During the life of this blog, I have been fortunate to interview interesting members of the roleplaying game community in addition to professionals from other fields. It has been a great way to learn more about the RPG industry and discover some of the history I have missed along the way. The following interview is with Scott Taylor, who was kind enough to communicate with me about his numerous roles over the years in the fantasy art world. My fondness for old-school fantasy art is on display in my home everyday, so I was eager to dive into the interview and learn Scott’s perspective on a number of topics related to fantasy art.
Below, Scott explores trends in the RPG art industry, and discusses his list of the most important artists throughout his years in the business. The interview closes with an overview of his eighth Kickstarter campaign, The Folio, which is a throwback to old school modules that now adorn a table in my house!
Thank you for sharing your time and discussing your work in fantasy and science fiction. It is my understanding that you have worked as an art director, editor, publisher, writer, and agent in these realms. I’m curious to learn more about those different hats! How did your career in fantasy and science fiction get started?
Well, I suppose I got into this career like most folks, first as an avid gamer, and then slowly working my way into publishing with fantasy publications like Black Gate, then Wizards of the Coast, Privateer Press, and finally Gygax. That is the short answer, and I guess the longer one would be a lifelong obsession with fantasy art. I found that if you work hard enough, artists that you once thought were gods on high, could be accessible. When I began making friends with people I had looked up to since childhood, new avenues and opportunities appeared, namely my own business at Art of the Genre where I get to work first hand with legends in the field.
What is your personal and professional background as an artist?
I started taking college art classes in 6th grade, but the process of art never really spoke to me in a free-form state. Instead, I was intrigued by design and architecture, and finally what made art function in the sense of inspiring people. This skill set transitioned over into art direction as I moved through publishing and it is still something that intrigues me today, more for the composition of a piece of art than trying my hand at doing it myself!
What is Art of the Genre, and how did that project develop?
Art of the Genre is a company that grew out of this idea to do a project featuring the most recognized RPG artists of the past 30 years. I called it Art Evolution, and it showcased how RPG art had changed inside the industry from 1979 to 2009. Each artist invited to participate in the project [the final total was well over 100] brought the style they had employed during their most recognizable years in the industry and put their stamp on a single D&D-like character with the following description ‘A young female wizard with dark hair that always wears white trimmed in gold’. Once this series began running, Art of the Genre itself evolved out of it as a means to showcase older art, sell prints, created retro-inspired fiction, and also work as an agent representing some of these great artists.
Are those galleries still up someplace? That sounds fascinating! One of the things that attracted me to RPGs back in my younger years was the colorful art on the module/handbook covers and the black and white art in the books. I have a clear memory of tracing one picture of an adventuring party preparing for a battle – and I think I STILL have that lying around somewhere. Tracing is as far as my art talent goes!
There are the first 25 or so of these I think still active on the Black Gate website. You can start reading through them here and you better bring a packed lunch:
Damn, that is an IMPRESSIVE series. I have to spend more time to read through each post, but I clicked through the links to see the images. Fantastic work! I encourage everyone to read through them.
I’m a huge art nerd – and would collect more if I had the time and resources. I had the thought of commissioning artists to draw my blog’s mascot, Iddy the Lich, and hosted an art contest a couple of years ago. I was pleased so many entered! Shifting gears, I wonder if you could talk about two or three positive (or negative) trends you have noted in RPG art during the past 30 years?
Trends are a funny thing and really hard to categorize without painting with a very broad brush, but I’ll at least throw some of my own observations and theories out there.
One: Digital illustration has revolutionized the way RPG art is handled. Since 2003, the industry has become much more one-dimensional in style as more and more creators are using the same programs and school of instruction to create artwork. New wave art directors can also make changes to images without recourse, fostering a more managed style of art instead of the organic creationism that artists once had before the Internet brought them within instant access of their clients.
Two: Painters come and painters go. The average career of a professional football player is three years, the average lifespan of a rock band is two albums, and the career length of a RPG artist that actually pays the bills is half a decade. The industry is a wasteland of incredible talent that is seen as no longer relevant in the eyes of new art directors. A generation of quick thinking Twitter followers changes their tastes as fast as their smart phones, and careers are getting shorter and shorter.
Three: Bucking both these trends has been the incredible advent of crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indigogo. These two platforms have allowed creative designers to reawaken the careers of many traditional artists, create a wide range of unique products, and create art we’d otherwise have never seen.
I’d like to dive into each one of the trends you highlighted in a bit more detail. Starting with digital illustration, it sounds like you feel RPG art has been slightly lobotomized (my words, not yours!). Could you describe the reasons for that in more detail? What will it take to get back to more variety and “organic creationism” in the field?
First off, this is not a knock on digital artwork. The advent of computer use, namely Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop, has been a blessing to an industry that has seen its income marginalized over the past twenty years. Without digital art, much of the fine illustration in this business could not be accomplished. Couple that with the instant connectivity to new markets like Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, and it has allowed companies to have good illustration at bargain prices. Anything that keeps RPGs coming out with new content is something I agree with, no matter how you get there. However, the flip side of that is digital art’s uniformity. Remember, in a traditional medium, there is no red, there is only what the artist mixes each day, and it varies as he or she paints. Color is a happy mystery, and it helps the brilliance of art. In digital, red is #010395, and every artist paints with it. Sure, you can vary the red to #010396, but again, it is so like #010395 is there really a point? Well, to most digital artists, the answer is no, so their palette begins to shrink as they grow comfortable with a small range of colors that always give them the result they need, and if they want a sweeping change, they filter the image, having Photoshop deliver a different feel instead of having to create it themselves.
There was a story I was told by Jeff Miracola once, who does incredible ink illustration. A young artist came up to him and asked, “How do you do that with ink?”, and Jeff replied, “Well, I started with a job in a print shop, and after five years moved to gaming illustration, then doing ink work on T-shirts designs, and then twenty more years as a freelance black-and-white illustrator for games and mixed media.” The young artist just shook his head and replied, “Wow, I’ll just have Photoshop do it for me.” That, in my mind, is what we are losing along the way with digital art. I adhere to the belief that really great art must be achieved through hard work and study, but digital art can allow the lazy to be good enough to replace artists who’ve worked their whole lives to be what they are, and at a much cheaper rate. Can you be a master in digital art? Sure, but allowing mediocrity to rule the roost, as we do now in the industry, is not producing a vast amount of masters in anything.
I think I understand what you are saying regarding the reliance on Photoshop and other digital tools. Instead of mixing paints or shades, an artist can lay down flat base colors and then change things in Photoshop to make it warmer, darker, blue-er, yellow-er, etc. The first non-art technology that comes to mind is a calculator. I was taught how to add, subtract, multiple, and divide – but I rarely execute those things in my brain for anything too terribly complicated, “I’ll just have the calculator do it for me.” Whereas I learned about the rules for arithmetic and now chose to use a calculator, I sense you feel some digital artists skipped the steps of learning the building blocks for the craft and rely too heavily on the automated tools?
I would agree with your assessment concerning the skipping of steps. Now again, that is not to say that learning the intricacies of Photoshop or Corel is not a HUGE deal for those doing it, but there is something to be said for leaning the tricks of the trade of art from a master painter or illustrator, for having a connection from mind, to hand, to pen as you gain the concepts of pressure and movement. I think that all digital artists would improve their skills measurably by investing more time in learning traditional crafts that they can then apply to the computer. A perfect example would be artist Todd Lockwood, who is arguably one of the finest digital painters today, and yet he learned to paint and draw traditionally for twenty odd years before taking all that knowledge over to the computer and applying it.
The digital tools open the door to more people – and possibly some hacks. How easy is it for you to spot hacks now compared to the years before digital artwork ruled the roost?
I think hack is a harsh term. I can detect artists I feel have not developed their skills without too much effort. To me, the computer, and the current industry standard, has begun to accept a product that lacks true detail. Artist Fred Fields used to work at TSR and paint figures that you could actually count the hairs on their arms. Today, digital artwork tends to lack depth as paint is splashed about to render shapes that look good from afar, but when you get closer it is simply flat blocks of color. Less detail in your work, the less likely I will be able to enjoy what the artist has accomplished. Digital art tends to trick the eye, kind of like watching a Christopher Nolan Batman fight scene and your eyes are seeing only movement, an occasional fist, and then a strike that knocks down. However, your brain compensates for the lack of detail by filling in the remainder of the fight you do not see, because the story tells you it is happening, and therefore you go’ “Wow, Batman just kicked some guy’s ass and it was awesome!” Traditional work is more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It might not be as flashy, but you actually get to see the craft of the actors first hand.
The second trend you identified earlier was related to the lifespan of an artist. I’ve experienced this vicariously with friends who are licensed illustrators for some big intellectual properties (IP). On the one hand, the exposure working for a big IP is helpful, and at the same time the pay is not all that spectacular. And there are 100s of artists lining up just for the chance to work for those big name properties. So it seems that the artists are, for a lack of a better term, expendable. What factors contribute to the short life span of an artist in your mind? How could it be changed for the better?
Well, this is the problem with art, especially with the advent of worldwide art. Artists – like everyone else – age. That means that when you are 21 and right out of school, you take a job and hone your skills, hoping for that big break. You get on with a company, probably a video game company, and then also freelance on the side, do a few conventions, and finally make it so that you can have a life outside your work. You get married, have children, get a mortgage, and then one day the video game company lays you off because they can get another 21 year-old at half your cost. You try to freelance, but you are competing against youth from the Pacific rim or the former Eastern Block where the cost of living is a quarter of what you require in the United State, and they undercut you. You are then marginalized to only your fans, and they cannot support you either because they are not a company. In the end, the art world is a revolving door with a next-man-up mentality. I have no positive spin for this, it is just the market, and I do not see it changing anytime soon.
I previously interviewed Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who has worked as a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast. In our conversation he provided some advice on how freelance writers can stand out in the industry. In light of your comments, his response came to mind, “The actual best advice I can give always runs the risk of sounding snotty, but here it is anyway — your work has to be great. Not just good; not just original; not just imaginative, but the absolute best you can make it.” While this may ring true for writing, your thoughts about the RPG industry settling for “mediocrity” suggest that freelance artists do not need to strive for such greatness. What should freelance artists strive for to gain an edge in the RPG industry?
Gray isn’t mistaken, and his advice crosses all fields of work, including art. To be discovered, to uplift with your images, you need to fully immerse yourself in your craft. Designers spent countless hours making the programs artists use today, but very few use a quarter of the capabilities available to them. Put in the work, discover things that others do not know, experiment, and do not take short-cuts in your art. Art directors can tell if you do! Like I said earlier, there can be digital masters, but to be the Michael Jordan of digital artwork, you’ve got to put in all the work Jordan did to become the player he was, and simply put, very few have that kind of drive.
Could you offer a few specifics on how aspiring artists can become the Michael Jordan of fantasy and science fiction art?
Specifics aside from doing your best work would be to get out to a convention where industry art directors are doing portfolio reviews. Understand what they are looking for and make a positive impression so you will be remembered when you solicit for work. Customize your portfolio to match the art director you are targeting and know their market. And remember Jordan was a once-in-a-generation transcendent talent, so to be that guy you have to want it more than anyone else and put in the time to get there. In RPGs, Elmore had the 1980s, Brom the 1990s, and Reynolds the 2000s to today. Those are the three men you’ll be looking to best. See what they do well, find your own style that makes you as good as them while being your own artist, and you just might have a shot.
And sticking with the basketball theme, who would you list as your starting five for the All-Star RPG Art Team – and why?
If we are going for a five-man starting rotation I would say the following: Jim Holloway because he never missed a deadline and can do a massive amount of work in a short period of time. Wayne Reynolds because he is an iron man and has somehow stayed at the top of this industry from 1998 to today, a 16 year run that will never be matched again. Brom, because he is a painting genius, and arguably the Frazetta of the modern age in level of talent, so the RPG industry was damn lucky to get him. Larry Elmore because, well, he’s Larry, and you just cannot beat Larry. And last, Dave Trampier because although he burned out quickly and was never heard from again, the work he produced was transcendent, both in splashy color and in sublime ink.
That would be a devastating starting five. What are some pieces (e.g., covers, interior illustrations) from the artists you listed that you still consider being favorites — pieces that really stood out to you and captured your imagination?
Well, it is always hard to pick favorites, especially with people of that talent level who created so many great works. Still, if I were to pick a favorite of each, I would go with Tales of the Black Widow Company, FASA/Battletech by Jim Holloway. Dragon Magazine #173, TSR/Dark*Sun by Brom, Razor Coast Campaign Setting, Frog God Games/Pathfinder by Wayne Reynolds. Alpha Dawn Boxed Set, TSR/Star Frontiers by Larry Elmore. Dungeon Master’s Screen 1st Print, TSR/AD&D by Dave Trampier.
On a related note, how big of a collector of original art are you? If you are a collector, what is your favorite piece and who is that artist?
I collect only what I can, which is to say a small amount due to the cost of originals, but I do enjoy collecting original pencil sketches as the feel of pencil brings so much life to artist’s work. However, I do have a couple of original paintings from TSR, the cover for the Kara-Tur Boxed Set by Jeff Easley and the cover of Dragon Magazine #114 by David Martin. No way I could choose between them for a favorite.
You have the original Dragon #114 painting?! In a review of that cover, it was mentioned how some people felt the art was too sexualized – and this was in 1986. You have been following fantasy art and artists for decades; do you feel like the majority of artists, and I’m wondering if you have noticed any gradual change in terms of fantasy/sci-fi art being more kid-friendly or more marketed toward the mature audience, especially in the world of RPGs.
I know firsthand that Dragon Magazine caught a great deal of flack for that cover. I do not think much has changed over the years concerning art in RPGs, save perhaps that we have gotten even further away from the acceptance of nudity as an art form. A great deal has to do with risk, and the risk vs. reward of having a cover with nudity is usually skewed against doing so.
I wanted to return to something you said earlier about crowd-funding and how that has – in some ways – perhaps leveled the playing field for artists. I recently spoke with Brian Patterson who runs the webcomic, d20monkey. He’s now had two successful Kickstarter campaigns that have allowed him to spend more time on his creations including an upcoming campaign setting. It is highly unlikely that Brian would have received the same traction with fans without the explosion of social media and sites like Kickstarter and Patreon. How do you see crowd-funding evolving over the next 5-10 years? Is this a trend that will run its course, or will it continue to change the creative arts’ landscape?
Crowd-funding is an ever-changing platform, and I do not see it going away. Sure, there was going to be backlash once the shine wore off, like the Crash of 2013 when successful Kickstarter campaigns from the boom of 2012 started failing to deliver. Then there was the over-marketing of the site on social media that made people absolutely hate the word Kickstarter when it showed up on their feeds. I believe, however, that the platform has weathered that storm and will continue to grow as it moves from fad to established means of producing product. I am currently working on my 8th KS campaign, and although I am not seeing the success I once did, it does not mean the platform is flagging, just that a developer must put so much more into their campaign these days, and that backers are much more discerning. You need to surprise folks with something original, and if you do, they will support you in great numbers.
Eighth Kickstarter? Wow, that’s some productivity! How many of those have been successful? What have you learned from using crowd-funding?
All seven of my Kickstarter campaigns have been successful and fulfilled and I have to say I am very proud of that fact. I have learned that you need a strong core group of fans to be successful multiple times, and that it is really hard to jump genres and maintain those fans. I also believe it is important to have your project as complete as possible before the campaign so backers can see examples of what they are going to get and know how quickly it will be in their hands. This is what I’ve done with The Folio.
Looking back, which Kickstarter project are you happiest with from start to finish?
Well, all my Kickstarters have been fun, but I think both my The Cursed Legion and The Mid-Winter Fall books were those that I was happiest with because I got to work with Jeff Easley for the cover as well as having new illustrations in there from Jim Holloway, Larry Elmore, Tim Truman, and Keith Parkinson.
Could you discuss your current Kickstarter project in more detail?
Well, The Folio is something that has been on my mind for a long time. I always loved the covers for Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and have wanted to work with artists to produce such free-range fantasy artwork on a product. Once I saw what Paizo was doing with their Pathfinder Adventure Paths, which reflected series module that I loved such as Against the Giants, I considered doing a project that combined the best parts of both those successful things. Coupling that with the release of D&D 5E which I was astounded was a good as it is, and suddenly the seed for The Folio sprang to life. So, in short, the Folio is a single AD&D 1E module with a removable cover, ala 1980s TSR, framed with cover art like a Dragon/Dungeon Magazine, and filled with incredible art, a Gazetteer, monster section, 3-D maps, and a fun and fast delve adventure to start players off on the right foot in what I hope will be a full series. I’ve also included a 5E D&D adaptation PDF for all backers in case they wanted to try the new D&D mechanic.
The Folio seems to be full with some great material for adventure. How many hours of content do you think a gaming group can get out of the first issue? What are the moving pieces in the module for groups to play around with?
It really depends on the DM. When I played out the content of The Folio in this adventure it took roughly six months of gaming by my players at roughly 4 hours a week. Obviously, I’m the kind of OSR DM who likes to keep the players thinking, and doesn’t let them ‘dungeon run’, which is to say clear a dungeon in one go. The dungeon in the Folio is designed to ‘learn’ the players strengths and weaknesses and then exploit those, making each venture into the perspective delve that much more difficult, and add in the above ground political aspects of Roslof Keep and you’ve got the ability to run entire sessions without even setting foot in the dungeon while having combat and lethality just as dangerous as below.
As for moving pieces, there are of course the various Roslof Keep great houses and companies which will compete against the characters as well as the Infernal Machine of the dungeon itself, which is a learning entity and will craft NPCs to vex the players along their path.
Could you tell me how the dungeon learns the players strengths and weaknesses? That seems like an interesting way to design an adventure.
Basically, the dungeon has a magical generator deep in its heart and it has become so powerful as to be semi-sentient. Thus, it learns from watching the player character interact with the enemies it produces to defeat them. Once it [meaning the DM] witnesses how the party takes on and defeats, lets say a party of orcs, the Infernal Machine will then change tactics, seeing what didn’t work in the orc encounter and changing the next orc encounter to adjust the playing field in its favor. Therefore, the DM gets more of an ability to use his or her talents in a kind of chess match against the players as they try to defeat the dungeon. There are more twists to this, but I want to save something for those folks getting the module!
The cost of entry for The Folio seems quite reasonable – $5 for a PDF of the first adventure. How many pages of content is the Folio? It seems you have bigger plans for the adventure series if funding goes well. How will the rewards play out if the campaign takes off?
There are two interior booklets that currently number 32 pages in total. That might shift a bit if I add a little more ‘crunch’ to the content, but it should still be within that range. As for later modules in the series, backers can take the opportunity to invest in later modules at a reduced cost as the Kickstarter begins to hit its stretch goals. Also, we just got named a ‘Kickstarter Staff Pick’, so that puts the backing of the platform directly behind us for the quality and reliability of the entire campaign.
Congratulations on getting tagged as a Staff Pick. The Folio seems like a nice addition for any DM’s library. Thank you for spending some time talking about fantasy art and your roles in the business.