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.

Clyde Caldwell's famous chain-mail swimsuit.

18 Responses to “The Art of 4th Edition”
  1. The Recursion King says:

    My favourite is Larry Elmore, who to me at least, defines what D&D really is all about. That big red dragon on the front of basic D&D, standing atop his massive treasure hoard, facing the fighter with his magic sword. Rock on!

  2. Yes, Elmore is truly iconic in the halls of D&D artdom. I would even argue that his style defined the look of fantasy and fantasy role-playing itself. His approach to color – emphasizng golds, bronzes and light green – is so distinct and uniquely his.

    What about one of the newer artists from 4th Edition? Any one you particularly like?

  3. Questing GM says:

    I really liked Todd Lockwood’s work in 3.x and Wayne Reynolds work in Pathfinder (and Eberron prior to that) is the one grabbing my attention now.

    • Todd Lockwood’s barfight piece – the one where a beholder is drinking in the corner, a bugbear picks a fight with a drow and the classic D&D goblinesque statue is at the rear – is pure distilled awesome.

      I think the odder Wayne Reynolds takes his work, the more I like it.

  4. Dave T. Game says:

    I like most of the 4e artwork too- the recycling bothers me, and some of the stuff in the real early books is way too obviously CG for me (though this was quickly corrected). I agree with you completely on Eva Widermann especially.

    The only thing I miss is the comic-book/action pieces from 3e Eberron- that style didn’t make the jump, and I really liked how it made the setting stand out.

    • Yeah those 3e Eberron comic book pages were great art. I think their execution, in terms of encapsulating its vibe and its finer points as a setting could have been better, but it was a joy to see some of the talented lesser names of comics – Tomm Coker, Kev Walker, Frazer Irving, etc. – putting their mark on a fantasy roleplaying setting.

  5. Cody says:

    I really love Wayne Reynolds and the pieces he has done. Every time I think of a fighter or a sorcerer, the images of Valeros and Seoni that he did for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game appear in my head. Ralph Horsely is great too. His artwork really invokes the feel of a fantasy game for me.

    In my opinion, I think older people who tend to be a little negative about the new edition’s artwork are probably just noticing how different it is from the 2nd edition art. I think after a while, they will probably get used it. As time goes on, the artwork in our fantasy games change and will continue to change.

    When it comes to name droping, I think it people who are playing the current edition and Pathfinder will probably be droping names like Reynolds and Horsely in the future, much like older gamers drop Parkinson and Elmore before that is the artwork we see when we look at D & D and are used to.

    Just my thoughts


    • Amen to the point you made about the artists of the current edition becoming the future ‘names’ to be dropped.

      I think the difference between earlier generations of artists and the current ones though, is that job mobility is much more commonplace. Fantasy artists of yester-century tend to stick with their careers longer, kind of like how it was the norm for comic book artists like Jack Kirby and John Byrne to stick with the medium, while people like Jim Steranko who went into film production and Joe Madureira who went into video games are more the exception.

      As such, it seems more and more likely that some artists will at the very least, dabble in multiple mediums rather than make roleplaying game art their bread and butter. I can easily see people like Reynolds jumping to comics, just as many of the young illustrators today are now doing storyboards and concept work for video games and movies or graphic design for book publishing.

      It’s not that I’m expecting these guys to leave role-playing work behind, but rather the opportunities for work are much broader now and technology has made it much easier than ever to go wherever good art is needed.

      • Cody says:

        I agree. Like Reynolds, for example, has done work for collectible card games, historical books about ninjas and Mongol warriors, novel covers, and a few other things outside the role-playing market.

        Because of technology, doing multiple forms of art for different types of things is a lot easier now then it was years ago.

        Also, I would love to see Reynolds do go into comics. That would simply amazing in my opinion 🙂

  6. ToddBS says:

    Elmore is obviously a favorite, going all the way back to the red box.

    Overall I don’t have a problem with 4e art, and I really do appreciate the new take on some races that is given. You mention female dwarves as one, but I also like the more-human-less-bestial treatment given to half-orcs.

    There is a different feel though. The chainmail pic at the top has a more realistic feel to it; it’s more of a portrait style. The Eberron pic at the end is more cartoonish; comic book style. I don’t have a problem with it, it’s just different. Not what I was expecting, maybe. (I have no 3e experience).

    The artwork in Pathfinder is an odd mix though. Some art is very portrait-like, but the bulk of it I would say is indeed heavily anime influenced. Pathfinder’s depiction of the fey races like elves and gnomes in particular. I’m not a big fan of that style.

  7. Ill have to go with Todd Lockwood and Wayne Raynolds

    • Any particular pieces of either you favor?

      It seems like most of the stuff fans of Reynolds like to thumbs up across the Interwebs are his 3.5 work, but I don’t see enough love given to his recent 4e work.

      As for Lockwood, who is excellent all in all, I haven’t noticed any of his work on 4e outside of the Draconomicon covers.

  8. I’m a fan of Wayne Reynolds’ art. He often introduces details, such as magic items or creatures, which don’t immediately convert to anything in the rulebooks. It opens up the imagination to think what that green amulet might be, or those sword-wielding incorporeal undead on the DMG2 cover.

    A lot of the 3e artists just draw everything to model – Hennet’s always wearing the same outfit, despite his description, and every ogre has a uniform spiky shoulderpad. It’s boring.

    The 4e art tends to be colourful with a lot of purples and greens, so I can see where people are sensing an anime/WoW vibe. Personally I’m not a fan of the 4e tieflings, with their stupid flesh beards and forehead horns.

  9. m says:

    I’m an old-school D&D player. I started DM’ing in 1981, and continued through 96. The last rules I played actively under were the 2nd edition set. You would expect me to prefer the old art. I don’t. I always thought Elmore, Easley and the rest were not quite the caliber of artists like Howe, Whelan and Lee. I, quite frankly, always thought Elmore’s work was a bit ‘cartoony’ and cheesy. I much prefer the modern art.

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