Chattanooga Now Q&A with Larry Elmore

Chattanooga Now Q&A with Larry Elmore

February 19th, 2010 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Outabout

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter talked to former TSR, Inc. staff artist Larry Elmore about his contributions to the look of Dragonlance, the atmosphere at TSR in the '80s and his favorite painting.

CP: You grew up in a rural area that didn't have much in the way of art programs in the school system. What was it like being creative without an outlet for that creativity?

LE: I started drawing when I was about three, I guess, like all kids. I just didn't stop. When I got to first grade, I went to a country school, and there were two or three things for the first graders in the morning and a couple of things in the evening, but other than that, you didn't make a sound. Back then, if you made a sound, you got in deep trouble, and teachers could whip really good. (Laughs.) So I'd lay there and draw. I drew all my tablets up. They eventually had to ration out my paper because I'd draw my paper up since there was nothing else to do.

Eventually, I went to a county high school and there was no art, really, but I just drew anyway. I drew what I was interested in, and as I got older, that was girls and cars, hotrods. Then, I went to college and majored in art. My art became a little bit different then. (Laughs.)

There was a lot to see. I was very visual, so I seemed to put everything in memory what things looked like. As I got older, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I knew I wanted to be an artist, and I thought, "Well, an artist has to make everything up out of his head," so I put everything down in memory I could think of. I studied everything. That came in handy, especially as a fantasy artist, because you're doing things you can't just go out and find snap a picture of. Landscapes and nature come easily to me because I, basically, grew up in the country.

CP: You were in college at Western Kentucky University when you found your way into fantasy art. I read somewhere that that had something to do with Celtic culture and mythology. Can you elaborate on that?

LE: When I was in high school, my parents bought me a little painting kit. In town in our county seat, my dad was working in a store for a while, and I remember I was there with him for Christmas, and I stayed with him until we went home. We went upstairs to the boss's office, and on the stairway upstairs, there was a painting, an oil painting, of a Viking long ship. Something triggered inside me when I saw that, the adventure of the scene or something. I didn't know anything about Vikings. You couldn't find anything published on Vikings back then. There might have been, but not in our libraries around here.

I was about 12 or 13 when I saw that. For the next few years and up through high school, I tried to paint long ships. But I knew that wasn't it. Something was tugging at me that wasn't Vikings, but I didn't know what it was, so I still did Vikings. When I went to college, I was doing the fine arts study and doing abstracts and whatever else they made you do, which I hated since I was an illustrator at heart, but this Viking thing still plagued me. I knew it wasn't Vikings, though, it was some other culture, but I just didn't know what it was I was drawn to.

Then, the first Conan books came out with their covers, and I flipped out when I saw those. That just reinforced this feeling I had for high adventure and some kind of culture. I'd sit in the library at night, which is pretty rare for an artist to hang out in a library to do field work - but I did. I was doing research in history to find out what was pulling at me. It was really hard to find.

I would find history books, and they would refer to Germany, Belgium, England and on into Scotland as "battle ax" cultures. The only "civilizations" they would talk about were the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. That was it, but I was like, "That's not it, there's something else."

Then I ran across a book that was about Celts, and I was like, "This is it. I feel like I'm home." It solved this tugging that was in me. I read about four or five books about Celts over the next five years. I joined the Army and joined the history book club and got as many books as I could get on the Celts. I liked their mythology. Then, it branched out into the Picts and the Turks and everything else and the whole history.

It made sense, my whole background would be Celtic, genetically. It was Irish, Scottish, English and a touch of German. That's what got me started. Then, I got interested in ancient history.

CP: Do you remember the first work you did that would be considered fantastic? Do you still have it?

LE: No, I don't still have it. I've sold way too much stuff over the years or lost it or gave it away. It was in college, I guess. Our teachers would give us assignments, weird stuff, I guess to stretch my minds. It was a drawing class. At the time, for myself, I was drawing girls, contemporary girls with miniskirts and Hippies, and cars. For class, I would do whatever the assignment was.

I was taking a second or third drawing class, and our teachers would give us an assignment like, "I want a figure or figures on a teeter-totter." That's all it said. I thought, "God that's stupid. You want people on a see-saw? What in the world?"

I didn't want to draw that.

So I went home and did some thinking and drew this surrealistic thing that looked like it was in space with this wild looking saw with a hand growing out of one end holding a watch and on the end up in the air, over space, there were a bunch of people crying. I brought that in for my assignment.

Most people had done two kids in a park on a see-saw. (Laughs.) Mine was totally different, and the teacher loved it. He said, "This is what I'm talking about, use your imagination."

The next assignment was just about as stupid, and everybody in class tried to copy what I'd done because they wanted a good grade. The teacher said, "No, this is not your original idea. You're just stealing Elmore's idea. I just want you to do it your way, not his way." That was the first outlandish stuff I did.

I realized I didn't want to do abstract stuff. I did surrealism in college, and that was OK, since it was considered a fine art, whereas anything illustrative was considered a commercial art, and I wasn't there to study commercial art, book covers and such. I did a lot of surrealism to be able to draw realistic things and still get a good grade.

My senior show was full of surrealism, Vikings and ancient looking stuff. (Laughs.) People didn't know what to think of it. They liked it, everybody loved it, but they were like, "Wow, I've never seen this before."

At the time, the only fantasy artists I knew - and they were only just hitting their stride - were Frank Frazetta, Jeff Jones and a few others. Their first calendar was published after I got out of college, got out of the Army and was working at Fort Knox as an illustrator. Their Tolkien calendar came out, which influenced a lot of young fantasy artists at that time. I'd read the Conan series and the Lord of the Rings series back in college in the '60s, and I was hoping I'd live long enough to see movies made of them, and I did.

CP: You've illustrated so many different things over the years. Do you have a favorite character you've depicted?

LE: No, not really. I've sort of been plagued with the image of a dark-haired, woodsy kind of woman - a witchy woman. She's always been on my mind, starting when I was about 22 or something. That's why I do a lot of witchy looking women, especially in drawings, but I don't have many paintings of it. It's funny, I just laid out a painting of a voodoo woman I'll be doing for myself.

The biggest thing when you're making a living as an illustrator, which I've done for my whole life, is that you don't get to do what you want to do. You're always illustrating a book or a game or somebody's image of a creation. Finally, after 25-30 years of it, I just got tired of it. Now, I'm doing more private contracts and my own work. I like to paint people and landscapes. With people, I like to paint women more than men, of course. I'm a red-blooded man. (Laughs.) This witchy woman thing still plagues me - this mysterious, dark-haired woman.

CP: I don't suppose your wife looks at all like that, does she?

LE: When my wife was young, it's weird because I didn't realize it, but when I met my wife, she looked just like that. She had long, dark hair. When I first went to work at TSR and they first met my wife, they were like, "Oh, there's your model." She never modeled for me. I didn't notice it, so I was like, "Oh, well, I guess she is." My wife didn't like modeling. I got her in one or two things over the years, but that's about it.

CP: When you're doing fantastic paintings, is it difficult to contextualize without a real reference for the creatures to work from?

LE: Well, no it's not too hard if it's within a certain time period or roughly a time period. Fantasy seems broken down into what I call more realistic fantasy, historical-based fantasy, and science fantasy or science-fiction fantasy. It mostly sort of flows in the direction of (realistic fantasy), or it used.

If you know costume and clothing and the way armor and swords work, if you have a pretty good background in that stuff, then you can design your character to fit the kind of fantasy you're doing.

It's easier to do historically, of course, because there are references. Even when I made up a lot of armor and clothing, I tried to make it functional. A lot of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism said they like my stuff because it was functional. A lot of artists draw armor and clothing that's not functional. In other words, you couldn't move in the stuff. It looks good, but it doesn't work in reality.

I've put on armor before - breastplates and things - and realized why the arm holes in a breastplate, for instance, are so big. You can't bring your hands together without it. If a breastplate were to fit you like a cut-off t-shirt, you couldn't bring your arms together to hold a sword in front of you.

By being around armor like that and talking and studying and reading history, you get a good background. Once you've got the base education about the time period, to draw a figure clothed that way is easy, and you can just go and add your own fantasy touches to it. That's why I like fantasy. You don't have to follow history exactly. You can divert any time you want to.

I would say the new fantasy these days is really fantastic fantasy. I think that came from games. With computer games, all the armor looks functional, but it's not. You can just get away with it a game. And the weapons got so huge in games and comic books, too, that it was comical. I've seen comic books where a pistol is as big as a person. It's like, "God, that's not even functional. You couldn't even hold it." I tend to be a little more realistic.

CP: You also did a number of illustrations for Everquest novels. What was it like working in that universe?

LE: I knew they were going to start a new line of these Everquest books, and they wanted me to kick it off. I had to do the first four covers. They wanted to kick it off in sets of three, so I did the first three. I don't know where they came up with the idea for these "pick a path" Everquest books. I don't know if TSR originated it or if it was just around at the time, but for young kids, it was pretty ideal.

Basically, they told me what the book was about and what the basic quest was. They really didn't have the books written. When I was doing the cover, they were still in the process of writing them. What was neat thing about working at TSR was that you worked right next to the authors, so you could walk over and ask them, "What's this about?" and they'd give you the basic idea. They had some of the characters worked out, knew what they were liked. It was pretty easy. They wanted a gem stone and a fancy border on the first several - that was going to be their signature - and I was like, "I have to come up with a different border and a different kind of gemstone for each one?? Well, alright." The gemstone was the hardest stupid thing to paint on every one of them. (Laughs.)

CP: When you're doing your pieces that aren't an illustration for an existing work, do you create back story to the scene you're painting to make it make sense in your head?

LE: Yeah, most of the time, especially when I do a painting of my own. I did a lot of covers for Dragon Magazine because they usually just wanted a topic. For each issue, it would be like, "This is going to be about clerics" or "This is going to be about magical weapons." I had total freedom, as long as there was some kind of a cleric or magic weapon in the picture. I loved it because of that freedom. Some of the things I did for myself, and I'd show them the painting, and they would say, "Yeah, we'll put that on the cover."

I had more freedom in those than anything over the years. There was always some kind of a story. I always saw a scene, a film clip of maybe 15-20 seconds, an event. Then, I'd run that clip over in my head and choose just one frame, and that's the frame I would paint. I'd just see the film clip and focus on the action that was going on and think about the one shot and paint it.

One of my favorite paintings I've ever done was a Dragon Magazine cover called "Avalyne, the Life Giver." It was a girl cleric healing this guy in a snow scene with this giant walking away. The giant had either killed or hurt this guy really badly, and she was healing him.

The reason I always liked that painting is that it came out of 90 percent of my mental picture. Usually, you get this picture, and if you can get within 75-80 percent of what you envisioned, that's good, because the painting takes on a life of its own when you start painting. Sometimes, where it's going is better than the original idea, or you fight with it or different things happen. I was just into this flow. It was what I envisioned, and it worked perfectly.

CP: When did that painting run?

LE: I'd say that was in 1986 or 1987. It's on my Web site.

CP: The period when you were working there in the '80s, TSR was experiencing a golden age, in terms of what was being produced. What was the atmosphere like back then?

LE: Yeah, it was a golden age, and we knew it. We knew we were lucky. It was myself, Jeff Easley, Keith Parkinson and Clyde Caldwell. There were four painters there, and we had Jeff Butler doing black-and-whites and Dave LaForce -Diesel was his nickname - was doing maps and some black-and-whites. We all worked in one big room.

Of course, there were the authors and everyone else around us, but we all worked in one big room. When we were working, we'd interact all day long. We'd cut up and have these big rubber band fights and everything else, so we knew we were lucky. We'd talk about it.

We had the most-desired job of young people out there, because TSR got tons of fan mail, and we'd post a lot of it. We'd get letters to the art department from kids who were saying that when they grew up that they wanted to work there.

We knew we were lucky. The only downside was that TSR wouldn't be around for long as it was. We had the feeling we were riding a wave, and we knew it. The company was always badly mismanaged, and there were a lot of fights among the management and a lot of wasted money. The company would take hit after hit, and you'd wonder, "How can they go on?" You felt like it was going to sink, and sink some day soon.

There was a lot of money there, and the owners and partial owners were all fighting over it, and it was hurting the company. All the creative people wanted to do was just have fun and make thing we would like. They fought the creative people a lot. The management had their own ideas, which usually sucked.

I was very verbal back then. I just got out of the Army, and I had worked at Fort Knox as an illustrator for eight years. In all that time in the Army, you couldn't say what you wanted to say, because in the Army, if you mouthed off, they wouldn't fire you, but they'd throw you in the brig. You could get in deep trouble.

When I went to TSR, the most they could do to me was fire me, you know? They couldn't do anything else, so I was pretty verbal. I told them pretty much what I thought. I was a spokesman for a lot of the art department and creative people at times because the company would be doing stupid things, and I'd go to these big company meetings and tell them so. They got to where they didn't like me. When I'd raise my hand, they'd flinch a little bit, like "What's he going to say this time."

They treated us pretty stupid because we enjoyed what we were doing. Whenever we complained, they assumed it was about money. I think that's how management works They thought, "Oh they're complaining, they must want more money." We were like, "No, keep your money." It was usually something more trivial, like, "Let us keep our work" or "Give us credit for what we're doing."

It takes a certain type of person to manage creative people. They're a different breed. It's not about money and raises for them. It's a whole different set of values they like. If you know how to treat those people right, they'll work themselves to death for you for almost nothing. That's how crazy they are. But if you treat them wrong, they'll quit you and not give a crap, no matter how much money you throw at them. Normal management doesn't seem to know that.

But we really knew when we were working there that we had a great job and were lucky. We all had our paths of how we go there, and it was just a fluke of luck for all of us.

We played D&D. I had played it once before I went to work there. Keith Parkinson played it a lot and ran a campaign there for three or four years. We played every lunch, and we'd usually meet once or twice a month and play all night at somebody's house.

It was good for us, too, because we were consumers of the game and were confronting the same adventures and problems that the consumers were. That helped us in painting, too.

From the very onset, I was the first one of the four that everybody knows about. I got more attention than all the rest. I wanted to work the whole scene. I got there and said, "Look, I've only played a couple of times, but it seems like, in this game, everything is important - the landscape, the weather, if you're in a dungeon. Everything is important."

At that time in fantasy art, it was very popular to do figures in fog. You'd do one figure and then just sort of fog the background out. I said, "This is not about figures in fog. It's about the land, the trees, the terrain, everything." I really pushed to do the whole scene. Keith Parkinson caught on that fast. That's how he believed, too. Jeff is more of a figures-in-fog kind of painter. As soon as they started playing the game, they saw how effective it was.

CP: What kind of communication did you have with Margaret Weis and the Hickmans during the creation process for Dragonlance?

LE: We were just good friends, and I saw them there every day at work.

CP: Did they consult with you on the development of Dragonlance, or was it already established before you were involved?

LE: Tracy (Hickman) had the original idea. The first year I got there, he got hired shortly after I did in 1981-82. Harold Thompson was his boss, and he was a writing game designer. Tracy was a designer, and he had this idea about Dragonlance. The original thing was to release 12 modules to game in this world, and he would do at least one big book to tell the story. So we'd have the book and the 12 modules, so it would last for a year or more.

Tracy and Harold came to my house after hours and told me the whole story for Dragonlance, and I thought it was fantastic. What they wanted me to do was to do some quick roughs so when we presented it to the board of directors they buy onto it.

At that time, Gary Gygax taught everybody else how to do his idea, but the whole creative staff had their own ideas, and it was like, "Why can't we do ours?"

So about a year or so later, we made that presentation, and I'd done up about three pieces on an illustration board to show my general idea, and they liked it, so Dragonlance came to be. Tracy was the idea man. He didn't see himself as a writer. Margaret had just been hired in and was considered a writer. They hooked up together, and it was a good match. Tracy would lay out the story, and Margaret would give it life - write up the dialog.

At different times there were several Dragonlance teams who would work on it. I was the art director for Dragonlance, and my whole thing was to get as consistent a look as possible. That was hard because some artists were interested and some weren't. Keith Parkinson and Clyde Caldwell were interested, but Jeff Easley was least interested. Jeff was just in his own world and didn't read a lot of fantasy or anything like that, so he could care less.

I told them that when we paint one of the characters, we had to consult with Margaret and Tracy. So whoever painted Raistlin for the first time, we all had to make it look like that from then on. We didn't have models, we just worked from our imagination. We wanted to at least get the same costume on him. We all agreed to do it.

Jeff was probably the least into it because he didn't know he was painting a major character. We all read Dragonlance except Jeff. He finally, with enough talking, caught on and got to know some of the major characters. When he was painting Raistlin or something like that, he would walk across the room to look at one of the other paintings for the costuming or something like that.

One of the funniest things is that Clyde Caldwell always painted women very sexy, no matter what it was. If he was painting a nun, she would look sexy. He was the first one to paint Goldmoon. He painted her for a calendar, and he painted her very sexy with hardly any clothes on. Margaret (Weis) came in and started crying. It literally destroyed her. She was like, "Oh my god. That's not Goldmoon. She looks like a whore." She cried, and I went and talked to her.

I had to paint her next for one of the book covers, and I said, I told her, "We've got to follow suit, and I really need to do what he did, but I told her I wouldn't make her sexy, and I would put pants on her." She had these two little flaps on front and back and what looked like nothing beneath (in Clyde's drawing), so I put her in leather pants. That helped her a lot.

Keith sort of became my partner for the visual look of Dragonlance. We had never liked the way Draconians were done. They looked more like lizardmen. I had never painted any because, at the time, I didn't know how to do them because I didn't know what they should look like. We were doing a calendar, and Keith said, "Let me do all the things we've never really nailed down." One of those things was Draconians. He did a beautiful painting of Draconians in the snow.

Another thing was that Margaret had always envisioned Goldmoon and Riverwind as Native American with a Celtic touch. Keith painted them that way very much so, and Margaret liked that. I think I was the first person to paint Riverwind, and he looked very Native American. We sometimes ended up putting a dress or skirt on Goldmoon, but she wasn't a sex kitten, that's for sure.

That's how we nailed those things down. (Laughs.) Just trying to keep a consistent look was the hardest thing, but we had a great time doing it. Plus, Margaret and Tracy were always there to consult. Margaret was more interested in seeing her vision, while Tracy was sort of like, "Do what you want to do." (Laughs.)

CP: When you were working on the Dragonlance universe, did you anticipate it continuing to expand and be written about more than 25 years later?

LE: No, we didn't. By the time we started working on it, it was supposed to be a three-year project. We were working on it, and I remember one time our department got into a discussion. We were all painting and talking about what made artists famous. Clyde Caldwell said that if an artist gets a series of books, a hot property, and illustrates them, that will make him famous, not necessarily how good he is, but the property itself will do it. My argument was that it's not the product but how good an artist he is. We were arguing about it, and it was split 50/50 both ways. Keith was more on my side, and Jeff was more on Clyde's side.

I'll never forget, while we were arguing, the painting I was working on was one of the earlier Dragonlance paintings. Clive was right, it's the property sometimes that does it for you more than how good you are. Dragonlance really put me on the map. I was getting known before Dragonlance. I started working there and got tons of fan mail. My art was different from the other stuff, more professional and more game-oriented, not just weird art. But Dragonlance put me on the map. We had no idea at the time.

A lot of the original stuff I sold off early on for almost nothing because it was a three-year program. I wish I had some of it back - it'd be worth thousands and thousands. I traded a lot of early stuff for swords. The painting "The Death of Sturm" I traded for a sword.

We couldn't find props back then. There were not any swords on the market anyplace. You couldn't find a sword. There was a renaissance fair in Northern Illinois we would drive down to called King Richard's Fair, and there was a sword maker there. He made all the swords by hand, and they were expensive. A big one could cost $2,000-$3,000. But they were beautiful swords and knives - perfect props, very fantasy looking. They were historically correct, but he would have his own design.

It was beautiful stuff, and we wanted it, but we couldn't afford them. This guy was a pretty smart guy. He had just read Dragonlance, and he said he would trade stuff for paintings, and he especially liked Dragonlance paintings. We traded a lot of paintings for swords.

This guy ended up with probably the best Dragonlance collection there was of original art. I didn't find out about this until I went to a convention and met a guy who bid on it, but last year, he sold "The Death of Sturm" for $14,000. I wish I had the painting back. That sword is laying in a box with all my other swords, and I wish I had the painting back. (Laughs.)

We were trading these back in 1983-1985 when we were doing a lot of this stuff, when Dragonlance was first coming out. Of course, by 1988-1990, you could get swords all over the place. At every convention, there was a sword dealer. Now, swords we used to pay $150-$200 for you can get for $35-$40 now. What we needed was just anything that looked like a sword for reference. We didn't need an actual sword. We traded a lot of art for nothing. (Laughs.)

CP: How do you react when a book you designed the cover for, like "Time of the Twins" is illustrated by another artist in a later reissue?

LE: I get a kick out of it. I like to see how the styles have changed over the years. Each generation gets bolder and wilder, more dynamic. For the first books that came out, when I did those, they were some of the first books ever where the image on the page was looking straight at the viewer. That just wasn't done. Maybe that was a rule I didn't know about that you weren't supposed to do that. (Laughs.)

When I did those first three books, the people were all standing very static, almost post, and they were staring straight at the viewer. People have told me over the years that when they saw those books, they spoke to them and they just had to buy them. That was during what I call my "big eye" period. I painted a lot of big eyes back then. So they had some big eyes looking out.

Now, looking at some of the newer ones, I go, "Wow, they've changed," but that's good, natural. Each generation interprets it their way. I think it's fun to see it.

So many people who were around when the books first came out say, "Oh, that one's my favorite." Well, that's going to happen. It's like with an old rock'n'roll song for the first time. If you liked the song, whoever did it first, you like their version the best, no matter who does it after, even if they do it better. That's how a lot of it was with fans. They saw the original covers, and that's what they connected with, so it will always be their favorite one.

CP: Dragons feature in a lot of your work. When you're painting them, what do you use for a reference or scale?

LE: I never painted a dragon in my life before I went to work at TSR. Those little Everquest books were the first dragon I ever had to draw. At that time, they wanted to draw the dragon like the dragons in the Monster Manual. I looked at them and I was like, "Man, these suck." I found out years later that the artist wasn't anything special. He could sort of draw, but he was a gamer.

For the first two or three dragons I did for TSR, I tried to go by the Monster Manual and make them look like that, but they just looked stupid, I thought. I would change them to make them look a little more real.

When I had to do one, I went home, and I'd look at the encyclopedia and look at dinosaurs and a couple of reference books on alligators and crocodiles. In my mind, I always saw a dragon as a cross between a dinosaur and an alligator or a crocodile. In my version, the back legs are usually longer and stronger than the front legs. The front legs were more like arms because at TSR, the dragons had to be able to cast spells. I patterned them after human anatomy, in a way.

Sometimes, I'd make the bodies thicker, and sometimes I'd make them more elongated. I'd played with the wing structure a little bit. It wasn't like a bat where the front legs are the wings. These dragons had separate wings, so you had to play with the wing structure. Jeff Easley made a lot of his dragons look like pit bulls - big and tough. Clyde Caldwell made his dragons look more serpentine - slimmer and more snakeish.

I tried to hit a medium point. Keith and I saw dragons much the same way. Our interpretations were pretty similar. I was doing my versions of dragons first before the other guys were and people seemed to really like them.

I've gotten to the point where I have a whole dragon in my mind and can rotate him to any angle. I always change him up a little bit on his heads to make him look different or alter the wing structure to do something different, but I've sort of got a basic pattern I go by.

Size wise, I just pictured them bigger. In the Monster Manual, they weren't as big as we were depicting them. I just pictured them like, "These are these big, nasty things." (Laughs.) I did them the first time, and they were like, "They're too big." But other people liked them, and since we painted them, they let them slide. The consumers liked them, too. So they mad the manuals make them look a little bigger.

E-mail Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com