Monday, May 27, 2013

Old School BAXA D&D Art

Recently, a collector of older Dungeons and Dragons art bought some pieces from me from way back in the day.  It’s great to see the fondness and nostalgia people still have for the early days of D&D.  I myself played D&D in high school and loved it.  And I love doing artwork for it still.

Since I got the art photographed, I thought I’d post the two paintings here and share some thoughts about them with you.  Luckily, I keep pretty good records of all the jobs I do (which is just smart when you are running a freelance business), so I know the approximate dates the paintings were done.  I also date my paintings next to my signature, so that helps too.


The first painting this collector owns (which he actually bought from another collector) was used for the cover of a 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure module called Swamplight.  I don’t think there was much of an art description with this assignment other than show a lizardman shaman in the swamp with a magic effect happening.

Now, bear in mind, this painting was done early in my career in 1993!  I actually hadn’t done all that much painting other than some painting in high school and maybe a job or two prior to this, so my experience with it was limited.  I was heavily focused on pen and ink work at the time, so this isn’t exactly the best painting in the world, but I still kinda like it – at least what I was trying to accomplish.

With the module being named Swamplight, I wanted to hit home the idea of some kind of glowy light happening in the swamp.  In typical Baxa fashion, I wanted to come up with something dramatic.  And drama comes from putting your hero in imminent danger and having the viewer feel the emotions from the predicament.  So I focused the scene on the lizardman, our hero, instead of some long shot landscape of the swamp. 

I created drama several ways.  First of all I created an implied threat in the form of an unnatural glow (the “swamplight”) and bubbling coming from under the water in close proximity and behind the main character, as if something was sneaking up on him. 

I brought the “camera” low to emphasize the vantage point of the light (attacker).  A worm’s eye view of this sort and a one point perspective pointing skyward, highlighted by the lines of the tree trunks, adds movement and drama to a scene.  It also “points” from the threat directly to the victim’s reaction on his face. 

As you can see, none of this is by accident; it’s by design.  That’s what a good illustrator does: he tells a story in an image.  Sometimes I think about this stuff very intentionally, and sometimes it comes to me more intuitively.

Emotion comes mostly from the viewer relating to what’s happening for the hero.  So I decided to have the lizardman facing away from the viewer, but twisting around at the moment he notices the threat.  This creates movement and a sense of action with the figure’s pose, and his look of surprise hits home the story.

I love, love, love designing characters, so I wanted to come up with my own type of lizardman, so I made his head more like a real lizard and added a cool dorsal fin like that of the dinosaur dimetrodon.

When I do a sketch, I seldom do a ton of roughs.  I usually visualize the scene and pose in my head until I see something I like then start drawing.  I might do a one rough if it’s a tough pose, and sometimes I do a color comp for myself to work out the main color scheme.  Sometimes I’ll pull some reference; sometimes I won’t (usually to my disadvantage).   Here’s the sketch, pretty much the way I did it on the first pass.  There’s just enough detail to get it approved and for me to know where I’m going with things.
At this time in my career, I was painting in acrylics, which is the medium I used for Swamplight.  The painting is 18” x 24” on illustration board.  Here’s the cover of the module:


In January of 1995 I became a staff artist for the Chicago based game company Fasa; the guys responsible for Battletech, Shadowrun and Earthdawn.  I was given a lot of freedom to work in different styles and it afforded me the opportunity to experiment with painting in oils. 

I had always loved the look of oil paintings and tried to achieve it a bit in acrylics, but felt it was nearly impossible, so it was time to switch.  I never had any training in oils in college or elsewhere, so I was on my own.  I asked a few friends about it and some of the sticky points like oil mediums, drying times, “lean over fat”, etc. and dove in.

I still had some hesitation around using oils, and I heard about “water soluble” oil paints, or alkyds, and thought that might be an easier transition from acrylic paints.  So I decided to paint with Grumacher’s MAX water mixable oil paints, and as it turns out, I still use them to this day, only now I use a typical oil medium instead of water for my medium!

The other painting the collector bought from me was painted in 1996 for a Dragon Magazine Issue #233 article call “On the Wings of Eagles”.  The paining, Flying Elves, is 16” x 21” on gessoed watercolor paper.  I’m really not sure why I painted on paper, I just did.

I was always in love with the buttery and fluid brushstrokes of painters like John Singer Sargent.  I thought the way to achieve that look was by painting thickly, with a lot of paint on the board.  So that’s how I began oil painting - I used stiff ox hair brushes and laid the paint on thick!  The MAX paints were perfect for this approach because alkyd oils dry much quicker than regular oils. 

Flying Elves was the perfect example of my “thick period”.  You can see, especially in the details below, how thick I laid on the paint.  I also deliberately focused on the direction of my strokes to add an almost sculptural element to the image.


I don’t paint nearly this thick anymore, but still enjoy letting those supple and energetic brush strokes show in my work.  Here’s the sketch and the article page:

It just so happens that I also painted the cover of Dragon #233 with a painting I call Forest Queen.  Not super fantastic, but I got across the idea of a forest queen surrounded by her animal friends in the forest.  I was trying hard to create a serene mood with a warm wash of sunlight through the trees.  This oil painting was pretty big, maybe 24” x 36” on masonite and was bought a couple years ago by another collector.

Tags:, Baxa, Tom Baxa, Thomas M. Baxa, Blood Rituals: The Art of Tom Baxa, BAA, BaxaArt Academy, Dark Sun, Wizards of the Coast, Magic the Gathering, mtg, Dungeons & Dragons