do.

- Brian