Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Legends of RPG Art: Russ Nicholson

Chances are if you played a UK variant of a roleplaying game in the 1980s you would have come across the work of Russ Nicholson. Nicholson's distinctive line art graced the pages of the Fighting Fantasy game books, White Dwarf, and its contribution to the world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the infamous Fiend Folio, among other publications. It's in the Folio that his work shows the greatest range and alongside occasional contributions by Erol Otus and some notable UK contemporaries, Nicholson's linear, pointillistic style is the most prominent. Like Otus his concept for a monster, the Folio's Githyanki (originally for WD) survives and remains the definitive visualisation, imitated by successive artists to be one of the few success stories from the book.

Unlike some others of his time Nicholson's approach brought with it the artist's intimate knowledge of historical war gear, which isn't to say his pictures were faithful to history, rather that they were used sympathetically - armour was often rendered a mismatch combination rather than a full-suit (or worse, the deaded chainmail bikini and its variants). He seems to have eschewed the likes of plate mail for the more visually intricate and interesting ring, chain or scale mail. For small work Nicholson's work is sufficiently detailed that you can get lost in them easily, and it remains the main reason I still admire his style, indeed, he's the first fantasy artist I tried to mimic as a teenager. His approach is rarely static in a form (usually bookplate illustrations or monster portraits) that doesn't always invite dynamic poses or movement - but there's movement of line and of shading evident in his work, and a great sense of weight in his characters - he renders flowing robes beautifully, tongues of smoke curl from his dragons' snouts, the rotted clothing of a zombie barely held together, seemingly shredded with decay. His figures are for the most part contrived to be thin or drawn, his goblins especially having pointed features and long noses and limbs, but Nicholson's work isn't strictly speaking all grotesques, as this rendering of a Houri for WD shows, exotic but unfussy, betraying his confessed admiration for the works of Aubrey Beardsley. Of all his work it remains one of my favourites, a great composition with clever use of line weight.

While Beardsley's fantasy work took in the creations of Poe and Wilde and classical mythology Nicholson's artwork features heavily in the 1980s RPG revivial of that literature, including a stint illustration Puffin Books' two licensed Robin of Sherwood game books. Coming from his later work it's a little less interesting and a little more realistic - I definitely prefer his early Eighties work, particularly that of his Fighting Fantasy contributions, and namely The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and The Citadel of Chaos. In fact thinking of those books and their hared worl of Allansia, it's Nicholson's artwork that draws it all together for me as the definitive version, an alluring combination of the high, exotic fantasy of, say, the Arabian Nights, and the grimier low fantasy of Lieber and the shabbier corners of Middle Earth. And speaking of which, what could only be a Balrog, the only Tolkien-derived image I could find from the artist, and in colour too.

Edited to add: My sincere thanks to Russ for his comments and clarification below. The above isn't one of his works after all, alas. Thanks for visiting, sir!


  1. You mention Fiend Folio, yet fail to link to WTF, D&D!? Part 1 and Part 2.

  2. Did you ever read the book 'Maelstrom' with a RPG gaming system set during the 1600s? I read that book often but never actually played in the game world. Sigh.

  3. @ Jamas - I didn't fail, I just didn't want to be all negative and scornful! True that the monsters in the Folio are largely rubbish, but Russ' work elevates a lot of them (maybe not the giant baby though).

    @ Foo - No I've never seen Maelstrom, but it looks very cool, thanks for the heads-up! I'm hopinh our local paperback-gaming specialist will weigh in sometime on this and the above.

    Are you there, Alex?

  4. What can I say Jet, but a sincere thank you. Your comments are much appreciated.

    Sadly, the Balrog is not by me. I did do a series of A3 drawings based on "The Hobbit", back in the mid 7o's, but none survive with me [all destroyed by a flood of rain when a roof collapsed...sigh].