Mirrors and Windows; Illusions and Interpretations

Castle Ortrar: Guarded by orcs wearing Converse All-Stars Hi-Tops.

I have been thinking about artwork for fantasy illustration and where I see myself going with it recently.  A recent commenter on a picture I posted (see here) said he didn’t like the fact that the pig men were wearing hi-top tennis shoes in the drawing I did of them.  He said that the modern shoes in the medieval fantasy broke “the very cool verisimilitude you have going.” 

I don’t think he is wrong, but I start to think that what a viewer might want from a picture and what I want from a picture may be different.  I think my own idea of ‘what my fantasy art is’ may be changing — I’ll leave it up to the individual viewers to decide for themselves if I am changing it up for the better.

In talking about photography, one of my art teachers used to talk about John Szarkowski’s idea of Windows and Mirrors.  Szarkowski suggested that some photographs can be compared to windows (we can use the photograph to look at the thing than the photographer pointed his camera towards) and some photographs can be compared to mirrors (the photographer might photograph an object, scene or person but the photograph suggests something to the viewer about the photographer).  I’m mangling and oversimplifying, but I hope you get the general idea. 

Larry Elmore: Fantasy Art as an illusion of reality

When we talk about ‘fantasy art’ that ends up published on the covers of books or in games, most of the time we are talking about pictures that I would call ‘illusions.’   ‘Illusions’ are sort of like Szarkowsi’s ‘windows.’  I would describe illusion pictures as those in which the artist seeks to give the viewer the impression that you are looking at the fantasy scene itself.  In the painting at right, “Early Snow,” Larry Elmore seeks to give his fantasy scene the illusion of reality.  He has rendered the tree branches, the blades of grass, the folds of clothing, etc., all to look almost ‘photographic.’  The people might be idealized (I don’t think Elmore paints many (or any) women who don’t look like models) and the things portrayed might not be ‘real’ (dragons and unicorns), but the painting itself might be described as ‘realistic’ in style.  I think the ‘Illusion’ picture is pretty much the standard in what gets published in many parts of the book and game industry (there are probably all sorts of genres and sub genres like Anime that don’t fit into that category, but, not knowing much about Anime I’ll stay away from discussing it).

www.theartofskinner.com My example of a posible 'interpretive' picture

Another type of fantasy picture, and a type that I find myself more and more interested in, is what I might call an ‘interpretation’ picture.  This is more like Szarkowski’s “mirror” concept.  Although dragons, unicorns, women and snow covered hills might be the literal subject matter of these pictures, the artist is perhaps less worried about giving you the illusion of the reality of the scene and more interested in perhaps telling a story — the style might be said to be more ‘expressionistic’ than ‘realistic.’  One artist whom I have mentioned before on the blog is a guy working in Cali named Skinner.  I love his work but I would never term it to have the ‘illusion’ of reality that one might find in an Elmore painting.

I have my own preferences, but I’m not trying to demean Elmore’s work or denigrate those who like it.  But making art seems more like a journey lately than anything else, so I am thinking about these things to try to plan where I want to try to go next.

I think my own picture of the Coverse-All-Star shoe wearing orcs (above) doesn’t really fit neatly into either category, but I think I’m currently closer to an ‘interpretative’ artist than an ‘illusionist.’  I’m no Larry Elmore — I couldn’t paint a convincing illusion if I tried and all of my characters come out looking sort of google-eyed and desperate… but I find myself changing up the details and inserting tidbits to amuse myself — like tennis shoes on the orcs — which sometimes push the picture out of the realm of ‘illusion’ even more than my particular drawing style already might have done (you can call my style of drawing ‘lowbrow’ or ‘cartoonish,’ I don’t consider it an insult).


Posts on religion seem to be making the rounds; never one to waste the opportunity to ride on another person’s coattails, I thought I would get in on the game.

The D&D games I have been involved in never seem to have taken religion terribly seriously (which might be ironic since I learned to play D&D while going to Catholic school). Priests of Thor and Mitra always rubbed shoulders with other faiths; individual priests might not have been happy with the arrangement, but players were unconcerned with the finer points of theology and just wanted to get on with their tomb-robbing. Most ‘priest’ characters were pretty much interchangeable. And it was fine.

The real world, however, is much more complicated (as posts and replies on Grognardia, LotFP and other places will show). Up until a few years ago, if you had told me that pantheism involved the worship of cooking pans and polytheists believed that god was made of plastic, I might have believed you. What a strange hobby this is — it constantly forces me to learn new and weird things. But, cruising around the blogs, I learn that some people take religion in the fantasy world pretty seriously and ponder the questions of, well, “how do all those gods get along?”

I’ve written about my own take on religion in the fantasy world before. The people of Aldeboran worship a hodgepodge of gods and goddesses including some drawn from/inspired by real world religions and some yanked from the zany and pretentious art-psychobabble of the Church of the Subgenius… as well as a few made up ones just tossed into the mix. I respond pretty positively to Stuart Robertson’s premise that the game really is “a cultural Borg … that rolled around borrowing from just about every source it encountered.” (sourced from Grognardia), so the ‘buffet style’ of religion doesn’t bother me anymore than having Scandinavian/Germanic gnomes/dwarves occupying the same world as Javanese Naga. However, some folks really seem to want to understand how having a bunch of competing deities might work, though, which could be a fun project for the philosophically and theologically inclined.

I’ve been fond of the idea suggested by reading stories from Leiber’sLankhmar‘ series and L. Sprague DeCamp’sNovarian‘ tales that suggest that an individual god or goddesses power might wax and wane depending on the number and fervor of his or her followers. I suspect such a system might be in place on Aldeboran, although I have not confirmed that.
Current, real world religions seem a bit of a problematic source of inspiration, though, mostly because many ‘real world’ faiths require their followers to reject other faiths as ‘untrue.’ That kind of becomes a problem in the fantasy world when the temples of Neptune and the temples of Thor are just down the street from one another and offer pretty similar services at competing prices. On Aldeboran, I imagine that most people are functional polytheists (like many ancient Romans). If they are trying to seal a business deal, they go to the temple of the god of money and burn a candle; before an ocean voyage, they drop off a few coins at the temple of the sea god, etc. Individuals might like one god more than another or feel like they have a ‘special relationship’ with one deity (much like many old school Catholics have a particular patron Saint), but it wouldn’t occur to most people on Aldeboran to insist that someone else’s god does not exist.

The notable exception to this rule are two religions modeled on real world religions. The Aldeboranian ‘Church of the Allfather‘ is fashioned after the medieval Catholic church in some of it’s less than admirable moments (what with the burning or heretics, inquisitions and all). They consider elves to be corrupt monsters (and will attempt to kill them on sight) and dwarves as ‘subhumans’ worthy only of being slaves. They have a highly organized hierarchy of priests, bishops, etc., and are always going off on crusades.

Another exception is the Church of Jeebus, in which the members practive all sorts of speaking in tongues, exorcism and other strange practices. Although less hierachical than the Church of the Allfather, there are several competeing sects in The Church of Jeebus and a few of the charismatic leaders are extremely influential. One of the most famous is James The Baker, a former owner of a bakery who saw the face of Jeebus in a griddlecake one morning and set off to create his very popular ministry. Baker and his wife ride around decked out in jewels and furs in a golden carriage, preaching the gospel of buying shares in their ministry in order to assure yourself a place in the afterlife.

Some people might find the inclusion of these two parody religions offensive (I don’t really think they are, since my mockery is reserved for the misbehavior of the human agents of these faiths — I don’t care if people want to beleive or go to shurch, but I also don’t think the misbehavior of the clergy should be above mention). I’m not running any games on Aldeboran right now so it doesn’t really come up.

see also:
A to Z: P is for Priests
Apr 18, 2011
Those who don’t know me might assume that, given the nature in which I portray religion and priests in this post that I am an atheist or a cynic or something similar. I will admit a distatse for organized religions… mostly due to how …

Welcome To Aldeboran
Feb 28, 2010
After discarding the rather pompous and unoriginal pantheon of my highschool years, I just toss in any and every god of religion I can think of, with Cthulhu cults rubbing elbows with pagans of every stripe, authoritarian churches and …

My Favorite Adventures
Mar 13, 2011
4) The Haunted Monastery: In my own homebrew world, I have a religion I call “The Allfather.” The Allfather’s followers are somewhat like the medieval Catholic Church; basically lawful but inclined to an excess of zeal and dogma. …

David Jien — new art hero

I just found out about this young artist in Cali who has this totally amazing work.  His name is David Jien;  his work features all kinds of little monsters and people fighting, sneaking around, having sex and weird orgies, etc., and it all looks like it is drawn on some ancient Chinese scrolls.  Really mind-bending stuff.

Edit: Someone sent me this link about Jien: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tracey-harnish/david-jien-exhibition_b_987196.html

The New Plan


Gaming stuff and general Dorkery will go over on Aldeboran.  News on art and other matter will go on this wordpress blog.

Mines of Khunmar (what I think it will be)

The people have spoken! If all goes well, Mines of Khunmar shall hit the presses sometime next year and be availible for you, dear reader, to read, adventure in and fold, spindle and mutilate for your own pleasure. (Well, three or four people have spoken, anyway (thanking Austrodavidicus, Anonymous, Matt Finch and Geoffrey — plus some others I may have forgotten/missed between messages)).

Part of the impetus for this is the fact that I recently realized that next year it will have been 30 years since I started designing Khunmar. I haven’t worked on it non stop since then (for most of those 30 years it sat in a box in my parent’s attic). It’s a bit of a milestone. There might also be some cake.

M.Finch encouraged me to think about retaining a ‘bare bones’ feel to the description entries, which is in line with my own desires because I am lazy and I don’t think I am that good a writer. The short and succinct entries of things like the ‘Stonehell Dungeon‘ by M. Curtis impressed me — both because I am lazy and impatient and looking at a big block of text and thinking that I have to read it all (or write is all) makes me tired AND because I think it suits a style of play that I like — one requiring improvisation, reducing prep time for the DM, and, finally, it recognizes my own thought that a published adventure is not really a novel — it’s just a skeleton that the DM makes come alive. One of my favorite dungeons, Badabaskor, had the briefest blocks of descriptive text that referenced all sorts of things that were not described in detail. One entry I remember involved a room with a bunch of potted plants and a little gnome with a watering can who was puttering around the room, watering the plants. If characters entered the room, the plants would attack them and the gnome would use the bodies as compost. No ‘who, what, why‘ for the situation was given, allowing the DM to use this as a simple ‘one off’ encounter, or, potentially, it could be the lead in to some sort of ‘Day of the Triffids’ adventure if you wanted if the players follow up on this mysterious gnome and his carnivorous plants.

What little work I have done so far, in between other things, has been to try to correct obvious errors (like maps that don’t match up with each other, etc.). I’d also like to include some of my thoughts and musings on megadungeons in general and Khunmar in particular in sidebars (or some similar format). The dungeon itself does not have an overall plan (other than the fact that things get harder as you go down). There are some areas that are controlled by factions, i.e.: the first level is ‘mostly’ controlled by kobolds, parts of the lower levels are controlled by goblins who are at war with orcs that control another part, etc. The mines were founded by a clan of dwarves (and some of their treasures are still hidden away in there) and another level has been overtaken by a Balrog (Mines of Khunmar is a rip-off of Mines of Moria (except Khunmar is not a shortcut to anything but an early grave — hah hah hah)). I also used to have this idea (I’m not sure where I got it) that a dungeon should have a ‘master’ of some kind who could eventually be encountered by the players. There are some ‘hooks’ and references in the current text (transcribed by Geoffrey) that will need some explaining; there were references to a ‘City of Mind Flayers’ (ripped from Gygax’s D-series) and gates to the dungeons of other castles that will be probably left for the individual DM to flesh out… but I’ll at least try to indicate what I had planned for the curious.

The maps are all going to be redone. I am drawing them by hand. There will probably be a lot of corrections and some renumbering in this process plus I need to standardize my symbols.

I’ll probably use Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry for the ‘rules’ (although I plan to include my house rules for traps, finding secret doors, etc., as suggestions). Some creatures, like ‘Beholders’ and ‘Mind Flayers,’ which are not released tot he public will need to be replaced/substituted. My thought is to create or use similar knockoff creatures (like ‘The Occulist’ (which is actually an obscure word for an eye doctor) instead of ‘Beholder,’ etc.

I’m going to try to come up with wandering monster tables specific to the different areas. Back in the day I just used wandering monster tables from the TSR books (I found a photocopy of them in my Khunmar binder) for some levels and then had tables for others. Although I kind of like the idea that one might meet the occasional completely incongruous creature wandering around (what are a group of pixies doing in the middle of the basilisk’s tunnels?), perhaps that element could be built into the table — say, each table allows a chance for ‘referee’s choice’ creature which could be selected by rolling on the tables from the rule books rather than the tables from the dungeon itself. Thus, yeah, you ought to have an extreme outside chance of encountering a unicorn wandering through the ghoul’s catacombs (“I got lost — do you kind people know the way back to my rainbow? I’ll fill your backpack with Skittles if you help me…”).

The part I’m most looking forward to is the art — I’m going to try to do an original drawing for each map/level (I don’t remember how many there are— 30+?) and then maybe scatter smaller drawings here and there in the text. It’s probably going to be kind of gonzo-weird because that is more fun for me and this thing is my baby, my ‘magnum orcus’ of D&D Dorkery. There will probably be at least one picture of a guy with a Village People moustache getting attacked as he sits on the crapper because that’s just the kind of guy I am and I already drew it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyway; look for it next year some time after LotFP releases the new version of Exquisite Corpses.

Shameless Commerce Division: T Shirt sale for Khunmar

I was dinking around with some art for Khunmar and I decided to try to design a t-shirt for Mines of Khunmar.  If I have my math right, I started Khunmar in 1982 — which would make it 30 years old next year.  Come hell or high water, next year Khunmar will be available in some form (I hope).  In the meantime, you can buy a crappy, overpriced shirt from Cafe Press… each sale will put a few pennies in my pocket and hopefully spur me on to finishing the damn thing.

This is the front:

And, on the back, a severed head of yet another luckless PC who has met his end in Khunmar:

It’s actually sort of a self portrait… except my hair is shorter and my head is still attached to my body… and my eyebows are not quite so Gandalfy.  But, yeah, I think if I had a mullet and I got decapitated I might look something like the above.

I ordered one for myself (for the outrageous price of 25.00 plus 5.00 and change for shipping — fucking robbery for a t-shirt that will probably fall apart in a week).  If it looks OK, I’ll open up the store for the public, and, hopefully, these will be flying off the shelves and filling my pockets with dough.  Then I’ll move on to key chains, messenger bags, mugs, ashtrays, note books, tooth brushes, bath mats and other Khunmar crap… and eventually you will get the dungeon after I have milked the ‘accessories’ teat enough.  So save your shekels and get ready to spend!

Finally, here is another drawing for Khunmar:

For those of you keeping track, this is the 4th or 5th drawing for Khnumar I have shown the world.  There are others, but some are not done yet, some have not been scanned and some suck wads and need to be done over again — plus 80% of the work is not done yet anyway.  I plan to have a half page drawing for each map section like the above, and then many little drawings scattered throughout the work.  It will be pretty art heavy, which is what I want, and everything will be by me, so if you hate my work you will want to stay away from the final product.  ‘Rules’ and stuff will be minimal, probably compatible with Swords & Wizardry or something similar,  and there will be notes as to how I have used the dungeon in the past, suggestions and other inappropriate notes and musings.  As you can see in the pic above, one of the many entry ways to the dungeon is through a castle occupied by pig-headed orcs who apparently wear high-top tennis shoes.  What the fuck?  And there will be severed heads.  Lots of them.  And at least one drawing of a guy taking a shit while getting attacked by giant insects because that is how I roll.

OK.  That is all for now.  Carry on.

The Gorilla Man

Another drawing I did of a serial killer: Earle Leonard Nelson (1897-1928).   Nelson was nicknamed ‘The Dark Strangler’ and ‘The Gorilla Man’ by the press:Nelson was called ‘The Gorilla Man’ because he strangled women and usually stashed the corpse in some out of the way place in the victim’s own home before leaving (an M.O. that apparently reminded some newspaper readers of Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue“).  He eluded capture for over a year, murdering at least 22 women across the U.S. and Canada.  He preyed mostly upon women who ran boarding houses or who wanted to rent rooms to lodgers.  He was well spoken and polite, ofter claiming to be a weary traveler who needed a place to stay.  When he got a woman alone, he would attempt to convince them to look at the ceiling, saying something like, “Is that water damage?  I think that plaster is about to go…” and then grab them from behind and strangle them.  After she passed out, he would knot a cord, cloth or clothing tightly around her neck and then have sex with the corpse.  After stealing cash and valuables, he would visit pawn shops, second hand clothing stores and barber shops and change his appearance before moving on.

His early life is filled with examples of bizarre behavior, but, when traveling or setting up a victim, he was always polite and well spoken and made a favorable impression on people.  He enjoyed talking at length about religion and usually carried a Bible.

Nelson was skilled at picking locks and slipping away.  A Canadian sheriff captured Nelson and put him in a cell fastened with two padlocks.  After the deputy left the room for less than two minutes, Nelson picked the locks and escaped.  He was recaptured the next day and handcuffed; Nelson was able to slip out of the handcuffs right in front of his captors and hand them back with a smirk.

When he was hanged in Winnipeg for the two murders he had committed in Canada, Nelson maintained he was innocent and claimed to have never visited many of the cities in which murders credited to him took place.

Recommended reading: Bestial by Harold Schecter (2004)

2 New Beholders

I’ve had some commissions on the drawing board lately; first up is an illustration of a group of dudes about to get wasted by a beholder, in pen and ink:

This is a pencil sketch I did beforehand.  As you can see, there were some changes (click image to make bigger):

I’m also working on some other stuff, including one of a more gonzo take on the same thing.  This one is probably for my own wall.  Work in progress — please excuse the shitty photo.  Sucks to be Mr. Fighter man who has just gotten his torso erased.  Dwarf is stoned and Wizard is getting his chest blown open with a lightning bolt.  R.I.P.

EDIT: To answer someone’s question, I posted back in May that I was thinking about doing my own version of a picture that was done by the official Wizards of the Coast artists.  The ones done by Wizards featured some of their standard ‘iconic’ characters fighting a beholder.  This one (below) is my version of that picture with my own ‘iconic’ characters including Mr. Dwarf who looks like a garden gnome.

Albert Fish the Cannibal

Here is another drawing of one of the world’s most evil people, Albert Fish.  I’ve been working on drawings of Fish and Peter Kürten lately; Fritz Haarmann, Peter Stubbe, Armin Meiwes, Alfred Packer and Andrei Chikatilo and others are all eventually due for their portrait.

Besides murdering and eating people, Fish felt compelled to shove needles so deep into his gootch that he could not pull them back out; there were 25+ needles and pins permanently embedded in his pelvis when he died.  Fish was executed by electric chair in Sing Sing prison in 1936.  Rumor has it that his crotch lit up like a Christmas tree covered in blue lights when the juice hit him because of all of the metal in there, but that can’t be true, can it?

Dogboy Opens a Door