Conan the Destroyer, Frank Franzetta
I suppose my affinity for fantasy art must have begun when I discovered my dad’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ collection of paperback Tarzan novels.
I recall being enchanted by Frank Franzetta’s depictions of a fierce Tarzan battling sabertooth cats, mastodons, and any variety of extinct animalia. I would sit for hours and study the depictions of fantastic muscles of the hero and realistic fangs and horns of his antagonistic monsters. For some reason it struck a chord with me, and has ever since. There have been many times when I chose to buy a fantasy novel simply based on the cover art, as absurd as that seems. At the very least I was able to own a piece of art that I appreciated, despite the quality of the book itself.
Fortunately, the majority of the time I was rewarded with the combination of good cover art and solid fantasy tale. I was never a huge Burroughs fan, but then I was 10 when I read my first Tarzan novel, which may have had something to do with it, I think I was a little young to really appreciate the work itself. But I could appreciate the cover art. Apparently, 12 was the magic number, because by that age I was solidly enthralled with Conan the Barbarian. It would seem a natural progression, since Franzetta painted covers for Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as well as Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels, but I wasn’t aware enough of the fantasy art world at that time for it to matter. I simply loved the character of Conan the Barbarian. Joe Jusko brought him to life with his vividly painted covers of The Savage Sword of Conan. I loved his attention to detail and his clean, realistic style. I enjoyed Jusko’s covers every bit as much as the early Franzetta work. I even started signing my name using a cool “J” like Jusko.
By This Ax I Rule, Joe Jusko
Around this time I discovered Boris Vallejo, who was putting out his own fantasy art calendars. He also contributed to Conan paperback covers, you know the type, Conan protecting a scantily clad woman from some dire monster. Not that Vallejo’s women needed protecting, he was one of the earlier fantasy artists who depicted muscular, independent women in his work. Vallejo was probably the most anatomically correct fantasy painter of those days, combining fine art figure painting with the fantasy genre.
When the original Dragonlance series was published by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman in the 80’s I was introduced to Larry Elmore for the first time. Elmore had the same clean style that I admired in Jusko, he absolutely brought the characters to life in the first three covers of the series.
Dragons of Winter Night, Larry Elmore
Elmore was also creating work for the Dragonlance role playing game and Dungeons and Dragons art in general. I think he did the best job of bringing the dragons of that series to life. At the same time, Clyde Caldwell, Keith Parkinson, and Jeff Easley were also contributing amazing work to the fantasy realm. Easley’s work was much more painterly, he didn’t mind if you saw the brush strokes in his work, and he did some amazing covers for the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook and Monster Manuals. Parkinson combined realistic renderings with great environments and creative backdrops. Caldwell tended more towards character based paintings, and contributed a lot of great, detailed pieces to the Dungeons and Dragons pastiche as well.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s Ken Kelly was producing the majority of the Conan paperback covers. While it sometimes seemed like Conan had more muscles than were anatomically possible it never diminished my enjoyment of his renditions of the barbarian hero, overall Kelly produced some great covers for a good number of Conan novels.
In art school at college I was appreciative of H.R. Giger’s alien work, not only for his technical ability, but for the sheer originality of his work. While he represents (for me) a departure of sword and sorcery fantasy art, he is significant for the creativity expressed in his work. He truly created his own niche in fantasy and science fiction art.
Since the advent of the personal computer and its ascension into the art world things have changed quite a bit. Programs like Photoshop, zBrush, and Painter have made producing digital art easier than ever before and exponentially increased the number of artists creating original work. Some of the best include Craig Mullens, George Grie, and Michael Parkes, to name a few. There are also some really great sites for showcasing work and sharing techniques, CG Society comes to mind foremost.
Even though I design websites and identities for a living I think I will always have an affinity for fantasy art. It was something I grew up with appreciating and still do, to this day. I think the raw creativity of the genre serves as solid creative inspiration, no matter what discipline of art you participate in, professionally or amateur.
All in all, fantasy art has come a long way from the early days of Franzetta and Vallejo, I find the work being produced today as enchanting as ever, and look forward to enjoying what the future holds.