The Art of 4th Edition: Ralph Horsley
Over the two year of life span of 4th Edition so far, a few names have emerged as the go-to illustrators for the product line. Such illustrators, like William O’Connor and Wayne Reynolds, have become a recurring presence that have come to represent the visual identity of 4th Edition, much like Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore in previous editions.
One such artist is Ralph Horsley, whose work has been omnipresent since the first set of core books. Hailing from the metropolitan borough of Leeds in England’s West Yorkshire county, Horsley has been doing fantasy illustrations for over two decades for a variety of clients such as Games Workshop, Paizo and Green Ronin Publishing. He’s also done a lot of work for Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering and Upper Deck’s World of Warcraft TCG.
In 4th Edition, Horsley’s most recognized work is in the chapter splash pages of the core books. He introduced new players to the archetypal adventuring party in the first chapter of both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also depicted the town of Fallcrest in the latter. He’s also provided cover illustrations for adventure products such as Marauders of the Dune Sea and the Tomb of Horrors and is currently the standard bearer for the art direction of the new Essentials line in products like Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Essentials Roleplaying Game Starter Set (aka The Red Box).
If linework is Widermann’s strength and draftsmanship is Argyle’s, then Horsley’s is composition. I’m no art critic, but it’s plain to see how the elements in each of his pieces all seem perfectly staged to train your eyes to a particular spot. It’s a very deliberate approach that ensures each of illustration is a memorable one.
Take for example the cover illustration for the recently released Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms. The combination of perspective and the lines created by the party’s weapons suggest a forward momentum to what is essentially a two dimensional image. The rats which emerge from the illustration’s corners also help sell this energy.
The cover illustration to Heroes of the Fallen Lands is quite similar, and what is expressed is a kind of daring intrigue-ridden invitation: Are you curious enough to explore, or bold enough to venture forth? There be kingdoms that are forgotten and lands that have fallen, are you adventurous enough to find out what beckons?
Another good example, is the cover to Tomb of Horrors, which positions an adventurer and a monster in downward motion. In tandem with the famous ‘mouth’ it suggests a situation where the adventurer is between a rock and a hard place. Pretty fitting for an adventure product whose namesake is infamous for gotcha scenarios.
I only wish that Wizards of the Coast would put out more Eberron products, because I think the energy that Horsley infuses into his work would be great for the etherpunk borderline anime world.
When Eberron debuted for 3rd Edition, most of the covers were illustrated by Wayne Reynolds, who since then, has distanced himself from the setting through work at Pathfinder and Magic: The Gathering. Horsley could pull of a similar energy, but his sense of color is much more vibrant than Reynolds’.
He employs greater contrast such as in adventure books contained within the recently released Red Box. I don’t think I’ll ever buy The Red Box, but I’ll have to admit that it has one bad-ass dragon. And if you’ve read previous installments of The Art of 4th Edition, you’ll know that drawing a bad-ass dragon makes for the best 4th Edition artist.
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