Saturday, 17 January 2009

Fantastical Fantasy Art

I've just made my way back over to the opposite side of Eurasia and am suffering from the old bone ache again. So all I have for you is a content-light post of pretty pictures.

There have been a few recent posts in the blogosphere singing the praises of two sub-genres of fantasy art: Fantastic Realism and Extraordinary Ordinariness - both which I love in their own right, but neither of which are my absolute preference. I always liked best what we'll call Fantastical Fantasy: the strand of art which runs from Fuseli to Brom, via Blake, Diterlizzi and Alan Lee, and which creates pieces which are notable for how different they look from our reality. This sub-genre is all about worlds which Could Not Be; what distinguishes it from Fantastic Realism and Extaordinary Ordinariness is that it postulates a fantastic universe which looks nothing like our own. Whereas in other sub-genres of fantasy the dragons, elves (and whatever else) seem real and the artists imagine how they would look in a world like ours, Fantastical fantasy throws reality out of the window and focuses on the gothic, the dream-like, and the unnatural.

There is something genuinely creepy about this Brom piece - I can't work out whether it's the androgyny, the rictus grin, or the hint of Jame Gumb. Perhaps it's all three. In any case, not somebody you would want to run into on a dark night. Or in any other situation you can name.

Take a look at this fellow, penned by Dom Maitz. It isn't enough to have a gigantic spellbook which is probably made from human skin and written in blood - and you can see in the wizard's eyes and the way his fingers flourish as he starts to turn the page how much he relishes reading it. You also have to be able to levitate, and the experience just wouldn't be the same without a hookah to puff. He is clearly relaxing on a Sunday evening, enjoying perusing his collection while he searches for the perfect curse with which to smite his rival.

One of Fuseli's elves. Imagine if Gygax and Arneson had taken this for their inspiration, rather than Tolkien's idea. It's doubtful we'd ever have seen drow, that's for sure. This piece was drawn in 1790; Fantastical Fantasy has the edge over other sub-genres in terms of its age.

The forest is dark, and things which live in it are watching you from the shadows. Is the figure in the background a comrade or an enemy waiting to strike? Like Brom, Diterlizzi was one of the major 'Silver Age' TSR artists who bucked the Fantastic Realist trend, to create art that was Fantastical in the term's purest sense.

Whither now Fantastical Fantasy? WotC have discarded Fantastic Realism, but their art now takes comic books (from the US, Europe and Japan) as its major inspiration. These things go in cycles; by the time D&D 5th edition comes around the wheel will undoubtedly turn once again.


  1. A small point of dispute: unless I missed something, DiTerlizzi's first TSR art is from 1993 or thereabouts, making him probably one of the most recognizable artists of what I call the Bronze Age, when giant boxed campaign settings ruled the Earth. The same goes for Gerald Brom, come to think of it (though he began his TSR career in 1990).

    This makes me wonder if the Bronze Age might in fact be the era of what you call Fantastical Fantasy, or at least the era when that style of art gets its widest currency.

  2. James: I cede the point, although actually I'm not sure if I favour the Gold/Silver/Bronze motif. Being a fan of BECMI and 2nd edition, I suppose I see D&D as more like the Roman Empire. A stage of republican expansion and high principle (OD&D) followed by a long period of power and consolidation (1st edition), a zenith of unimaginable wealth and decadence (2nd edition), then nadir (3rd edition) and, finally, a long, drawn out Byzantine fading (4th edition, then 5th, then 6th...)

  3. Also, I think Fantastical Fantasy was only ever dominant in the Planescape, Dark Sun and perhaps Spelljammer settings. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Ravenloft and Al Qadim art was very much Fantastic Realist.

  4. ... which swerved, hideously, into what I'd call Blatant Realism, though there's probably a better name out there. This is the sort of stuff typified by the full-color art inside the black-cover reprints of the 2e core books. The focus is on figures who appear to be John and Susan from accounting dressed in their RenFaire best. Here's an excellent, early example from 92. That one may have been a doctored photo, to be honest, but there were others in a similar vein that were not. A lot of effort was put into near-photographic reproduction of extremely realistic people and equipment, but this seemed to suck a lot of the fantastical from the images.

    Easley was deep into his "Scary Clown" phase by this point, which certainly goes with Noisms' "Fantastical Fantasy", but I'm not sure they're what I'd call good examples.

    - Brian

  5. Brian: I quite like Blatant Realism as a moniker. Or maybe: Crap Realism?

    Those 2nd edition black cover books had some truly awful internal (and external) art. The worrying thing was that it was actually good in comparison to those atrocious blue and white stained-glass efforts in the first printings of that edition.

    On my Roman Empire analogy, Crap Realism is the moment after Constantine died, in the years before the Empire was destroyed by the invasions. Nobody even cared about how things looked, knowing that doom was impending...

  6. While DiTerlizzi and Brom might not be very evocative of D&D in general (and I agree, they're really not), they both managed to do something very specific very well.

    They managed to evoke the feel of their respective settings (Planescape and Dark Sun) very VERY well. Neither boxed set (or the setting as a whole) would have been the same without either of those two.

  7. Michael: Absolutely. Planescape in particular I think would have lived or died by the art, and Diterlizzi made sure it lived.