The above piece was created by Pete Mullen for the Chaotic Henchmen Productions module The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies, authored in 2009 by Guy Fullerton.
This blog post is about the work of Pete Mullen.
There are many talented artists associated with the current OSR movement. But Mullen is at the head of the pack. If anyone deserves the title of The OSR artist, he does.
Part of this is due to the variety and diversity of products he has done illustrations for. A partial list would include Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry (he provided the cover illustrations for both the WhiteBox and Core editions) and Dungeon Crawl Classics as well as various smaller games and companies such as Ruins & Ronin and of course Chaotic Henchmen.
But more importantly the tone and quality of his work practically screams OD&D*. Many of his illustrations center around an adventuring party doing what adventuring parties do--fighting of course, as in the above—but just as interestingly and evocatively, exploring, pausing, thinking (which way to go now?), plundering (after a battle) and so on. The text below will be interspersed with a few other works out of a great many that I could just as easily have featured tonight. My only bias in choosing them is that I tried to pick pieces that were perhaps not quite as well-known as his more famous covers.
A few years ago Mullen gave an interview to Stuart Robertson on his blog Strange Magic. I want to excerpt one of his answers here:
I think there are several key differences between these two generations of fantasy art (Old School versus standard contemporary]. In terms of subject matter, the fantasy art in the seventies and eighties had their fair share of super heroes and strange monsters but their work encouraged the viewer to use their imagination and ask the question of "What the heck is going on here?" To me, the fantasy art in this day's market has more of an instant gratification element to it. When I look at it, I say, "Cool!" But then I'm left with, "Now what?" I find that I don't pursue the, "What the heck is going on here?" questions beyond that initial "Cool!" When producing my art work, I try to get the viewer to ask the "What the heck is going on here?" questions.The piece I featured above would seem to almost buck this. We know what's going on, don't we? The party is fighting a group of Giant Scorpions. Three party members are engaged in melee while the fourth—pretty clearly the Magic-User—is casting some sort of probably offensive spell. But even here in this more 'obvious' scene, the viewer finds himself asking questions which serve to more thoroughly engage him in the painting: What is the spell? It appears to involve some sort of bright globe. Is it a Light spell? Why would the Magic-User want to cast that? And the way those columns are spaced and drawn is sort of...stressful. Are there other Scorpions about to scuttle around from behind? Did the party attack them in their lair or are they being set upon by surprise? The piece is exciting not because everyone is flying through the air like Chinese martial-artists (as in a typical 4e illustration) but because we really don't know what's going to happen next.
And I think the center of it is the Magic-User's raised arms. I chose this illustration partly because out of all the Old School or OSR works that I have seen (a lot) this is the most evocative rendering of a spell cast in melee that I have ever come across.
Here is another non-combat painting titled The Dungeoneers (I don't know which product, if any, it is attached to):
Now, in previous posts I have disparaged the 'cartoony' aspect of contemporary 'New School' art. But it's clear that Mullen's work is cartoony in its way. We know that people or dungeon adventurers don't actually look like this. The representations are abstract or exaggerated in a certain sense. So what gives? I'm not an experienced or schooled art critic (obviously) so call me out if I make some howlers here. But to me the difference is that, say, 4e art looks video-gamey because it's almost saying, this is what your fantasy world looks like. Since (by assumption) you think video games are cool, we're going along with that by portraying your fantasy world as a video game. Isn't that cool? Or, see, we're cool too, or whatever. But Mullen is not treating us like we are babies or passive consumers. The shoulders on his Magic-Users are not pointy or angular because we think that's how they actually are, but to stress the point that they're thoughtful, logical Magic-Users. That's what grown-up art—art made for grown ups—does (or at least often does).
Mullen has sometimes been portrayed as a sort of Erol Otus wannabe. This is a slur. Not because there's anything wrong with Otis. He's also brilliant, of course. But I think Mullen is up to something a bit different...and unique.
I don't know what he is doing now. I assume he is still available to provide illustrations for OSR games and modules. I certainly hope he is. His site—containing the above and many other neat illustrations—is here.
At the risk of sounding too much the OSR artist groupie (though I am one)...
* I owe the precisely appropriate 'screams' designation to a Google+ comment by Theodore Kabisios, referring to last Friday's OSR Art offering.
Those of you that who haven't voted on the Zylarthen name shortening thing (wait, I just prejudiced the vote there) have until 11:37 PM Pacific Standard time to get your vote in on the comments section of this post. Again, you might win hardcopies of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Stonehell Dungeon or Anomalous Subsurface Enviroment—all pinnacles of OSR genius and creativity (well, three out of four them, at least).
By the way, there's a rumor going around (started by my own ambiguous wording more than anything else) that I want to rename my game. But it's only a question of finding an appropriate shortening of it. You guys know that right?
Seven Voyages of Zylarthen will always be Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. Unless you first pry it from my dead mailed fist...