Do you recognize these names: Caldwell, Elmore, Easley, Fields, and Parkinson? If not, I’ll bet you’d recognize their work. These were arguably the most prolific and popular artists in D&D during the 1980s and 90s. Most of the D&D manuals, source books, adventures, novels and magazines of the 80s and early 90s featured the works of one of these five artists on their covers.
Each edition of D&D had a different type of art that was unique to that version of the game. Art of the original D&D consisted of a lot of line drawings. They were two dimensional and simple. With AD&D, the art was taken to a whole new level. It took on a realism that was, until then, uncharacteristic in role-playing games. Artists working to illustrate AD&D understood that just because dragons don’t really exist doesn’t mean they can’t be depicted as if they do.
This realistic approach was applied to more than the monsters. The heroes of various races and classes were shown battling these monsters of fantasy. You believed that this scene could really exist. The details were exquisite. The weapons and armor were authentic and accurate. With these works gracing the covers for D&D rule books, modules, magazines and novels it made you want to buy these books.
The artistic giants of AD&D were, unfortunately, left behind when the game was reinvented as 3e D&D. The artistic direction changed. I’m sure money was a factor and I’m sure there were internal politics. I don’t know all of the details and I wouldn’t bore you with them if I did, but 3e D&D paid less attention to the art and more attention to the new rules. Just look at the covers of the 3e books. For the first time they didn’t depict dragons or adventurers.
In the heyday of AD&D Caldwell, Elmore, Easley, Fields, and Parkinson were the best of the best. The images that these five created set the stage for D&D. You’d look at the heroes in their paintings and think, that’s what I want my character to look like. They were cool.
A lot of old school gamers will remember Caldwell’s work from the covers of the Gazetteer adventures. He did a lot of work for the Forgotten Realms too, including the memorable cover for the novel “Curse of the Azure Bonds.” But for me, the work I’ll always remember Caldwell for are the covers of the original Ravenloft and Ravenlot II adventures.
If you’re a fan of Dragonlance then you know the work of Larry Elmore. He painted the covers for all the early novels. This was in fact my introduction to his work. Although I never really got into the Dragonlance setting of the books, the cover art always fascinated me.
Elmore’s attention to detail was unmatched by his peers. When I created new characters I often looked to his work to draw inspiration. When I found a painting I liked I’d make a PC who fit that image.
In addition to Dragonlance, Elmore may be remembered by the some of the older games for painting the cover of the original red D&D boxed set.
My favourite Elmore work has always been the cover for the first Dragonlance novel, “Dragons of Autumn Twilight.”
Of these five giants, Fields is the one whose work I liked the least. It was still great, don’t get me wrong, but there was something about his style that I didn’t care for. Of all his work, my favourite is the cover for the novel “Red Wizards.”
On October 26, 2005, Keith Parkinson lost his battle with Leukemia and died. He was 47 years old. I was shocked to learn of his death when I was researching this article. The man may be gone, but his work will live on.
The covers for the Bloodstone modules have been favourites of mine for years, but Parkinson’s work “Lone Watch,” used as the cover for Dragon magazine #137 which featured a Ranger atop the lizard is probably my favourite of all his works.
No one painted dragons like Easley. Many tried, but he was the master. TSR knew that when your game is called Dungeon’s & Dragons you need to get the artist who paints dragons the best to represent your product. Easley’s work was everywhere.
When the AD&D hardcover source books were given new covers in the early 80s, Easley painted new ones for every book including the PHB, DMG and Monster Manual. He also painted the covers for most of the AD&D 2nd ed. books too. You couldn’t pick up an official rule book with seeing one of Easley’s painting. He was probably the most prolific of these five artists.
With an artist who produced so much it’s hard to pick just one favourite. The first Easley cover I ever saw was for the AD&D Monster Manual, so this is one of my favourites. I also really liked the AD&D 2nd ed DMG cover.
With so many artists producing work for D&D over the years, I can’t even guess at how much is actually out there. The internet makes finding these works easier and easier. As with any artistic discussion there’s never a right or wrong answer. I’ve shared some of my favourites and encourage you to do the same. I’ll be doing a follow-up to this article in December. At that time I look at the D&D art that was produced in the wake of these five masters, including the works currently on the cover of the 4e books.
Be sure to check out our follow-up post: The Art of D&D (part 2)