The Art of 4th Edition
One of the things that defined the D&D brand in the early 80s to late 90s was its visual identity, which was most often defined by artists like Keith Parkinson and Jeff Easley. It is those works – such as Clyde Caldwell’s chain-mail swimsuit warrior from Curse of the Azure Bonds and Larry Elmore’s signature work on the Dragonlance franchise – that most people over the age of twenty see in their head when they think Dungeons & Dragons. As such, one of the things many of my old-school D&D friends bring up every time they see the art being used in 4th Edition is how much it differs from the art direction of previous editions.
I contend that such people are drawing upon clouded memories when they make remarks such as, “They’re obviously going for a more anime-inspired look,” to “What happened to that classic painterly style?” If anybody goes as far back as 1st Edition, the best art you were going to get in a D&D product was on the cover, inside things got a little (lovably) ghetto. 2nd Edition/AD&D was when the more painterly works became a regular feature, but still reserved for the cover in most cases. 3rd Edition adopted a lovely aesthetic with the grimoire feel of its books, but it quickly got monotonous.
Nonetheless, the art of D&D is one of the greatest things about it, and 4th Edition is no different. In fact, I’d say that people don’t give it enough credit. Oh, sure, many of the reviews and posts pertaining to the initial releases mention that the best part about the new format is the art. In some unfortunate cases, such praise is used to keep a negative review of 4e from being too negative. Granted, in some cases the art is recycled – the Eberron Player’s Guide and Eberron Campaign Guide reuse material from the 3.5 releases, while Player’s Handbook Races: Dragonborn imports art from magazine supplements – but it doesn’t bother me all that much.
Still, nobody seems to name check the modern artists the way I remember people would name check Elmore or Parkinson. Some of our favorites at My Girlfriend Is A DM include Eva Widermann, who does lovely work on female dwarves; William O’Connor who is great at armor, dragonborn and armored dragonborn. I personally like Wayne Reynolds, who some people dislike because of the eccentric approach to costuming and anatomy he debuted in the 3rd Edition Eberron books, but it’s one of the reasons I like his work. Ralph Horsley also did some great splash pages for both core rule books; Steve Argyle put vivid detail to the races which debuted in PHB2, making them more palpable than they’d ever been.
I’m a big fan of comic book art, whether it’s crazy multi-genre cocktails from the smaller publishers, the intimate lo-fi approach favored by independents, and the ‘widescreen’ style that has become in vogue across the big studios, so I guess it’s no surprise I have little difficulty finding something to like in the different artists. Still, I wonder if there’s anybody out there who feels a similar reverence for D&D artists that I do. Let me know! Who are your favorite D&D artists? In future posts, I will write in more detail about the various artists I’ve grown to revere.