Art in D&D

Aebir-Toril

When life gives you Lenin, make Leninade!
Throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons, its illustrations have reflected the ideals of the developers, the tone of the average game, and the character of the edition as a whole. When D&D and BECMI began, the art was simple. Pulp-inspired illustrations continued to remain prevalent during the run of 1e and AD&D, and were replaced, in some ways, by an new art-style in 2nd edition. Then, 3rd edition brought a new artistic paradigm to D&D, one which has shaped the evolution of a several monsters in later editions. Each edition, 4e and 5e included, has had a distinct art style.

The question is: Do you like 5e's art-style, or do you yearn for the art of yesterday?

What are your criticisms of 5e's art, and where has it been successful?
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I think the art needs to support the purpose and theme of the edition. I've loved each edition's core concept since 3rd. There was a lot of good previous art, but I think the switchover from TSR to WotC brought a level of professionalism and organization that was a step-change.

Lockwood earthed D&D's more out-there ideas in a firmer tone for 3E. The way the core books looked like relics or artifacts from a D&D world sold the theme really well. His dragon work has resonated so strongly that WotC has barely shifted from it. A downside of a lot of 3E art is stiff posing and more passive compositions. I think that was a consequence of the time as much as art-direction.

The 4E work had a more energy and edge. For a game that was a bit more a skirmish game and a lot more high-magic/concept it worked. It felt like it took lessons from Reynold's Eberron 3E work and ran with it. Like 3E, the quality varied a bit within and between products but the higher saturation and more active posing gave off the vibe that 4E's rules encouraged.

Now 5E, I admit, is my favorite. The mix of Old Masters, Romanticism, and a dose of modern posing practice give a dynamism that reaches right in and pulls out atmosphere while nodding to delicious fantasy influences (Frazetta, etc.) without getting too corny or typecast. The art is evocative and eye-catching without being abrasive or off-putting. It is there to inspire and then get out of the way and I think it does that well.
 

Enrico Poli1

Explorer
I absolutely adored the work of Elmore, Caldwell, Brom, DiTerlizzi and Easley. So art in BECMI and 2e is my favourite. A great improvement from OD&D and AD&D 1e, IMO.
3e art was very good (Lockwood Dragons!), but overall less impressive.
Sadly, I found 4e art revolting, with exceptions.
5e art is almost as great as 2e. I felt compelled to buy the PHB, DMG and MM for their artistic value alone. Same is true for the Ravnica book, or DiA. They are gorgeous books. Overall, this is a new Golden Age for the hobby from this particular point of view.
 

Rob Kuntz

Adventurer
Does it convey the essence of Fantasy is my only criteria for liking or not being affected by any particular piece of art; it's very rarely anything outside of being extremely subjective. And so is every singular case that can be fathomed from such a position. Editions don't matter, IMO, Fantasy either penetrates via the eye and in play or it doesn't. Thus in my view art should be an extenuation of what we derive from the game--Fantasy--and thus is a barometer of that and that alone in the whole picture. If the game fails in this conveyance no matter how good the art is it is doomed within that framework, just as a car, no matter how great its body appears, is doomed if its drivetrain and engine are lacking.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think the art needs to support the purpose and theme of the edition. I've loved each edition's core concept since 3rd. There was a lot of good previous art, but I think the switchover from TSR to WotC brought a level of professionalism and organization that was a step-change.

Lockwood earthed D&D's more out-there ideas in a firmer tone for 3E. The way the core books looked like relics or artifacts from a D&D world sold the theme really well. His dragon work has resonated so strongly that WotC has barely shifted from it. A downside of a lot of 3E art is stiff posing and more passive compositions. I think that was a consequence of the time as much as art-direction.

The 4E work had a more energy and edge. For a game that was a bit more a skirmish game and a lot more high-magic/concept it worked. It felt like it took lessons from Reynold's Eberron 3E work and ran with it. Like 3E, the quality varied a bit within and between products but the higher saturation and more active posing gave off the vibe that 4E's rules encouraged.

Now 5E, I admit, is my favorite. The mix of Old Masters, Romanticism, and a dose of modern posing practice give a dynamism that reaches right in and pulls out atmosphere while nodding to delicious fantasy influences (Frazetta, etc.) without getting too corny or typecast. The art is evocative and eye-catching without being abrasive or off-putting. It is there to inspire and then get out of the way and I think it does that well.
I agree with all of this, except the last paragraph. I do enjoy the art of 5e a great deal, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. Maybe it’s nostalgia (though I doubt it since I don’t really like 3e very much), but 3e is my favorite. The art may have been stiff, but it had a very distinctive visual identity, and to this day it informs my mental image of D&D.

To branch into some D&D-adjacent games’ art, Pathfinder’s art I think executes what 4e was going for in a way that works better for me (and I say that as a huge 4e fan). And the game that visually captures the feel I wish D&D had is Drakar och Demoner.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
The question is: Do you like 5e's art-style, or do you yearn for the art of yesterday?
Yesterday!

Be it Frank Franzetta, Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos, Clyde Caldwll, Dorian Cleavenger, Larry Elmore, Ken Kelly, Keith Parkenson, Luis Royo, Olivia, Al Buell, Gil Elvgren, Jennifer Janesko, Alberto Vargas.

There are so many more I like better than the current artists.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
One big point in the favor of "yesterday" is that the artists felt much more distinct. The modern crop are dramatically more professional and while that has its points, it won't catch the right person as strongly as the earlier artistry. There's something in that too.

Don't miss the random silly cheesecake though. Felt forced and out of place most of the time.
 

dave2008

Hero
I don't necessarily like one editions style over another, but I would put 5e near the top. That being said, I don't think of editions having a unify style.

For example in 1e: Elmore doesn't equal Easley doesn't equal Claldwall doesn't equal Parkinson. They each had their own style and for me it is much the same with 5e. Are there broader trends within an edition, maybe, but I never noticed one really.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
The art in 5th is really great: its slick, grandiose and really professional...but it is not really distinctive.

I'm probably alone in wanting D&D books with covers from Hydro74 and interior art by Scrap Princess :p
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I don't necessarily like one editions style over another, but I would put 5e near the top. That being said, I don't think of editions having a unify style.
3rd, 4th, and 5th deliberately do. I remember coming across Schindehette's ArtOrder website where he explained a lot of his work during 4E. That was great reading (and a great art community). You saw the same thing earlier in Planescape where DiTerlizzi was it, or with Eberron's featuring of Wayne Reynolds, etc. Modern D&D has very professional and curated "style."

Very curious what impact hiring Amy Falcone will have. Her work in Acquisition Incorporated was distinct and a big distance from the rest of 5E.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think late 1e starting around 1986 through to around 1995 (give or take a year to either side) marks the golden age of D&D art. This is the era of Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell, Fred Fields, and Daniel Horne, and also the era when they made the critical decision to give Brom the entire Dark Sun line and Toni Diterlizzi the entire Planescape line, which so much enhanced and even created the feel of those settings.

Earlier TSR art is iconic, and some of it is quite good, but not quite as polished as later eras.

WotC art direction has IMNSHO been largely terrible, and this is set by the way WotC has handled the art for the MtG line which has also fallen off from its early days where you felt like you were collecting miniture fine art. While WotC does correctly understand as TSR did that a setting needs to have a consistent feel across all of its art, the WotC approach is so heavy handed that it drives all the creativity out of the art and tends to stifle the artist. The art directors at WotC also have for some good reason come to prefer clarity and cost over almost anything else when managing artwork, and while this is somewhat understandable when it comes to playing pieces that have art on them it doesn't make for good art. Instead, it tends to prefer a comic book style to the detriment of the look of both their card game and even more so their RPG. So much of WotC art direction is focused on illustration, that it never manages to achieve actual art.

I disliked most of 3e art and hated 4e art, but it wasn't like that all the art in those periods was universally bad. For example, I would have far preferred if the 4e product line was done in the style of Eva Widermann over that of fan favorite Wayne Reynolds. Likewise Todd Lockwood did good work that I would have liked to have seen more of.

That said, 5e feels like in art (as in many other ways) a return to form, with the new art often so good that it would not feel out of place in the middle of TSR's golden era and likely would have in cases been hailed as a classic.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
I think late 1e starting around 1986 through to around 1995 (give or take a year to either side) marks the golden age of D&D art. This is the era of Keith Parkinson, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Clyde Caldwell, Fred Fields, and Daniel Horne, and also the era when they made the critical decision to give Brom the entire Dark Sun line and Toni Diterlizzi the entire Planescape line, which so much enhanced and even created the feel of those settings.

Earlier TSR art is iconic, and some of it is quite good, but not quite as polished as later eras.

WotC art direction has IMNSHO been largely terrible, and this is set by the way WotC has handled the art for the MtG line which has also fallen off from its early days where you felt like you were collecting miniture fine art. While WotC does correctly understand as TSR did that a setting needs to have a consistent feel across all of its art, the WotC approach is so heavy handed that it drives all the creativity out of the art and tends to stifle the artist. The art directors at WotC also have for some good reason come to prefer clarity and cost over almost anything else when managing artwork, and while this is somewhat understandable when it comes to playing pieces that have art on them it doesn't make for good art. Instead, it tends to prefer a comic book style to the detriment of the look of both their card game and even more so their RPG. So much of WotC art direction is focused on illustration, that it never manages to achieve actual art.

I disliked most of 3e art and hated 4e art, but it wasn't like that all the art in those periods was universally bad. For example, I would have far preferred if the 4e product line was done in the style of Eva Widermann over that of fan favorite Wayne Reynolds. Likewise Todd Lockwood did good work that I would have liked to have seen more of.

That said, 5e feels like in art (as in many other ways) a return to form, with the new art often so good that it would not feel out of place in the middle of TSR's golden era and likely would have in cases been hailed as a classic.

This overall 5E looks great, but has a bit of CGI look to it.

The best art circa 86-95 for me is the zenith at least in terms of the best examples. A lot of it was also whimsical with faeries and non combat scenes. 5E phb IMHO is easily the best looking one internally, cover art is also good.

I'm not a fan of WAR so a lot of 3E, 4E and Pathfinder cover art by him looks bad with a few exceptions.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
While each edition had good art, and 5e is the best at representing diversity, there hasn’t been any art that really dropped my jaw since 2e. I don’t think there are that many truly iconic images since 3e. Like Emikrol the Chaotic. Or the cover to Mentzers basic set. Or a paladin in Hell. Or Elmore’s dragon slayer party.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
If rating editions by Art...I'd probably have it as

#1 - Mid to Late 1e (not the first runs of the PHB and such, but the orange spines and later books such as the MM2, WSG, DSG, OA, etc).

#2 - BECMI

#3 - 2e

#4 - B/X

#5 - 4e

#6 - 5e

#7 - the first run of AD&D (efreet of the DMG, Idol being robbed by thieves PHB, etc).

#8 - OD&D (yes, I have them, and yes, even then I wasn't impressed that much by the art. It was not the art that won the game...but the game itself...for me).
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
The art was about the only thing I love in 3.5, other than the Bard oddly enough.

The old Dragonlance art is gorgeous, as is Brom’s Dark Sun work.

I loved the art in 4e, both in style, and in quantity. The 4e books were nearly overwhelmed in the sheer density of art and lore. Every new set of options, every Theme, Paragon Path, Epic Destiny, Race, Class Build option, or article diving into such an option in more depth, or exploring new powers for a certain concept or theme, had lore and art. There are feat chains that came out and were accompanied with art and lore.

And the art evokes what it was focused on. It was purposeful, and delightful.

5e is more of a wide range of quality, for me. Some is downright gorgeous, while some is just poorly composed.
 

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