Saturday, April 7, 2012

Females And Framing Less Controversial

Depending on your perspective, the art of Dungeons and Dragons became either more professional, or less visceral, as the game and its adherents grew ever more sophisticated.

Dragon Magazine 126, published in October 1987, features a cover by Daniel Horne, of a female ranger battling a skeletal frost giant.  Sensibly dressed, and actively posed to fire an enchanted arrow at her adversary, there is little to criticize in this illustration, from a framing and art theory perspective.

Our heroine is posed in the foreground, as befitting the focus of the illustration.  This is the ranger's story, not the frost giant's.  Well lit, the froze wasteland setting is interesting, but is suitably muted to avoid detracting from the central narrative.  The color choices are appropriate:  blues and oranges, blacks and whites, reds and greens. 

This was an exceedingly popular illustration, so much so that it was printed on heavy card stock and included in the binder version of the 2nd Edition AD&D Monster Manual.

Compare this full color illustration to that of the early Dungeons and Dragons artwork, much of which was printed in black and white.  In those early pieces, the framing of the action was all wrong.  So was the lighting.  The most important portions of the narrative were often at the edge of the frame, or entirely off-screen.  It would be unsurprising to hear criticism of that early artwork as amateurish and poorly framed.

So why would anyone prefer that old artwork to the more professional illustrations that followed?  Is it simply nostalgia, or is there something that the old artwork communicated, that was lost in translation?


Sigilic said...

That is a well posed question.

Maybe what is missed in the more focused artwork, is the eldritch sensibility that the PCs play but a small role in a vast ongoing and careless world.

A part of what I feel to be old school, is the understanding that the PCs are disposable, and that their victories are unexpected.

Roger the GS said...

Crudity of presentation is the seal and hallmark of the DIY esthetic. The old D&D illustrations have appeal for the same reason that the xeroxed flyers and sleeve art of 80's punk bands do.

Brendan said...

Man, Dragon had some excellent covers, didn't it?

I would actually disagree with the assertion that all the older illustrations are less professional. Some of the Otus and Tramp art is quite sophisticated. It's just in black and white rather than full color.

Maybe two related but orthogonal issues are being conflated here. There is the dimension of realism to expressionism. There can be good and bad realistic art and good and bad expressionistic art. This Dragon cover is an example of good realistic art and it has nothing to do with the clothes that she is wearing. Then there is the dimension of meaning; capturing the vibe of an adventuring party working together for example, rather than a hero posing for the camera. A piece can be successful just because it evokes a certain mood even if the composition or technique is poor.

I write as someone who grew up with Elmore and Parkinson during the 2E years much more than Otus and Sutherland. Even my "basic" D&D exposure was to Mentzer and the Cyclopedia prior to last year. So I don't think this is nostalgia speaking. (Somewhat related, both Elmore and Parkinson compose in a somewhat realist mode, but I think the work of Parkinson is almost always superior and more evocative.)

James Smith said...

-C recently made a post, comparing D&D to Shamanistic pursuits. Perhaps, the more slick the art, the system, rules, etc., the harder it is to reach that place where the magic of D&D takes place. Maybe, for some of us at least, those rough edges are a crucial component.

Dienekes said...

The old school stuff is more sophisticated in my opinion. The use of implied narrative requires more thought and also allows for more room for interpertation by the viewer. I would say I really like most everything pre nineties the best.

imago1 said...

Roger the DS has a point about DYI. I sat in on a few Home Depot sales meetings back in the day. The entire architecture of the box store, from the racking to the seemingly haphazard placement of floor items was all part of the aesthetic. The handscrawled signage? Yup--made less legible to appeal to the DYI pathology. I see a similar mindset in the hardline OSR elements. Retro hipsterism.

Zzarchov said...

Is that a fire I see? Thank goodness! This gasoline was getting heavy.

So the proper framing of artwork, what to look at, whats important. That makes the art tell a story, this is about something, and that something is planned.

Old art is like a random photograph of something that just is. It is something that is just happening, it is not a planned story.

It is the essence between a story based game that is emerging and a the old sandbox.

Matt said...

I like the old art because it feels so alien. A quick black and white drawing leaves a lot to your imagination.

New art makes the monsters look.. I dunno how to describe it, almost friendly.

richard said...

I would like to see some examples of what you take to be typical old school bad framing or composition.

There is the trivial point that as dnd grew in popularity it could afford to pay a wider variety of more expensive artists. But I think Zzarchov has a point about changing intent in the art - quite a few Erol Otus pieces are compositionally not very clear: you have to spend a while looking at them to figure out what's actually happening. The focus is on the monster or some piece of equipment while dramatic action plays out... not in the background, necessarily, but between the foci. I assume these are deliberate devices on his part, that he assumed his viewers would revisit his artworks frequently and reconsider them from different angles.

Dan said...

I just wanted to say that's one of my favorite Dragon covers.

JoeGKushner said...

Uh... 1987 does make that fairly old art work.

Mark K said...

Room for both, not all. That female Ranger vs Undead Giant is fantastic -no shite chain mail bikinis in sight, thank feck. But I also love the roughly penned b&w art work of early D&D.

Another great example is the original Dragon Warriors illustrations, examples of which can be seen in posts on my blog under, oddly, 'Dragon Warriors'.

I think with the older, rough sketches, we as DMs and gamers identify with them on a more personal level, as they remind us of our own day dreaming sketches of characters and monsters slain/encountered. Just check all your friends' character sheets and I guarantee at least one will be plastered with their in-game imaginings in pen or pencil form.

Dan C. said...

I think a lot of what makes "good" D&D art is if the image captures a scene in a realistic way. Whether it is old school or new school art, black and white or color, if there is a realistic feel to the scenario (not necessary the art style itself), that adds a lot. Much of the newer art is great and dynamic, but it doesn't look like "real" combat. It looks like a bunch of heroes looking cool rather than a bunch of adventurers struggling to survive.