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[GUEST POST] Scott Taylor on A Disturbing Trend in Art Direction

Scott Taylor is an avid reader, writer, and have worked as a senior editor for Black Gate Magazine and Director of Publishing at Skull Island Expeditions. He’s also done freelance work for Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf. He is currently the Art Director for TSR/Gygax Magazine. On the side he also work as a freelance art director, art agent, and art blogger at his own ‘shop’ Art of the Genre. Scott’s greatest passion is to work in conjunction with great artists and authors to produce inspired pieces of fantasy and outstanding games. Because of the wonderful fans on Kickstarter he has successfully run seven ‘dime store’ fantasy book projects with artists like Jeff Easley, David Deitrick, Jeff Laubenstein, Janet Aulisio, Brom, Rk Post, and Todd Lockwood. He’s also managed to found the micro-press Art of the Genre to produce products for the public. His current project, The Folio: Neo-Retro Gaming Modules for 5th Edition, marks his eighth Kickstarter.

A Disturbing Trend in Art Direction

by Scott Taylor

Fantasy art director Jim Pinto is often fond of saying that there is no art in RPGs, and by inference, we can extrapolate that he also means there is no art in fantasy publishing at all. Art, by Pinto’s definition states that, and I paraphrase only a bit here, ‘the work is serving a direct purpose, it is not serving itself’. So, creation for the sole sake of expression is ‘art’, and all else becomes illustration. He also indicates, and I feel correctly indicates, that there is rarely expression by the artist who must interpret an author’s or art director’s vision from less than one hundred words.

I can certainly see Pinto’s point in this. He simply wants to define fantasy art as a type of production process, thus ‘illustration’, a paid event where an artist is creating images for a specific subject, company, or author. In this is hard data illustration philosophy, Pinto is probably correct, even more so in the fantasy marketplace of today rather than in years past.

Pinto’s theory of illustration certainly paints over the entire genre of fantasy and science fiction artwork. It colors everything in a sour light, and will continue to do so as art itself evolves from a tactile medium to a fully digital marketplace.

One thing I’ve seen rearing its ugly head in this industry is a new breed of art director [which I personally refer to as art managers] who have grown up on digital art since it became readily available to all artists around 2003. This means we’ve lived a decade in a digital world. In this new order, it has become incredibly easy for art directors to put their hands into the creation of art. Simply put, art directors now want to be artists by proxy, and the digital medium allows this to happen. But let me explain what I mean.

In pre-digital days, an art director solicited artwork, received some kind of rough comp for the piece, approved it [or denied which was the only real point of contact to change something], and then waited for the finished piece to arrive for shooting. Now certainly there were cases where changes were required after the artist finished the work, but it was so much more difficult to send a finished painting back and have the artist retouch or rework it that it rarely occurred. This was even more the case depending on the medium he or she used, and a contributing reason that oil was so prevalent.

The world today allows for an infinite number of changes, of reviews, and of tweaks by the art director. Anything can be reworked in every step of the process as the image can be passed back and for via the Internet. You can request color changes, lighting changes, figure movement, really, anything you like, but in the end I think it truly removes the soul for the piece.

With this new truth, Pinto’s theory becomes even more valid because if he states that all commissioned artwork is in reality illustration, then digital art with heavy direction must be more an assembly line. I mean, there is a reason the bulk of artwork on the store shelves today looks alike, and that is because there is no differentiation between Adobe programs. Everyone uses the same exact pallet, and most learn from the same digital school of artistic thought. There are no masters anymore, no apprenticeships, and therefore far less diversity.

Couple the above with the greater consolidation of corporate America into huge umbrella companies, where risk-taking has a direct effect on your job, and the safe and well-researched road is what art directors are going to take if they know what is good for them. You want paranormal fantasy? Well, then you put a sexy woman in a leather outfit on the cover with some kind of archaic weapon, or a man with a heavy pistol and hat.

For the past decade the RPG industry has all looked like a catalog of artist Wayne Reynolds work. Now Wayne paints traditionally, but nonetheless, art directors from Paizo to Wizards of the Coast went out of their way to replicate his style in all products across the board because they knew it was safe. Wayne sold books, and so everything became Wayne.

The same can be said of fiction, where books no longer necessarily need to reflect what is within the pages, just so long as they reflect what will sell. This is doubly true when books are given new covers for overseas markets. A recent version of John Scalzi’s Redshirts for Poland actually made my head hurt, and yet somewhere an art director commissioned this illustration to sell a product.

In days past, artists like Michael Whelan, Walter Velez, and Darrell K. Sweet would read the book in its entirety, sometimes several times, to find the right scene for the cover. Now that still would be considered illustration by Pinto’s terms, but at least it is a more organic form of the concept. Today, this is no longer the case, a cover is typically decided by an art manager… erm, sorry, director, as deadlines and marketing research need to be applied in full.

My experiences with Art of the Genre have taken me behind the scenes of countless artistic creations and transactions beginning in the 1970s all the way to today. One thing I’ve taken from that is an evolution that I’m not overly fond of. As an art director myself, I take great care to walk the path of RPG industry greats like Kim Mohan and Roger Raupp, both of whom were responsible for the incredible art, and yes I used that word on purpose, of Dragon Magazine during its heyday in the 1980s. Mohan and Raupp solicited art on the bases of the artist’s talent, and there was little to no direction on their account. Each would simply say, “Artist X, we like your work, can you paint something awesome for us?” And you know what, it worked! Artists, given the free reign to create on their own terms, started making art instead of illustration, and the industry will forever be better for it.

It is this concept that I bring to the new covers of Gygax Magazine, as well as my Art of the Genre release of The Folio. In both works, I try to reflect the old concepts employed by Mohan and Raupp on both Dragon and Dungeon Magazines from the time period of my teen years. Utilizing the incredible creative power of the artists own imagination, readers are able to once again see fantasy art as it should be, and in that we are all inspired with the promises that fantasy and science fiction truly hold.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Scott Taylor on A Disturbing Trend in Art Direction

  1. There have always been micro-managers among art directors. I worked fifteen years in advertising, and I can assure you that changes were the norm, even when artwork had to be shipped and scanned (or photographed). Yes, it was a deterrent, but not much of one. Working in the sic-fi fantasy genre is a breath of fresh air by comparison. Perhaps I’m lucky, or perhaps I made a point of pursuing the best ART for a cover when the art order wasn’t good. I’ve found that art directors are generally open to comments and suggestions. Your art director has to trust you, and you have to trust yourself and your instincts, but Jim Pinto’s theory is not absolute.

    It’s true that every commissioned cover piece is an illustration, but that does NOT mean that it’s not art. Who you put into it of yourself, as an artist, makes all the difference.

    Hell, if those are the parameters, then DaVinci and Michelangelo were not artists, but illustrators, because they had patrons as clients and art directors, telling them what to paint.

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