Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Legends of RPG Art - Erol Otus

Erol Otus. Eight letters, four vowels, two magic words.

Along with Ellenmoor and Mount Silverberg, the seafaring Elf-king Aerelotus is a name from my old RPG fantasy world based devotedly on a real world counterpart.
To me the art of Erol Otus is 1970s Dungeons and Dragons, as much as multiple polyhedral dice and reaction rolling on village NPCs. Each revision of the D&D rules set has carried with it a distinct fantasy aesthetic - the 1983 Basic rules ushered in the studied sketchiness and painterly cheesecake of the Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore illustrations, while the 2nd Ed AD&D Monster Manual opted for a unified look to its creature catalogue using a block-coloured comic strip style. From the 3rd to the 4th edition the internal illustrations have been more complex, but also more homogenous – their unity and slavish naturalistic palettes I find rather too prescriptive (much like my impression of the revised rules themselves), and would fit in a police line-up with movie conceptual art from, say, the recent King Kong or Narnia movies without standing out - to their detriment. There’s no risk of that happening with the 1970s D&D art, and nobody’s come close to aping the work of Erol Otus.

Seventies RPG art gets a bit of stick for being clumsy, amateurish and cheesy, and to be fair there’s a good amount of it that is, particularly in the old 1st edition Monster Manual, but a lot of that artwork was groundbreaking in a way, coming from a time when fantasy art itself was a genre largely set aside for paperback covers, record sleeves, posters and panel vans. If the titans of that decade’s art were the likes of Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta and Christos Achilleos you can understand why their styles weren’t often seen in the pages of RPG literature. In most cases they simply don’t match the rag-tag pick and mix influences of the game – part Tolkien, part Vance, part Ashton-Smith, Leiber, Lewis, Aesop, Swift et cetera. The answer to visualising such a hodge-podge world (not that anyone was asking) worked best by either going down the traditional route (Dave Trampier’s exquisite woodcut-style creatures and tableaux) or farther out - perhaps somewhere akin to the Odd Rods cards of that era. Guess which one Erol Otus was?

It was years before I dug Erol Otus’s style, usually opting instead for some of the more realistic and traditional, clean-cut works listed above, or the smooth lines of Jeff Dee’s comic book figures. But in returning to the game years afterwards Otus’ vivid and lurid paintings are the ones that last and still enthral me. You won’t find many pictures of traditional mythological monsters in his portfolio, and even those you would find carry his signature details – smooth, almost fishlike skin, spines or webbed feet, goggling glassy eyes, grinning maws. His Lovecraft interpretations are borderline goofy, but are all the more unearthly for it, compared to the Gigeresque examples you’ll find elsewhere. His heroes are similarly unorthodox – a blend of heroic Greek, high fantasy and Nordic myth, with no breast unplated and no helmet un-horned, un-winged or un-crested. His pictures of dem-ihumans are rare (except for the Elves and Drow he painted, which surely defined the look of the latter thereafter), and I don’t think he could have drawn a Gandalf-styled Magic User to save himself – his examples look more like Biblical magi. A breath of fresh air. Similarly his boldness with colour and light are arresting, often blending complementary colours like yellow, green and purple to produce skin tones and clothing and even skies that seem to owe more to the hues of marine biology than anything above ground.

There have been hundreds of great fantasy artists working in role playing games over the past forty years, but I can’t think of a world more alarming, horrific, or more vibrant and fun that I’d like to play in than that of Erol Otus.

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