Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds, David A. Trampier
rt style is probably the most misunderstood, and yet one of the most passionately debated, subjects in the D&D community outside of "appropriate armor." I can't tell you how many posts I've read with people discussing their preferences on art style.
Let's be clear about something here, though. I'm talking about style in the sense of "an artistic style—a style of a particular artist or school or movement." Wikipedia has a whole list of art styles if you want to get hung up on the academics of art style. I'm going to sidestep that discussion for the moment and define "style" as a particular look. Simple and generic.
At its simplest, if you can look at an image and say "that was created by artist X" without looking at the signature, that artist has a distinctive and unique art style. Or maybe you look at a piece of art and say that the artist in question is "channeling artist X." These are examples of an artist's personal style.
If you can clump a bunch of artists together due to the similarity of their personal styles, then you might be looking at an art movement or school. This is a valid discussion point as well, but it's one that gets really academic really fast. Also, it's not really my forte, to be honest.
Another way of viewing "styles" can be by the render style of a particular medium. Historically speaking, many mediums foster a particular art style due to the limitations or restrictions of the medium. Comics, cell animation, and flash animation are just a few examples where styles are linked to a particular medium.
The last way to look at art style has to do with segmentation and demographics. For right or wrong, specific art styles are deemed to equate to particular age segments or demographics. I would often approach art from a very different direction if I were looking to engage a 4-year-old girl from New York City, a 16-year-old boy from Brazil, or a 60-year-old woman from Taiwan.
As you can see, when we talk about art style, there are lots of layers to the discussion. So let's sweep the table clean and start this discussion from the ground up.
I think we can all agree that D&D should have a fantasy element to its art, right? If I take a picture of a modern-day youth in Red Square, it is doubtful that we will come to an agreement that it is a fantasy image. On the other hand, I don't think we'll have too many arguments before we agree that an image of an elf is a fantasy image. No matter the age, demographic, or cultural differences, an elf is fantasy, right? The content of the image is based in the realm of fantasy. Are we seeing eye to eye yet? From this point forward, I want to hold on to the idea that we are talking about fantasy-based content.
Now, we've got this elf. Maybe he is created in a manner where all the edges are defined (like a coloring book). Maybe he was created with a large brush and with only ten paint strokes (very impressionistic). Maybe he was created in a 3-D program and then "painted" over for a more painterly look, but is still quite photo-realistic. Suddenly our simple elf has become much more complicated to talk about. Perhaps our 4-year-old girl loves the coloring book version, and our 16-year-old loves the 3-D rendered version, and our 60-year-old grandmother loves the very painterly version. Three people. Three opinions. Three successes? Maybe.
It starts getting complicated when I talk about art in D&D. I've got a huge range of ages, play styles, cultural influences, and expectations. So it's obvious that I'll never make everyone happy. In fact, I'm not even going to try.
Instead let's try an exercise. Here are two images, one from the early days of D&D and one that's more recent.
Even the non-artist can tell that both images are playing with similar content. Please note, I said "similar." I know the character races have changed. In fact, we requested that Wayne Reynolds pay homage to David A. Trampier's piece from the original 1st Edition Monster Manual. Let's do a little deconstruction . . .
- We've got two images.
- Similar content—adventurers checking out the spoils of adventuring.
- Similar composition—though Wayne has pulled out a bit more.
- Similar mood and setting—dark, torch-lit treasure room.
- Different mediums—black and white inks vs. full color acrylic modeling paints.
- Different personal styles—pretty darned obvious.
After that it starts getting a little more subjective.
Do they both tap into the same age segments, demographics, or cultural influences? I could probably argue both ways on these points.
If I put aside my personal biases about each image, I can easily come to the point where I recognize that both images are obviously fantasy in nature. In fact, I can probably even agree that both are representative of the D&D experience. The images encompass the idea of epic adventures, amazing stories, doing something grand, "kickin' in the door and grabbin' the loot"—in other words, all the reasons I play D&D: to get a few friends around a table, share a tale, and do something amazing. Have I lost anyone yet?
So, what I'm getting at is this: Each of us has a personal preference about the specific art styles that we enjoy, right? Each us comes to D&D for different reasons, each of us love something different about the art, and each of us also uses the art in different ways. The differences that each of us brings to the D&D experience are nearly incalculable. Now, as we start exploring where the art can take us in D&D, let's put aside our personal preferences for just a few minutes and consider a new possibility.
Just for a few minutes . . .
Don't ask me how I'm going to tackle this task involving art styles that I have in front of me. I don't have the answers yet. At this point, I'm still trying to figure out a lot of the questions, but I'm getting them down with your help. Remember, we are early in the process, but I'm committed to an idea—nay, an ideal!
This is my commitment to you:
I will look at every possibility that I, and my fellow teammates in the D&D Creative Studio, can dream up. I will listen to all your ideas, wishes, and desires, and I will work hard to create the best D&D experience possible.
Does this mean I'll get everything right? I doubt it, but I'm going to give it my best shot.
At this point, I'm going to ask for a commitment from you as well. I'm going to ask you to commit to a single possibility—the possibility that we can create something grand. This thing might not fit our personal vision exactly, but it will create an experience that is big enough for all of us to live within. It should be bigger than any of our individual visions.
This can happen only if we can put aside our own personal visions for the future of D&D for a few minutes and look at the future with open eyes and an open mind. Only then can we work together to create an experience that transcends arguments about art style and instead focuses on trying to create the best play experience for the entire community. And remember, when I'm talking about the play experience, I'm the art guy, so I'm talking about the way that the visual look and feel of the product enhances the play experience.
What do you say? Will you join me in this?
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.